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Thursday, 19 August 2010 00:00

Chuck Smith

I should have known that interviewing a jazz musician would result in a conversation not unlike a piece of music. A strong melody line veers into
apparently unrelated riffs and unerringly returns to an underlying theme. The break, the bridge, the “blow,” augmentation, inversion and harmonic rhythm (all new terms to me) were visible as I reviewed my notes.


Chuck Smith has a broad musical background, but is best in Boise as a jazz pianist, band teacher in the Boise schools, and coveted private instructor. In a Belgravia walk-down is a still, rose-colored space that will be an intimate jazz venue for small events. Here also is his instrument, a Steinway whisked away from the streets of New York, sunburned and worn, to anchor the Belgravia space.


(above) blur photo of a table at Belgravia Jazz, (below) blur of Smith’s Steinway

Within the first fifteen minutes we’ve discussed Omaha Beach, Harvard Studies on the effect of music on the corpus callosum, art as an impetus for life, and the Field of Dreams.

Chuck began playing the piano in Illinois against a vast backdrop of cornfields. At three he’d sneak in after his sister’s practice and repeat her
exercises. Lessons began at age four. By that time he had already learned to play by ear, and it wasn’t until he was nine that a teacher caught on that Chuck wasn’t bothering with the written notes. He smiles, “Deciding to play the piece in a different key was a dead give away.”

A dynamic band teacher gave him his first push towards teaching, but he spent a long and varied interlude playing in bands all over the country. The complexity of the music he heard in New York sent him back for a Master’s Degree and underscored a fascination with music theory. When his children were small he gave up touring after spending eight years as musical director for noted recording artist, Paul Anka. Today, Chuck lights up discussing his current students, including those at Jefferson Elementary School, where 32 different languages are spoken. Donations from sponsors help provide instruments for band members who can’t afford to participate.

The beginning and the end of our conversation revolve around a life-long calling to music—an often esoteric backfield of the family farm.  I
ask if his perceptions have changed since the seventies when life was about performance, jamming, and touring. “It has become more clear to me that in many ways there isn’t a place in society for the majority of professional musicians, or any artists really. There’s not a lot of social security that piles up playing in tiny nightclubs. I heard a story on NPR about some of the jazz greats living now on the streets. That is a tragedy.” Could they have planned better for their future? What would have been lost in terms of fleeting moments of musical grace if those artists had spent more time in day jobs? “Then sometimes you spend your time perfecting the buggy whip and some dude invents the car… look at the musicians who used to be employed doing movie scores…now it can be all done on a computer.”

The pale keys of the Steinway catch the light as Chuck draws the melody line back into the room.

(above) blur photo of Steinway keyboard

“My father died not too long ago. Not until the end of his life did he speak about his experiences in World War II. After surviving the invasion at
Omaha beach, he was assigned to organize a tent camp in France for the German prisoners of war flooding in. My Dad, Marvin, played big band music and jazz over the loud speakers for them every night, Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue…. His letters show what that music came to mean to him and that he hoped that his family, that we’d be raised with music in our lives.” Chuck stops. The club is silent but we are both thinking of the rows of muddy tents, about prisoners and victors, and the notes of a big band. “Art is a two edged sword,” he says at last. “It is a privilege to spend your life energy towards your passion, but there is a cost—there is always a cost, whatever choices you make.” He grins on the backbeat and fingers through the CDs in his library “And then there is this…” He choose one and the voices of a gospel choir fill the club. Suddenly, the edges of light in the darkness seem very bright.


contact Chuck Smith: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Here are a few of Chuck’s favorites:

Solo piano: Jessica Williams at Maybeck Hall
Piano trio: Keith Jarrett’s trio work B3 trio : Larry Young’s “Unity” & w/ Tony Williams’ Lifetime “Emergency”
Classical piano: Alexander Lubimov’s “Der Bote,” especially Mansurian’s “Nostalgia”
Brazil: anything by Rosa Passos; Elis Regina; Tonhino Horta, “Serenade”
Argentina: anything by Astor Piazzola, especially Gidion Kremer’s “Homage to Piazzola”
Cuba: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Inner Voyage;” Chucho Valdez “Bele Bele en la Habana”
France:  Richard Galliano, “French Touch,” Toots Thielmans’ “Chez Toots”
Gospel: Hank Jones and Charlie Haden: “Steal Away”
Big Band: Jaco Pastorius’ “Word of Mouth”


(above) blur photos, detail of Belgravia Jazz Club

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