'I'm a very lively renaissance man'
The school was atop a hill, and Charles Joseph Smith remembers looking down onto Chicago's Beverly neighborhood and wanting more.
"I wanted to go to regular school so badly," he said, thinking back to his time as a student at the Beacon School for children with special needs.
That was in the late 1970s, sometime after his family received a letter from the board of education informing them Charles could not attend the same public school as other children from the neighborhood.
"I didn't like being shut off from the regular world," Smith said.
And so the boy who started composing music at 10 years old would go on to forge a not-so-regular kind of life.
Smith, whose alter ego is Lamar Jacobsen Linden "because the name sounds so beautiful," stayed on at the Beacon School and eventually earned a doctorate in musical arts in 2002 from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Smith now lives in Chicago's South Side, but he's a C-U regular.
If you frequent the Iron Post, Red Herring Coffeehouse or Strawberry Fields in Urbana, or Zorba's in Champaign, you've probably seen Smith. He often rides the Greyhound between Chicago and Champaign to listen and dance to jazz at Zorba's on Thursday nights or to play the piano at the Red Herring.
Like other autistics – he said he has "autistic tendencies" – Smith might not look people directly in the eyes. But he often smiles at strangers. He shakes their hands when he meets them and pulls out a business card.
Charles Joseph Smith: pianist, composer, dancer, writer and teacher.
"I'm a very lively renaissance man," he said.
Smith started playing piano as a young child after hearing his brother, Stan, learning to play. His first piano was a Lyon-Healy, followed by a Baldwin and later a baby grand.
He's always been inspired by music and art. His love for all things classical may have begun when his mother, Emma, turned on classical music in the car or watched classical concerts on television.
His first musical compositions were short, and he didn't always finish them. At least not until he became a music student. Smith played and wrote romantic, impressionist, baroque and a variety of different music styles. Along the way he started dabbling in avant garde and electro-acoustic compositions.
"I'm what you call a crossover," he said.
He's performed at the Illini Union. But he's also played in recitals and piano competitions in places such as Sicily and Paris.
Along the way, he started learning Italian and French while reading musical terms in those languages. He's also learned Spanish and German.
Smith carries with him a canvas bag packed with binders full of music sheets, compositions in progress, poems, resumes and recordings of his music. He writes while riding on the bus or train.
"Sometimes I compose too much," he said.
He's written a chamber opera, a musical, three plays and a few short screenplays.
And he'd like to write a feature-length screenplay.
"I've seen 'Rain Man' 50, 60, maybe 70 times," he said, laughing.
He has taught at the University YMCA Communiversity and would like to teach musical composition there again. And he is busy creating art such as self-portraits, photography, pencil drawings and more. Smith has shown and sold artwork at the Artists Against AIDS exhibition and sale.
He's working on more piano gigs around town. Next month, he will play at the Red Herring – and in the meantime, he plans to continue perfecting his dance moves at places like Zorba's or the Iron Post.
There's something about music and dancing that's uplifting, said Smith, whose dance, "The Linden Show," at a UI talent show was about Newton's and Kepler's laws of motion.
He waltzes, tangos, cha-chas and dances the salsa – that's his favorite.
"There's the drum baseline, and you try to react with your feet. You try to keep the beat, but I love improvisation, too," he said.