Dave Smith, 1950–2022

When I heard the news that synthesizer pioneer Dave Smith died on June 1, my mind wandered to the rendition of “In a Silent Way” that appears on Weather Report’s 1979 album 8:30. I heard it played live at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. It was a beautiful performance, with Joe’s exquisite string patch backing Wayne’s soprano saxophone. That string sound came from Joe’s newly acquired Prophet-5 synthesizer, the instrument for which Smith is best know.

Smith’s path to the Prophet-5 began in 1972 when he purchased a Moog Minimoog. Utilizing his skills as an electrical and software engineer, Smith soon starting building accessories to the Minimoog for his personal use, one of which was an electronic music sequencer. Thinking he might be able to sell it to others, he founded a small company in 1974 that operated out of his apartment in Sunnyvale, California. He named it Sequential Circuits—a nod to his first product.

In 1977, Smith followed that up with the Model 700 Programmer, which could store the settings of an ARP 2600 or Minimoog. Joe bought two programmers, one for each of his 2600s. They greatly simplified the setup of his 2600s, allowing him to store 64 patches each, which could later be retrieved by pressing a few buttons, bypassing the laborious process of reconfiguring the sliders on the 2600s’ front panels.

Between the sequencer and the programmer, Smith did well enough to quit his day job and move operations from his apartment to a nearby industrial complex in the heart of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, the microprocessor revolution had just begun. The first commercially successful personal computer, the MITS Altair 8800, hit the market in January 1975, while the Apple II was released in June 1977.

Smith was well-acquainted with this technology, and he harbored ideas of building a synthesizer around it. But the advantages of doing so were so clear to him that he figured the established synth manufacturers—Moog and ARP—must have already been working on it, so he was inclined to stick with accessory devices. However, when Smith attended his first NAMM show in June 1977, visitor after visitor to his booth suggested that he combine his sequencer and programmer with a synthesizer. On the flight back home, he thought about it some more and had a change of heart.

Smith got together with a musician and clinician named John Bowen, and together they worked out the design for a five-voice polyphonic synthesizer. It would have a sound architecture similar to a Minimoog, but the front panel knobs would control the settings for all of the voices simultaneously. More crucially, digital technology made it straightforward to save all of the synthesizer settings in computer memory, allowing the instrument to have a large bank of programs or patches, each of which could be recalled instantly. At the time, no one else had a synthesizer that could do that. In July 1977, Smith went to work on the project in earnest. His goal was to show his synthesizer to the public six months later.

Smith toiled in secret, but as the winter NAMM show approached, word got around that he had a polyphonic synthesizer. On the first morning of the show, representatives from Moog, Oberheim, and ARP all gathered at Sequential’s booth to have a look, but there was no synthesizer to be found. That’s because the one and only prototype was still in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Smith was working feverishly to get it to the point where it could be demoed.

After pulling an all-nighter, he took the one-hour flight down to Southern California, ambled into Sequential Circuit’s booth at around noon and set up the synth, now named the Prophet-5. “It mostly worked, most of the time,” Smith recalled. “It would crash once in a while and we’d have to restart it. But it was certainly operational enough to blow everybody away.”

Dave Smith at the Sequential Circuits factory in 1978. Photo: Sequential.
The Prophet-5 was a milestone in the evolution of synthesizers. As the first with an embedded microprocessor, its technology leapfrogged the competition. More critically, it gave musicians what they wanted: A polyphonic, fully programmable synthesizer that sounded fantastic. If you were serious about playing keyboards, you had to have one, even if you couldn’t afford the $3,995 price tag. Sequential Circuits came away from the show with orders for 400 units.

Right after Smith got back to the Bay Area, Joe’s keyboard technician, Alan Howarth, heard about “this Prophet-5 thing” from his music store friends back in his hometown of Cleveland, so he put in a call to Sequential’s Sunnyvale office. “Man, I heard you were at the NAMM show and you had something amazing,” Howarth said, asking if he could come up and have a look. “And I went up and visited Dave Smith in his little shop. The Prophet-5 from the NAMM show was sitting on the table. I took one look at it and said, ‘We gotta have it.’”

Inventing the Prophet-5 would have been enough to secure Dave Smith’s place in the pantheon of synthesizer pioneers, but his most far-reaching achievement was spearheading the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard so that instruments from different manufacturers could communicate with each other. It was demonstrated at the January 1983 NAMM show, when keyboards from Roland and Sequential Circuits were connected via a cable and played each other’s sounds. Up to that point, the various synth makers each developed their own schemes for connecting their devices, but no standard existed for general interoperability.

Despite some grumbling from the various manufacturers who were naturally invested in their own technologies, MIDI quickly established itself, and virtually all keyboards released from 1983 on were MIDI-equipped. Soon, personal computers also came with MIDI interfaces, leading to a wave of new software and hardware products that changed the face of music production. In recognition of his efforts, Smith is now known as “the father of MIDI.”

Dave continued to design and implement innovative musical instruments throughout his life, most recently at his company Sequential, which sells a modernized version of the Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 synthesizers. Joe wound up acquiring three Prophet-5s, as well as a successor model, the Prophet-T8, which he continued using right up to his last concert in 2007, 24 years after the instrument was manufactured! (Look for the Prophet-T8 logo at around the 3:32 mark in this video.)

Wayne and Jaco got their own Prophet-5s, too. In fact, Jaco’s second wife Ingrid remembered how Jaco used it to compose his most enduring composition, “Three Views of a Secret.” “He had recently moved into my tiny apartment, and it was the newly acquired Prophet 5 that helped him evolve the tune,” she said.

Not many people can lay claim to changing music. Dave Smith did. Rest in peace.

Banner photo credit: Sequential.

Fifty Years Ago Today—Weather Report in Central and South America

Melody Maker, July 8, 1972.
Right after the Gaslight Au Go Go gigs, Weather Report flew to Mexico City to start a thirteen-concert tour of Central and South America. The tour was a byproduct of Joe Zawinul’s longstanding friendship with pianist Friedrich Gulda, a fellow Austrian two years older than Joe who also hailed from Vienna. By this time, Gulda was an international star—a “demigod” in Joe’s words—and the headliner of the tour. Weather Report served as the opening act, after which Gulda performed classical pieces on solo piano. He and Joe also played a piano duet each night.

One indication of Gulda’s star power at the point was that he flew first class while Weather Report flew economy. But Weather Report benefited from Gulda’s ability to dictate a relaxed schedule. “For us it was a very comfortable tour because Gulda didn’t want to play every day,” Joe recalled to Gunther Baumann (here translated from German to English). “In Costa Rica, we stayed for a week. The strange thing was, Gulda was nowhere to be seen outside the concerts with us. That he flew first class and we flew economy was okay, but otherwise, he kept to himself. But of course I’m very grateful to him: Through this tour, we were one of the most popular bands in America. In 1978, we performed at the great Luna Park arena in Buenos Aires, all alone. The hall had 18,000 seats, and they still had to carry in extra chairs. That was one of the most popular—and best—concerts that we’ve ever played. When we wanted to drive an hour to the hotel after the concert, Wayne and I had to be carried over the people. Hundreds of fans waited at the exit for us.”

Wayne Shorter was particularly taken with what he saw and heard on this tour. According to an interview that appeared in Melody Maker later that year, Wayne talked at length about his experiences in Central and South America and claimed to have written a tune inspired by the Aztec pyramids. In Rio de Janeiro, the band cut short its own performance so they could hop in a waiting cab to go see the Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento. “He’s digging deeper than Gilberto or Jobim or anyone into certain areas of life and sensibility,” Wayne said. “I heard some things there that made me feel reincarnated!” A few years later, Wayne would team up with Nascimento to record Native Dancer, the only album Shorter made under his own name during the Weather Report years.

Meanwhile, some concert attendees, expecting to hear an evening of classical music, were put off by Weather Report’s style of music. According to one report from Argentina, “The reception of this group was not too good, because the audience here is not much on the avant garde side of things.” That said, some listeners came away as inspired by Weather Report as the band members were by the likes of Nascimento.

Alyrio Lima remembered seeing the band in Rio de Janiero. “They were here in Brazil and I had to go and see them,” Lima told me years later. “My friend was the stage manager for the theater where they were performing, so I got a front row seat, which in fact was a backstage pass. It was a superb performance by the band, especially from Wayne and the drummer Eric Gravatt. That night I decided to go to New York and see how I would manage playing with musicians of that level of art in form of beauty. I was a rock-influenced drummer and initially my wish was to meet Jimi Hendrix and play with him. After the concert in Brazil, it was a turning point because I saw great masters, musicians praying with their playing, at ease with the newness of that magical musical moment, of the fusion.”

Lima subsequently came to the U.S. as a student at the prestigeous New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While there, he was introduced to Weather Report’s manager, Bob Devere, who ultimately called him for the Tale Spinnin’ recording sessions and the tours that followed.

Fifty Years Ago Today—April 19, 1972

New York Times review of Weather Report's performance at the Gaslight Au Go Go.
Less than three weeks after their first stand at the Gaslight Au Go Go, Weather Report was invited back for a return engagement. This time the New York press was well represented, with reporters from the New York Times, Variety, and the Village Voice all in attendance, so we have some firsthand reports of what Weather Report sounded like. Variety described Weather Report as “[bordering] on the far out. However, the quintet’s music carried the day.” The review also noted how Joe Zawinul used mallets on the piano strings, continuing his long-standing practice of wringing unusual sounds out of the acoustic piano.

The New York Times review was more extensive. Don Heckman, a musician himself and a longtime observer of the jazz scene, wrote that Weather Report “leaned strongly in the direction of avant-hard jazz. . . . Urged on by the keyboard ministrations of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s stunning saxophone improvisations, the group stepped familiarly through the sometimes mazelike pathways of its music. Everything was grist for the mill; electronic noise effects, unusual percussion instruments, almost anything imaginable except vocal sounds.”

However, Heckman was most perceptive in his next two paragraphs. “It was good music, well-executed and magnificantly executed,” he wrote. “Yet one couldn’t help but feel that it was more enjoyable to the musicians than to the listeners. The inward focus that dominated everything, the sense of total inter-relationship at the cost of outward-going communication made it difficult to stay with what was happening.

“Music, after all, is a kind of celebration, and it should be the kind of celebration that brings players and hearers together.”

Zawinul would have read this review, and it would have struck a chord. While he enjoyed Weather Report’s freewheeling ways—at least to an extent—he was keenly interested in communicating with his audiences. His old boss, Cannonball Adderley, was a master at playing to his audiences without pandering to them.

It would be several more months before Joe resolved to change the band’s direction. In the meantime, Weather Report’s new manager Bob Devere kept them booked throughout the rest of the year, with over one hundred gigs in 1972.

Fifty Years Ago Today–March 30, 1972

Fifty years ago today, Weather Report opened a three-night stand at the Gaslight Au Go Go, a small club of about 300 seats on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The Gaslight was primarily known for folk and rock, but since taking over the old Café Au Go Go location the previous April, it had hosted Miles Davis several times, as well as the first appearances of John McLaughlin’s new band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

This show was Weather Report’s first gig of its own in New York City, where the guys all lived. The previous fall Weather Report had opened for Doctor John and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, but that was for someone else’s audience.

These were also the first shows since Weather Report had performed before large audiences in Japan, and the band probably had high hopes since the Gaslight tended to attract good crowds. It regularly advertised its gigs in advance in the Village Voice, but it appears that the club didn’t advertise this one until the day Weather Report opened (see photo from the Mar. 30 issue of the Voice). The late advertising, coupled with virtually no word-of-mouth buzz, led to a dismal showing. As Joe Zawinul remembered it, there were just fourteen people in the audience as the band kicked off its first set. It was, in his words, “a disappointment.” 

“The club owner was totally angry,” Zawinul recalled. “We had not been announced, so the people in the Village knew nothing of our appearance. But the development was interesting. The drummer Ron Jefferson came in, a sophisticated black man whose word was greatly respected in New York. Ron Jefferson heard the end of our first set and went to see us in the dressing room. ‘You are swing, you are what is happening now,’ he said. Then he went back. In the second set we already had forty or fifty people. When we stopped, Ron Jefferson came backstage and said, ‘I’ve been to every New York club and told everyone that there’s a band called Weather Report. People should come if they do not want to miss anything.’ When we arrived the next day to the club, the place was full. On the second set there were already queues in front of the entrance. All by Ron Jefferson.”

No one from the press came to review these shows, but the three-night stand went well enough that Weather Report was invited back to the Gaslight Au Go Go three weeks later for a four night engagement. This time, the press would be well represented.

Fifty Years Ago Today—Weather Report’s First Tour of Japan

On January 4, 1972, Weather Report launched its first tour of Japan with a concert at Shibuya Public Hall in Tokyo. It was the one of eight performances on the tour, five of which took place in Tokyo. The last of those concerts was recorded and released in Japan as the double-LP Live in Tokyo, parts of which also comprise the second side of I Sing the Body Electric, released later in the year.

Weather Report’s appearances were much anticipated by Japanese jazz fans. The group’s first album received several awards from Swing Journal (Japan’s leading jazz magazine), and CBS Sony rolled out the red carpet upon the band’s arrival at the airport, presenting each member with flowers and a limousine. At a press conference held the day of the first concert, the musicians were also given traditional Japanese umbrellas made of bamboo and oil paper—a nod to the band’s name.

Of course, one of the things the press wanted to know about was the band’s rather odd name. Wayne responded that it related to the their sound, which he said had no boundaries. Weather Report “can mean anything you want it to mean,” he said. “It’s sort of in neutral territory. It stretches and reaches into the imagination of the universe. It’s as boundless as the kind of music we play. It has a flow in the sound and it opens the doors for things to come. It’s not cramped.”

Without question the band was inspired by the first-rate music halls and large, respectful audiences for which they performed. “When we went to Japan,” Zawinul recalled, “we didn’t know what kind of a response we would get, but I couldn’t believe what happened. We thought, ‘What are we gonna do with these Japanese people, man?’ They’re so beautiful, such wonderful listeners, but laid back. That was their culture. So we said, ‘Let’s hit ’em hard, right from the first note,’ and we hit ’em hard.” Joe later told future Weather Report band members that their gig in Sapporo was the best one the band ever played.

All in all, it was a far cry from the club scene where most of Weather Report’s early U.S. appearances took place. There’s more about this tour in my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report.

As with all of Weather Report’s Japanese tours (there were seven in all), a souvenir program was produced, which you can view by clicking on the thumbnails below.

At some point I acquired some clippings from the March 1972 issue of the Japanese music magazine Ongaku Senka. They include a number of photographs from the tour, including one of the band members at their press conference, and another showing the on-stage production with “WEATHER REPORT” displayed in large letters behind the stage. Click on the thumbnails below for larger views.