Gary Smulyan: Low Man Aims High
Leaving the Herman band, Smulyan was able to stay in New York and find meaningful work with the likes of the Mingus Big Band and also the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. Having established himself in the toughest of markets, he got to share the stage and the recording studio with an amazing array of luminaries including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Stan Getz, pianist Chick Corea, timbales king Tito Puente, and R&B/Blues and soul icons Ray Charles, B.B. King and Diana Ross. Shaping an impressive range of repertoire and style, the chops that he developed brought him work and contributed to his longevity, for which he is eternally grateful.
Smulyan feels fortunate to be able to be playing and touring regularly in this day and age. He is on the road with different bands and configurations, plus recording and teaching projects of his own. And, he maintains a deep commitment to jazz education. "I was fortunate to play with and be taught by great musicians on Long Island, people like Billy Mitchell and Dave Burns; Joe Dixon was also a mentor." They imparted "practical information that I still need today to be successful, in both business and music." And now, he is giving back, helping to nurture the next generation of jazz players.
Ever grateful to have had that kind of exposure as a younger, aspiring musician, "I feel obligated to help younger musicians. 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 mentor-student music."
Thus, during the school year, you're likely to find Smulyan teaching at Amherst (MA) College, where he is professor of saxophone. He is also Artistic Director at Berkshire Hills Music Academy in nearby South Hadley, a two-year post secondary music school for 18-to-30 year-olds with developmental disabilities. He finds teaching very rewarding, not just a form of giveback for the influences of his early years. An ensemble of Berkshire Hills graduates makes up a performance troop that tours. Smulyan conducts ability/awareness workshops that sometimes serve to recruit students to the school. He also coaches with repertoire, and holds daily rehearsals.
Education is more than a day job for Smulyan, and accessibility is a critical part of his persona. The two characteristics suggest an attitude that may well be responsible for his success today. He harkens back to one of his current and long-standing idols, Phil Woods. "You've got to be approachable. Phil was my idol. I first met him at the Jazz Museum in New York. I sat down and hung out with him, I was on cloud nine for a month. As things got better for me, I remembered that. Any time I can be around young musicians who are serious about playing, I feel it is my job to be accessible and supportive."
Noting that many other successful jazz musicians also teach in some way or form, Smulyan says "it is a calling that we have, a desire. Especially if I meet a young musician who has the same kind of passion that I had when I was young. I was helped out, and I need to do that now."
He may or may not lead some other youngster to the baritone. After all, his two major influences are Charlie Parker and Pepper Adams, and "I still listen to Bird almost every day." Compositionally, he conjures Mulligan, whom he considers a genius, adding "I like his writing more than his playing." On the performing side, "Pepper Adams epitomized post-bop modern baritone sax playing. He was a great improviser. And stylistically, it's a school that I find more attractive." Although he doesn't necessarily emulate Harry Carney, he is quick to say that "Without Carney, there wouldn't be any of us. He had the most beautiful sound on the baritone that I've ever heard."
His list of awards and accolades is long and varied. The baritone saxophonist is a four-time winner of the Down Beat Critic's and Readers' Polls and a multiple winner of numerous other official and casual polls, including the Jazz Journalists Award for Baritone Saxophonist of the Year. He is a seven-time Grammy award winner for his work with B.B. King, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and others.