James Smith, chairman of the classical guitar department at USC for over 35 years, and my old teacher, friend and confidant, passed away peacefully in his home in South Pasadena, CA on Friday September 24th at 7:36am.
Jim had been battling a brain tumor for the past two years. After his first surgery his prognosis was promising. He continued teaching, performing and being the family man. But after the tumor returned a few times, the doctors having put Jim on some of the strongest and most aggressive treatments available, they were finally unable to operate any further. During his last weeks at home, he continued to receive guests, hear music, play music, and maintain a positive attitude, inspiring all who saw him or spoke with him.
Jim radiated his enthusiasm about music and life like a bright floodlight. He made it one of his many missions to unite all the faculty of music by starting the "James Smith and Friends" concerts, which he presented at USC for the past couple of decades to a sold out hall. He also founded the "Wednesdays at Noon" concert series at USC's United University Church, and instituted outreach performance programs for all classical guitar students. He cared about community in music, and one rarely made a social visit to Jim's home without playing a piece of music for him or sight-reading through piles of music with him. Music was the driving force in his life.
Speaking for myself, I miss Jim deeply. We had our arguments, usually at his insistence (he LOVED debate!), but we also had many more moments of profound connection. I must admit that I found myself becoming hopelessly nostalgic in the guitar studio today, and couldn't concentrate at all. Looking around at Jim's music cabinets, his books, trinkets given to him by decades of students lovingly put atop shelves and any other available flat surface, it started to hit me that he wouldn't be back. Ever. The thought even now makes me pause...
Those of us who mourn are lamenting our own emptiness. Selfish? Maybe. They who pass on are in a better place, or at least I choose to believe so. This being the case, Jim is already occupying himself with organizing musical soirees, and sight-reading through duets for cherubim harp and guitar. And, Gabriel, if you're blowing your trumpet up there in heaven, Jim will find you bringing duets to read. And he will probably scold you for being out of tune.
So, Jim, as sad as I am at losing you here on earth, I console myself with my belief that I'll see you again one day. "As I am now, you once were; as you are now, I will be". The circle of life is endless and beautiful. I'll bring my guitar, old buddy.
(photo taken with the USC Classical Guitar Dept., August 27, 2010. Jim is in the back row against the wall, 3rd from right).