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Weekend Pass

Workin’ for the weekend

Perhaps you‘ve heard him during your lunch breaks: JAG office attorney Jeff Smith practices for his local jazz band gigs in some very unique locations on JBLM

Northwest Guardian

Published: 10:30AM October 11th, 2012
Workin’ for the weekend

Scott Hansen/Northwest Guardian

Jeff Smith practices in the old MWR office entryway near the DuPont Gate for a weekend gig with Rich Wetzel and his Groovin’ Higher Jazz Orchestra.

Every weekday right about noon, sounds of a trumpet can be heard near the DuPont Gate on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Commuters driving on and off post for their lunch break catch a faint sound of jazz scales and tunes.

The rumor at the gate is the trumpet player’s wife, sick of his relentless practicing, kicked him out of the house, so every day he plays in the vacant building on the corner of Clark and 5th streets.

But hardly anyone stops to really listen or to even ask.

“Most people stop by to ask directions,” the trumpet player said.

The trumpet notes are from Jeff Smith, a retired lieutenant colonel and chief of the Claims Division in the JBLM Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. When he’s not working, Smith is performing with three local jazz groups: Rich Wetzel’s Groovin Higher Jazz Orchestra, The Dukes of Swing and the Lakewood Community Jazz Band. To maintain his chops Smith needs to practice daily, so as not to take away time from his family in the evenings after work, he sacrifices his lunch break to log practice time. From the backs of vehicles to airport parking garages to even playing the trumpet with one hand while steering a car across country with the other, Smith has practiced in some atypical rehearsal areas.

“You find what you can and use it,” he said.

Smith has played the trumpet for more than four decades. As a youngster he played in a marching band for the San Diego Chargers and after high school played in a band at the San Diego Sea World. Smith studied music at Chaffey College in California for two years before he decided upon a career change and attended the U.S. Military Academy, where he played in the cadet band.

The Army sent Smith to law school and there was a time when he hardly played at all. But during a four-year assignment in Washington, D.C., opportunities were presented that got him back in the jazz groove.

Smith’s Army career brought him with his family to Fort Lewis in 2000 before he retired in 2003 after 20 years active duty. He was always on the lookout for a place to practice during his lunch hour and a few years ago, found an old guard shack on Pendleton that was no longer in use. He coordinated with the Directorate of Emergency Services to use it, and every few months the MPs would stop by to check his credentials or lost drivers would stop to ask him for directions.

“I almost brought a map down there so I could help them out,” he said.

One afternoon while practicing, Smith spotted four Stryker vehicles coming down the hill toward the guard shack. A unit was preparing for a deployment and was conducting a training exercise. Soldiers headed toward the shack with their weapons and Smith realized the unit thought he was part of the exercise. After checking his identification and calling in the incident on the radio, they let Smith go.

“When you see those Strykers pull up it’s a little intimidating,” he said.

The shack served its purpose as a practice room, protecting him from all weather elements, but one day he found the shack was gone. Soon after he found the abandoned Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation marketing building near the DuPont Gate where he’s been for about two years.

A couple weeks ago he arrived to find a chain link fence surrounding the building and knew he needed to find a new practice room. Smith found a place across the street in which he is under a roof, but exposed on three sides. He knows it’s just a matter of time before he has to find a new location.

“I take it a day at a time,” Smith said. “Right now the weather forecast is good for the next week.”

Music has been a part of Smith’s life since he was in third grade. He turns 54 this month and said no one ever masters an instrument; musicians, no matter how good, can always work to improve.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Smith said. “It’s a blessing because I really enjoy doing it. You have to be a musician to fully understand that. You’re just hard wired that way. I feel like we should share our gifts and our talents. I say it’s a curse because you have to practice every day.”