Gary Smulyan: Low Man Aims High
“ The apprentice system is largely gone, there is no opportunity for young musicians to play with people who are better than them. That's how the continuum happens. Jazz is largely a mentor-student music. ”
A baritone saxophonist who plays like Bird? And harvests more than a half-dozen Grammy awards in the process? That seeming contradiction characterizes the great successes of Gary Smulyan, one of today's most in-demand jazz performers, educators, and recording artists.
To be fair, Smulyan has his own voice, but he cites Charlie Parker as one of his earliest, most important, and enduring influences. And in these later years, Phil Woods also falls into that category. That one of today's most notable baritone sax players doesn't cite Gerry Mulligan or Harry Carney as his main influences might seem like an enigma, but the solution presents an interesting tale.
Smulyan started playing music at the age of eight, and by high school was already playing "in a pretty sad-sounding garage band." At the age of 13, he confesses, "I didn't even know what jazz was," until he was flipping through radio stations and came across the legendary Ed Beach's radio show, Just Jazz, on WRVR. What got Smulyan's attention was Fats Waller playing "African Ripples." "I'd never heard anything like that before," and the sound was life-changing.
"A total accident," he says, "but life-defining."
A knowledgeable radio personality, Beach became a focal point for the young Smulyan as he was growing-up, learning music and learning about music. Beach was famous for devoting as much as a week to certain artists. "I was riveted, he gave so much information. When I heard Fats, that was really it." Smulyan started playing in stage band in high school, where he met Joe Dixon, who had a youth ensemble and he coached the group.
So, Smulyan would be a jazzman.
But first, he'd be a jazzboy, or at least a jazz adolescent. At the age of 16, visitors to Sonny's Place, a jazz club in Seaford, NY, could find him sitting-in with the legends of the day: Zoot Sims, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Knepper, Ray Nance, }}Chet Baker}}. While it's tempting to say, "and the rest is history," we're not quite there yet. He's still an alto player, at this stage of his life.
Smulyan started meeting and working with other younger musicians who were passionate about this music, including the brothers Glen and Billy Drewes (the latter currently a fellow reedman with Smulyan in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), Kenny Werner, and more. And the journey began.
If Smulyan's musical epiphany is clearly engrained, his instrumental conversion is equally memorable, and equally serendipitous. Everybody has their favorite big band, and intelligent jazz fanatics can be passionate about their own choices. But one thing seems certain: there's a debt of gratitude owed to Woody Herman, who was perhaps singly responsible for converting Gary Smulyan from an alto saxophonist to one of today's leading exponents of the baritone.
At the age of 22, Smulyan was a member of the Long Island Jazz Quintet, when he got the call that would eventually change his professional life. Bruce Johnstone had left Woody Herman's band, and Smulyan was invited to join the band, whose reed section featured three tenors and a baritone.
Right: no alto.
"I had never played the baritone, and had no desire to do so. I was into players like Gene Quill, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley and the like. But this was a real opportunity." So, he bought a Yamaha baritone sax with a stock mouthpiece, and joined the Thundering Herd on May 25, 1978. He remembers the day as if it were as important as, say, his wife's birthday (which, in fact, it is). He stayed with the band two years, to the day.
"At first, I didn't play like a baritone player, I played like an alto player." Conceptually, he explains, a baritone requires clearer articulation because of the instrument's low range. "Otherwise, it could sound like mush, a sonic blur," he quips. Plus, the larger horn requires more air, meaning harder work during the training-up period.
All that being said, "Woody didn't fire me, he saw something in my playing that must have convinced him I would be right for the band." Smulyan delivered on Woody's vision: "I discovered that the baritone was my true voice, waiting to be discovered."
Of this, he drew a life lesson for other possible musicians. "You have to be ready for anything because your life can change with one phone call. Don't be afraid to go for it. I had no idea where this would go," but over the next two years, he made a name for himself. "I was convinced that I would be fine, because I passed Woody's test."
Turns out they were both right.