Harry Smith, 1927-2003

This is a revised and expanded version, with more personal content from Neville Young and others, of the obituary online on the International Trumpet Guild website and published in the March 2004 ITG Journal.

Harry Smith portrait
Harry Smith
Harry soloing with band
 
Harry soloing with band
Early days in London
Working with students in St Lucia
Working with students in St Lucia: Barbara Cadet on sax.

The English trumpet player and teacher Harry Smith died on 1st September 2003 aged 76 in Vieuxfort, St Lucia, West Indies.

Born in Bristol in 1927, Harry took up the trumpet at an early age and quickly matured as a player with an exceptional musical ear. As a teenager, Harry's National Service gave him a valuable musical grounding during spells in Yemen and Palestine and soon afterwards he enjoyed early success as a jazz and dance-band player, including a spell as a member of the prize-winning 'Blue Rockets' band, the successor to the wartime Royal Army Ordnance Corps band of the same name. He freelanced in London through the 50s and 60s as lead trumpet and worked with many high-profile artists of the day including Matt Munro and notably on Buddy Holly and the Crickets' only UK tour in 1958. He is prominent on the sound track of at least one British film of this period. Although I remember seeing one film he had played in - some sort of crime caper - and being impressed with Harry's very busy playing in the frenetic small-band score, it seems that the name of that film is now sadly lost.

Throughout the 60s, Harry worked tirelessly as a trumpet player in both classical and jazz idioms, at the same time honing his skills as a big-band arranger. He eventually decided to pursue a more academic musical career and in 1967 moved with his young family to Bristol where, as a mature student, he ambitiously embarked on a BA Honours degree course in Music. From the University of Bristol, ex-trumpet player Dr Alan Rump writes:

I got to know 'H' when we were both members of the University of Bristol Music Department at the beginning of the 1970s. In a sense, he was a student out of time - his skills in jazz, arrangement and orchestration would be much more highly valued now than they were then. His ability to compose attractive melodies and rhythms in a straightforwardly tonal idiom would also have been more welcome in our 'post-modernist' world; I had the pleasure of giving the première (at St George's Brandon Hill) of a piece he wrote for trumpet and chamber orchestra. As I was financing my way through a second degree, he was kind enough to put a good deal of theatre work my way; mind you, deputizing for Harry could be an adventure, since his musical memory was so assured, if he marked a part at all (which was very seldom) it was in some kind of vestigial hieroglyph!

Harry continued to do regular gigs to sustain the family through those years and established a busy private practice as a brass teacher at his home in Bristol. Many trumpet players still active in Bristol and further afield will remember their lessons in classrooms all over the city or in that warm, busy front room in Florence Park, overflowing with music and instruments. Upon graduating he became a key peripatetic brass teacher in the service of Bristol Corporation and its successor education authority, the County of Avon.

Harry's performing career also continued after graduation and he was the first trumpet of choice for a surprisingly wide range of jobs: there are very few venues in the area and the neighbouring towns and countryside that have not resounded to Harry's powerful sound. Although many instruments passed through his hands he was not obsessed with equipment and his favourite trumpet in this period was an Olds Ambassador which he praised for its tone and build quality, discarding the "student instrument" tag. Later he also used a Selmer Paris G piccolo for Baroque parts.

Harry's playing was characterized by its effortless range and flexibility. I remember sitting next to him playing wonderful exciting jazz choruses in Too Darn Hot and thinking, "How does he do that?" and then another night having just the same thought as he soared above the choir in the B Minor Mass. Harry's playing was serious but he liked to affect a nonchalant attitude towards it: there are a wealth of anecdotes concerning Harry's ability to fill in crossword clues one-handed in pit orchestras while playing sizzling top Zs with the other, a trick which could disconcert visitors.

Veteran jazz trombonist John Berry writes:

I worked in many bands with Harry: at his best he was a secure and sparkling lead trumpet with an enviable sense of style and interpretation. He made the most mundane of backing scores and pantomime jingles interesting and (almost) fun to play. His jazz was a fine blend of introspective phrases and adventurous 'taking a chance' constructs. He was a bloody good player.

Throughout this time, Harry's main delight was exciting and innovative big band music, and for several years through the 70's Harry's regular 'rehearsal' band occasionally performed concerts in the West Country as the 'Hal Smith Orchestra'. This band played interesting 'symphonic' big-band music in a style probably best exemplified by the Sauter-Finnegan big band, with a distinct flavour of woodwind and tuned percussion added to the more usual lineup. Many of the band's arrangements were either originals by Harry or painstakingly transcribed from his huge collection of LPs. The arrangements included Kenton and Ellington classics, Sauter-Finnegan tunes, and several inspired by the Jerry Fielding LP 'Near East Brass - West Coast Style'.

In the mid-1970s Harry established a small recording company which later produced some notable high quality recordings for a small audiophile record label, Auracle Records. At the same time Harry's business was one of the first to produce 'teachatapes' of Associated Board examination pieces for a wide range of instruments. Many candles were burnt at both ends during both the recording and editing stages of the tapes for these projects which of course required updating with every annual syllabus!

To people who did not know him well Harry could seem quiet, laconic; sometimes to the point of dourness. However this concealed a warm and complex personality who had a huge repertoire of funny and fascinating tales of the old days, and who took great pride in his own children and in his many pupils, whilst tending to understate his own accomplishments.

People who knew and loved Harry will remember that his search for happiness and financial security was not always uncomplicatedly successful. He pursued many differing goals and many of us will recall some of these working out to greater or lesser extents... But of course the objective which defined a large part of his later life was to escape England to somewhere hot and sunny and this he achieved most thoroughly - though perhaps not without surprising or even dismaying a number of people.

In the early 1980s Harry took a scuba-diving holiday in St Lucia, fell in love with the place and people, and quickly decided to settle there in pursuit of good weather and swimming. Once he had established a base he became involved in introducing a more formal approach to the teaching of music on the island, and was instrumental in the founding of the St Lucia School of Music. He continued to teach both trumpet and music theory and brought his expertise to bear on a whole new group of students. Among these is the prominent jazz steel-pan exponent, Allison Marquis, who now features in festival and concert programmes throughout the Caribbean.

In the last 10 years Harry trained as a Piano Technician and was one of a very few in St Lucia maintaining the pianos of the island. Harry also continued to develop his woodworking skills and designed and built a multi-position 'back-friendly' wooden relaxer chair. These were sold to many prominent people on the island and to several of the local hotel chains.

After a lifetime of British weather Harry made the most of the St Lucian climate and the surrounding seas and kept himself fit and healthy, swimming almost every day until earlier this year when he suffered a broken collarbone.

Harry's wife Joan died in 1990. He leaves two children and three grandchildren.

By Neville Young, with additional material and editing by Jules Smith;
thanks to John Berry, Alan Rump and Corinne Smith


Note:

Inevitably this page will come as a shock to some old friends, pupils and colleagues who had not yet heard of Harry's death, and I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news like this. He really was a terrific bloke.

If you would like to get in touch, talk about H, or offer more information, stories or pictures for this page, please do email me: I would love to hear from you. Here's a link to the details of how to contact me at my personal address. You can also look me up in the (UK) Musicians' Union directory


Links:

Neville Young's home page
Neville Young's trumpet page

International Trumpet Guild
ITG Harry Smith obituary

Last revision: March 26, 2008