Joe Smiell

Our 11th Annual Honorary Director – 2001

Joe Smiell, of Austro-Hungarian descent, escaped a life of indentured cole mining by winning a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory. His father, who died of black-lung disease at the age of 52, would often sing with the other coal miners to raise their spirits. Joe never forgot the simple tunes which led to his all-encompassing love of folk music.

Joe’s dad played the button box, but he steered Joe to the piano accordion (which he considered superior). Joe learned quickly and soon he and his brother (on violin) were earning money playing for weddings. Young Joe took up the violin, clarinet and the bassoon with which he won his Peabody scholarship. In fact with little classical knowledge, Joe played a polka on the bassoon and his articulation impressed the judges.

The accordion also proved to be an asset at the conservatory. A teacher of his, Mario Lert, enjoyed giving parties at which Joe played German folk songs … which became his great love.

The Second World War sent Joe from Peabody into the 11th Airborne Division where he served as a paratrooper in the Philippines. Most drafted musicians were assigned to radio detail at the Signal Corps, listening to dots and dashes. Joe preferred something “more interesting.” At the conclusion of the war, he ended up in Northern Japan where he arranged music and helped develop a military band.

Military connections led to his involvement with a concert band at the Presidio as well as the first bagpipe band. Coincidentally, when the Presidio was turned over for civilian use and the concert band was disbanding, Joe was commissioned to write and conduct a suite of Russian tunes for a gathering of foreign dignitaries commemorating the end of World War Two. At the conclusion of Joe’s performance, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in attendance, was seen jumping to his feet and applauding.

After his military life, teaching and performing thoroughly occupied Joe. He taught music and a variety of subjects at Bay Area high schools and middle schools for 35 years. When the summer months freed him from the classroom, he traveled from one orchestra to another, playing bassoon, clarinet or accordion — he’s one of the few orchestral musicians capable of performing at a concert level on more than one instrument.

His dad tried to dissuade Joe from the button box, but in 1983 Joe delved into it. The button box (or diatonic accordion) has a unique quality that’s wonderful when playing folk songs or compositions for which it was intended. Joe has led an annual button box camp many years and has made two solo recordings.

Though he never formally studied composition, Joe has been writing music since his early days. Joe still enjoys writing variations of classical pieces for groups of instruments and has been successful in getting them performed abroad even by symphony orchestras. He’s also done many arrangements for concert bands. His inner ear is so good that he can write out parts before writing the master score and do it often without using an instrument to check the harmonies.

His two sons have their father’s gift for music. Ed Smiell plays classical guitar while Joe Junior, like his father, is proficient on both the clarinet and accordion. Their mother Lucy is a talented sculptor and examples of her work abound in their Oakland home.

It is with great pleasure that we welcome Joe Smiell to Cotati and wish him continued success and great pleasure in his many musical endeavors.