Henry Charles Smith III (1931-2021): my first trombone hero

Henry Charles Smith III (1931-2021): my first trombone hero

Last week, one of my heroes died. Henry Charles Smith was 90 years old, and his influence on me was profound. For those who have never heard his name, and for those who share my love of this exceptional man, here are a few words from me about one who changed my life.

I began playing the trombone at the age of nine, in the fourth grade. I took group trombone lessons with my elementary school band director, Mr. Greenwald, and in fifth grade, with the year-long substitute band director, Mr. Berv. He was one of the famous Berv brothers—Arthur, Jack, and Harry, all French horn players—who had played together in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. I forget who told me that my band director was a very famous musician. It was probably my father, who had several Toscanini/NBC Symphony LPs stacked up next to the old RCA Victrola that was on the floor in a corner of our living room. Which Berv brother was my band director? I don’t know, although a very faint memory tells me it was Jack. He was just Mr. Berv to me. It was he who noticed that under Mr. Greenwald’s watch, I had assembled the trombone backwards, and had played it backwards for a whole year. So it was Mr. Berv who got me straightened out. The only trombone lessons I had through high school (with the exception of two lessons with Allen Ostrander—who was bass trombonist of the new York Philharmonic—in 1972) were group lessons during band period. As it turned out, it was not until 1969 when I entered high school, that I encountered my first trombone hero.

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I was at the home of a friend, a cello player, and she had just purchased a new record. Recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965, it was called First-Chair Encores, and it included solos featuring members of the orchestra. The playing of Gabriel Fauré’s Elegy for cello by the orchestra’s principal cellist, Lorne Monroe, moved me deeply, but as I looked at the record jacket, I noticed that the disc also included a trombone solo. A trombone solo? What was this? The solo was Alexander Guilmant’s Morceau Symphonique, composed for the 1902 Paris Conservatory annual Concours. When Elegy concluded, we flipped the record over and played the trombone track. I was speechless. I had never heard trombone playing like it before. In fact, I had never heard music making like it before. Sound, technique, vibrato, ease of playing, musicality—it was all there.

I was listening to Henry Charles Smith.

And I needed to get that record for myself.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra with Music Director Eugene Ormandy, 1962. Photo courtesy of the family of Keith Brown.

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Detail from the above photo of the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1962, showing the low brass section. Left to right: Keith Brown, associate principal trombone; Henry Charles Smith, principal trombone; Howard Cole, second trombone; Robert Harper, bass trombone; Abe Torchinsky, tuba. 

My mother took me to the Green Acres Mall near our home in Valley Stream, New York. We lived just across the Queens border on Long Island (I grew up in Queens until I was five years old; we then moved to Valley Stream, and in 1970, my father changed jobs and we moved to Oak Ridge, New Jersey). Green Acres had a record store, Sam Goody, and with a few dollars in my hand, I wandered through the stacks, looking for First-Chair EncoresThen I saw it. I pulled it out of the bin and then I froze. There was another record behind it. The record jacket was white with red lettering. The title screamed, HENRY CHARLES SMITH PLAYS TROMBONE, and a drawing of a trombone completed the cover. I held it, then turned it over. It was him, Henry Charles Smith! A photo of  a balding, blonde haired man stared at me from the back cover. The music on the disc was unfamiliar to me: a Prelude by Arcangelo Corelli, a movement of a trombone Concerto by Gordon Jacob, a Sonata by John Davison (“What’s a sonata?, I thought), pieces by Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, George Frideric Handel and others. What WAS this? A trombone SOLO record? I happily parted with my allowance money and waited for my mother to finish her shopping. We headed home with my two new records and the ritual began.

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Readers who remember the long playing record era will find this story familiar. Whenever I got a new LP, the first thing I did was read every word on the front and back cover. Then memorize every word on the front and back cover. Study the artwork, the photos. Then, and only then, did I head to the kitchen for a paring knife. Carefully, I slit the shrink wrap plastic that entombed the disc. Slowly, the knife made its way from top to bottom, and when the edge of the record jacket was finally exposed, I slightly squeezed the jacket with both hands and put my nose to the new opening. That smell of virgin vinyl. It was part of my childhood and the ritual continued into my adult years. There was something about the process of opening a new LP that cannot really be explained except to one who has experienced it as well. Then, carefully, I pulled the record—which was in a paper dust sleeve—out of the jacket and placed it on the turntable.

And Henry Charles Smith sang to me.

As I listened to HENRY CHARLES SMITH PLAYS TROMBONE, I was once again transfixed by his playing. His sound was pure and clear. His legato was seamless, his upper register effortless. Everything he played had a vocal, singing quality to it. I could not do what he did when I put the trombone to my lips. But I had to try. I talked to my band director about my discovery of Henry Charles Smith. “I knew you would find him,” he said. “Do you have his book?” His book? He wrote a BOOK? Yes. It was not long before I purchased a copy of his Solos for the Trombone Player (G. Schirmer, 1963). It was one of the first books of trombone solos with piano that I ever purchased. And this was the best book of all, because many of the pieces inside its covers were recorded on HENRY CHARLES SMITH PLAYS TROMBONE. And also the music to Morceau Symphonique.

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With the music in hand, I could follow along; I could PLAY along. I played the solos in church with my mother, who was a fine pianist and church organist. Later, I played them with my girlfriend—now my wife of 46 years—accompanying me on piano.

In time, I obtained another of Henry Charles Smith’s trombone solo LPs, a volume 2 of HENRY CHARLES SMITH PLAYS TROMBONE which also included a performance of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto—played on BASS trumpet.

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Later, I added a third LP, HENRY CHARLES SMITH PLAYS BARITONE. That disc had several pieces that appeared in another of Henry’s books, First Solos for the Trombone (or Baritone) Player (G. Schirmer, 1973). I played many of those pieces in churches over the years, especially his beautiful arrangement of If With All Your Hearts from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah, which he also recorded on his baritone horn album. His playing was stunning and I imitated all of it. All of it.

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In 1968, Columbia Records released The Virtuoso Brass of Three Great Orchestras Performing the Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli (Columbia Masterworks MS7209). The disc contained 13 tracks of arrangements by Robert King of music of Giovanni Gabrieli. Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony took part in the recording, and there was my hero, Henry Charles Smith, playing on seven of the tracks. When I obtained that recording in 1971, my eyes (and ears) were opened. Little did I know that in a few years, I would be a student at Wheaton College (I graduated from Wheaton in 1976), hearing the Chicago Symphony every week, and studying trombone with its bass trombonist, Edward Kleinhammer.

Later, the LP was reissued on compact disc, paired with recordings with organist E. Power Biggs and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is “American style” brass playing of that time at its best. Solid, brash, sonorous. And Henry Charles Smith was there. Standing right in the middle of the cover photo.

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A few years later, in 1976, Columbia issued Hindemith: The Complete Sonatas for Brass and Piano (Columbia Masterworks M233971). Hindemith’s five brass sonatas (for trumpet, horn, alto horn, trombone, and tuba) have fiendishly difficult piano parts, and the project featured Glenn Gould on piano and brass players of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble. Recorded in January, July, and September 1975, and February 1976, all four soloists had been or were principal players of the Philadelphia Orchestra: Gilbert Johnson was principal trumpet from 1958-1975, Mason Jones was principal horn from 1939-1941 and 1945-1978 (and a member of the horn section from 1938-1939), Henry Charles Smith had been principal trombonist from 1957-1967 (and associate principal trombonist from 1956-1957), and Abe Torchinsky had been tuba from 1949-1972. Henry Charles Smith was never a “muscles” player—his strong set was his lyrical playing—and Gould was clearly the driving and dominant force in the recordings. Despite Gould’s curious tempos for the Trombone Sonata (the first movement is quite slow by normal standards), and Henry Charles Smith’s punchy approach to the Allegro movements (from reports, Gould controlled everything about these sessions, including the style in which the soloists played), the performance holds together, a non-traditional rendition that offers listeners a very different approach to the piece.

Over the years, I followed Henry Charles Smith and his career, and it was a joy when we finally made contact and we got to know each other. We enjoyed many phone calls and emails. I let him know how influential he was on my playing and trombone world-view. Like him, I never aspired to be “a monster” on the trombone. Yes, he and I could both lay waste to the land with our trombones when called for, but we both saw the trombone as an instrument that was unique in its ability to express the poetic beauty of the human voice. It was Henry’s recordings that led me down that path. And we used to laugh at how I kept missing him. I came to Indiana University as a freshman in 1973 (before I transferred to Wheaton College in 1974), shortly after Henry had left IU’s faculty. I was soloist with the South Dakota Symphony a few years after he had left as the orchestra’s music director. And I joined the faculty of Arizona State University after he had left, having been conductor of the University’s orchestra. But we talked about a lot about things, including our shared Christian faith. Henry’s faith was central to his being, and it was reflected in his caring, compassionate way with people, whether they were students or seasoned professionals.

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Henry Charles Smith conducting. Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Henry’s career was remarkable. Born in 1931, he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1956 at the age of 23; he stayed until 1967 and played over 2000 concerts with the orchestra. He began his conducting career with the Rochester (Minnesota) Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Band from 1967-68 before going to Indiana University from 1968-1971 as professor of trombone. He always loved the trombone, but it was as a conductor that he reached even more people. He was Resident Conductor (and sometime trombonist) with the Minnesota Orchestra 1971-1988, conductor of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) orchestra from 1976-1978, conductor at University of Texas, Austin from 1987-1988, and at Arizona State University from 1989-1993. For 15 years, from 1981-1996, he was music director of the World Youth Symphony at the National Music Camp at Interlochen from 1981-1996, and music director of the South Dakota Symphony from 1989-2001. Think of the lives he touched.

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In 2013, Potenza Music released Henry’s three trombone and baritone horn solo recordings on compact disc so a new generation of trombonists could hear his artistry.

At that time, Potenza asked Henry who he would like to write a few words about him to include in the CD packaging. Henry suggested me. I was so honored by his request, and so grateful for the opportunity to write something not just about Henry Charles Smith the player, but Henry Charles Smith the man. Here’s what I wrote:

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If you are a trombonist or euphonium player—heck, even if you’re NOT a trombone or euphonium player—please consider adding this exceptional recording to your collection. Potenza Music sells it for $18.95—for all three compact discs. For the cost of a few cups of coffee, you will have in your hands three outstanding recordings of one of the most remarkable artists to have ever played the trombone and baritone. And bass trumpet.

Earlier this year, Henry celebrated his 90th birthday. The coronavirus pandemic kept me from attending, but I sent him a congratulatory note, in which I reminded him (and those assembled at the party) of his influence on me. Here’s what I wrote:

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In an obituary of Henry Charles Smith that appeared earlier this week, Bill McGlaughlin said,

At a time when brass players had a reputation for being the tough guys of the orchestra, Henry eschewed bravado. He was always a very gentle gentleman. In fact, he was a natural, both in life and as a musician.

McGlaughlin was right. Henry Charles Smith was a gentleman. Now that he has gone from this world to the next he is with the Savior he loved so dearly. Tomorrow, at our weekly trombone studio class at Wheaton College where I am the College’s trombone professor, we will spend the class listening to recordings by Henry. My students need to know about him, and we will pay tribute this remarkable man. We mourn the fact that Henry no longer walks among us, but his memory lives in the lives he touched, including mine. Thank you, Henry Charles Smith III.