Obituary: Bill Smith

Clarinettist whose formal background well suited Dave Brubeck's classical inclinations

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Left to right: Chris Brubeck, Bill Smith, Dave Brubeck, Randy Jones. Photo JJ Archive

Clarinettist and composer Bill Smith, or William Overton Smith to give him his full name, was best known as a member of the octet which the pianist Dave Brubeck led from 1946 to 1949 and then for decades to come as an occasional member of other Brubeck line-ups.

Born in Sacramento in 1926, he took up the clarinet at an early age, studied at New York’s Juilliard School Of Music – which he found a less than an inspiring experience – and only found stimulation after returning to California where he fell under the spell of Darius Milhaud after enrolling at Mills College. It was at this juncture Smith met Brubeck, leading to him being part of an eight-piece, forward-thinking project that eventually foundered due to its lack of commercial appeal.

The clarinettist had a foot in two musical camps – jazz and classical – and his graduation from the University of California with a bachelor and master’s degree in music gave him the opportunity to study at the Paris Conservatory during the 50s. He would later teach at both the University Of California and the Seattle-based University of Washington where he covered composition and performance. In the end, straddling the jazz and “formal” worlds became the norm for Bill Smith.

His on/off connection to Brubeck proved a fruitful one. He depped for Paul Desmond on the 1959 album The Riddle and Brubeck A La Mode from the following year. All the compositions on both discs were Smith’s work, which also applied to the 1961 New Myth With Bill Smith, an exercise with Third Stream leanings. He also made some telling contributions to later offerings in Brubeck’s discography such as Moscow Nights and Nightshift.

Bill Smith died from prostate cancer complications, 29 February 2020.