Howie Smith, Composer 


Howie Smith glides effortlessly through the contrasting spheres of jazz and classical music. He is equally at home leading his own jazz group, playing in the woodwind section of the Cleveland Orchestra, taking the solo spotlight or teaching a college course. A tireless composer, performer and recording artist, he has written more than 200 works, appeared on dozens of albums and played with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, numerous jazz ensembles and superstars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley. “He writes jazz and contemporary chamber music, has worked everywhere from Illinois to Australia and plays some of the sweetest saxophone you will hear in Cleveland,” wrote David Beard in The Plain Dealer.

Born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, on February 25, 1943, Smith began studying music at age five. At his first saxophone lesson, his teacher, J. Carl Borelli, taught him an original tune and asked him to compose a new piece by the following week. Nine months later, the talented youngster made his debut performing in an amateur competition. Because the saxophone was not regarded as a legitimate instrument for serious music study when Smith graduated from high school, he chose to major in music education, earning an undergraduate degree at Ithaca College and a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. There, he played lead alto sax with the renowned university jazz band and got acquainted with the music of John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and other contemporary composers.

In 1973, Smith received a Fulbright grant to travel to Australia and establish an innovative jazz program at the New South Wales Conservatorium. During his five-year tenure, he also played with the Jazz Co/op and presented a series of avant-garde concerts at the Sydney Opera House. When he returned to the United States, he worked as a freelance musician based in San Diego.

In 1979, Cleveland State University named Smith head of jazz studies, a position he held until 2005. During his first year on the faculty, he gave a saxophone recital featuring himself as performer and composer. The all-Smith program, “Concert in Progress,” became an annual event lauded for its freshness, imagination and unpredictability. Most of the concerts involved collaborations with a variety of performers. Each featured solo improvisations. All exemplified Smith’s preference for creating new pieces rather than repeating old ones.

Although Smith writes eloquent program notes, he dislikes discussing his works, preferring to let the music do the talking. His compositions often incorporate non-verbal conversations. Schizerzo, his whimsical miniature for sax and tuba, “is a genuinely funny piece in which the two unlikely duet partners seem to be engaging in a friendly argument, spitting notes at each other like little bullets,” wrote Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn. In addition to humorous small-scale works and daring performance pieces, Smith composes deeply emotional songs, such as “Who Will Sing?”, a wordless meditation he wrote after watching television coverage of the bombing in Iraq.        

Smith’s colorful sound palette combines conventional instruments with unconventional techniques, synthesizers and tape. Keenly attuned to acoustical space, he “plays the room” by moving performers around the concert hall. Partial to “music based on simplicity rather than complexity,” he brings classical structures to jazz and jazz idioms to classical works. “Playing jazz and classical is like telling a story in two different languages,” he told a Plain Dealer reporter. “Jazz is from the African oral tradition, ever changing. Classical is from the European written tradition, unflexing. A performer should respect the traditions of an art.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
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