World-renowned clarinetist and composer Bill Smith, whom jazz legend Dave Brubeck once called “one of the all-time greats,” died Saturday, Feb. 29, at his Seattle home, of complications from prostate cancer. He was 93.
Known as Bill Smith to the jazz world and William O. Smith in classical circles, Mr. Smith served on the University of Washington faculty from 1966-1997. He was a founding member of the Dave Brubeck Octet, which in 1947 pioneered a blend of classical music and jazz later known as Third Stream and had a profound influence on the development of West Coast, or “cool,” jazz.
Mr. Smith was also a pioneer in modern classical music, developing extended clarinet techniques that included playing multiple notes at the same time and two clarinets at once.
“He was someone who was unafraid to innovate,” said his wife of 42 years, Seattle painter Virginia Paquette Smith. “It was one of the things that drew me to Bill.”
Born in Sacramento, California, in 1926, Mr. Smith grew up in Oakland, where as a teenager he led his own jazz band and played in the Oakland Symphony. Enthralled by swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, Mr. Smith toured with a jazz band but, after a year, decided he would prefer teaching and composing to life on the road. After a year at Juilliard, in 1946, Mr. Smith transferred to Mills College in Oakland, after hearing that French composer Darius Milhaud would be teaching there.
At Milhaud’s suggestion, he and fellow student Brubeck explored a merger of classical composition and improvised jazz. Mr. Smith performed with Brubeck in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s, rejoining the group in the 1980s. Brubeck recorded two albums featuring Mr. Smith’s tunes, “The Riddle,” and “Brubeck à la Mode.”
In the 1950s, Mr. Smith won the Prix de Paris and the Prix de Rome, composition prizes that led him to study and work for nearly a decade in those European cities. He maintained an apartment in Rome as a summer composition retreat for the rest of his life. After teaching posts at the University of Southern California and the San Francisco Conservatory, in 1966, Mr. Smith was recruited to the University of Washington to start the experimental music ensemble The Contemporary Group, which he and experimental trombonist Stuart Dempster led for several decades.
“We had a pretty good time joking with each other,” said Dempster, who shared a whimsical, Zen-like sense of humor with Mr. Smith. “ ‘Have you found wisdom yet?’ I’d say. ‘Nope. Have you?’ ‘Nope!’ ”
“His laugh could be heard around the world,” said Paquette Smith, who met Mr. Smith in 1973, when he was working with bassist Dan Dean and drummer Tom Collier at Merchant’s Café.
“Bill took out his clarinet and played ‘Lover Man’ for me,” she remembered. “The next day, we started living together.”
Mr. Smith is survived by Paquette Smith; four children from a first marriage — Mark O. Smith, of Georgetown, Texas; Gregory O. Smith of Vitorchiano, Italy; Rebecca Elizabeth Smith of Santa Rosa, California; and Matthew O. Smith, of Vacaville, California; and three grandchildren.
A memorial and concert is planned for Mr. Smith’s birthday, Sept. 22. Remembrances may be sent to the International Clarinet Association, “In Memory of William O. Smith.”