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Musicians and jazz lovers mourn the death of Paul Smoker 

The great avant-garde trumpet player Paul Smoker died this week. Over the last two decades, Smoker brought his world-class trumpet prowess and progressive musical vision to the local jazz scene. He could play standards magnificently, but whenever he had the opportunity to expand musical boundaries, he did.

Locally, Smoker played mostly at the Bop Shop and Nazareth College, where he ran the Jazz Studies program. Over the last several years, he played with a small case by his side. It was the battery pack for his artificial heart.

Jazz trumpeter and mentor Paul Smoker - PROVIDED PHOTO
  • Jazz trumpeter and mentor Paul Smoker

Born in 1941, Smoker grew up in Davenport, Iowa. He began on piano, but after hearing Harry James on the radio, he took up the trumpet at age 10 and began improvising. His trumpet heroes were Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Maynard Ferguson, Conte Candoli, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker.

While attending the University of Iowa in the late 1950's, Smoker jammed with Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, and others. He was friends with Doc Severinsen, who helped him with breathing techniques and introduced him to J.J. Johnson, Lionel Hampton, and Quincy Jones.

Smoker played straight-ahead gigs and even occupied trumpet chairs in orchestras, but he found himself most attracted to the more adventurous side of jazz. It wasn't long before he was playing and recording with top avant-garde players like Anthony Braxton. Over the last four decades, Smoker played on about 60 records. He collaborated with many artists, including Dave Liebman, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, and Vinny Golia.

Smoker earned four music degrees, including a doctorate. He taught at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Nazareth College, where he ran the jazz program. His wife Beverly, a pianist, is chair of the Music Department at Nazareth.

Musicians and associates shared their memories and tributes with City, via e-mail.

Drew Gress, a top New York bassist who played with Smoker on many of his gigs in Rochester and elsewhere, recalls a band-mate who was also a source of inspiration.

"Paul Smoker's influence on my musical and personal life was, and still is, profound," says Gress. "He was perhaps the first musician-mentor I'd met who was willing to convey, through the lens of his own personal experience, what it means to be an artist in the modern world... conveying the magnitude of the commitment required. He led me to realize that this passion can extend to all aspects of one's life... and that this makes for a life well-lived, as Paul's surely was."

Bob Sneider, guitarist and associate professor of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Media at the Eastman School of Music, played some gigs with Smoker.

"Many in the jazz listening world might pigeon-hole Paul as an avant-garde-only trumpet player," says Sneider. "But he was an authority on the entire history of the music. We had the pleasure of playing as a duet a handful of times at the Little Theatre and at one of his faculty recitals at Naz. His command of bebop, standards, and his own adventurous compositions was inspiring. He was a real musician's musician... a true listener and partner in music making."

Matthew D. Guarnere was Smoker's primary recording engineer for many years. He also found that Smoker was open to new challenges beyond jazz.

"Great caution always had to be taken to faithfully capture Paul's playing, because his delivery was unusually sonorous," says Guarnere. "The minimum distance I could place a microphone from the bell of Paul's horn had to be about 9 feet. Otherwise, the sound level meters would completely peg."

"Paul was one of the very rare jazz musicians of his generation to possess almost no ego or stylistic bias," says Guarnere. "I once approached him about doing a voice and trumpet duet at one of my rock concerts, and he was all for it. The resulting improvisational dialog between Paul's jazzy trumpet and my rock vocal style - two very different worlds - was absolutely stratospheric that night. I am so grateful for that experience and especially for his enduring friendship."

Mike Melito, drummer and educator, taught Smoker's son, Evan, a drummer, and knew Smoker as a teacher.

"Paul knew the roots of the music," says Melito. "He played free music but had great respect for the history of jazz. Paul was a very passionate teacher as well. He wasn't afraid to tell his students what he thought, which is what kids need in music schools. He didn't say things to be mean. He said things because he cared. A great loss for Rochester and the jazz world."

Matthew Bevan-Perkins, a percussionist and educator, studied with Smoker at Nazareth. "When we played together, it was special because he was always looking for someone to push his limits," says Bevan-Perkins. "He'd always say, 'Man, you gotta kick my ass more. Inspire me!' By learning to do this, I was in turn getting my ass kicked by him. He taught me to play with fire, play to inspire others, and listen to get inspired."

Jazz pianist Michael McNeil studied with Smoker at Nazareth. "I went over to the Smokers' for a piano lesson with Beverly," says McNeil. "After my lesson, I came downstairs to say hello to Paul and leave. Instead, Paul called me into his office, and we sat for a good hour on a summer evening listening to some really hip fusion music by Baird Hersey and by Mike Gibbs. I was still a little star-struck by Smoker at that time, but that was one of the many things he did to make me feel like I belonged in his world."

"In my junior year," says McNeil, "Paul asked a couple of us to arrange Wayne Shorter tunes for the Nazareth Jazz Combo. I arranged 'Night Dreamer' and used every clever little trick I could, including using the Coltrane-Dolphy 'Miles Mode' melody (a 12-tone row) in the bridge. As the band struggled through it at our Thursday rehearsal, Paul came up to the stage and stopped us.

"'They don't pay me enough to listen to that,' he grumbled. Well, I laughed, but I was certainly disappointed. The next day I had my jazz lesson with him, and between the late night rehearsal and his morning teaching, he'd made me a CD of some Bill Holman arrangements for the Stan Kenton band, with complete documentation, to draw my attention to what a real arranger does with music. Then we sat down together and he showed me some principles to work with to make my arrangement work."

Kristen Shiner McGuire, vibraphonist, drummer, singer and associate professor of Percussion Studies, worked with Smoker in the music department at Nazareth College. She perhaps sums up what many who knew him are feeling.

"A great human being has left the planet," says Shiner McGuire. "Paul Smoker - consummate musician, passionate teacher, father, husband, mentor and loving soul - has left a deep and indelible mark on us. Every time I practice, I think of Paul. Every time I take a risk on a solo, I think of Paul. A chapter has ended, but the fire burns on."

A celebration of the life, music and teaching of Paul Smoker (including jazz performances) will be held on Thursday, May 26, at 1 p.m. in Linehan Chapel on the campus of Nazareth College, 4245 East Avenue, Rochester.

Here's a 2010 CITY profile of Smoker.


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