Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 79 - Howie Smith’s Concert in Progress
Story filed Novermber 2, 2003

A unique event on the Cleveland jazz calendar each year since 1981 has been Howie Smith’s unpredictable and creative Concert in Progress at Cleveland State University each February. Smith, a virtuoso saxophonist, composer and arranger, has been the director of jazz studies at CSU since 1979.

"The first one," he recalled, "was in 1981. I was asked if I would like to do a recital. I thought it was a great idea, so I started planning for it and figured, ‘I should do at least one of my own pieces.’" He began thinking about the many things he had written and could not decide which to include. "I decided, ‘I might as well go whole-hog.’" He wrote some new music and presented a concert consisting entirely of his compositions.

Smith smiled as he remembered, "We billed it as ‘Howie Smith vs. Howie Smith’ – with the idea that the composer and the performer were the same person but different. The original posters didn’t even say it was a concert. It was just ‘Howie Smith vs. Howie Smith,’ with the time and place, almost like a sign you might see posted on buildings or on poles. And it was a success and we decided to do it another year."

The 1982 concert became "Howie Smith vs. Howie Smith, A Rematch." The poster for that concert, silk-screened by his wife, was a picture of what looked like a pair of boxing gloves hanging on a nail. "But," said Smith, "they weren’t boxing gloves. They were my hands!"

The following year, it was "Howie Smith vs. Howie Smith III" (like Rocky III). After that, he said, "I was getting tired of ‘Howie Smith vs. Howie Smith.’ I thought about those signs you see on the door when you get to a concert late -- ‘Do Not Enter, Concert in Progress.’ It’s like a surgeon general’s warning – Don’t come in here! I liked the play of words, so that became the theme of the next one, ‘Concert in Progress,’ And it’s been that ever since."

One of the most unusual and most memorable of Smith’s Concert in Progress presentations occurred February 9, 1986. That year, Smith outdid even Meredith Willson, who only dreamed of 76 trombones in The Music Man. Cleveland’s imaginative music man assembled an orchestra of 60 saxophones! The idea began when he asked the guest artist what he wanted to do.

"This particular year," said Smith, "Scott Robinson was the guest artist and Scott’s first suggestion was, ‘Play in a hot-air balloon.’ I said, ‘If it was in the summer I would try to work that out, but this is going to be in February!.’ I was trying to think of some way open the concert with just Scott and me and thought, ‘We’ll just do a saxophone duet, like a fanfare.’ And then, I started thinking, ‘Why don’t I write a piece for a whole saxophone band?’ Maybe eight or ten saxophones and a rhythm section?’"

Smith began trying to assemble a saxophone orchestra. "I started calling people," he said, "to see if they would be interested. The first ten I called said yes instantly. So I kept calling and I got over 40 at one point and they weren’t supposed to tell anybody. This was going to be a secret. When I got 60 saxophonists, I stopped calling."

The 60 saxophonists rehearsed the day before the concert. Because they were all sworn to secrecy, the audience had no idea what was about to happen. "The first piece," said Smith, "was listed as a ‘saxophone duet.’ Scott and I started outside, on opposite sides of the hall, and played a brief fanfare which ended with a sustained note. Then we walked into the alcove area so we were closer and the audience could hear us but still couldn’t see us. We played another fanfare and ended on a sustained note. Then we walked into the hall. Now they could see the two saxophone players. We played another fanfare and ended with a unison sustained note – and put our saxophones down! And the note was still sounding! It was all the saxophone players lined up outside."

When the audience saw eight or ten other saxophonists following Howie and Scott into the auditorium, it began applauding. "And the saxophones just kept coming," recalled Smith, "like the clowns coming out of the little car at the circus. The people were surrounded by saxophones! There were 60 of them!" Smith had written 60 different parts for his saxophone orchestra.

Another year, Smith played improvised music on his saxophone – matching the facial expressions of actors who faces were projected on a screen above the stage.

And there was the Concert in Progress that featured Plain Dealer music reviewer Wilma Salisbury, reading her review of the concert – a review she had written before hearing the music. "To make it a little more interesting, I told her that one of the pieces wasn’t going to be written ahead of time. The musicians were going to be improvising the piece based on her review, of supposedly what had already been done." Based on nothing more than a list of the musical pieces to be played, the newspaper critic wrote a review and read it to the audience during the concert.

Howie Smith is now planning his next Concert in Progress and says he is not sure yet what he will do. But, if past experience is any indication, it will certainly be something very unusual and extremely unpredictable. Smith just smiles and says, "I don’t want the people who come to know what’s going to happen until the concert begins."

Copyright 2003 Joe Mosbrook

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