Celebrating BYU’s Dr. Ray Smith

When I was 2 or 3 years old, my grandparents gave me some money for my birthday. My parents took me to a toy store and, they tell me, I disappeared. Ten minutes later I was back with a plastic toy saxophone.

My mom started giving me piano lessons when I was 5 and, eventually, I transitioned to a professional teacher. Then, in fifth grade, I picked up the saxophone. My dad had played briefly when he was a kid and I started on his alto.

I absolutely fell in love with the saxophone. (I still love it, to be honest.) In middle school, I joined the 0 period jazz band, directed by Glenn Miller superfan (and eventual convert to the church) Karl Fitch. (Thanks, Mr. Fitch!) At a jazz band concert I heard a classmate a year ahead of me play a solo on tenor and I became a tenor sax player.

I kept up playing in band and jazz band in high school. And one summer, my parents drove me from the suburbs of San Diego to Provo for a week-long music camp at BYU.

At that music camp, I met Dr. Ray Smith, who led BYU’s saxophone and jazz programs.

Now, it’s been decades so I don’t have a clear memory of what the camp entailed. I do, however, remember master classes in Dr. Smith’s office as he talked to us about saxophone and jazz. The one very clear memory I have of that week is his mentioning that we needed to listen to John Coltrane. (My family was very supportive of my saxophone dreams but also, they didn’t listen to jazz and I hadn’t ever heard of Coltrane.) I remember repeating “Coltrane” (probably “Coal Train” in my head at the time) over and over as I left his office, determined to remember and begin listening to him.

That experience meeting Dr. Smith and learning from his was hugely influential in my decision to go to BYU. I realize that the path between saxophone performance major and tax attorney and professor is not a straight one, but Ray Smith was an important part of that path. And at BYU, he was a role model both of a musician and of a faithful member of the church.

I don’t want to overstate his influence, but I also don’t want to understate it. My freshman year, once a week I attended a saxophone master class with Dr. Smith and the 8 or 9 other saxophone majors. I never played in Synthesis, the top jazz band at BYU that he directed, and I had private lessons with someone else, but I interacted with Dr. Smith on a regular basis.

So why this ode to Ray Smith? Because a week from today he’ll be conducting Synthesis for the last time at BYU. After 40 years(!) teaching at BYU, Ray Smith is retiring at the end of this year.

The last time I say Dr. Smith was approaching 20 years ago. I was either a law student or young attorney in Manhattan and he and Synthesis were there for a festival. But though my interactions with him lasted not much more than a year, and in spite of the decades separating those interactions, it’s important to me to commemorate the influence he has had on me.

Photo by Darrell Fraser on Unsplash


  1. waynefrank says:

    This kind of a tribute to mentors, teachers, friends, and other leaders should be a common and regular part of our lives. I never met Dr. Smith Sam’s kind words made him real. Thanks Sam for a really nice example.

  2. I grew up in the shadow of BYU, and Ray Smith was one of two people most responsible for my “jazz awakening” when I was a young teenager. I became a complete Synthesis groupie and soaked up every minute of BYU Summerfest for a few years, although I didn’t play saxophone or realize my ambitions to play with Synthesis after my mission (I did a few combos, but life had other plans). So while I wasn’t much more than a passing face in the program, and my chops are more or less shot these days, jazz music plays a huge role in virtually every facet of how I see and approach the world. I look forward to watching next week’s concert and celebrating the outsized influence Dr. Smith had on my musical and personal development.

  3. Thanks for sharing this news. I grew up in Utah and was fortunate enough to study with Ray while I was in high school, at a time when music meant everything to me. Ray just absolutely poured fuel on that fire. He has long been an inspiration to me as a performer, teacher, listener, mentor and human being, and he changed the way music exists in Utah (and so it’s probably fair to say: how it exists throughout the church). He has such a well-calibrated ear: he can listen to you for 30 seconds, see exactly what you need to reach the next level, and support you as you climb toward that. That kind of expert-yet-committed pedagogy is so rare.

    Strangely the memory that sticks with me most happened in an almost chance encounter a few years after I’d been studying with him and moved away from Utah. I ran into him at a jazz festival in Canada shortly after saxophone legend Bob Berg died in a tragic accident. Bob and Ray must have been about the same age, and I remember Ray looking me in the eye and saying with a heavy sigh, “He took a lot of chops (i.e., technical skill) to the grave.” Then he paused and added, “That’s why it’s so important in life to keep an eternal perspective.” It’s a thought I’ve chewed on for years. Among his many gifts, Ray is so good, in my opinion, at sensitively engaging with the spiritual dimensions of life (including with audiences at concerts outside Utah) without evangelizing in unwanted ways. What an impressive musician and human being.

    Sorry to be longwinded. But thanks again for the post and concert info.

  4. Ray’s an institution at BYU. Watching how he has influenced and mentored hundreds of jazz students over the years since I was a student there and how he has interacted with his audience has been inspiring. So glad that I was able to see Chick Corea perform with Synthesis in what was one of his last performances. I’m sure Ray was a big part of the pull the band has to get that caliber of featured guest stars to come. Thanks for the heads up about his last performance coming up.

  5. After your tribute I looked Dr. Ray Smith up and found this article. I enjoyed learning more about him. https://magazine.byu.edu/article/a-ray-of-jazz/

  6. Thanks everyone! And Adele, I’m glad you were able to learn more about him. He’s a pretty great person in addition to being a pretty great musician!

  7. not only was he a great director/teacher, but a very expressive saxophonist. I loved Synthesis as a kid. What is your favorite Coltrane?

  8. Lona, I would love to say it’s Alabama or A Love Supreme, both of which are stunning and powerful meditations on the struggle against racial discrimination and on God, respectively. Both are stunning and I love them.

    But, while I’m not usually super-nostalgic about music, I have to admit that I’m partial to Giant Steps and Mr. P.C. (since Giant Steps was the first Coltrane album I owned).

  9. My Favorite Things, just might be My favorite Thing

  10. Lona, it’s taking all of my self-control to not spend way too many paragraphs talking about “My Favorite Things.” Because Coltrane’s performance is so unexpected and so transformative of the song; that’s a legit good favorite thing!

  11. I was fortunate enough (and am old enough) to have played in Synthesis for several years while Ray was the lead alto saxophonist. (Newell Dayley was the director.) Ray was otherworldly even then. He played amazing solos and took the sax section to new heights. And, yes, even then he was lovely, kind, always positive, a friend to all. He’s a treasure.

  12. Thanks for this tribute to Ray Smith. My son Tom was a private student of Ray’s while he was in high school in Orem and owes his professional jazz career in part to Ray’s expertise and and his warm humanity. Tom didn’t go to BYU because of religious differences with the university…went to the UofU instead and then on to NYC and in time to the New School University’s jazz major. Tom plays with various groups in New York, but this link will take you to the group Tom likes the best…photo on the home page with Tom on clarinet. https://babysoda.org

  13. That’s great that your son has made of go of it, Scott! And thanks for sharing that site–that’s definitely some fun playing!

  14. I got an email from Donald R. Snow, who had a comment that he couldn’t get posted. Here it is:

    Sam, thanks for this note about Ray Smith. I wasn’t aware that he is retiring from BYU. I got acquainted with him when I was teaching Math at BYU. I grew up in North Hollywood listening to some of the jazz legends around there in the 1940s and 1950s. I even worked in a record store while in high school and started buying 78s and then vinyls, when they came out. So one year in the 1970s or 1980s, I asked Ray if I could sit in on his History of Jazz class. He let me and it opened my eyes to what I had been listening to all those years. I play the piano and accordion and one day he had me demo stride piano to the class. As I recall, I played Five Foot Two. I talked to him many times later and listened to his jazz presentations with Synthesis and other places. Ray is a wonderful person and I learned lots from him. I still listen to lots of jazz and can figured out the chord patterns for lots of the old time stuff that I grew up listening to, so I can play it now myself. Many times I have thought about what I learned from Ray. Thanks, Ray. You’ll be missed at BYU.

  15. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    What a treat to discover this tribute to an absolute living legend!

    I wouldn’t even know where to begin in praising Ray. I first encountered him as an Idaho high schooler watching Synthesis at a jazz festival, and it was obvious that Ray was an absolute and consummate professional. Watching that band and that director opened my eyes to what was possible. Fast forward to my BYU years as an undergraduate, and I am one of so, so many students who benefitted not only from Ray’s supervision and instruction and example as an incredible musician, but also from his wisdom and insight that paid dividends far beyond the music context. He was an incredible mentor of what a craftsman is: someone who develops deep expertise yet remains constantly curious and humble and on the lookout for anything to broaden his own perspective. He was one of my prime exemplars during my college years.

    Because of that, it was extra special to get to know him in a slightly more personal context, as he was a neighbor to my older sister when she lived in Orem. It was inspiring (though ultimately unsurprising) to hear of his tremendous example and support to her as a ward member and fellow saint. Another data point, independent of the types of University interactions I was having with him in master classes and combo coaching at the time.

    And he also left an indelible mark on my own music! During my final years at BYU (pursuing an accounting master’s degree) I had made a bit of a shift from jazz percussion to folk/acoustic work as a singer/songwriter. This culminated in recording an album (CD… remember those?) and I was able to have a handful of friends like Peter Breinholt and Ryan Shupe and Johnny Rowan sing and play on that record. But I knew I also wanted to capture Ray doing something on it, and amazingly, he was willing and supportive. I’ll never forget watching him record a flute track (on a second take), adding special magic to a song I had written about the passing of time and evolving of life. It was a perfect finishing touch to a very spare arrangement: only me playing acoustic guitar, singing, and Ray on flute. Incredible experience for me that I will always cherish.

    Finally, as a father of two current BYU students and one more on the way this fall, I’ve loved seeing my own children first experience Ray as part of the music camp “summerfestival” a few times, and then play directly under Ray’s tutelage in BYU jazz combos over the past few years (one on drums like his dad, one on trumpet). We are now a multi-generational “Ray Smith” family! And I have a youngest child who will be there this summer in Ray’s final summerfestival for highschoolers.

    Heartfelt gratitude to absolute legend Ray Smith, for unparalleled musicianship, tremendous mentoring, insightful insights about life and the gospel, a multi-generational connection to the Harris family, and a willingness to make time for students of various stripes over a long-spanning career of many many years. Irreplaceable.

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