Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan was born April 4, 1956, in Bethpage, N.Y. The gifted multi-instrumentalist started his music career by first learning alto saxophone during his teenage years on Long Island. Today he is critically acclaimed across the board and recognized as the major voice on the baritone saxophone. His playing is marked by an aggressive rhythmic sense, an intelligent and creative harmonic approach—and perhaps most importantly—a strong and incisive wit.
While still in high school, he had the chance to sit in with major jazz artists, such as legendary trumpeter Chet Baker, saxophonist Lee Konitz, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and violinist Ray Nance. After graduating high school, he attended SUNY Potsdam and Hofstra University before joining Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd in 1978. It was a remarkable collection of young musicians who ultimately would find themselves in the forefront of present-day jazz. Joining Smulyan in the band were saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer John Riley, who would eventually become a fixture in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
In 1980, Smulyan moved into New York City, where he became part of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, then under the direction of Bob Brookmeyer. Smulyan also found work with other important large ensembles, including the Mingus Big Band and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. As he gradually established himself, Smulyan was asked to share the stage and the recording studio with a stunning potpourri of luminaries, including trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Stan Getz, pianist Chick Corea, timbales king Tito Puente, and R&B/blues and soul icons Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Diana Ross.
In addition to performing and recording in support of myriad people, Smulyan began to accumulate a discography as a leader. At this point in his career, he has at least 10 recordings out under his own name. Meanwhile he continues to play with wide variety of artists, each presenting him with an opportunity to fully express himself. In addition to his work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Smulyan remains close with Lovano, working with him in his nine-piece Nonet; then there is the exhilarating and liberating Dave Holland Octet and the seminal bassist’s Big Band. Beyond that, Smulyan has also enjoyed stints in the cooperative Three Baritone Saxophone Band and working with powerhouse tenor saxophonist George Coleman in his octet and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band that, similar to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, is composed of some of the world’s best players.
No matter who he is performing with—or whether he is leading his own band at the time—Smulyan brings to the stage the spirit, style, and savvy of a deep-toned master of bebop.
“Gary Smulyan’s lineage comes more from musicians like Cecil Payne, Leo Parker, Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff and Nick Brignola—the few baritonists that dared to master the tricky, chromatic music known as bebop.”
— Francis Lo Kee, All About Jazz interview
Gary Smulyan is a multiple winner of the DownBeat Critic’s and Reader’s Polls and numerous other official polls, including the Jazz Journalists Award for Baritone Saxophonist of the Year. He is a six-time Grammy Award winner for his work with B.B. King, Lovano, Holland, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.