William Overton Smith (born September 22, 1926) is an American clarinetist and composer. He has worked extensively in modern classical music, Third Stream and jazz, and is perhaps best known for having played with pianist Dave Brubeck intermittently from the 1940s to the early 2000s. Smith frequently recorded jazz under the name Bill Smith, but his classical compositions are credited under the name William O. Smith.
Smith was born in Sacramento and grew up in Oakland, California, where he began playing clarinet at the age of ten. He put together a jazz group to play for dances at 13, and at the age of 15 he joined the Oakland Symphony. He idolized Benny Goodman, but after high school, a brief cross-country tour with a dance band ended his romance for the life of a traveling jazz musician. He gave two weeks' notice when the band reached Washington, D.C. Encouraged by an older band member to get the best education he could, Smith headed to New York.
He began his formal music studies at the Juilliard School of Music, playing in New York jazz clubs like Kelly's Stables at night. Uninspired by the Juilliard faculty, he returned to California upon hearing and admiring the music of Darius Milhaud, who was then teaching at Mills College in Oakland. At Mills, Smith met pianist Dave Brubeck, with whom he often played until Brubeck's 2012 death. Smith was a member of the Dave Brubeck Octet, and later occasionally subbed for saxophonist Paul Desmond in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck's 1960 album Brubeck à la mode featured Smith performing ten of his own compositions with Brubeck's quartet (Yanow n.d.). Smith rejoined Brubeck's group in the 1990s. He studied composition with Roger Sessions at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was graduated with a bachelor's and a master's degree.
Winning the Prix de Paris presented Smith the opportunity for two years of study at the Paris Conservatory, and in 1957, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome and spent six years in that city. He has since received numerous other awards, including two Guggenheim grants (Monaghan 1996).
After a teaching stint at the University of Southern California, Smith began a thirty-year career at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle, where he taught music composition and performance, co-leading the forward-thinking Contemporary Group, first with Robert Suderburg, and then with trombonist Stuart Dempster, from 1966 to 1997 (Mitchell 2001). Both Smith and Dempster are currently professors emeritus.
In 1947, Smith composed Schizophrenic Scherzo for the Brubeck Octet, one of the earliest works that successfully integrated jazz and classical techniques, a style that later was given the name "third stream" by Gunther Schuller (Mitchell 2001).
Smith has investigated and cataloged a wide range of extended techniques on the clarinet, including the use of two clarinets simultaneously by a single performer, inspired by images of the ancient aulos encountered during a trip to Greece (Monaghan 1996), numerous multiphonics, playing the instrument with a cork in the bell, and the "clar-flute," a technique that involves removing the instrument's mouthpiece and playing it as an end-blown flute. As William O. Smith, he has written several pioneering pieces that feature many of these techniques, including Duo for Flute and Clarinet (1961) and Variants for Solo Clarinet (1963) (Smith & n.d.(b)). In an article titled "Contemporary Clarinet Sonorities" (Selmer Bandwagon no. 67, fall 1972, pp. 12-14), Smith compiled the first comprehensive catalogue of fingerings for clarinet multiphonics (Rehfeldt 1994, 99-121). He was among the early composers interested in electronic music, and as a performer he continues to experiment with amplified clarinet and electronic delays. He remains active nationally, internationally, and on the local Seattle music scene as well, where in 2008, he composed, recorded, and premiered a "jazzopera" (his preferred term) titled Space in the Heart (Anon. 2008).
Eric Salzman wrote (New York Herald Tribune, March 14, 1964): "William Smith's clarinet pieces, played by himself, must be heard to believe--double, even triple stops; pure whistling harmonics; tremolo growls and burbles; ghosts of tones, shrill screams of sounds, weird echoes, whispers and clarinet twitches; the thinnest of thin, pure lines; then veritable avalanches of bubbling, burbling sound. Completely impossible except that it happened" (Salzman 1964, quoted in Rehfeldt 1994,[page needed], quoted on Smith & n.d.(a)[unreliable source?]).
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With Anthony Braxton
With Dave Brubeck
With Barney Kessel
With Shelly Manne
With Red Norvo