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High-powered lawyer chooses Sequim to return to his musical roots
Don Smaltz has lived an interesting life.
As one of the nation’s highest profile attorneys, he often drew the attention of the media, including a blistering 1999 tongue-lashing from the New York Times. But Smaltz also earned praise, including a laudatory PBS “Frontline” profile in 1995.
Smaltz, who with his wife, Lois, retired to Sequim in 2007, was perhaps at the peak of his fame when he served as an “independent counsel” — a kind of special prosecutor — investigating allegations against President Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. Espy stood accused of accepting gifts in exchange for favors, including regulatory relief to famous Friend-of-Bill Don Tyson, owner of mammoth Tyson Foods. The case made headlines around the world.
In the end, Smaltz’s investigation cost $17 million and produced limited results. Espy was acquitted of all charges, though several underlings and several companies — including Tyson — were found guilty of wrongdoing.
The investigation would have been newsworthy in ordinary times, but the times were far from ordinary. Smaltz was appointed independent counsel in September 1994, just one month after Ken Starr was similarly appointed to investigate the alleged misdeeds of Espy’s boss. Starr’s investigation would eventually lead to the second impeachment of a U.S. President in history and would hold the nation’s rapt attention for years.
Like Espy, Clinton was eventually acquitted of all charges.
After finding yourself at the center of worldwide hullabaloo, as Smaltz did, what do you do for an encore?
Smaltz went back to work as a successful trial attorney and in his spare time pursued one of his oldest enthusiasms: jazz.
Today the gates to the Smaltz’s Bell Hill home are festooned with musical symbols, and the lowest level of the home is stuffed with musical equipment. A question regarding the gates produced a sly response from Lois Smaltz. “He’s Mr. Trombone,” she said, nodding her head in her husband’s direction.
Lois Smaltz is no shrinking violet in the face of achievement: she also enjoyed a successful law career, eventually serving as a superior court judge, hearing both criminal and civil cases in California.
The Smaltzes moved to Sequim in 2007 to escape the urban rat race. They raised six children in Los Angeles, but when it came time to retire they sought out the good life, defined as less frenetic and less expensive than their lives in L.A.
“We knew if we didn’t move away, we’d never quit working,” Lois Smaltz told the folks at Money magazine, who in 2008 ran a retirement profile of the couple.
The couple heard about Sequim from colleagues. They visited, liked it, and soon they were permanently ensconced. Soon thereafter Smaltz was a prominent part of the peninsula’s music scene.
“I’ve been in music forever,” Smaltz said, noting that he grew up with a mother who played piano and sang, as did his sister. In junior high Smaltz sealed his fate when he picked up the trombone.
He grew up in Lebanon, Pa., the heart of Dutch country. When it was time to go off to college, he made the natural choice: Penn State.
In those days, “I had limited resources,” Smaltz said. To pay for school, he worked. During his first semester he had two jobs, one in the school’s cafeteria and another washing walls. (“Have you ever washed walls?” he asked, shaking his head at the memory of that misery.)
He also played in the Blue Band, Penn State’s famous marching band. That kept his trombone skills tuned up.
During his first semester at Penn State he found himself at a local jam session where he “met a tenor (saxophone) man.” The two formed a small combo and started doing the occasional gig. “By the second semester, I didn’t have to wash walls,” he said.
His sophomore year the band “took off.”
Smaltz notes there were 52 fraternities at Penn State at the time. “Even though there were only 10,000 students, music played a big role in the campus life.”
By the time Smaltz was a junior, he was playing his trombone for cash three to four nights a week, with an occasional extra day gig thrown in. That’s how he paid his way through college.
Smaltz played Dixieland and pop in college, but once he enrolled at Dickinson School of Law he switched to pure jazz, which he found more cerebral — more intellectually stimulating.
But then he went to work, first serving as a captain in the Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, then moving to California where he signed on as an assistant U.S. Attorney.
Bellying up to the bar brought a quick end to his musical career.
“The law is a very jealous mistress,” he said. “Especially for a trial lawyer. You can’t walk into court unprepared.”
He took his turn at public service, an ordeal he famously outlined in an article, “So you think you want to be an independent counsel?” (It remains available online.) He also wrote an expanded piece on the topic for the Georgetown Law Review in 1998.
Today he remains “of counsel” with a California law firm.
Getting it back
Toward the end of his law career in California, Smaltz took the first steps toward “getting my chops back,” including time spent studying with Bill Watrous at USC, whom Smaltz calls “the best trombonist in the world.”
“He told me, ‘go out and play some solo trombone. Put something together.’
“I said, who’s going to listen to me? But I put something together.” The result was a series of programs on the top ten American composers of the 20th century. A few others, including the Beatles, managed to work their way in, but “most of the songs were from ‘the Great American Songbook,’” Smaltz said.
He joined up with a tenor sax player, and the two started visiting senior centers, providing programs on Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart and Irving Berlin.
“Rather than just play, we would choose one artist and provide his story, too,” Smaltz said.
They took their show on the road to the local wineries, providing music and a little musical history during tastings.
In Sequim, Smaltz plays as often as four to five times a week.
The Smaltzes owned a second home in Jackson, Wyo. (formerly Jackson Hole), but decided on Sequim for a number of reasons, not least the opportunities to play music, and to play with very good musicians. “In Jackson, they only had two kinds of music,” Smaltz said, “country and western.”
Smaltz has played with a number of local groups: Stardust, the Dukes of Dabob, the Peninsula Jazz Band and the Dixi-Blu Jazz Band among them.
“One of the things about Sequim is there are a lot of good musicians,” he said, Plus, “they’re retired. so they have a lot of time to devote. There’s this sense of community and a lot more musical opportunities.”
Smaltz is a particular fan of David Jones. a jazz composer, teacher and musician at Peninsula College.
“He is an absolute gem. I’ve seen and studied with people and he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Smaltz said.Smaltz’s legendary ambition is still at work: Dixi-Blu just completed mixing a new compilation of 40 songs.
Smaltz said to create the new tracks he “got some players together,” then hired local arrangers Al Harris and Linda Dowdell to do their thing on hand-picked songs, again mostly selections from the “Great American Songbook.”
“And there’s some difficult stuff, too, “like Thelonious Monk,” Smaltz said.
Smaltz smiled, recalling a gig in college when he called for three avant-garde Monk pieces in a row. “We were booed,” he said. “It’s dissonant stuff to some ears.”
Altogether Smaltz and various members of the band spent ten days in studios in Fife and Seattle recording and mixing the tracks.
“It was intense,” Smaltz said, with twelve-hour days not uncommon. They put together 10 Jerome Kern tunes, 10 Berlin and 11 Cole Porters. To that they added eight jazz pieces, including Silver Carter and, inevitably, Thelonius Monk.
The question now is, what should be done with the tracks? Smaltz admits he’s not sure. “I’m afraid to go public cause if we fail ... .”
That’s entirely possible, Smaltz admitted. “I’ve always believed in pushing the envelope,” he said. He explained, saying the pieces and arrangements are perhaps a little more challenging than is suited to some tastes.
Nevertheless, Smaltz is enthused about Dixi-Blu, and the group’s possibilities. The group’s current iteration includes Ed Donahue, flugelhorn; John Zuerner, bass and tenor sax; Howard Gilbert, drums; and Chuck Easton, bass.
“We want to see if we can crack the wineries north of Seattle,” he said.
Interested in hearing more? Right now they’re putting out a sampler of the tunes, and at future gigs they’ll bring CDs to sell — four of them.
To hear a bit of Dixi-Blu now, just click here.
I Love Paris, Cole Porter
What’ll I Do?, Irving Berlin
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.