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Walter Smith III: Jazz Explorer

R.J. DeLuke By

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Smith got into jazz at an early age. His father, from New Orleans, was a saxophonist and when he started a family in Texas, he taught band in his son's elementary school. Growing up, his favorite sax players were Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright. Though then he found Charlie Parker, and in high school the sounds of Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis, Joshua Redman and Mark Turner caught his ear. At the Berklee School of Music, which he attended on scholarship, he researched the classic players—Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Wayne Shorter.

"Ornette Coleman became big for me when I was in college. That sound really appealed to me. Eric Dolphy," says Smith. "Later on Sam Rivers was very interesting to listen to. Joe Lovano. All those guys. I found similarities in all of them and it was not uncommon for me to be listening to something from the 1930s and then next thing I put on was 2003. That kind of thing. They have such similarities, it was easy for me to find influential things within all of them."

Early on, he realized jazz was his thing and the direction he would go.

"There's a certain exclusivity about it in the beginning and everything kind of sounds the same. You don't really pick up on a lot of what's happening when you're listening to it. Then as you start to learn more about it, it becomes even more interesting," he says.

"I remember one time going to a master class. In Houston we had a limited number of people who actually came through town. But one of the guys that came when I was in ninth grade was Terence Blanchard. He did a workshop. He was talking about how to listen to music. He said don't always listen to the soloist. Listen to Wayne Shorter, but listen to how Herbie [Hancock] comps for him. That night I sat down with records I had been listening to forever and I listened to them that way. I was like, 'Oh my god. There's so much.' The conversational element of it. Then trying to think of ways to actually make that happen with other people. Then realizing they had been doing that all along, I just wasn't aware. That whole discovery process, between listening then actually trying to be a part of it by playing. Trying to become better at that."

"The more that you realize that that's going on, the more it leads you down the little rabbit hole. Before I knew it, I was 36," he says, chuckling.

Smith says elementary and middle schools in Texas had great music programs and jazz was part of the everyday curriculum. It was in high school that he got more serious, practicing more. He was also around other musicians that shared his hunger. The high school had already produced musicians like Harland and pianist Jason Moran. He was a classmate with Kendrick Scott and pianist Robert Glasper and guitarist Mike Moreno were a couple years ahead. Smith and Scott went together to Berklee, along with Mark Kelley, now bassist for the Roots.

After Berklee, it was off to the city where young jazz musicians have to make their bones—New York. After doing some gigs around town, he landed a job with the legendary Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth band, where he stayed for about a year and a half. "That was a big one," he says of Haynes. "But after that I played with others. Terence was cool. For the last five years I've been playing with Ambrose Akinmusire."

Casually Introducing Walter Smith III was his debut recording as a leader, followed by a live quintet release, Live in Paris in 2009. III in 2010 was next. His recording sessions as a sideman are numerous. During those year he moved to Los Angeles.

Education has always been important to Smith, who holds a music education degree from Berklee, a master's degree from Manhattan School of Music and graduate certificate in performance from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. This year, he became a professor at Indiana University, "adding another layer of complexity. I go out there a couple days a week." Smith enjoys the education aspect of his career. As well as passing his knowledge to students, he uses it as a learning tool.

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