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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Remembering Iconoclast Jay Smith


Originally published Monday, September 9, 2002 Public Garden column, Portsmouth, NH Herald

Jay Smith: Bon Vivant & Cultural Catalyst

I will never forget the sight. More than 100 people dressed in formal evening attire milled around the bar and moved sluggishly on the dance floor in the ballroom of the Islington Street design firm, now closed.

Helium-filled balloons with long ribbon tails caressed the ceiling. Tuxedoed bartenders served drinks. The swish of satin and crinoline gowns filled the air. Ben Baldwin and his band were trying to coax the swank crowd into steady dancing with up tempo tunes.

Despite all the fixings, the expansive guest list (that also included a guest psychic) and the elegant atmosphere, this holiday party lacked spirit. Most seemed uncomfortable in deluxe duds and too-tight shoes with slippery soles.

And then in walks Jay Smith with an entourage. The perennially dressed down Jay and his friends had come from a Button Factory art exhibition, had gotten wind of this more fancy pants affair just down the road and decided: Why Not?

Ever the joyous gate crasher, Jay did not bat an eyelash when it came to pursuing fun. Rather, he rallied the party at large and soon, those swathed in cocktail attire were boogying next to those in flannel, jeans and sneakers. Even the hostess recognized a party savior when she saw one and instead of asking him how he got in, let him work his magic.

I, like many in the Seacoast, hold many memories about Jay Smith. Most of mine involve Jay at an event of some sort, mixing it up with the proletariat and the polished, the artist and the banker, the musician and the mayor.

The first time I saw Jay was at one of the first Market Square Days. It was raining (as usual), and Jay with a group of friends dashed across Congress Street to stop in at the Kearsarge Hotel for a beverage. He was laughing and talking, leading the uninitiated to an out-of-the-way nook.

Most times, Jay could be found at the Press Room. Tall, dimpled, with chiseled features and a keen mind, this bon vivant liked nothing more than introducing people to one another. At the bar one wintry afternoon, Jay sat between me and Katie Paine, ignited a rousing conversation about the Pease Development Board and then made introductions all around. If only that nude painting above the main bar could re-play some of the brilliant discussions Jay generated!

His most magnificent role – beyond his mostly hidden penchant for institutional and personal generosity, was as cultural catalyst. He was a mover and shaker in the truest sense – connecting all the dots of people from different spheres of his own life into a woven work comprised of an extended, stronger community. The Press Room was his salon, where music, food and drink pulled in a soupcon of thinkers, drinkers, game players, diners, gossips, music makers, music lovers and creative sorts of every stripe. Conversations, arguments, business deals and ideas flowed freely.

As an arts reporter I discovered quite by accident Jay’s philanthropic support of the Music Hall. Less accidental were first hand reports about Jay helping people finance the purchase of homes. Or paying staff out of his own pocket when times were lean. Selfless generosity was just another element of a character profile that included those of an aesthete with a unbridled passion for music. I ran into Jay at post-Telluride parties, at Katie Paine’s grand fetes at the farm, on the street and at various house parties all over the Seacoast. The last time I saw him at Katie’s, he was driving a red, vintage sports car and accepting the attentions of several females gathering in the Great Room. I managed to coerce him onto the dance floor for a spin to the sounds of the Curt Bessette Band. Jay Smith left the most vivid impression with me in February 2001 at the post-funeral gathering upstairs at the Press Room for musician, Grieg Westley. I knew Jay was musical and heard from Harvey Reid how he and Jay cut a track on his Circles CD, with Jay on bodhran late one evening at the Daniel Street music room.

Still, that did not prepare me, or those gathered in honor of Grieg, for Jay’s spontaneous burst of song on the stage. Singing clearly, sweetly, boldly, and without accompaniment, Jay Smith sang his heart out in an old ditty that brought Grieg’s spirit forcefully forward. There were few dry eyes. I turned to Kent Allyn, who like me, was shaking his head in wonder at the angel singing his song before us.


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