The clarinet came to William O. Smith in the form of a door-to-door salesman during the Great Depression. 
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The clarinet came to William O. Smith in the form of a door-to-door salesman during the Great Depression.
Credit: Flickr Photo by Peter Miller (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Old Masters: Two Musical Worlds Of Clarinetist Bill Smith

Clarinetist William O. Smith has a most unusual website.

When you click on the link, it opens to dueling photographs. Smith's a man with two distinct names and musical identities.

William O. Smith is his classical music moniker. The more casual "Bill" is the name this musician used during his days in the jazz world.

Both of his musical paths have their origins in Oakland, California, during the Great Depression. Smith was 10 years old, living with his mother in a small apartment.

“And a salesman came to the door,” he recounts. “And told my mother, ‘no household can afford to be without a musician!'”

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The salesman promised that if young Billy took 32 music lessons, at three bucks a pop, he’d get a free clarinet.

That was a lot of money for the cash-strapped Smiths. His mother worried her boy would abandon music, the way he’d abandoned previous pursuits.

She needn’t have worried. “I was self-motivated," Smith says. "She never had to say, ‘oh, now go practice your clarinet.’”

Smith wasn’t a great scholar; the clarinet was something he could excel at. And he loved the popular music of his day -- particularly swing music.

“From the time I saw the Benny Goodman band in 1939, that was it. I wanted to do that!”

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As soon as Smith graduated high school at age 18, he got his first dance band gig. But after a year on the dance circuit, he grew bored. His musical aspirations transcended pop tunes.

He was fascinated by polytonality, and by non-Western tuning systems. In 1946, Smith enrolled at Mills College, to study with avant-garde composer Darius Milhaud.

That’s where Smith’s musical life took a defining turn. The clarinetist remembers that a classmate pestered him to meet a fellow student, a pianist.

“And she said, 'oh, wait 'til you hear Dave Brubeck! He plays these weird chords you wouldn’t believe!'”

Smith says Brubeck’s music was flabbergasting, way ahead of its time. The clarinetist was part of Brubeck’s original octet, composing and recording with the band.

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Brubeck was just starting out on what became a legendary jazz career. But Bill Smith found the constant touring exhausting. And, just as he'd gotten tired of swing tunes, Smith felt limited by Brubeck's jazz repertoire. He wanted to try his hand at what he calls “serious music."

In 1966, Smith joined at the faculty at the University of Washington School of Music. And that’s where his dual identities blossomed. Smith still gigged on the jazz circuit. But he wrote music and continued to explore the boundaries of classical composition.

“I see the 'William O. Smith' like you’re getting dressed up in your suit and tie to go out to a formal dinner,” he says, laughing. “And Bill Smith is when you have your Levis and your jacket.”

During his long career at the UW and after he retired, Smith continued to push himself. In 2008, Earshot Jazz presented Smith’s first opera, “Space in the Heart.”

But he never forgot his infatuation with Benny Goodman. One day in an airport in southern France, Smith came face to face with his boyhood idol.

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“And I walked up and I said, ‘Oh Mr. Goodman, I just want to say all my life, I have emulated you.'”

If Smith was expecting a touchy-feely reception, he was disappointed.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I can see that. You look terrible!’”

Bill Smith bursts out laughing. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was a little grumpy, but his life has been far from terrible.

In 1936, Smith promised his mother he wouldn’t give up on his music. That’s a promise that has defined his life.

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“My biggest joy is making music. Without music I can’t even imagine life.”

The audio for this story was first broadcast in 2009.

Photo: “Clarinet” by Peter Miller on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)