Gary Smulyan plays the baritone saxophone, an instrument oft maligned by both fans and even fellow musicians for its unique range. Like the tuba, the baritone saxophone handles the lower register in all sorts of ensembles, rarely occupying the front line.
But for Smulyan, a perennial poll winner on his instrument and veteran of numerous acclaimed large ensembles, the instrument is truly a matter of pride. Perhaps that contributed to his getting together with his brothers and sisters of the baritone to create an organization, aptly named Low Blow Music (get it?). The organization’s name could have also represented all the dumb jokes and insults they have had to endure about their chosen instrument. Like this one: How do you keep your guitar from being stolen? Put it in a baritone saxophone case.
Smulyan says that the germ of the idea for the organization came from wanting to showcase his peers on the instrument. “It originally started last year as a series of concerts over the course of ten weeks,” he says. “Every baritone saxophone player would lead a band every Friday and Saturday night at the studio of John Ledbetter who’s a great saxophone repair man and has a beautiful place in midtown New York that holds about 75 seats. The idea was to present a 10-week series of the baritone saxophone. Everything was all booked and we were all set to go and then Omicron hit and everything had to be cancelled.
That forced Smulyan and his suddenly energized compatriots to regroup and consider another approach, relying on an online environment. “We had this idea of doing this as a website where you could sell memberships and do some streaming and create a more formalized organization strategy,” he explains. Thus was LowBlowMusic.com created, as Smulyan says, “as a grassroots organization that is dedicated to the promotion and advancement of the instrument and to helping the practitioners who play the baritone saxophone across all musical genres.”
The founding members of Low Blow Music are a sextet of Smulyan, Claire Daly, Jason Marshall, Brian Landrus, Frank Basile and Andrew Hadro. Although all are well known for their jazz bona fides, the organization is meant to cross all genres. “We’re all jazz baritone players, but we’re not jazz snobs in terms of what this organization wants to do,” Smulyan says. “We want to promote classical music, world music, soul, funk and electronic, whoever’s playing the baritone saxophone in a serious way, no matter what the idiom, we’d like to help promote those events. The idea of this is to help people funnel in and get some publicity behind gigs.”
Another item on the organization’s agenda is to promote the instrument to younger people, something that already seemed to be in motion. “It’s really heartening to see that on college campuses and high schools there are young musicians taking up the baritone saxophone,” Smulyan explains. “It used to be not that way. It used to be that in a big band or stage band in college, very often the baritone player would be a tenor or alto player who kind of didn’t cut the mustard to be in the band, so they had to play the baritone. But that’s really not the case so much anymore. A lot of these schools now have dedicated baritone players. And that’s one of the things we’d really like to do as an organization is to help launch careers and give exposure to young baritone players who are just starting out on their career path. I think we could be really helpful.”
The organization is kicking off its creation with an event that might more closely resemble a telethon than a concert. On Saturday, October 8, Low Blow Music will present a showcase of many of its noted practitioners in a series of shows at Ornithology in Brooklyn, beginning at 12 noon with a duo, yes, duo performance by Smulyan himself leading to 11 more performances by his colleagues.
The date of the launch event at Ornithology beautifully coincides with the birthday of Pepper Adams, a legendary practitioner of the baritone, both as a sideman with Charles Mingus and Thad Jones, and as a leader on his own. Smulyan says that Adams’ influence looms large amongst his peers on the NYC scene. “Pepper Adams was the major voice in post-modern, post bebop jazz baritone saxophone,” he says. “He had everything that a great improviser has: an identifiable sound; a strong sense of swing; great sense of harmony; great time; a wicked sense of humor when he played. He stylistically opened a direction up to play that way on the baritone. He went in a different direction than a Gerry Mulligan. It’s simplistic to say, but Gerry was more of the cool, melodic and lyrical player, whereas Pepper was just ‘go for the jugular’ and really hard playing. Pepper really set the bar for post-bop and he was unusually important for this instrument.”