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[whitespace] Smith Dobson Smith Dobson, 1947-2001

Pianist Smith Dobson was a key figure in local music world

By Michael S. Gant


WORK LONG ENOUGH at a newspaper, and it's easy to tell who's truly an integral, essential part of a community. Their names appear over and over again, in stories, in calendar blurbs, on press releases--their photos start to form a timeline in the archives. In the world of Santa Cruz jazz, no one name showed up more often than pianist Smith Dobson's.

Whenever a visiting jazz great came to a Monday-night show at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, more likely than not, Smith Dobson was the pianist of choice. "He was always our first-call guy for the rhythm section," says Tim Jackson, director of Santa Cruz's Kuumbwa Jazz Center and general manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Smith was a regular at both venues for many years and was honored at last year's Monterey Festival. He also frequently performed with his wife, vocalist Gail, daughter, Sasha, and son, Smith Jr., as the Dobson Family Band, often in the most accessible places--I once remember seeing them on a sunny afternoon in the courtyard at the Aptos Center. His love of music led him into teaching as well--he was one of the founders of the San Jose Summer Jazz Camp and an instructor at UCSC. Smith Dobson was indispensable to our musical lives.

And so it was deeply shocking to learn that Dobson had died in a solo car crash last Friday on Highway 85. Characteristically, the tireless musician was returning to his home in Santa Cruz from a gig over the hill. He was 54.

Jackson recalls that Smith and Gail Dobson performed on the opening weekend at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in 1977 and shortly thereafter relocated to Santa Cruz, which meant "that someone special, someone of his caliber, was moving into the area." In addition to his innumerable appearances at Kuumbwa, Dobson also organized the Jazz Series at the Garden City club, a program that brought Kuumbwa-style concerts to the San Jose Area from 1981 until the late 1990s.

Smith Dobson was born in Stockton, Calif. His mother was a jazz vocalist, and his father played both the piano and the accordion. In an interview last year with Metro Santa Cruz, Dobson recalled, "I was learning about harmony even before I could talk, singing along with my mother. My real love and interest has always been harmony and how it moves around. The first time I heard some good bebop, must have been Charlie Parker. I was around 7 or 8, and it just took my head off."

In the late '60s, Dobson performed with the Airmen of Note, an Air Force jazz outfit that recorded with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Joe Pass, Clark Terry and Joe Williams among others. Over the years, Dobson provided rhythm support for a host of jazz stars, such as Stan Getz, Herb Ellis, Red Holloway, Toots Thielmans, Joe Henderson and, most notably, Bobby Hutcherson, with whom Dobson collaborated for 11 years.

"His music was a lot like him," Jackson says. "There was a lot of humanity in his music. He had a way of reaching people. He was like that off the bandstand as well. He was extremely encouraging to all musicians. It really comes down to that humanity that he had. More than the notes, it was the feeling he generated on the bandstand."

Dobson passing is already having a profound effect on the local musical scene. Big-band leader and jazz educator Ray Brown of Cabrillo College, who frequently performed with Dobson, says, "I lost my best friend and my favorite musician to play with. As a person he always had the brightest outlook about everything, especially when he sat down behind the piano."

A memorial service for Smith Dobson is planned for Thursday (April 26) at 1pm at Oakwood Memorial Chapel, 3301 Paul Sweet Road, Santa Cruz.

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From the April 25-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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