"Some musicians think their only destination is the Kennedy Center," Smith said. "But Beethoven was not like that. Bach was not like that."
"Bach played for the church. He had a regular gig," he said.
Smith was making the point that not all music, especially classical music and jazz, has to be performed in concert halls.
He said music can be performed in the streets, in restaurants and, though he said he is no advocate of them, in tavernsanywhere the people are.
Classical pianist and composer Frederick Chopin played piano not just in concert halls, Smith said, but in the salons of Europe.
"Chopin knew that his music was meant for people. That's what I try to tell my studentsshare with the people," he said. "Louis Armstrong understood that. Fats Waller understood that."
In addition to teaching music theory and technique, Smith also instructs his students on the finer points of making a living as a musician.
"I tell my students I'm a musician because I'm a romantic, but I want to show my students what music is about on the creative and survival level," he said.
Smith started his own musical journey in the deep South. Born in Decatur, Ala., he moved with his parents and four brothers and sisters to Memphis, Tenn.
While there, he began taking piano lessons at age 5 and listened to the music coming from a church across the street.
"There seemed to be music all around in Memphis," Smith said. "The whole atmosphere for me was always musicjazz, gospel, it was everything all the time.
At 13, Smith took up saxophone, then enrolled in the prestigious Manassas High School, a segregated school in Memphis that produced many famous jazz musicians. At Manassas, Smith performed in school bands and ensembles as principal clarinetist and lead alto saxophonist.
Smith said he still speaks by phone to his former high school music instructor, Emerson Able, who is now in his 70s.
"He's just a good human being, and honest," Smith said about Able, who taught Smith about life as well as music. "A movie ought to be made about the guy."
In 1960, Smith left Tennessee to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., one of a number of predominately white colleges and universities at the time that were increasing their enrollments of African-American students.
Asked why he did not attend a nearby black college, Smith said, "The feeling of upward mobility was so intense in the 1960s. We were just bursting out. We broke out from what people traditionally did."
After earning a bachelor of arts degree from Kansas in music with a focus on clarinet, Smith was drafted into the military. But, instead of going to Vietnam, he found himself as part of the 528 U.S. Air Force Band in southern Illinois near St. Louis, Mo.
"I'm a kind of a creative draft dodger," Smith quipped. "I auditioned for the Air Force Band."
After a two-year military stint from 1965-67, Smith enrolled at Southern Illinois University, where he earned a master of arts degree in music in 1971, with emphasis on clarinet, flute and saxophone studies.
For a time until 1974, he taught as a professor of jazz studies at Southern Illinois, then came east to Washington, D.C., to develop a jazz studies degree program at Howard University.
After differences emerged between Smith and senior faculty and administrators, Smith left Howard in 1976.
"I was too committed to the music and the culture of jazz," Smith said.
For Smith, coming to NVCC has mirrored his improvisational style. "It surprised me," he said about starting to teach at the Annandale campus in 1976.
"I was taking a course in accounting, and before I knew it I started teaching here," Smith said. "It's been improvisation. My whole life has literally been improvisation."