"I began as a drummer in 1932," recounts Easy Smith. "I bought my first clarinet, a metal clarinet, for $13 and played my first dance at age 12." The North Carolina-born Smith grew up "somewhere between there and Louisiana" and led his own all-reed band in high school. He began playing in big bands before the outbreak of World War II and in military bands before going into the paratroopers. Territory bands, burlesque house combos (he remembers Candy Barr and Ann Corio as "the most memorable performers") and all manner of road bands were his life until the 1960s. Smith will be featured today, 2 to 4 p.m. in a free concert with the 20-member Jazz Masters at Robert E. Lee recreation center, Alexandria. His program will include "Groovin' Hard," which he will perform on tenor saxophone, and "Sing Sing Sing" and "Summit Ridge Drive," both on clarinet.
"I've had a very interesting life, according to some," says Smith, "but one thing I never tried to do with young people is to try to impose my past on them, no matter how gloriously I paint it, because they have their own thing and what's gone is gone." Smith's three decades-plus of coaching and counseling young musicians was recognized five years ago by Manassas in establishing the Easy Smith Jazz Award, a yearly prize to a member of a school stage band.
"People are always asking me if big bands are coming back," chuckles Smith, "and I always reply, 'If they are, I wish they would get at it while I'm young enough to appreciate it.' "