Smulyan, who leads his Baritone Summit on Saturday, Aug. 10, at 3:30 p.m. at the weekend-long LJF, is a perennial jazz poll winner, the critics' and the peoples' overwhelming choice on baritone saxophone for years. A baritone saxophone headliner for great orchestras like the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and for superb ensembles like the Joe Lovano Nonet, the hard-swinging, bebop-inspired instrumentalist has also created new standards of freedom and invention with his celebrated pianoless trios.
But Smulyan, for all his years of acclaim and fame as the baron of the baritone, never even once thought much about jazz as a rock-obsessed youngster and rocker wannabe heavily into King Crimson, Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Then came the first of two great epiphanies in his middle teens, which converted the young rocker into a true believer in jazz.
"I was channel surfing on the radio one night just flipping the dials when all of a sudden I heard this incredible solo piano piece. I had never heard any music like that before. And it turned out to be Fats Waller playing 'African Ripples.' That was an accident that changed my life," says Smulyan.
"It was on a radio show called 'Just Jazz' on WRVR-FM and was hosted by the great Ed Beach," he says, "a legendary jazz deejay who became my jazz education all through my later middle school and high school years. I listened to Beach every night, five nights a week. It was an unbelievable education."
"I just happened to catch that Waller piece, and it was, indeed, a life-altering moment for me," Smulyan says by phone from his home in Amherst, Mass., where he lives with his wife, pianist Joan Cornachio, and their family.
That Waller moment — Smulyan's Beach baptism —- set him in a wholly new direction, passionately exploring a jazz path. His new journey led to studies with a host of great mentors on Long Island and inspiring first-hand experiences, including working at Sonny's Place, a first-rate jazz club in Seaford, N.Y. There the young apprentice alto saxophonist got to sit-in with such iconic figures as Lee Konitz, Chet Baker and Jimmy Knepper.
Before being swept off his feet by jazz, Smulyan had tried his hand at being a rock electric bass player, even leading his own rock band.
"We were a Cream wannabe band that was really incredibly awful. We played on a high school program, and that was it. My bass playing days were over after that," he recalls.
Then several years later came his second great life-shaping epiphany leading to yet another dramatic conversion at age 22 from a die-hard alto saxophonist to a novice baritone saxophonist. Since age 8 when he first began playing saxophone, he had been a devout practitioner of the alto saxophone.
As he got deeper into jazz honing his alto skills, he attended college at SUNY where he majored in music education. When he was a senior and just four liberal arts credits shy of earning his bachelor's degree, he got an offer in 1978 to go on the road with the Woody Herman Orchestra.
Smulyan was faced with choice: Finish college or sign on with the Herman band, one of the legendary jazz bands of the 20th Century.
"Joining the Herman band was the second of those two moments that changed my life. It was a tough decision to make, especially having to leave college since both my parents were school teachers. My parents, Arthur and Sonia Smulyan, who are retired now, have always been unbelievably supportive of my music. But they did want me to finish college back then. And maybe as a present to them, someday I will," he says.
While he's eternally grateful to Herman ("a great boss supportive of the musicians") for bringing about his conversion to baritone, Smulyan readily admits the change in gears from the small alto to the burly baritone was not a smooth, easy transformation.
After two learning years on the road with Herman, however, Smulyan was ready to conquer the world with his baritone. With many more prime years still ahead of him, that goal has already been accomplished.
For his performance at Litchfield, he'll be joined by three fellow baritone saxophonists, Claire Daly, Lauren Sevian and Andrew Hadro. His baritone choir—a rather rare reed species-- is backed by an impressive rhythm section featuring pianist Helen Sung, bassist Jon Michel and drummer Matt Wilson.