Marshall is music: Clarence Smith feeds the future of jazz

Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Clarence Smith relaxes as he takes time out of his busy schedule for an interview in November between his class at Missouri Valley College and a rehearsal with a church jazz band in Kansas City. Smith is teaches at several colleges, plays in several bands, organizes a major jazz band festival and participates in numerous clinics and other music projects in addition to directing Kansas City Youth jazz. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

When he graduated from college, Clarence Smith didn't want to be a teacher.

The 1980 Marshall High School graduate hit the road with a circus band when he graduated from Central Methodist University, touring the U.S. and Canada. Then he received a phone call from his father letting him know that the band director in his hometown of Marshall was leaving the school district.

Smith called then-Superintendent Alvin Lowe and did an interview while at the circus. And got the job.

Now, more than two decades later, he has become one of the busiest and best music teachers in the Kansas City area, a leader in the task of "passing the torch" to successive generations of young musicians in a city famous for its jazz heritage.

Smith was featured in the December edition of Jazz Ambassador Magazine. The story by Roger Atkinson focuses on Smith's role in Kansas City Youth Jazz, "perpetuating the legacy of Leon Brady," the program's founder.

Smith and Brady switched roles last year, according to Atkinson, with Smith becoming director and Brady moving to assistant director, a move designed to ensure continuity in the program and consequently in the future of KC's rich jazz tradition.

Clarence Smith works with Slater-area rock drummer Adam Hubbard, a member of Lines of Atrophy, during the 2011 Bob James Jazz Festival clinic at Missouri Valley College. Smith coordinates the clinic and will be performing at the 2012 festival with the Smith and Athon Group. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

"I made the right decision," he said of his early shift from performer to teacher/performer. Friends of his who chose to focus on performing often struggle to make a living, he said.

When he made the decision to teach, he committed to the vocation wholeheartedly.

"I decided I had to be the best teacher I could be," he said. "You have to strive for quality."

If his success in that regard can be judged by demand for his services, Smith appears to have achieved it. The list of his activities is dizzying.

In addition to directing KC Youth Jazz, he sings in church gospel choirs, teaches classes at Metropolitan Community College's Penn Valley campus, teaches at Missouri Valley College, coordinates the annual 18th and Vine Jazz Band Festival, is the music director of Marshall's Bob James Jazz Festival, performs with three groups -- Smith and Athon Group, J Love and Toni Gates -- and participates regularly in clinics at area schools.

The list suggests a man whose first impulse is always to say "yes" when an opportunity to teach or play music comes along.

It was that impulse that led to one of the storied moments in Marshall's music history: The time the Count Basie Orchestra played a concert at Bueker Middle School.

Clarence Smith offers suggestions to one of the high school jazz bands that performed in the 2011 Missouri Valley College Jazz Band Festival in January. Smith taught a class at MVC during the fall 2011 semester, working with future band directors. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)

Smith was in his first year as a teacher when he got a call from a promoter letting him know the famous orchestra would be available in January 1986. Would he be interested in booking the band, the agent asked. It seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up.

"I was like, 'Are you crazy? certainly!'" Smith said.

He got the Marshall Owl Band Booster organization behind the project and plunged into fundraising and promoting the event.

He neglected one detail: to inform the district administration.

"I was a wet-behind-the-ears band director," he said. "I just didn't know."

When news of the concert got out, he got calls -- from the principal, the superintendent and the assistant superintendent. He got called into the office and called on the carpet. But in retrospect, he said, the consequences were relatively minor.

"They could have been a lot harder on me," he said. As a former student, he knew Bruce Brock, Spencer Fricke and Bob Phillips, and that might have helped. And once they were brought up to speed, they were supportive of the effort.

But the transgression against the chain of command was only the first bump in the road. Shortly after the contract was signed, someone pointed out a bit of a scheduling challenge. The date chosen for the concert was Super Bowl Sunday.

Nothing could be done about that, though, so Smith and MOBB proceeded with plans. But advance ticket sales were slow, and there was a contractual obligation to pay $5,000 for the band's performance.

The band's fee today is many times that, but back in 1986, the band boosters didn't have the kind of money they needed in hand.

Fortunately, a benefactor was found who loaned enough money to meet the contract. That person chose to remain anonymous, and although many people have tried to discover the person's identity, Smith says the mystery will remain.

"To this day, only that person and I know," he said. "I won't reveal it."

Attendance at the concert was lower than he had hoped, but several hundred people, including a few high school jazz bands, came to hear one of the nation's legendary jazz groups.

"The special thing about this band, it was the same band Basie toured with less than a year before that," Smith said. Basie had died less than a year before the concert.

And the concert was such a great experience, he said, that the earlier troubles were worth enduring.

"They were very informal. They weren't shielded like they would be today," he said, and that gave Marshall musicians an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the great players of jazz at the time.

The concert was an influential moment in the lives of a number of young Marshall musicians, Smith said.

"It was a great musical experience for my students," Smith said, noting that more than a few of them became professional musicians and teachers.

"That helped cement Joe's career in music," he said, referring to fellow Marshall native and current band partner Joe Athon.

Smith said he would do it all again, too.

"Knowing what I know now I would go through the proper channels," he said. "I could probably have gotten a lot of help from (district officials). But it was a great experience."

His five-year stint as band director in Marshall led to a teaching job in the Kansas City School District at Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts High School and from there, to his current college teaching jobs.

In an unusual twist, Smith's first director job put him collegial role with his high school band director, Charles Ferguson.

"It was strange," he said. But Ferguson continued to be a good mentor. "Charlie was a great supporter. I learned more about being a band director for him than from anybody."

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