Paul Smoker can trace his roots back to Berne, Switzerland, where the family name was Schmucker. That means jeweler in German, but there were no jewelers in the family. When the clan immigrated to the United States in the 19th century, the name was changed to Smoker. That means burning jazz artist in English, and there is at least one in the family.
"Paul is an important trumpeter because he is one of the first to combine an interest in experimental new music with killer jazz and big-band chops," says Dave Douglas, one of the top jazz trumpeters in the world today. "For that reason he has been an inspiration to us all."
When he leads his Notet in an appearance at the Bop Shop Atrium on Thursday, July 1, in addition to his trumpet, Smoker will carry a small case with him. It's not for his music; it's the battery pack for his artificial heart.
After a major heart attack in 2001, and a decade of declining health, Smoker received the device last year. The kit contains a computer/controller and a cord that enters his body. Inside, a hose connects to his left ventricle, and another to his aorta. The pump pulls blood out of his left ventricle so it doesn't have to work as hard. As a result his kidney has rejuvenated itself and he doesn't get tired like he used to.
"I'm glad to be alive," says Smoker. "I've been given a second chance, an extension of... my life."
Born in 1941, Smoker grew up in Davenport, Iowa. That may not sound like a hotbed of jazz, but cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was born there and drummer Louie Bellson grew up nearby. When Smoker came of age in the 1950's he could play six nights a week in jazz clubs across the Mississippi River in Rock Island.
Smoker's father owned a seed store. His mother, a missionary's daughter, played the piano and encouraged (read: forced) her son to take lessons from the age of 6. He wasn't happy about it. He had a pivotal experience at 7 when a teenager came to his church and "played the hell out of 'Onward Christian Soldiers,'" Smoker says. "He played a straight-on chorus and then he started improvising. That was a whole new thing for me. From then on I was interested in how I could sound like that."
At 10, when he heard Harry James on the radio and decided to switch to trumpet, the transition was made easier by his knowledge of the piano. "I started improvising immediately," he says.
Around the house, he heard Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, his mother's church music, swing on the radio, and a record that introduced him to the instruments of the orchestra. Smoker played that one over and over. The first record he bought, at 12, was trumpeter Clifford Brown's "Best Coast Jazz." "I didn't know who he was," says Smoker, "I bought it because the record cover was really neat. What knocked my socks off was the solo he played on 'You Go To My Head.'"
Gradually, Smoker became aware of the cultural roots of the music he loved. "When I was in high school I made the discovery that if I was playing in a jazz club, and there were black people in the club, if I could get the black people to like what I was doing, I was on the right track. So I began to play to those people because they knew what the authentic music was. I've always had that in the back of my head," he says.
"Jazz is black music. There are whites that play it. But it was invented by blacks and most of the major innovations have been by blacks. The life experience that most black people had back then, most white people did not have."
Smoker's heroes were numerous: Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Maynard Ferguson, and Conte Candoli, "one of my favorites of all time," he says. Later he discovered Miles Davis and Chet Baker. He recognized the difference right away. "Chet was always going to play the way he did. Miles was always changing," says Smoker. "Then [Davis'] 'Kind of Blue' came out and I heard [saxophonists] John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. I discovered that I had to listen to people other than trumpet players."
In the late 1950's Smoker enrolled at the University of Iowa. There was no jazz program, but there were students who loved jazz. Among the future stars Smoker jammed with were Al Jarreau and David Sanborn. They would sometimes lend their talents to touring artists at a Cedar Rapids club, The Tender Trap. But that wasn't all Smoker did. He played with the ballet and when the circus came to town, he played in the circus band. "I played everything there was to play when I was young," he says.
When you hear Smoker play, his technique is so strong that it might seem effortless. But he wasn't always that confident. "There was a time, in my early 20s, when I picked up the trumpet and said, 'I've got to change what I'm doing.' I wasn't putting enough air through the horn. The tone I wanted was bigger than what I had. I was out of control." The issues involved his tongue, the gap between his teeth, and playing from the diaphragm.
"It took me two years of concentration," says Smoker. "I was fortunate. I ran into Doc Severinsen. He had gone through the same thing. He was playing in Tommy Dorsey's band one night and nothing came out. He had to quit the band. He went to New York and studied with Benny Baker, of the New York Philharmonic. Baker made him start over from scratch. He's got a perfect, text-book embouchure and he's got a sound as big as this building. And he doesn't have to work hard to get it. So I learned about breathing from him." Severinsen took Smoker under his wing, introducing him to jazz greats like J.J. Johnson, Lionel Hampton, and Quincy Jones.
By then it was the mid-1960's and jazz was changing. Smoker was listening to cutting-edge players: Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus, but not with the idea of doing it himself. "I was into Miles and Wayne Shorter," he says.
His initiation to the avant-garde came when he heard Anthony Braxton's "For Alto" record around 1970. "He was playing things on the saxophone that I'd never heard anyone do before. He was taking contemporary classical music techniques I'd heard in pieces by Webern, Xenakis, Charles Ives, and he was using them in improvisations," Smoker says.
Smoker felt a kinship with Braxton because he enjoyed playing 20th century classical pieces and tackling the difficult techniques they required. He, too, transferred those techniques over to his improvising. "I use a lot of double-tonguing [using the tongue to control airflow]; that allows me to play as fast as if I was slurring, but with clean articulation on every note," he says. He also had to learn to play notes outside the trumpet's range on the low side by putting a huge volume of air through the horn. By the early 1980's Smoker was touring and recording with Braxton.
Since the mid-1980's he's played on more than 50 records for labels like Enja, Ninewinds, and CIMP, about half of them as leader. He's played with some of the top names in jazz, including Dave Liebman, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, and Vinny Golia.
"Paul's major contributions are his stamina, range, and his use of texture," says Golia. "I cannot tell you how often brass cats complain about parts too high or too long. Never Paul; he relishes the challenge of intensity. Also, his level of commitment, his total skill and ability in all facets of music; playing changes, reading, improvising - you name it - he's a complete musician, and as such raised the bar for the players that came after him generationally, like Dave Douglas."
"I first heard Paul in Joint Venture, a group he co-led with Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress, and Phil Haynes," says Douglas. "It was around the time I moved to New York in 1984, and it opened my ears to new ways of exploring material in the jazz tradition. Alternative routes to traditional repertoire are now a fixture of young musicians' vocabularies. In some ways these guys paved the way. I'll always be thankful for Paul Smoker's vision and his generosity in sharing it with me."
For avant-garde players it's almost a given that music constantly progresses. Smoker takes a more guarded view. "I don't know if the music moves forward anymore. I haven't heard anything for years - except refinement - coming out of the jazz world," he says.
As for his own progression: "I'm trying to do what I do really well. I've arrived at where I was trying to arrive at all these years. In the 1980's and 1990's I was one of the top trumpet players. When I'm in shape I'm still on that level. I've proved to myself that I can play jazz on a world-class level and classical music on a world-class level." (Smoker also played in several mid-western orchestras.)
Smoker has four music degrees, including a doctorate. In his teaching career, he has left two tenured jobs, one at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, the other at CoeCollege in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His wife, Beverly, a pianist, is professor of music at NazarethCollege (hence, Smoker's move to Rochester); his son Evan is a freelance drummer in Philadelphia. Another son, Andrew, is a partner in an Atlanta construction company. Smoker, now retired, holds a part-time position directing the jazz program at Nazareth.
The band that will play with Smoker at the Bop Shop was originally called the Nowtet, as in up-to-date. Smoker organized the group to play at a trumpet festival run by Douglas. A few years later, when the Nowtet played the Rochester International Jazz Festival, the name appeared in print as the Notet. Smoker liked the idea of a Note-t or No-tet and kept it. It's actually a quartet with Steve Salerno on guitar, Ed Schuller on bass, and Phil Haynes on drums. The group's style is avant-garde but based on traditional music.
To risk a bad pun, there would likely be no-tet without Smoker's new heart. In May 2009 his doctor told him he'd hit a wall, and had a 50 percent chance of living a year. But the heart device that StrongMemorialHospital had helped to develop as a bridge for people awaiting a transplant had recently been approved for heart replacement. Smoker went for it.
His doctors may be at the concert. They've got his records (his non-medical CDs) and they're keenly interested in the seemingly unimpaired ability of a first-rate musician who does not hold back. No one knows how long it will last, but the technology keeps improving. He'll soon be getting a new pack with batteries lasting 15 hours.
The absurdity of the Notet name also goes nicely with Smoker's under-the-radar career.
"I don't really have a career as a jazz musician. I don't really have a career as a classical musician. I don't really have a career as a college professor, and yet I did all those things and I did them well. I put out some records in the 1980's and 1990's that changed the way some trumpet players played," Smoker says.
Smoker has been recognized in jazz polls, but he's not a household name largely due to the fact that he hasn't been part of the New York scene on a regular basis. "I go down to New York, do the project, and leave. I have no interest in participating in the rat race down there," he says. "Hip jazz fans know who I am. There's a generation of musicians in New York who know my records better than I do."
That is a provable fact, because Smoker doesn't listen to his own records. "Once I leave the studio I'm ready to do the next thing. There are records I made that I haven't heard."
Through it all, he has remained true to his vision. "I only play what I want to play. I've never felt like I was trapped in making my music go in a certain direction," Smokers says.
As for his place in jazz history, Golia sums it up best: "If this was Japan he'd be a national treasure. And to all of us who play with him, he is."
Paul Smoker Notet
Thursday, July 1
Bop Shop Atrium, 274 N. Goodman St
8 p.m. | $15 donation requested | 271-3354, bopshop.com