Berklee Today

Tommy Smith - Scotland's Hardest-Working Jazzman

For some time, Tommy Smith '85, tenor saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, has been top dog on the Scottish jazz scene.

Tommy Smith
Photo by Paul Thorbon
Also see the side bar about saxophonist Laura Macdonald, Tommy Smith's wife.

It's 7:00 p.m., and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is tuned up and seated on the stage before a full house at Glasgow's Fruit Market auditorium. First on the program is the premiere of Beauty and the Beast, an epic 45-minute jazz tone poem by the group's founder Tommy Smith. Meanwhile, backstage, Smith and pianist Gareth Williams are searching feverishly for the piano part that has somehow gotten lost since the sound check. After what seems like an eternity (in reality about eight minutes), they locate the music. Smith, Williams, and renowned American saxman Dave Liebman, the work's soloist and dedicatee, take the stage and the music begins.

Afterward, I asked Smith what if the part hadn't turned up? No one could have faked a piece of such dimension (977 bars) and complexity. "I figured I had one good option,” he told me. "I had the score with me and I would have had Gareth read from that. But since it has only six bars per page, I would have called you out from the audience to turn pages for him!” Although I would have gladly helped, I too was relieved that they found the part.

Smith's analytical mind, problem solving abilities, and immense musical talents have enabled him to become known as Scotland's leading jazz artist. He has created a musically diverse career that has put him onstage and in the studio with the top American and European jazz artists. He has also made successful forays into the classical and pop worlds. A prolific composer, he has penned over 250 works including jazz tunes, numerous extended compositions for jazz orchestra, symphonic works, multimovement sonatas for saxophone and piano, vocal pieces, and much more.

Audio from Tommy Smith and Laura McDonald
• Tommy Smith:
When I'm All Alone

Listen: slow | fast

• Tommy Smith:
Beauty and the Beast
Listen: slow | fast
• Laura McDonald:
The Hex
Listen: slow | fast

Today's cosmopolitan Smith has come a long way from his hardscrabble beginnings in the economically depressed Wester Hailes section of Edinburgh. From a young age, Smth set his sights on a career as a jazz musician. At 16, he left Scotland to study at Berklee. Among the many key people he met during his years at Berklee was Gary Burton who invited him to play with his band (alongside Steve Swallow, Adam Nussbaum, and Makoto Ozone). After 18 months with Burton, Smith signed a recording contract with Blue Note Records and began pursuing his solo career. He had released over 15 albums with Blue Note and other labels before deciding last year that launching his own label would provide the musical freedom his adventuresome muse demands.

A patriotic Scotsman, Smith is widely hailed at home. He has received numerous government arts awards and commissions as well as an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University. These days Smith and his wife, saxophonist Laura Macdonald '96, live amid rolling green fields in the countryside south of Glasgow. He tours frequently as a solo performer and in duos and larger jazz group settings. He has presented his own uncompromising brand of jazz at top clubs and concert halls from the United States to Azerbaijan.

Smith's approach to his profession mirrors his passionate and surefooted tenor lines. In addition to the creative, he handles every administrative aspect of his career: booking gigs, contracting musicians, writing grant proposals, music preparation, and operating a record label. It could be the stuff of future Celtic legends that Smith shoulders all this and still devotes his best energy to his music.

How did your love for jazz develop as you grew up in Edinburgh?

My stepfather loved jazz and played drums. He used to play gigs, although he didn't earn his living that way. I had started playing when I was 12. He had some records, mostly Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins. In fact, one of the first records I heard was Getz Au Go Go, which featured Gary Burton. My dad originally wanted me to play drums. He brought me into the room with his drum kit and sat me down and had me play some rolls. I was so bored with it that I knew I could never be a drummer.

After that, he started telling me I should become a "tenor man.” At primary school in Scotland, when you turn 11, they give you a music test to see if you have any natural ability. If you get a high score, you can choose an instrument. I wrote on my paper that I wanted a tenor saxophone. There were two at the school, and I got one. I was so proud when I brought it home because we had no money at all to buy one. My dad put on a record by Coleman Hawkins and told me to copy it. That was the beginning of the process where I learned about imitating other people's music. I couldn't read and didn't know anything about harmony, so I worked all by ear at the beginning.

There is a charming story about the people of the city helping you raise the money to come to Berklee. Can you fill me in?

When I was about 14, I was at someone's house and saw a catalog from Berklee. I looked at it and saw all of the pictures of the people who had studied there and I got really excited about it. I had pictures of the jazz greats on the walls of my room. When I saw how many had either studied or taught there, I decided to write to Berklee and send a tape and a few reviews. I got a letter back offering me a partial scholarship.

When I saw how much the full tuition was, I said, "oh no.” Money was very scarce for my family in those days. To get the money for me to come to Berklee, we held fundraisers. One of my teachers, Jean Ellison, wrote to companies to get sponsorship for a marathon playing session. She played for 10 hours nonstop for the marathon, and my primary school did a three-hour silence for another sponsor. Other people played concerts and did various things. We raised about £6,000. That was enough to pay for my flight, room and board, and provide a little spending money. So I entered Berklee at 16. Soon the money ran out. I felt that after all that help from my local community to get there, I couldn't just go right back; I would have felt like a failure. I wanted to stay and see if something would happen. I asked my Berklee teachers to write letters to help me get some scholarship money. I received a full scholarship.

Which teachers were influential during your Berklee years?

All of them were. George Garzone, Jimmy Mosher, Joe Viola, and Bill Pierce were all great. I was in about 10 ensembles; it was a busy time. Berklee is a fantastic place for a young musician; the environment is so brilliant. You get an incredible incentive to move forward quickly. The place is a volcano of activity, and that is a great thing. If I hadn't gone to Berklee, I wouldn't have gotten to where I am today. I wouldn't have met Gary Burton, I wouldn't be recording, or be a composer. All these things stem from my decision to come to Berklee.

How did you come to join Gary Burton's band?

As a student, I had taken his improvisation and music business classes. I found those amazing—especially the improvisation class. He spoke anecdotally and gave a lot of visual images. He didn't just give us music theory; he spoke about how things work conceptually in the improviser's mind. Most young musicians don't think about it, they go by instinct. Around that time Chick Corea came to the school for a week. I was among the students chosen to play for Chick. He mentioned me to Gary and told him that he should get me in his band. Gary auditioned me for his band—initially for two gigs in North and South Carolina.

That was about 1985. After those two gigs, I had to decide either to join his band or stay in school. I stayed with the band for about 18 months. I think I made the right choice. I learned so much about the business, how to tour a band, and more. We played all over America and South America and went to Europe several times.

What happened next?

I got a recording contract with Blue Note. I can't really remember how the offer came about. I did my first record in New York with musicians that Gary helped put together for me. The second record was done in Oslo. I did four for Blue Note, and then I was dropped.

Why did they drop you?

They gave me a huge budget for the first record. It was crazy. A lawyer Gary recommended had gotten me this four-record contract. The first album sold well and Blue Note was very happy. John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette, and Eddie Gomez played on it. Having those names on the record helped it to sell. For the second record, I wanted to record with my own band which was made up of people I'd met at Berklee: Norwegian bass player Terje Gewelt ['87], a Finnish drummer Klaus Suonsaari ['84], and a Danish piano player named Neils Lan Doky ['84]. It didn't sell as well as the first which sold 20,000 copies. Blue Note saw a downward trend in the sales of my four albums and dropped me. They never released the last one in America. They might have sold more if they had.

My next record was for the Scottish label Linn. Their concept was to go for longevity, not a short burst of quick sales. I would record very cost-effectively and they would make all of their money back. That approach worked very well. I did seven records with Linn.


When did you decide to base your career in Scotland?

I had taken a trip to New York with another Berklee student back when I was 16 and we went to this club that Jaco Pastorius and a number of jazz musicians were playing at. It was a bad experience. There were a lot of drugs and all these strange characters around. Being so young, I found New York very scary, People I knew at Berklee were all going to live in New York after finishing their studies. I knew I could never live there; I am a very patriotic Scot. I came back here when I was 20.

How did you extend your reach to include other countries in Europe?

When I was about 16, I started infiltrating England. There are 60 million people in England as opposed to the five million in Scotland. So there are more opportunities there. The key for a Scottish musician is to get a record out in England and become known. Then there is potential for booking concerts. If Scottish musicians don't get a record out they are limited to playing here and will have to do other things to make a living.

The networking you did at Berklee seems to have helped your career.

Very much so. In the years after I left Berklee, I worked mostly with Berklee people until 1994. After that I found some very good players over here. That saved me the cost flying people over and paying their tax. I continue to work with Berklee people off and on. I work with the Boclé brothers [Gildas '85 and Jean Baptiste Boclé '88] and Fritz Renold ['87]. Fritz does a lot of interesting things in Switzerland and is director of the Aarau Festival, one of the most unique jazz festivals in the world.

You have made your mark as both a composer and a player. When did you start to focus on composing?

Well, I never took lessons with anyone. I used to get feedback from Gary Burton on the tunes that I wrote when I was in his band. He would play them on piano and give me suggestions. A lot of his advice about developing melodic ideas and creating chord progressions for improvisation stuck in my mind.

I just listened to a lot of music and analyzed it. I tried to incorporate the things that I liked. It seems that I am writing very long works these days. After I finish one, I may not write again for six months. I will spend time studying and by the time I start to write again I have a lot of fresh ideas and sounds to work with.

In 1998, I met Roger Pollen, the director of the Scottish Ensemble, which is a string ensemble. I had been playing a saxophone concerto that was written for me and he commissioned me to write my own concerto to play with his ensemble. I told him I didn't even know how a violin was tuned. He arranged for me to receive money to buy books and study for eight months, to come to the group's rehearsals and concerts, and to have the players show me things about their instruments. He wanted me to be able to hear the effects strings produce. That made it easy for me to hear what col legno or sul tasto sounded like without trying to find it in someone's score.

For composers, there are two approaches to writing. One is music for music's sake; the other is music inspired by other things. Some composers need a poem, a picture, or a feeling to inspire them. Others get all their inspiration from the music they are writing, there is nothing external that inspires it. It's great if you can get the best of both worlds. For Beauty and the Beast, I read a lot of books and the play and then I told myself that I would try writing music for music's sake. I was thinking about Dave Liebman who was the featured soloist for the piece. I wasn't thinking about the story, I was thinking about his playing. I am more a saxophonist than a composer. I have a lot of fun composing because I haven't labeled myself a composer.

Tell me about your unusual collaborations with the famous Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.

We started working together in 1995. We met at tea at a friend's home. We went to a pub and worked on the ideas for what became the Beasts of Scotland CD. Later we did a project for the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival called Planet Wave. This is an ongoing relationship. So far, there are about 48 of his poems for which I've written six hours of music. Another mammoth project we did was 90 minutes long and based on The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas. We played it with a singer, my jazz sextet, and the Paragon Ensemble, a 15-piece classical ensemble from Glasgow.

I was commissioned to write a millennium suite for Cleo Lane two years ago. She wanted a 10-minute piece for her concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—a tribute to the millennium. She gave me some books of poetry to look over. I couldn't find anything that I felt was appropriate. So I told her that I had a friend who was a great poet. I sent her some of Edwin's poems and she wanted him to do it. The piece is in three parts as songs for her to sing.

Poetry is much different from song lyrics. Do you find it hard to write music to a text and set it for someone to sing?

Some of it has been difficult because the poetry was not uniform. You have to write music that is complex so you can somehow fit everything in. You have to be very clever with rhythm, harmonic rhythm, and word placement. These are the hardest things.

What inspired you to do the album Gymnopedie with classical pianist Murray McLachlan?

I met him at a party at a friend's house up in Dundee. There were two pianists there. One was Murray, the other was Steve Hamilton, a jazz player who went to Berklee. There were also two grand pianos there, and Murray played one, Steve played the other, and I played a bit too. We got to talking and I told Murray about a piece I'd written for saxophone and piano and how a jazz pianist had performed it with me, but that he really didn't have the technique to play it well. Murray said that I should write one for him to play. He said, "Write anything you want and I'll play it.” He showed me a few things about piano fingering and the middle pedal. So I wrote my first sonata for piano and saxophone titled "Hall of Mirrors” for him. We premiered it at the 1993 Glasgow Jazz Festival.

There was just that one performance, but afterward we decided to do some tours and needed to get more music together. I wrote a second sonata and we had all these small pieces by Erik Satie, Edvard Grieg, Francis Poulenc, and Chick Corea. We had to rehearse for about 50 hours over the course of a week. It was so different for me to play with such control. To play high very softly and to play each phrase absolutely perfectly was really hard work. Murray wants me to write a third sonata, and we will do more arrangements to change the program. I enjoy doing this because it is so different.

Murray is becoming more flexible, too. On the Chick Corea songs, he is learning how to comp and improvise. At the beginning of a piece, he might improvise an intro in the style of Stravinsky or Bartok and I will join it. He has amazing technique and can play anything.

I heard that what could have been a disaster when a sideman didn't make it to your concert ended up pointing you in a new musical direction. Can you explain what happened?

I was scheduled to play a duet concert with percussionist Tom Bancroft at a festival in Islay. About an hour before the concert, he called me on my mobile phone saying that his car had broken down and that he had missed the boat to the island. He couldn't get to the concert on time. I was sitting around wondering what I'd do. There was a shop that had a book about the island—the birds, the whiskey distillery, and other things. I found out as much as I could about the place.

I set up my Boomerang sampler and went out to play solo with my electronics. I tried to be as creative as possible. I talked a lot to the audience about the island. I did a tribute to the birds. I played in the bass line to Satie's "Gymnopedie” into the sampler and then I overdubbed other parts on it. I tried everything. I did two sets like that and even got an encore. I couldn't believe it. On the last note, Tom popped his head out the stage door. He quickly set up his drums, and we played some more. The review of the concert was very good, and I thought that maybe I should go down that avenue and take it further. Touring by yourself in Scotland is a good experience.

What prompted you to start Spartacus, your own record label, last year?

As I mentioned, I had done seven records with Linn, and it was a pretty happy experience. It was completely different from Blue Note. Because Linn didn't have the distribution in other countries, I saw my presence dwindling in France and Germany. Since my records weren't there it was getting harder to get gigs there. Some of my more avant-garde projects like Planet Wave, Monte Christo, and Alba were just too out there for Linn.

The records I did for them sold well; they made back all their money, and I got royalties for each record. Yet they weren't reinvesting the money in me. I'd have to beg for things like photographs and posters for a tour. Sometimes I'd have to pay for them myself. I started thinking, I am organizing it, producing it, and doing everything for the record, I'm just not financing it. I figured if I got some money and worked on distribution, I could do the same job. I took that big risk last year in September. I recorded two records: my own is called Spartacus and the other is by my wife and is called Laura Macdonald. [The Spartacus website is]

So now you are personally handling every aspect of your career.

Yes. Some people think I do it because I want to, but it is because I have to. I write my own music—I couldn't let someone else do that for me. I was always involved in producing my records, so that's not new. I book my own gigs because I can get more work than someone else would get for me. I have had managers in the past, and they thought it was great when they were getting me 25 gigs in a year. I can book four times that amount. If I had an agent who was getting me 100 gigs a year, I wouldn't mind paying a commission. But paying a commission to someone who gets you 25 gigs is not worth it.

The promoters in jazz like to talk to the musicians. There is no problem with artists trying to book their own concerts. I think that in the past it might have been taboo. But now, you call and they know who you are, they don't have to find out from a middleman.

Do you think all jazz musicians should have a feel for being entrepreneurial?

No, they just have to have a feel for spending money and not making a profit! [laughs]. Every year when I do my taxes, I see that I made a good sum of money; but I always put a huge portion of what I earned right back into the business. I have one saxophone and one car for both my wife and me. So I wouldn't say we are living the high life, but we are living a good life.