Here is the story I wrote following an interview with Smith Dobson. It occurred just three months before his 2001 death.
Smith Dobson will go just about anywhere to find an appreciative audience. That quest has all but defined the jazz pianist’s adult life. It led him to depart Stockton for San Francisco while he still was in his teens and, later, to establish San Jose’s longest-running jazz concert series. Dobson’s search reached a climax of sorts this month when he joined vibraphone player Bobby Hutcherson for a nine-day tour of Japan.
”Playing in Japan to a musician is like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” Dobson, 53, said from his home in Santa Cruz. ”Audiences are not only intensely interested and listen quietly, but they are very well informed. There’s such a high level of sophistication and respect for the music.
”They are careful not to applaud after each solo so they don’t effect the concentration of the artists. On a beautiful ballad, they would wait for the end of the tune and just go nuts. They didn’t want to spoil the mood.”
Dobson doesn’t expect quite that level of audience concentration when he performs tonight at Hutchins Street Square in Lodi. He’ll be joined by Smith Dobson Jr. (vibes), John Wiitala (bass) and Vince Lateano (drums) for the Night Time Live appearance.
Still, the Lodi series is particularly appealing to Dobson. It not only offers him the chance to perform before family and friends, but to do so in an intimate environment.
”I can’t stand jazz situations where you try and go see jazz in a football stadium,” he said. ”You have to see jazz in a 200 maximum-capacity club. You really have to be physically close to the music. That’s how to hear jazz music.”
The Night Time Live format harkens back to jazz’s nightclub roots. It’s a history millions of Americans are absorbing through Ken Burns’ current PBS documentary series (“Jazz”).
”I’m thrilled, I couldn’t be happier,” Dobson said of the 10-part series. ”He is probably going to do more to further the public’s interest in jazz music than anyone who’s come along in the past 10 or 15 years. This is a wonderful thing.”
As for the critics who harp on the series’ supposed shortcomings, ”I couldn’t care less,” Dobson said. ”Those are people who are already aware of jazz. My point is that a truck driver who doesn’t know what jazz is is going to be exposed to it. Or someone who thought jazz was esoteric is going to see jazz isn’t esoteric at all. The fact the common person is going to be exposed to the music is the point.”
Dobson required no such introduction. He was surrounded by jazz from birth.
His father, Smith Dobson III, an accomplished pianist and accordion player, was among the busiest jazz musicians in post-war Stockton. His mother, Norma, was featured on local radio in her youth and later sang with her husband’s groups.
”My dad is a great musician and one of the hardest-swinging jazz players I have ever been exposed to,” Dobson said. ”My first performance was singing with the band when they couldn’t get a babysitter.”
Jazz was a scarce commodity, however, by the time Dobson graduated from Stockton’s Stagg High School in 1964. He realized pursuing his dream meant leaving town.
”I went to San Francisco State, which was a real education for me,” Dobson said. ”Standing outside hearing John Coltrane at the Jazz Workshop. And the great local players who you will never hear about or read about. I was overwhelmed. That was definitely it.”
Dobson later enrolled briefly at University of the Pacific but couldn’t afford the tuition. He worked the Nevada casino circuit for a time before entering the Air Force in 1967. At the height of the Vietnam War, Dobson was assigned to the Airmen of Note, the service’s official White House jazz band. That enabled Dobson to sharpen his skills and perform with jazzmen Joe Pass, Clark Terry and Joe Williams. He came West afterward, and played with everyone from Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard to Joe Henderson and Art Pepper.
In 1981, Dobson established a jazz series at San Jose’s Garden City Restaurant. For nearly two decades he hosted the giants of jazz – Stan Getz, Red Holloway, Toots Thielmans, Sonny Stitt and McCoy Tyner among them.
Throughout its run, Dobson also fronted a variety of trios, quartets and quintets, became a staple at the Monterey Jazz Festival and taught at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Dobson has released three albums – ”Smithzonian” (1986), ”Live At Garden City” (1988) and ”Sasha Bossa” (1988) – and is on faculty at University of California, Santa Cruz.
Just as in his Stockton youth, jazz remains a family affair for Dobson. He has recorded with wife Gail who, like daughter Sasha, is a vocalist. Then there’s son and bandmate Smith Dobson Jr.
”The joy of playing with your child is, hopefully, they learn from you,” Dobson said. ”But I learn from him all the time. His playing eclipses mine, easily, and it should. The student should always be better than the teacher.
”Gail and I did our best to get our kids in totally different directions because we know how tough this business is. But they both exhibited a complete and total consuming interest in this at a really ridiculous age.
”So one side, yes, it’s confirmation and it’s gratifying. But as parents, it’s terrifying. It’s like, ‘How are they going to survive?’ You have to have a great deal of faith.”
Dobson maintains his faith in jazz and his quest to perform before audiences that know and appreciate the music. It helps that he lives near just such a venue, Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
”It’s magnificent,” Dobson said. ”It’s small. There are no line-of-sight hindrances. The sound system is perfect and so is the piano, which I had a hand in helping pick out. ”And the people who go there, they know to be respectful of this music. Kuumbwa is like playing in Japan.”