Readers will recall that Robert Farnon has dedicated
his final work the Bassoon Concerto "Romancing
the Phoenix" - to Daniel Smith, the eminent American
virtuoso on the instrument. Recently Daniel gave this exclusive
interview to Journal Into Melody, in which he
talked about his career and meeting Robert Farnon.
interviewed by David Ades
DAVID: Daniel, let's start with how your career in
DANIEL: I grew up in a family where there was not
any musical background. The reason for my taking up music
makes for a rather funny story. I grew up in the Bronx,
and when I was sixteen years old, happened to see a show
on TV which reunited the original Benny Goodman trio in
a New Year's eve special. Seeing Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa
and Teddy Wilson was a magical moment which changed my life
forever. I knew absolutely nothing about music or instruments
and watching them perform left me staring at the screen
with these amazing sounds coming from them, and especially
Shortly after seeing this show, I l went to a music studio
where my cousin was studying drums and told the owner that
I wanted to take trumpet lessons. He asked me why I wanted
to play the trumpet and I told him that I had seen someone
on TV play the trumpet and that I really liked the sound
of it. 'What was this person's name' he asked me? 'Benny
Goodman' I said. ' And what did his trumpet look like' he
further inquired? I said it was long and black. He then
of course told me that it was a clarinet. That's how naive
I was! So it was actually Benny Goodman who inspired me
to want to be a musician.
Prior to this I was studying to be an artist and went to
a special Arts High School in Manhattan as well as the Arts
Student's League. I had always had this artistic bent in
me since I was a small child. No one in my immediate family
or any of my relatives had such a trait, so I guess it just
came sort of out of nowhere. As the saying goes, 'I did
not choose it, it chose me'.
My first lessons were on the clarinet with a somewhat inept
teacher. I then switched to Bill Sheiner, whose teaching
fame was that he taught Stan Getz and other famous artists.
I then took up the saxophone with him after the clarinet
and also added on flute. Eventually I entered the Manhattan
School of Music as a clarinet major and midway through,
switched to being a flute major and eventually got my degree
from them on flute.
DAVID: Where does the bassoon come in?
DANIEL: These were the later years of the Vietnam
War and of course I had to do whatever I could to avoid
getting caught up in this- or else run to Canada. Being
now of draft age, I chose the best way out by signing up
to perform with the West Point Band to fulfil my draft obligation.
I auditioned for them on flute and was appointed solo piccolo
and flute in what is called 'Special Services' and with
the rank of SP5 for a three year tour of duty. Meanwhile,
my wife had given birth to my daughter while I was in the
service and I was nervous about making a living after I
returned to civilian life. I thought it would be prudent
to learn a double reed instrument to compliment my already
proven skills on saxophone, clarinet and flute. This so
I could then have the ability to be a 'doubler' and be able
to perform in Broadway show bands and studio work. So this
is how I got involved with the bassoon and at this point,
had nothing to do with the idea of being a bassoon soloist,
just to help make a living.
DAVID: So you were always employed as a musician
one way or the other?
DANIEL: More or less. My parents had hopes of my
being an accountant or a dentist like a cousin of mine.
My father especially fought tooth and nail that I should
not be a musician and I had absolutely no support or understanding
from them. It was very traumatic and a very difficult period
in my life, but obviously there was something within me
that held firm and somehow held onto my desire to be a musician.
I always envied anyone who came from a family where there
was understanding and support. Recently, before his death,
Robert Farnon told me of the joy he had coming from such
a family where music was an important part of everyone's
DAVID: It made you all the more determined to become
DANIEL: Yes, you are correct. My father had worked
in the Post Office and I watched the sort of life he had,
and by the time of his retirement, he was a very closed
person full of fears about life. His advice to me was to
never take risks. So I knew instinctively that this was
not for me, a safe and secure life where no risks were involved.
Music became my calling, and as I said before, I did not
chose it, it chose me.
My later background in music is so different from that
of a conservatory trained classical bassoonist, although
I did study eventually with some of the best players and
teachers, including the principal players from the NY Philharmonic,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Boston Symphony and even from
Toscannini's NBC symphony. In later years I performed in
the bassoon sections as an extra or substitute with the
NY Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and several
other leading ensembles with some of these very same teachers.
However, along the way, I also did many things in music
that a strictly classically trained bassoonist would never
experience and certainly not which you would associate with
someone known as a solo classical or jazz bassoonist. For
instance, I played saxophone and flute with Latin bands
in New York at clubs where we would be in very dangerous
neighbourhoods. These 'gigs' would go to two or three in
the morning and I witnessed riots, knife fights, beatings,
attempts on my own life, etc... nasty stuff but part and
parcel of my musical experiences.
DAVID: There are not many bassoon players around;
is this why you took up the instrument as you knew there
would be plenty of work?
DANIEL: Yes, exactly and we sort of covered this
earlier. But this had nothing to do with my eventually becoming
a soloist on the instrument. At first, it was purely pragmatic,
to make a living so I could support my family. As the years
went by, and for various reasons, it evolved into a strong
desire to become a soloist and also to plunge into areas
of music where the bassoon had never gone before- crossover,
ragtime, popular music, and of course jazz. And along the
way to record a lot of musical gems written for the instrument,
especially the complete 37 bassoon concertos of Antonio
DAVID: Tell us of your time on Broadway.
DANIEL: I can answer this in a 'broad way' in fact.
I was at one point doing so many different things in music
and on so many different instruments, that I would almost
say I was going through multiple musical lives. I played
in Broadway show bands, off-Broadway show bands, Latin bands,
resort show bands (where I played lead alto for big headliners
such as Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, Billy Eckstine, Billy
Daniels, Buddy Greco, Carmen Macrae, etc.) ...I was a very
good sax player on all the saxes as well as the other woodwinds.
I played with such bands as Billy May, Les Elgart, and even
one summer with Guy Lombardo where I had to execute that
outrageous wide vibrato to fit in with his sax section.
Then a Latin band phase where I played with or opposite
on the bandstand with the likes of Tito Rodriguez, Tito
Puente, Xavier Cugat, Machito and others. A lot of this
sort of stuff was overlapping such as where I would perform
as principal flute with an orchestra north of New York city,
jump into my car, and drive to Manhattan where I would dash
into a night club to perform that same night with a Latin
band on saxophone.
As my bassoon playing started to improve, I kept on taking
lessons with those teachers I referred to earlier and was
granted a scholarship to Tanglewood. I also spent four seasons
on scholarship with the National Orchestral Association
under Leon Barzin. And then started to perform on bassoon
and contra-bassoon with a lot of orchestras and ensembles.
So as you can see, I wound up for a variety of reasons doing
a lot of different things in music, including and excluding
DAVID: So most of your work was in New York in the
DANIEL: Yes, I did not go to California or Hollywood,
just around New York. Somewhere along the way, I was starting
to get this desire to become a solo bassoonist and started
to perform concertos with various orchestras. I also had
the good fortune of performing for ten years as principal
bassoonist and as soloist many times during summers in Rome,
Italy with the Rome Festival Orchestra. And then I started
to plunge in with making my early recordings- mostly concertos
with string ensembles on a variety of labels. My biggest
break then came when on a trip to London with my wife; we
were at a friend's home in Richmond where the subject of
my recordings and musical career came up. This couple were
close friends with Jose Luis Garcia, leader of the English
Chamber Orchestra, and they asked me if I would like to
record with them. I thought I was dreaming but she was obviously
serious. She picked up the phone and rang Garcia. We spoke
for a while and he instructed me to send him some of those
recordings I had already made so the powers that be at the
ECO could hear them and judge if I was up to recording with
them. They liked what they heard and before I knew it, I
was sitting in a chair at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead
with the ECO and recording an album of mixed bassoon concertos.
I also at that time made an album of English Music for Bassoon
and Piano with Roger Vignoles, so my foot was now in the
door with recording in this country.
At the suggestion of the producer of these two albums,
Brian Culverhouse, I took the masters to ASV which had recently
started up thanks to the leadership of Jack Boyce. I got
to know Jack very well and he was keen on my doing further
albums for ASV. When I mentioned to him that Antonio Vivaldi
had written 37 concertos for bassoon and nobody had ever
recorded them all, he said to me 'why don't you do them
for us?' I thought he was kidding but he was quite serious
about this. It was a huge undertaking, and over a period
of six years, half accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra
and the other half with the Zagreb Soloists, we eventually
completed the entire series which went on to win several
awards, including the MRA award as 'Best Concerto of the
Year', The Penguin Guide *** rating, and four times on Fanfare
magazine's 'Want List'. Along the way there were other albums
including crossover music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,
music for bassoon and string quartet, others involving ragtime
and so forth.
DAVID: How did you become aware of Robert Farnon?
DANIEL: In November of 2004, the phone rang at my
flat in London. It was someone by the name of David O'Rourke
who was phoning me from New Jersey. David indicated he was
glad to have finally located me and asked if I knew who
Robert Farnon was. I said I had heard of Robert Farnon and
asked why he was phoning me. David told me that there was
a network of people trying to hunt me down on both sides
of the ocean. Apparently, Robert Farnon wanted to write
a concerto for bassoon which involved jazz improvising and
my name kept coming up as other bassoonists were approached
about this project. He had fallen in love with the sound
of the instrument and now knew I could perform both the
virtuostic concerto parts as well as improvise where needed
in the piece. But he only knew of my first name ...'Daniel'
and could not locate me. Eventually through a broad network
of people, they found me via my UK manager.
David O'Rourke and I had a wonderful conversation about
this project and left me with Robert Farnon's Guernsey phone
number. He said that I should phone him and that Robert
Farnon would likely be contacting me shortly as well. Within
ten minutes the phone rang again and this time it was the
voice of Robert Farnon that I now heard. I will never forget
his deep booming and friendly voice with his cheerful introduction...'
Hello Danny', how are you?' There was an immediate
connection between us and as I later found out, many others
had experienced the same sort of thing over the years.
Robert and I had a long conversation that day and went
over the concept of the bassoon concerto. In the next weeks,
we had many further conversations on the phone and I then
flew to Guernsey a few weeks later in December to visit
with him and go over the piece, this after having earlier
sent him samples of my recordings to listen to. He was full
of praise for my playing and was very open about any ideas
I might have for the concerto. On his music stand was the
first page of the bassoon concerto score.... that was all
he had at this point. I asked him how long before the full
concerto would be finished and he said that he would have
the whole piece ready no later than the beginning March
of 2005, just two months later! I arranged with him to fax
me the bassoon parts in New York where my wife and I would
be from December through February of 2005. Within a very
short time, the faxes started to arrive courtesy of his
copyist and by mid February, I had the entire solo bassoon
part in my hands. I could not believe the speed at which
this all happened. I practised and learned the solo part
in New York and in February returned to the UK and then
flew to Guernsey to actually play it for Robert Farnon.
At this point, he was recuperating from a leg operation
and receiving therapy at a nursing home in Guernsey. We
spent a wonderful day together going over the concerto and
sharing lots of laughs and stories. He was so excited about
this music and said it was the best thing he ever wrote
and that it's premieres would be huge successes. His wish
was to be able to conduct it himself, to have the UK premiere
at the Proms, to have Andre Previn involved in Oslo, Canadian
orchestras involved, and much more. He wanted to devote
his energies to having all this accomplished as soon as
his Third Symphony was premiered in Edinburgh later that
month. And as we all sadly now know, he was not to be alive
much longer after that day.
DAVID: Could you describe the work to us?
DANIEL: I will try to some degree. I actually never
saw the score until that second trip to Guernsey in February,
about a month before he passed on. I had at that time with
me the solo bassoon part, but did not understand where everything
fitted in or how the piece was constructed. When he showed
me the completed score, I knew almost instantly that I was
looking at something very special and unusual. Robert told
me that all his life he wanted to compose something that
had no restraints on it and which would include everything
he could muster up from a lifetime of composing and arranging.
As with his Third Symphony, his last two pieces including
the bassoon concerto were not bound by any commissions,
deadlines, financial obligations, or anything else, just
to fully express himself as a composer. And as I mentioned
before, he told me it was the best piece of music he ever
wrote and was very excited about seeing it brought to life.
In the actual score, you can see passages where the bassoon
plays the role of a lead saxophone with three bassoons underneath
in the scoring, just as in a saxophone section. There is
also a lot of percussion used and in many sections, the
winds of the symphony act as a sort of wind band within
the full orchestra- Farnon described this as ' a big band
within a full symphony orchestra'. Naturally there are gorgeous
moments in the second and lyrical movement as per what everyone
knows of the music of Robert Farnon. And then as we arrive
at the third and final movement of the concerto, Robert
made full use of some of my suggestions where he pulls out
all stops. At one point, the full symphony orchestra and
'big band' fade back and the bassoon opens up with a rhythm
section of piano, bass and drums in an up tempo blues (which
Farnon composed himself) allowing for unlimited choruses
to be played and at the moment of choosing of the soloist,
the conductor then brings in the orchestra, starting with
percussion first and then adding on instruments. And then
after a few more spots which also have improvisation involved,
a really startling ending which simply flies all over the
place and ends on a bang. It is hard to describe and hopefully
we will see all this incredible music brought to life in
the near future when everyone can hear what Robert Farnon
achieved in his final work.
DAVID: Robert called it 'Romancing the Phoenix'.
Do you know why?
DANIEL: Sort of. I asked him but don't remember
his exact words. Robert apparently had the concept of the
phoenix as an elusive legendary bird that rises up again
and again in unexpected ways. I suggested 'Flight of the
Phoenix' which he liked even better but after checking this
name out on the Internet, he discovered that this title
was the same as a recent movie and so he went back to his
original title idea. The concerto, without any doubt, is
a one of a kind piece, and I am sure that when it is heard,
it will have quite an impact in the musical world.
DAVID: So is it with a jazz band and also a symphony
orchestra? Roughly how many instruments are involved?
DANIEL: It is with a full symphony orchestra, and
once again as Robert Farnon described it, ' a big band within
a full symphony orchestra'. When I finally saw the score,
I was a bit confused as I thought he meant a big band including
a saxophone section, but apparently what he had in mind
was a big wind band using the resources of the wind players
of the symphony being involved in passages that stand out
from the full symphony in various passages.
DAVID: Isn't it costly to stage with so many musicians?
DANIEL: Not really because it involves a symphony
orchestra which already has the wind players within it.
The only instruments to be added would be a piano, bass
and drums for the jazz rhythm section.
DAVID: Have you any idea where the premiere might
DANIEL: At this point we are following up on various
possibilities. As already said, Robert's wish was to see
it premiered at the Proms and wanted to work towards this
goal and other premieres, not knowing of course that his
recent illness would become worse. He was so upbeat and
so excited about this music and looking to hearing it performed.
In any event, I am sure that in the coming months we will
know a lot more about premieres. Unfortunately, we will
never know what doors he would have opened but there are
other people now working on this. I am sure there will be
a big demand to have it premiered in various venues and
DAVID: You have the honour of having his very last
DANIEL: Yes, he was very generous about it for many
reasons, not only that he wrote it for me but that he arranged
for it to be printed by Warner/Chappell and with a dedication
to ' The American virtuoso Daniel Smith'. He also had the
opportunity for one movement to be premiered with the BBC
Concert Orchestra but turned it down because they would
use their own bassoonist (he would have had to write out
any improvised solos of course) and he would not allow this
to happen until I did the actual premiere. Which was very
kind of him.
When I last met him at the nursing home in Guernsey, and
also prior in some phone conversations, Robert had asked
me if I could bend notes on the bassoon like the clarinet
does at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue. I said I was
not sure but would play for him when we next met and show
him what I can do. So when we did meet, I told him I had
an idea about this query. I played Duke Ellington's ' In
A Sentimental Mood' . Several measures into the piece, the
melody swoops down to an Ab, which I seriously bent as per
Johnny Hodges would have done. 'That's it!' he exclaimed
with a big smile on his face. I think he wanted to go back
to the piece and incorporate this effect in the music but
of course we will never know what he had in mind.
DAVID: Will other bassoon players be able to play
this piece do you think, or is it a bit too technical?
DANIEL: Probably not. A highly skilled virtuoso bassoon
player could execute the melodic material but would not
be able to improvise in those places which require this
unusual skill. And for the handful of jazz players on the
instrument, I would have serious doubts they could execute
the written parts which are quite difficult.
I would like also to bring up the subject of unusual and
different music which can be performed on the bassoon and
also jazz. Ragtime if executed with the right feeling can
sound very natural on the instrument, as does a large amount
of 'crossover' material including transcriptions of music
normally performed on other instruments as well as orchestral
pieces. As for playing jazz on the bassoon.....several years
ago, Steve Grey composed a work for me entitled 'Jazz Suite'
which I had the honour of performing with the Welsh Chamber
Orchestra. The piece contained improvisational spots and
which forced me to plunge in and get serious about playing
real jazz on the instrument. I was already a virtuoso so
to speak but all of my technical skills were of no help
whatsoever in learning how to play jazz in a serious way.
I had to methodically learn to play extended chords and
scales from top to bottom on the instrument and in all keys.
This included many scales and chords which do not appear
in classical music. And then to place all ideas exactly
where the underlying chords are heard and of course to 'hear'
musical ideas many measures before you execute them. This
took me about four years to accomplish and along the way
my arms became very sore and stiff from the effort. But
then suddenly the ideas flowed and the soreness stopped...
everything just flowed! All the musical ideas made sense
and I can now perform a full two hour jazz concert without
using any music and with a repertoire of nearly one hundred
jazz pieces to pick from including bebop, swing, Latin,
blues, ballads, etc.
Finally, the bassoon must be amplified when performing jazz,
otherwise it would not be heard above a rhythm section,
let along a full symphony orchestra. I have a special microphone
attached to my crook/bocal which makes this possible. When
Robert Farnon found this out, he was much relieved knowing
that his music would be clearly heard above the orchestra
in his bassoon concerto. And as for developing a jazz style
on the instrument, there are no real role models from the
past to learn from such as Armstrong, Gillespie or Davis
on trumpet or Parker, Getz or Rollins on saxophone. It is
all pioneering stuff and I am very pleased to be involved
in such ground breaking efforts and of course with the bassoon
concerto of Robert Farnon as a fitting memorial to his memory
Daniel Smith was speaking to David Ades on Tuesday 24
May, 2005. The Editor thanks Adam Endacott for transcribing
the recorded interview for 'Journal Into Melody'.
Daniel Smith through his management would be most pleased
to hear from any conductors, festivals or venues interested
in being involved in performances of the Robert Farnon bassoon
concerto. Contact information concerning his USA and UK
managers can be made via his website at
This interview appeared in Journal Into Melody