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Paul Smoker

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A compelling yet undersung avant-garde trumpeter, Smoker was a master of the instrument's expressive possibilities -- the growls, wahs, and other tonal manipulations that have come to define its use in jazz. Smoker's playing was not unduly effects-laden, however; he possessed a well-developed conventional technique as well. Smoker was raised in Davenport, Iowa, hometown to another jazz trumpeter of some distinction, Bix Beiderbecke. Like Bix, Smoker made his way to Chicago to play jazz; in the '60s he played in various groups, including a big band led by Bobby Christian. Smoker studied both jazz and classical music in his youth. He earned a doctorate in music from the University of Iowa in 1974. Smoker spent a great deal of time teaching at Coe College in Iowa (from 1976 to 1990) and also the University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Even while based in the Midwest, Smoker managed to attain a measure of notice; during the '80s he recorded several albums for the Sound Aspects and Hat Art labels with a trio that included bassist Ron Rohovit and drummer Phil Haynes. Smoker also participated in various projects initiated by Anthony Braxton during the '80s and '90s, and played as sideman on albums by drummer Gregg Bendian, percussionist Damon Short, saxophonist Randy McKean, and Haynes, among others. With Haynes, bassist Drew Gress, and saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, Smoker formed Joint Venture, a cooperative quartet that released three albums on Enja in the late '80s and early '90s. In the mid- to late '90s, Smoker began recording for the C.I.M.P. label, leading dates that included such musicians as multi-reedist Vinny Golia, bassist Ken Filiano, guitarist Steve Salerno, and Haynes. Apart from his jazz work, Smoker played a great deal of contemporary classical music; he was a member of the University of Iowa Center for New Music, the Iowa Brass Quintet, and the new music ensemble SOMA. Based in upstate New York beginning in the early '90s, Smoker worked as director of jazz studies at Nazareth College, dividing his time between teaching privately and performing. He also continued to appear on albums, releasing Duocity in Brass & Wood in 2003 and joining guitarist Dom Minasi on The Vampire's Revenge in 2006. In his later years, Smoker suffered health issues, including having a heart attack in 2001 and receiving a Left Ventricle Assist Device (or LVAD) in 2009 to help his heart pump blood. He died in his sleep on May 14, 2016 at his home near Rochester, New York. He was 75. ~ Chris Kelsey


1941 in Muncie, IN

Years Active:

'60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s