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Ray Smith, at 87; hosted ‘Jazz Decades’ on WGBH

Ray Smith talked about jazz for nearly 52 years, first on the former WKOX in Framingham, and since 1972 on WGBH. Ray Smith talked about jazz for nearly 52 years, first on the former WKOX in Framingham, and since 1972 on WGBH.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 7, 2010

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In reverential tones as smooth as a series of big band chord changes ascending a scale, Ray Smith described how best to appreciate the music he played Sunday evenings on “Jazz Decades,’’ his program on WGBH-FM.

“You have to listen, listen,’’ he said in an autobiographical recording, which can be heard on the WGBH website, to commemorate his 35th anniversary on the radio station. “The real enjoyment is just shutting off all the other senses and concentrating on the listening. In other words, become all ears.’’

The thrill, he added, comes in “following how the melody flows through the instruments, the orchestration in the ensembles, and how it relates to the rhythm and the tempo. I’m talking music: harmonies, melodies, rhythms, tone, dynamics.’’

He talked about jazz for nearly 52 years, first on the former WKOX in Framingham, and since 1972 on WGBH. Mr. Smith, who also played drums in a series of jazz bands since the mid-1960s, died Feb. 26 in Savannah Memorial Hospital in Savannah, Ga., of congestive heart failure. He was 87 and lived in Bluffton, S.C., where he continued to put together his weekly WGBH show, more than a dozen years after moving south from his longtime home in Framingham.

“I pick my selections like I would a set for a dance band,’’ he told the Globe in August 2007, just before celebrating his 35th anniversary on WGBH. “Mostly, I go through my shelves and see what I haven’t played in a long time.’’

His shelves went on forever, or so it seemed. Mr. Smith estimated that he had recordings of more than 60,000 performances - some songs repeating from one artist to the next, of course. His record collection included thousands of 78s, LPs, and 45s. He owned hundreds of cassette tapes and as many CDs.

Like the music from the 1920s and ’30s that Mr. Smith kept alive, old trumped new in his collection. Nearly 9,000 78s lined shelves in his Framingham basement.

“The brightest sound on CD is not as thrilling to me as the antique primitive sound,’’ he told the Globe in 1992. “I can get goose bumps or shed a tear over something recorded in 1923.’’

Mr. Smith wasn’t the only one who had such a visceral response to the music he played.

“He had a very devoted following that seemed to tune in for years,’’ said John Voci, general manager at WGBH.

Along with those who had followed Mr. Smith since his days at WKOX, “there was a younger generation of listeners who came to the program as a result of being exposed to it by their parents,’’ Voci said. “He really seemed to be able to speak across generations and introduce people to this repertoire.’’

Raymond Arthur Smith was born in Malden, the eldest of three children, and moved with his family to Melrose, where he graduated from Melrose High School in 1940. He began collecting music as a teenager.

“When I was a kid, of course it was 78s,’’ he said in the autobiographical recording for WGBH. “Everybody bought 78s. I mean, you bought all the popular bands of the day, all the singers of the day, all the movie stars of the day. Whoever made records, you bought them. And I just didn’t stop buying them.’’

He joined the Army and served in the Pacific during World War II in a signal aircraft warning battalion, and was assigned to a Marine assault force for the battle of Iwo Jima.

His mother, meanwhile, had moved to Savannah, and he lived there for a year after the war before returning to the Boston area.

Mr. Smith got a job in graphic arts and rose to be a production manager with what formerly was Dickie-Raymond, a direct mail advertising agency. Through work, he met Edith Marilyn Chase of Swampscott, who was known as Marilyn. They hit it off and she initiated their first date.

“We’d ride the subway to North Station,’’ she recalled. “So I said, ‘When are you ever going to ask me out?’ And he said, ‘Well, we could go to dinner tonight.’ ’’

He took her to the No Name Restaurant and they married in 1948.

On April 5, 1958, he hosted his first show on WKOX. He moved to WGBH after his first station switched to a rock format.

In the 1960s, a listener called to ask whether he wanted to sit in on an informal jam session and try drumming. Though he had no training, “I made a decision at that time, relative to jazz, I was going to participate instead of spectate,’’ he said in the WGBH autobiographical recording. “Within a few weeks I brought a couple of sticks, kept time on a wooden chair bottom.’’

That led to playing in a series of bands, including leading the Paramount Jazz Band of Boston.

During the years his family lived in Framingham, Mr. Smith used a Royal typewriter - pre-Korean War, he noted in a 1985 Globe interview - to type on index cards the details he planned to highlight on his show.

“He documented everything,’’ said his son, Douglas of Fredericksburg, Va. “Everything he did, he kept on 3-by-5 cards. He could tell you the last time he played a song, what month, and what year it was.’’

Mr. Smith cultivated his audience with the same care and affection.

“He was very warm and was willing to talk to anybody, especially about jazz,’’ his son said. “He got a lot of fan mail. Every day there would be 10, 12 letters from listeners telling him how much they enjoyed the show, and he would answer every one of them. People would call the house and want to talk to Ray.’’

Mostly, though, people wanted to hear Mr. Smith - the music he played and the insights he shared.

“It was an amazing experience to listen to him,’’ Voci said. “He just had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music, particularly that period between the two world wars, and was full of anecdotes about seemingly everyone from major artists to minor figures.’’

Mr. Smith, he added, also “was certainly one of the nicest and most gracious individuals you would hope to meet. The world of media is filled large egos, but that was certainly not Ray Smith.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Smith leaves two daughters, Priscilla McGaughey of Temecula, Calif., and Andrea Brown of Worcester; five grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A service will be announced.

WGBH will continue to air Ray Smith’s “Jazz Decades’’ at 7 p.m. each Sunday with archived programs, and plans a tribute on April 11 as part of the show. More information, archived programs, and Mr. Smith’s reminiscence about his life can be found at www.wgbh.org.