Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan is a four-time winner of the Down Beat Critic’s and Reader’s Poll’s and a multiple winner of numerous other official polls including the Jazz Journalists Award for Baritone Saxophonist of the Year. He is a six-time GRAMMY award winner for his work with B.B. King, Lovano, Holland and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
Smulyan, the Long-Island native, lives in Amherst, Mass., with his wife, pianist and conductor Joan Cornachio. He is a faculty member of Amherst College and serves as the artistic director at the Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, Massachusetts, a two year post secondary music school for eighteen to thirty year olds with developmental disabilities.
Could you tell us how you got started on the saxophone?
I started playing alto saxophone in 8th grade. Music always felt natural to me and an extension of my life. I was extremely fortunate in having wonderful teachers and mentors who were truthful, honest, and supported me in my journey as a young musician. This is something that is extremely meaningful to me and I try to continue this in my own teaching today. Passing the torch and nurturing young musicians is something essential in my career today.
You say music always felt like an extension of your life. Is it fair to say you became serious about music fairly early on?
As a young and inspiring jazz saxophonist, I was extremely disciplined and focused. I practiced 8-10 hours a day for many years because I felt this was something I just had to do to become a deeper musician. I was possessed and didn’t do a lot of the things teenagers did at the time. No ball, no parties, no proms – just listening to records, transcribing solos and practicing.
I was fortunate to grow up on Long Island and had a lot of friends also into music in a serious way and this was my social group. We practiced and played together every day for hours, even sleeping at each other’s houses so we could get more playing in. We were extremely disciplined in our approach because jazz was, and still is a defining aspect in our lives.
Wow that’s incredible! Was there ever a time you considered doing something other than music?
There was a period in my life when I was playing a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Like a lot of the musicians at the time. Sometimes 5 a weekend: Friday night, 2 on a Saturday and 2 on Sunday. A lot of the time in the car driving all over Long Island, NYC, CT, and New Jersey. That's a lot of Disco Inferno!! And Raining Men!! It was getting tiring and I was feeling kind of empty musically.
When I left Woody Herman’s band in 1980 and moved to NYC, I developed a love for cooking so I decided to stop playing commercial gigs and learn to cook. I took an 8-month course the NY Restaurant School and upon graduation working in a restaurant in Rockland County called Café Evergreen for 2 years; French-themed and extremely well-prepared food. I worked was so inspiring in her commitment and passion and I realized that I just had to get back to playing music again.
It’s OK to take a side trip or new career as life is full of incredibly interesting things to discover.
It seems you've really committed to being open minded to trying new things, including the baritone saxophone! Could you tell us how you got started on bari?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in the “right place, right time” many times in my career.
I came to the baritone through my friend, the great trumpet player, Glenn Drewes. He and I co-lead the LI Jazz Quintet. One day he got called to join Woody Hermans Young Thundering Herd. That at was 1980 I believe. He left to go on the road and I was in my senior year at college when my phone rang and it was Woody Herman, calling wanting to know if I’d like to be interested in playing in the band as a baritone saxophone – which I’ve never played in my life!! I was an alto saxophonist down to my bones and the baritone sax was very off my radar. Something I never considered at all.
However, the band was on the road 50 weeks a year so it was an incredible opportunity that most likely wouldn’t come my way again if I said no. Glenn Drewes had recommended me to the baritonist Bruce Johnstone who was leading the band. I agreed to join the band and now had to buy a baritone, mouthpiece + reeds and had 2 weeks to memorize the saxophone parts to 4 Brothers and Early Autumn.
I met the band May 25, 1980 because of this experience (played 2 years) became a baritone saxophonist. This was all fate and not by design. It was through Woody Herman that I met many colleagues who I would work with later such as Joe Lovano and Mel Lewis. My career and its growth has been extremely organic with one thing naturally leading to the next, until here I am today at 65 years old looking back at all the incredible experiences I’ve had because I took a chance on playing the baritone saxophone and looking forward to all that will come in the future.
Incredible. Based on all of this experience, what advice would you offer to younger musicians?
Living in the world of music is a blessing and lifelong journey. In fact, music is all about the journey and not the arrival as we never really arrive anywhere. Don’t be in a hurry or too harsh on yourself. Music makes you slow down and be deliberate. Develop a strong sense of curiosity and ask a lot of questions.
Learning to play jazz is a life-long process and can be narrowed down to 2 things: Listening to records and using your ears. If you have records and ears you can learn to improvise. Don’t watch yourself too closely as growth takes place over time. If you practice every day with focus + discipline, you will get better!!
Be patient and this is really important – have fun and enjoy the ride!! Music is one of the most fun things you can do and the better you get, the more fun it is!!