Bob Smolenski understands about life and dreams — and patience. That’s because like many other Rim Country residents, he worked his whole life, pursued three different careers and always put practicalities over passion — until he discovered his art.
Now, the appraiser, broker and insurance salesman has returned to his first love — music.
Smolenski is a keyboard artist who has been playing since he was a youngster. He began with classical piano lessons until high school when he discovered the big band sound. Many of his favorites of that era include Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Harry James, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and many others. Swing music was at its peak and jazz was all the rage.
Smolenski turned from classical to the more hip music of his time, formed a trio in high school and played around the south side of Chicago.
College came and this pre-med student got into another trio in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., playing at a local pub.
World War II exploded into this mix, Smolenski was drafted and found himself as a musician in the Army Band surrounded by men who introduced him to jazz. Smolenski’s musical horizons just kept expanding.
One memorable experience occurred in St. Charles, La. while playing with friends from the Army Band he noticed many of the white portions of the keys were missing, making it difficult to play as his fingers were getting raw. During a break he asked the bartender why the keys were like that. The barkeep said guitar players were always pulling them off and using them for picks.
After the war, he went back to college and graduated. After that, the first of his three careers got in the way of his music. Although music remained his first love and playing in a band his great joy, music just would not pay the rent.
His first business career led him to become vice president of a branch of Abe Lincoln Insurance. From there he moved into real estate, as a broker with Homes and Gardens and supervised 30 employees.
At this time, he undertook the building of a subdivision. The project turned into a disaster which took four years of hard work from which to recover.
He moved to the East Coast as a real estate appraiser, but the market fell onto hard times once again. He went back into insurance as an independent agent and stayed in the business until he retired.
Now that he has retired, Smolenski decided it was time to put his fingers back on the keyboard. He began taking lessons with Beth Leiderman in the Phoenix area.
Smolenski describes Leiderman as a hands-on teacher, which Bob liked and appreciated. She opened the gates to different styles of music including Latin jazz, chording and voicing techniques. Smolenski took lessons for six years.
By this time, Bob had met several other musicians in the area including Gerry Reynolds and Mike Buskirk, and they formed the Payson Jazz Trio. They have played many venues including Main Street Grille, opening of the Art Studio Tour, and other local occasions.
Being with musicians leads to finding other musicians with the same interests, types of music, with all knowing some of the same songs. Many musicians gravitate to jazz for its freedom and creativity, including Roscoe Dabney III, for example, Smolenski, Buskirk, and others.
These associations led Smolenski to The Starlighters, a popular group whose members include Howard Brown, vocalist Colleen Brown and Roscoe Dabney III. Their music covers the big band era, jazz, pop, swing and “if you can hum a few bars we can probably play or sing it,” type of music.
That’s one of the aspects of music Smolenski seeks so he can take a wider stance and find larger and more appreciative audiences.
Smolenski’s wife Georgianne, is also an artist; she weaves fabric into fantastic garments.
They share the same work space in their home. This could cause a conflict, but doesn’t. Bob plugs headphones into his keyboard when he practices and Georgianne just hears his fingers hitting the keys.
At a concert Georgianne attended, Bob was surprised when she jumped up and clapped and clapped after hearing him play. He couldn’t understand her enthusiasm until she explained that she hadn’t actually heard him play for a long time and appreciated his talent.
Music is a special kind of art and having an audience is one half of the equation. If you have ever heard good musicians expressing themselves on stage in front of an audience you can feel the interplay between musicians and those listening to them.
The vibrations from the music hit your skin, vibrate through your body and resonate within you; giving you a closeness and harmony with the music you can feel. There is no other art that can give humans that kind of interplay. It is why music is so much a part of us and why it will always be so.