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[whitespace] Smith Dobson Smith Dobson, 1947-2001

Pianist Smith Dobson was a key figure in San Jose music world

By Michael S. Gant


Work long enough at a newspaper, and it's easy to tell who's truly an essential part of a community. Their names appear again and again, in stories, in calendar blurbs, on press releases--their photos form a timeline in the archives. In the world of San Jose jazz, no one's name showed up more often than pianist Smith Dobson's.

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.

His passing has hit the local jazz community hard. Henry Schiro, general director of the San Jose Jazz Society, who knew Dobson for 25 years, said, "I just can't believe he's gone" and called him "the nicest man I ever met." Schiro went on to single out Dobson for his devotion to his family. "He was a tender family man, very devoted to his children, very devoted to his wife." Dobson often performed with his wife, vocalist Gail, daughter Sasha, and son, Smith Jr., as the Dobson Family Band.

"We have lost an icon. He will be thoroughly missed," said Mountain View-based jazz pianist Will Nichols, who met Dobson in 1978. Nichols went on to emphasis how much Dobson did to encourage every musician he met. "He always had good words to say; he was always running the set and making you feel comfortable. This is a heavy blow to the South Bay jazz scene."

Dobson was an integral part of the jazz scene throughout Northern California. He and Gail performed in 1977 on the opening weekend at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. Starting in 1981, Dobson organized the long-running Jazz Series at Garden City in San Jose, booking and performing with most of the top jazz players in the country. Sammy Cohen, who helped found the San Jose Jazz Society in the 1980s, recalled, "Smith was the first person I called about the Jazz Society."

A frequent performer at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Dobson was honored at last year's edition of the famous jazz event. He also participated in the San Francisco jazz scene. "He was invovled in most of our 18-year-history as part of groups and leading groups," recalled Randall Kline, executive director of SFJAZZ, the group that presents the San Francisco Jazz Festival. "Apart from being a great musician, he was a great guy, an angel of a person."

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 with 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."

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.

"His music was a lot like him," said Tim Jackson of Kuumbwa. "There was a lot of humanity in his music. He was like that off the bandstand as well. He was extremely encouraging to all musicians. More than the notes, it was the feeling he generated on the bandstand."

Summing up Dobson's place in the life of the South Bay, Cohen said simply, "He is irreplaceable."

A memorial service for Smith Dobson is planned for Thursday (April 26) at 1pm at Oakwood Memorial Chapel, 3301 Paul Sweet Road, Santa Cruz. On May 8, the San Jose Jazz Society will hold a memorial celebration of Smith's life on May 8 at 7pm at Club Ibex, 55 S. Market St., San Jose. Call 408.288.7557 for details.

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From the April 26-May 2, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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