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Greg Smith spreads his talents among 10 Madison groups
A man for all bands

Music cured Smith's migraine.
Music cured Smith's migraine.
Credit:Bryan Aacker
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Devoting a serious amount of time to an activity - a beloved hobby, an exercise routine, even raising a family - is a big challenge when you have a demanding day job. Those who manage to excel at it are something of a mystery to those of us who just get by the best we can.

Madison native Greg Smith is one of those enigmatic few. Part of the reason he's so enigmatic is that he's so busy playing clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone in not one but 10 groups around town: from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Avenue Sizzlers Dixieland band to the Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble and the Balkan lounge-rock outfit Reptile Palace Orchestra.

In addition, he seems to function quite well in his other roles of husband, dad and state employee.

Smith says that much like learning music, keeping up this double life is one part environmental influence and one part natural talent.

"For some people, rhythm comes naturally, for other people it's good luck, and a lot of people can't march anywhere unless they're next to someone else who can," he says of how people learn to play instruments. Luckily, Smith's also got a gift for rhythm when it comes to switching hats - from one musical ensemble to another and between his musician and non-musician roles.

Being in the right place at the right time has been the X-factor that's made it all work. However, which came first, the musical chops or the juggling skills, is up for debate.

Smith's theory is that the juggling talent evolved later, out of necessity. He began piano lessons at age 5 and bass clarinet at age 12. He also sang in the church choir as a teen and picked up the standard clarinet as an undergrad at UW-Madison. But this was before he was a gigging maniac.

Teaming up with an understanding wife and bandmates - and learning the fine arts of negotiation and calendar keeping - has also gone a long way, he says. But a lot more serendipity than this has shaped his past 35 years as a performer.

Smith says much of this kismet is linked to his instrument of choice: the bass clarinet. He recalls, clear as a bell, the day in seventh grade that he chose the instrument.

"Instrument selection went alphabetically, and since I'm an S, a lot of the other instruments had already been spoken for," he says. "We had these charts with instrument families on them, and I remember going through it like, 'Flute? Boring. Trumpet? Boring.' Until I saw this interesting-shaped instrument called the bass clarinet. It looked like an S, so naturally, I wanted to play it."

Smith had to share the school's lone bass clarinet with another student, lugging it home after school a few days a week. It wasn't long before fate began to take its course.

"One day I went home, and I got a terrible migraine headache," Smith recalls. "Nothing was working to make it go away, so I pulled out the bass clarinet and just started playing it, and the headache disappeared. That was really neat - and a bit of a miracle."

The next miracle involved a chance encounter with renowned conductor Robert Reynolds at the UW's summer music clinic.

Much like the tuba, the bass clarinet doesn't get the most glamorous or technically demanding parts in classical music. However, Reynolds was blown away by the force of Smith's sound, a stroke of luck that earned him a full ride to the university on an instrument you can't even major in.

Smith soon stumbled upon good fortune again when the Madison Symphony's bass clarinetist left the group in 1973. He quickly snatched up the spot and has stayed with the group ever since. However, it was his ventures into popular music that turned his love of playing into a second career.

After college, Smith joined a Dixieland band, which meant he had to learn how to invent melodies and harmonies rather than playing them from a printed page. Even then, though, rock and pop were something of a mystery to him.

"I was totally square and didn't even pay attention to the popular music of my youth when I was a youth," he recalls with a laugh. "All I spoke was band music - not even orchestra music - through the '60s. It wasn't until I was in the symphony and this group called the Moody Blues came through town that I started to pay attention."

After the psychedelic symphonic-rock group blew his mind, Smith became a fan of the genre and, slowly but surely, found a way to incorporate it and other contemporary sounds into the music he was making. This has led to roles in the Yid Vicious Klezmer Ensemble, the merengue-loving Grupo Candela and the vintage country outfit North Country Drifters, among others, over the past decade.

Last year, this meant nearly 180 shows for Smith, with another 70 lined up for 2009. While this jack-of-all-trades formula works pretty well for him, he insists it doesn't hold a candle to what full-time musicians do.

Perhaps the secret to his success is modesty. In fact, "quality before ego" - wise words from his late friend Arne Bo - is his mantra for every show.

"It's important to put the audience and music first," he says. For hard-working musicians, the rest - the relationships with bandmates, the quality of the performance, even the crazy juggling act - will follow if they focus on what matters.

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