By MEGAN ELISON
Comparing people to gemstones, Ray Smith is definitely a jewel of jazz.
In fact, ask anyone about Jazz Fest and they’ll tell you that the person who knows it all is Ray Smith.
Smith is Director of Jazz Studies in the BYU School of Music, and also directs the university’s top jazz ensemble, Synthesis. He also plays saxophone with the Faculty Jazz Quintet.
Apart from participating with university jazz groups, Smith has toured and recorded with some fairly well-known local musicians, including Kurt Bestor. He performed with Johnny Mathis, The Supremes and The Fifth Dimension, and has recorded back-up for Frank Sinatra and various national ads.
Smith first came to BYU as an undergraduate, where he made a name for himself by playing lead alto sax with Synthesis. After graduate studies and time learning from David Baker — on of the world’s top jazz educators — Smith returned to BYU to become Jazz Director in 1982.
“I was bitten by the bug early and I’ve always loved it ever since,” Smith said. “I can’t get enough of it.”
But Smith’s addiction to jazz music began long before he ever came to BYU.
“It was in the seventh grade that I heard the high school jazz band,” Smith said. “I went to the junior high for a fathers and sons event and the high school jazz band came over. I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever heard.”
“I remember they played the ‘Pink Panther Theme’ by Hank Mancini, and I just ate it up. I thought, ‘I’ve got to play in a group like that,'” Smith said.
Smith got his chance to play with the high school band sooner than he expected.
When the varsity band’s tenor sax quit, the band director asked Smith, then a sophomore, to tryout as a replacement.
“He said, ‘Do you play tenor sax?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yeah!'” Smith said. “I had never played it before in my life.”
That afternoon, Smith checked out a tenor sax from the school and began to work through some pieces he had been studying earlier.
“He (the band director) was in his office with the door locked and it didn’t even occur to me that he might be listening,” Smith said. “He came out after a few minutes and he said, ‘You’re in.'”
Becoming the only sophomore in the varsity jazz band was only the beginning for Smith, who went on to musical notoriety in college.
As director of Synthesis, Smith has had numerous competition and touring opportunities. The group uses tours to bring recognition to both BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We’ve found that it is an incredible missionary tool,” Smith said. “To be able to use this music that I’ve loved so long for doing missionary work is really an incredible thing to me.”
Smith’s direction of Synthesis is drawing national attention.
“I’ve had people call me from Minneapolis or Chicago and say, ‘Hey, I heard your CD on the radio’ — meaning Synthesis,” Smith said.
So what is it about jazz music that makes the style so attractive to Smith?
“I love improvisation; to be able to make a personal expression on the spot and create it yourself is really a thrill,” Smith said. “When it goes well, there are few greater highs.”
Future plans for Smith include helping to expand BYU’s Department of Music, as well as working on his own CDs and writing books.
Whatever the musician chooses to do, it is sure that his direction has made an impact at BYU.
“Not only is he a great teacher, but he’s a great musician, so he can work well with us,” said Synthesis trombonist Matt West, a senior from Sandy, Utah, majoring in public relations. “He brings professionality and a sense of pride for what we’re doing.”
“It’s important to him, so it’s important to us,” West said.
“He’s the finest director anyone could ask for in a band,” said Synthesis drummer David Osmond, a junior from Provo majoring in music performance. “He’s quite a mentor and example.”
“Ray Smith is really one of BYU’s gems,” Osmond said.