Professor Smulyan Never Misses a Beat

By Marcia Hunt

Smulyan during a performance (via garysmulyan.com)


Gary Smulyan is a multi-talented and renowned baritone saxophonist. He’s also a saxophone professor at SUNY Purchase.


Interestingly, his musical journey started on alto saxophone in Long Island when he was a teenager. He never planned on picking up the baritone sax.


“I was an alto saxophonist, and I had no inkling about playing the baritone saxophone at all,” he revealed. “I was on a strong, one directional path to being a jazz alto saxophonist. [Alto saxophone legend] Phil Woods was my absolute hero. I wore a leather hat like him, and I had a leather [neck strap] like him. I held the saxophone that had the mouthpiece titled just like him. That's the direction I was going.”

Alto Saxophonist Phil Woods performing with his signature leather hat and his horn titled. (via philwoods.com)


However, in his senior year of college at Hofstra University, a simple phone call changed his direction for good.


Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd, a famous jazz band, was losing long-time band member Bruce Johnstone, who played baritone saxophone. Herman was offering Smulyan the chair. Although he had no baritone experience, Smulyan said yes.


“I didn’t own a baritone and I didn’t own a mouthpiece, but I figured it was an opportunity that wasn’t going to present itself again,” Smulyan said.

Within two weeks, he was on a train to Bridgeport, Connecticut with a Yamaha student model baritone saxophone, a stock mouthpiece, a couple of boxes of reeds, and his ambition.


One of the biggest challenges he faced was memorizing the pieces “Four Brothers” and “Early Autumn,” both of which were written by Herman and were staples of the band. Performances called for the saxophone section to step in front of the band, solo, and play their parts from memory.


“Bruce Johnstone is one of the all-time greats of the instrument so to try and step into his shoes and play that music, especially with no experience, was nerve wracking to say the least,” he said.


Although the baritone is larger than the alto saxophone, the technique is the same. This means that he was able to use the same fingerings for the same notes on both instruments. But there’s more to playing an instrument than slapping down the keys.

The conventional range of jazz band saxophones, featuring Fredonia saxophone quartet Astralis. From left to right; Jared Russell, alto; Christopher Mantell, tenor; Michelle Sanchez, soprano; and Timothy Bartoldus, baritone. (via Timothy Bartoldus)


“The first six months I really spent a long time trying to get inside the sound of the instrument. I wound up staying [with the band] for two years and that was the end of my alto sax playing,” he said. “Who knew that all this crazy stuff would happen because of my decision to play?”


Because of a phone call, Smulyan has won six Grammy Awards, collaborated with jazz greats like Chick Corea and Ray Charles, and has established his spot in the lineage of great baritone saxophonists.


“I remember the first time I heard you. And then I would go hear [jazz legend] Mel Lewis and I’d be like ‘it’s him again!’” said music professor Dr. David Demsey in an interview with Smulyan.

Smulyan performing onstage. (via BTW Photographers and garysmulyan.com)


“Gary is one of the great voices on the instrument in the history of [jazz] music and it’s just by chance,” said Mark Masters, Smulyan’s colleague. The two have worked together for over 20 years and released several albums, the most recent being “Night Talk: the Alec Wilder Songbook.”


At Purchase, Smulyan uses this experience as well as the many others he’s had in his long career, to teach and inspire the next generation of jazz saxophonists.


“We musicians are curiosity driven,” he explained. “An important character trait to develop as a musician is this implicit sense of being curious about things. If something happens to you, if you get an opportunity outside of your comfort zone, go for it, because you never know what's going to happen.”


About the Author:

Marcia Hunt is a junior journalism major with a sociology minor. She has just transferred to Purchase College this semester. As a former flute performance major, she has an extensive background in music, so she looks forward to immersing herself in Purchase’s music scene. Her favorite genres of music are alternative rock and indie pop.