Playbook

Playin’ Around With Playbook: Walter Smith III

Hey everyone! This week on Playin’ Around With Playbook, Sammy and I spoke with saxophonist and educator Walter Smith III. 

“The New York Times describes tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III’s work as “fabulous.” 2022 brings Smith to new heights with his most compelling and reflective album to date. In Common III is set for release the Spring of 2022 featuring some of the most important and talked about artists on the scene including Matt Stevens, Kris Davis, Dave Holland and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Walter is currently leading ensembles in a number of configurations for performances from trio (TWIO), quartet, or quintet (IN COMMON).. Walter is also a Vandoren Artist, appearing in workshops, and guest residencies.”

Below is a transcription of our conversation on March 3rd, 2022. Click here to view the full interview. Click here to listen to the interview on Spotify.

Enjoy,
Trista.

 

TRISTA FORD

Hey everyone, Trista Ford here back with another Playin’ Around With Playbook. I’m so excited because we’re going to be talking with saxophonist and educator, Walter Smith the third, also with Sammy Miller, our playbook founder. So let’s just give them a second to log on and then we’ll go ahead and get started. 

Hey, how’s it going? 

WALTER SMITH III

Yo, can you hear me? 

TF

Thanks so much for being here today.  Super excited to talk with you today and ask you a little bit about your experience in your education and Life Of course. If you don’t know me, my name is Trista. I am a tenor saxophonist and educator. Also a big Walter Smith fan as well. 

SAMMY MILLER

Before we get started I want to say like, a big thing that we talked about here is talking to educators and then talking to musicians and very few people do a good job of being both and Walter, who I met when I was 16, and very much a student. He was always such an inspiration, just because he took educating very seriously. And he took his artistry very seriously. And that’s why, as long as I’ve known him, he’s always just been a source of inspiration and actually being an artist educator. So I just wanted to give a little preface there of like, I’m so glad he could be here. So just go ahead.

TF

Thank you. Yeah, I’m, I’m just gonna go ahead and introduce Walter for the playbook community. Originally from Houston, Texas, Walter Smith III now resides in Boston, and is chair of a woodwind department at Berklee College of Music, helping to prepare the next gen of jazz students. Smith is widely recognized as an adept performer, accomplished composer and inspired educator. He is and has been a member of several legendary groups and has performed all over the world at Carnegie Hall, the Village Vanguard, the Kennedy Center, and a number of others with artists such as Mulgrew, Miller, Miller, Billy Childs, Joe lovano, Herbie Hancock, and one thing that I found online, which was really, really interesting, really stuck with me. Your first gig playing was at a McDonald’s in Houston, which I’m sure people tell us all the time, but I just love this. With another saxophone player. You took a solo on of course, Blue Bossa and it was terrible. People clap. And you figured if you can get away with that and get applause, how could I fail?

SM

Does it get any larger can I ask? Is it any better than McDonald’s? I mean, like, was the Vanguard the acoustics of that McDonald’s now looking back? 

WS

It doesn’t match ever.

WS

It’s been better. 

TF

Of course. 

WS

McDonald’s tour. Stay tuned. Yes. Stay tuned that

TF

That’s actually what in common three is going to be, in McDonald’s. 

TF

 I want to ask you our staple Playbook question. What have you been listening to lately?

WS

Um, okay. lately. I’ve been. I’m getting I’m in the process of writing music for a new recording. So in that, whenever I’m in that mode, I’m always listening to everything. All my peers are doing to get inspiration to hear what they’re doing. So lately, I guess this week? A lot of immanuel’s, most recent record, Melissa Aldana’s most recent record. Also, Ethan Iverson. Yeah, all of those have kind of been on the, on the docket. And then also, I’ve really been into this idea of writing short, I’m not positive that I’ll do this, but like really short songs, and having a bunch of those. And there’s this incredible album by Logan Richardson called ethos that he did for Greg Osby label about maybe 10 years ago. And it has so many songs on it, and they’re all like two or three minutes max, which I think is really cool. And I’m kind of debating how to proceed with this, because I really love that but I don’t know if I have it in me to to be short winded. So we’ll see.

TF

Interesting I’ll have Check that out.

SM

How’s it feel for you now that you’re like, I mean, you’re like the youngest guy in the scene and a community like, what does that feel like to now? Like what people younger than you are doing, like that experience of being like, not the youngest person in the room?

WS

Yeah, well, I think that, you know, this is we’re trying to send education that is, to me the reason to be involved, because I’m a firm believer that I knew it when I was young. And I know it now that I’m not like young, I’m 41. Now, young musicians are always the brightest thinkers, in any kind of group. There’s something to be said for experience. And you you grow and you kind of refine things over time, but just that whole energy of being young, and, and really believing in what you’re doing, without any real reason to have, you know, this is what it is. And this is, and there’s a certain thing there. So, to me, it’s, I’ve been waiting for this to not be the young person so I can see what everybody else is doing and really get learn from that and try to grow within that.

TF

Yeah, that mindset definitely sounds familiar. So to continue, I want to ask you was there a particular educator that inspired you to pursue music as a career?

WS

Several. My father was an educator, he was an elementary school teacher, and that’s where I started saxophone in second grade, at his school, and then also my first saxophone teacher. They made a movie about him later, but he was also from Houston and he led the Cashmere High School stage band and the movie is called, it’s either thunder struck or wonder started something about something being struck somehow with a two syllable word but that he was an incredible he was when I started with him, he was in his 80s. So somebody that was from a completely different time that I would just go to his house every week. And like just, you know, like, sometimes it was, you know, it was just incredible to work with someone and get get into that kind of knowledge base. He knew Arnett, Cobb, all the people that came from Houston, he had played with them, and worked with them and taught all the people that came to Houston. And then after him, my last teacher, before I got college, was really inspirational to me, David Casera, who was kind of what made me ultimately decided to pursue music and model this whole idea of being an educator after what he was doing. He was the guy that played everywhere in Houston, he had all the gigs. But he also was teaching adjunct at all the universities and also at our performing arts high school. And that just always seemed so cool to me, Like I’d go to his house for lessons and it would be like leftover Chinese food because he got it, like, three in the morning. And he’s like, oh, yeah, I just got up. And I’ve been working on this thing and let’s work on this. And he’s like, I gotta go to school. He just was always busy. And that felt like how it was supposed to be, and  he is an incredible player too. So those would be the three for me.

SM

I know like as an educator, like first when you’re at LOCHSA with us, and you’re at Indiana and now Berkelee, like you take education and being with your students seriously, how do you know what to say no to? I know, people will say like, always say yes, like, how do you know like, what to say no to with your work life balance and education versus performance? What are your sort of like rules? Do you have rules? Or how do you like think of it? 

WS

yeah, I mean, it boils down to the people that you value the time that you spend with them. So right now, there are a couple bands that I’m like, currently, like engaged with for the next like six months. And those bands, I would always say yes to including people that I spent a lot of time playing with. So like somebody like Ambrose, for instance, this fall. I had, I was a week at the vanguard with Eric Carlin. And then Tom Harrell was the following week, but something happened where he wasn’t going to be able to do it. So Ambrose got called to fill in for that week. So it kind of came up last second, which was something that I hadn’t planned for, being in New York for two back to back weeks. It was my daughter’s birthday during that second week, so I was just like, okay, I have to say yes to him. He’s somebody that I would, no matter what it is, I’m gonna make it work. But that’s not for everybody. So it’s, it’s basically you know, the people you really feel passionate about playing with, and new opportunities that seem interesting that will challenge you in a different way. You know, that kind of stuff.

TF

Yeah, of course, of course. And in terms of like, I mean, being a professor at Berkeley, a lot of your time goes there. What are the most important things that you have one wanted your students to walk away with at Berkelee.

WS

Um, well, you know, my role here, I don’t actually teach anything. It’s purely administrative. So I’ve kind of transcended teaching in a way. But I do work with a lot of students. And the thing that, that I’m always most concerned with, and I’ve grown into this over the years, because it’s what I always thought was most important, but like, when I knew Sammy at LOCHSA, it was early on where I felt almost conflicted about what you’re supposed to be teaching people, you know, there’s this whole education thing where you’re supposed to learn these chords, and you know, all that stuff that you’re supposed to do in school. And then there’s stuff that I always knew that was more important than that. And now that’s 100%. Where I am, it’s more about the main thing, that I always want everybody to get out of working with them is teaching them how to teach themselves. I want to present things in a way that does not center my personal preference, you know, I hear someone play over something or do something that is not at all how I would approach it. But I don’t want to be someone that makes them think twice about that. I just want to make sure they understand conceptually what we’re talking about. And then they’re free to do with it what they want. Because I think ultimately, that exploration, that creativity is the thing that’s lost in education, we give stuff, we tell you stuff, we tell you how to do it, we tell you how this person did it, we give you all this information. And we leave out the space for you to think about it or what you know, what you want to do with it. Because ultimately, that’s what keeps this growing and moving forward over time. So yeah, teaching and giving people permission to think for themselves, giving people ways to be creative. And offering that rather than like, worksheets and bebop on the course.

SM

I’ll never forget, like some of the things, I felt like, that you talked about when I was 16. Like, totally, It went over my head, they kind of still a little bit over my head, I have a small brain but but like, some of what you explained, I was like for us, I just wanted you to give me answers. I like to play this way or do this one thing and like, you’ll be good. And you kind of always you never gave us those easy outs. I just really not looking back, I understand like, the value is just tenfold there.

WS

Yeah, yeah. Because you know, those are, it’s there are so many things that we go through as people that, you know, things that our parents may do to us or friends may say to us, you know, there’s a lot of issues with body image, and social media is a terrible place for that. All this stuff that, you know, this double consciousness, where you’re always thinking about how other people are viewing you and all that. And I feel like teachers have that power to put stuff on you, especially at an early age when you’ve got to do this all the time, every time you hit, get hit on end before and then the hit, the next beat, and then it becomes something where you just aren’t doing it without thinking about it, where that’s just what it is. And then we think about what this is about. It’s not that those things are options, right. And it should be presented that way as rather than like a definitive, you know, you got to do it this way. And I know it’s not always helpful. And it does leave some people in the dark a little bit. But I think in the long run if you stay with this, because I also know that every student doesn’t stay with this forever. So like, now that you’ve stayed with this forever. Hopefully, you don’t have too many of those things that have been placed on you over time.

TF

Exactly, of course. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. I want to ask you our last question, which is, why do you think platforms like playbook are so important in today’s classroom? 

WS

Sorry.

TF

why do you believe platforms like playbook are so important in today’s classroom?

SM

Like digital? Do you use any digital stuff? Walter in your space? Like have you used or do you find it helpful?  like, moving to the virtual world? Yeah, like moving into the virtual world like have you put moved into like zoom teaching? Do you find that stuff to be effective? Do you find it to be ineffective? Do you hate it? Love it?

WS

Yeah, I mean, I think, to me, at least presenting through, I guess, more topical things. And I learned a lot over the last few years as most of us did. But presenting workshops that don’t necessarily involve live playing are really effective through zoom. And I did a lot of I learned a lot and I was able to put things together where you just pre record all the examples and you have it all there, and you have everything organized in that way where you can share all the details. And I think in that way, it’s a lot more efficient. And you can kind of get to the you can get to the all the information that you kind of want to discuss and you have everything ready to go. Sometimes in a class, one of the biggest challenges is pacing. And I do feel like in the virtual space, people are not as willing to speak up or ask questions, so you can kind of get through things quicker. But I do feel like you lose a little bit of the interactive experience, at least for me, there’s always one person that is ready to kind of ask questions, but it’s not as you know, it’s not the same as being in a room with people where you can look at someone and make them kind of engage with you in that way. So I do like like you said, it is very valuable. It has helped everybody kind of reach a lot more people especially during this time when we had to be on it but I think ultimately, I’m kind of still old school I still write music wouldn’t pen and paper and then eventually put it in the finale. So I always start with the old school thing. I have no hairs and I’m from a different time

SM

They didn’t have hair in the 90s. No one had hair. 

TF

the more you know, the more you know. That’s what we’re here for. Well, thank you so much for being here with us today. It was great hearing you speak on these things. And everyone go follow Walter at @waltersmiththree on Instagram and follow up with his website Walter Smith three as well. And stay tuned for his album which I’m super pumped for in common three on March 11. And everyone go follow playbook @playbookjazz Instagram and thisisplaybook.com. So I’m going to sign off now but thanks again.

Thank you, Walter.

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