Gary Smart is 77 years young, and a musician who can do almost anything. He can compose “modern” ragtime; do improvisations that sound like Karlheinz Stockhausen; improvise a Beatles tune in the style of Bill Evans; and compose a string quartet that sounds like an improvisation. He grew up in Illinois; studied in Canada, the U.S.A., and Europe; and has taught music at the University of Wyoming and the University of North Florida.
Matthew de Lacey Davidson: What was your first ragtime experience?
Gary Smart: When…ten years old, my…family [took]…a vacation to New Orleans. I heard a…concert at Preservation Hall and…[bought]…some printed…traditional jazz tunes…and…ragtime pieces, including the Maple Leaf Rag. I became an enthusiast…[and]…My father was a fan and encouraged my interest.
Tell me about Oscar Peterson.
I was 19 when I went…to Toronto to study with [him]…I learned…by listening, observing, asking questions. [He]…was a force of nature, a commanding musician…an inspiration…but he wasn’t intimately involved in piano lessons. [His]…bassist, Ray Brown, was…a wonderful musician…[who]…showed me… voicings…progressions, traditions.
Please describe Jorge Bolet, a Rachmaninoff specialist. Your articulation and range of dynamics probably owes much to classical study.
Bolet and…Peterson were alike in some ways. Both had overwhelmingly impressive technical ability, did not “suffer fools gladly” and would rather “show” by playing than talk…Both men did wax philosophical at times, but I was young and not as…interested as I should have been. I wanted to DO it, not ponder its meaning!…Bolet did impress upon me that Rachmaninoff performed his music at a brisk pace with a firm grip on form, that a singing line was possible without destroying musical form…old recordings…[of]…Rachmaninoff’s…[reveal]…controlled use of rubato. Rachmaninoff…played like a composer…Maybe that’s what I learned from Bolet: to play like a composer.
Was ragtime encouraged by any of your composition or performance teachers?
The subject…never came up in all of my education…There was one composer who seemed delighted with my rag playing: Toru Takemitsu…he really got a kick out of ragtime.
Which composition teachers helped you the most?
Almost all of my composition teachers were rather hands off. We talked… about…materials, form, development, process…I rarely got specific advice…Yehudi Wyner did teach me about…disciplined editing…I found that perspective very helpful.
One of your two best rags is “Two Flowers Rag” —it’s a little “old fashioned” in its harmonic language, but later uses more modern harmonies.
[It was]…written with the lyrical 19th century salon piece as a model. It’s openly sentimental, isn’t it?
I disagree—like György Sándor’s estimation of Rachmaninoff, I would say that it is openly romantic—but not sentimental.
The two flowers are my daughters, Molly and Kate.
I understand it’s based on a tune you wrote and an Irish folk song. Can you tell me about “The Bell Rag?” Many of the harmonies have never been used in ragtime before.
“The Bell Rag” was a commission from the Mountain Bell Telephone Company for their 75th anniversary…the…quartal and quintal harmonies seemed appropriate to me. The tremolos…[evoke]…a phone ringing…in the twentieth century. I…[quote]…a…song from 1901, “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven” in sections two and four. Though…a slow…tune originally, I play it quickly…The last contrapuntal section is an attempt at both compositional and technical virtuosity. I planned it all out first, and the writing went…quickly. For me, composing is polished, edited improvisation.
Your rendition of “Lover” is spectacular. Before recording your improvisations, is anything planned beforehand? If you listen to Art Tatum’s alternate takes, he often doesn’t deviate much from recording to recording. Your version of the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” turns it into a blues/boogie. This is unique.
Improv and composition are very much related for me. Both “Lover” and “Penny Lane” involved musical planning and practice and spur of the moment improvisation…the general strategy of each was planned, but 50 to 80 %…[was] improvised. Happy accidents were constant…I practiced both “improvs” a lot before recording. [A]…colleague…got…upset when he realized I sometimes practiced improvisations. “Fraud!” he exclaimed. “Not at all”, I protested. I think…[Tatum]…often worked the same way…it’s all just music making.
You rarely deviate from the score when playing ragtime. I’ve met with dogmatic resistance when I change just a few notes, even though Arthur Marshall confirmed that Scott Joplin changed his own scores when playing.
[With Jelly Roll Morton’s] early jazz version of [the] notated…[Maple Leaf Rag]…[it] becomes something new. It’s great. I guess I work…in such detail…notating my own pieces that I…prefer my…careful choices when I perform my pieces…I take the same attitude when playing old ragtime pieces. I treat them as any notated “classical” work. I wouldn’t change Chopin’s notes either…But I have no problem with another performer taking a different attitude…in my recording of Joplin’s “Solace,” I play the…last gesture as a kind of surprise: “Ole!”…One reviewer…hated it, said I didn’t understand…the piece…My idea is an addition…I like it and…play it that way…
Is your string quartet version of “Short’nin’ Bread” (Three Fantasies on African-American songs) based on your piano improvisation (In Black and White CD)?
…absolutely…[I’ve]…played that solo…for thirty years. [It]…follows a format, begins and ends in the same way…When I decided to “transcribe” it for string quartet, I kept the format while letting it expand instrumentally into idiomatic string writing.
You’ve only recorded one commercial CD of ragtime. Why?
…I haven’t recorded any more ragtime because I’m not really a ragtime specialist…I’ve never recorded an album of traditional “classical” music [either]…Perhaps I put my efforts where I think I have something important and unique “to say.”
Any final ideas you’d like to add?
I am a composer…a pianist, also an improviser…And…an American who grew up in a certain era…why divide these aspects? …Debussy…[called]…himself “un Musicien Français”… my music…reflect[s] my very pluralistic American life. My musical activities may be in or out of style, but…I express myself and my cultural experience truly and honestly. I am an American musician.
You may find out more about Gary Smart at his website: garysmart.net.
An incomplete discography of Gary Smart’s compact discs:
In Black and White, solo piano (Mastersound, 1998)
Beatle Jazz, small group jazz (Mastersound, 1998)
The Major’s Letter: five original solo song cycles, sung by four singers with Smart (piano) (Albany Records, 2005)
American Beauty – a Ragtime Bouquet, original and standard ragtime works for solo piano, Smart (composer-pianist) (Albany Records, 2008)
Three Fantasies on African American Songs for string quartet, Altius Quartet (Parma Records, 2019)
Piano Sonata no. 1, Yukino Miyake, pianist – Modern Music for Piano (RMN Records, 2021)