When I first spoke to Tom Smith, during the summer of 2002, I considered him a curiosity. Professor Smitha trombonist and Director of Instrumental Music at Pfeiffer University, near Charlotte, North Carolina - had accepted the position of Senior Fulbright Professor of Music at the Romanian National University, a six-month teaching gig in Bucharest. Armed with only a cursory knowledge of the Romanian language, Smith (along with his wife and teenage son) planned to venture into a virtual jazz wasteland, aware Romanian jazz musicians lacked discipline, written music, playable instruments, andmost importantlyself-confidence.
As we talked on the phone, I reflected on my 2001 trip to Romania's capital city. I recalled visiting its only jazz club, Green Hours. I recalled meeting with its only university jazz professor, Mircea Tiberian. I recalled my visit to the jazz department (a closet-like practice room barely large enough to contain a beat-up piano and upright bass) to which I donated a dozen jazz CDs by Seattle artists. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of his monumental task, I wished Prof. Smith good luck, thinking he'd need it.
A year later I again heard from the professor, and I could hardly believe the news. Smith had collected donations from contacts in America and Europe for over $30,000 worth of music, recordings, improvisational methods and supplies. He directed the student big band in a nationally televised broadcast at the first-ever Bucharest International Jazz Festival. He staged a gala history of jazz concert, sponsored by the American Cultural Center, unveiling his newly formed Romanian National Jazz Ensemble to capacity crowd. He was awarded the 2003 National Radio Music prize for jazz. Lastly, and most importantly, he had accepted another six-month tour of duty (from January to June, 2004) at the National University in Bucharest.
Almost overnight, Tom Smith jump-started a rag-tag jazz program, quintupled enrollment, and instilled a measure of confidence and poise in musicians who were generally considered second-rate hacks, kilometers behind the classical musicians in respectability and reputation. The curious professor with his melodious trombone and Southern drawl had become an overseas hero-a goodwill ambassador of America's original music. His is an remarkable story, and it's not over.
All About Jazz: What were your expectations at the beginning of your initial Fulbright in Bucharest?
Tom Smith: In all candor, not very high. Although I was well aware of some high quality musicians, I knew that the Romanian jazz infrastructure was almost nonexistent. It was like dealing with a great team without uniforms or a stadium. The whole thing was a big mess. Most of my trepidation came from the email contact I had initiated with the Romanian jazz community. Romania is a very strange place regarding issues of national pride. In fact Romania may be the only European country in need of MORE nationalism. Most Romanians harbor low opinions of their own personal accomplishments and activities. They are a dazed, mentally fatigued population, and the jazz community is no exception. In fact, some of the email letters were desperate enough to use as means for securing free music-related donations. One bassist in particular wrote a letter desperate enough to forward to the attention of Jamey Aebersold. A few days later, he sent over a box of materials from his publishing company. Pretty soon, a number of companies followed suit. This was the beginning of everything.
AAJ: Describe the National University of Music (the conservatory) jazz program when you first arrived there in the fall of 2002.
Tom Smith: I will never forget my first encounter with those guys. I actually entered the university incognito on their first day of school. Like many places in the States, administration was staging an orientation forum/concert for the whole student body. I sat there for about an hour, and during that time, I heard some very good classical music. This of course did not surprise me. The Romanian National University of Music is a major European conservatory with over a thousand students. I fully expected to hear great classical violinists and pianists, and I was not disappointed. After a time, there was a break, prompting me to believe everything was over. Just as people were beginning to stand, a jazz quartet staggered on the stage in a haphazard manner. They were dressed as if they didn't care, and talked on stage as if no one was in the audience. Uh oh, I thought. This could go very badly. Then a tenor player counted off a tempo, and they were off. It was "Joy Spring," and they played it very well. I was so relieved, since their demeanor had demonstrated another very possible outcome. When it was over, they all forgot to bow and the drummer knocked over the microphones with his high-hat stand. This took my mind off the fact that he was only wearing one shoe. The audience was half impressed, half confused. For that matter, so was I.
That first encounter was a real message. From that moment forward I knew what my job was all about. These guys had to get organized and professional. Moreover, the process had to be fast, because I was uncertain if I could put up with too much of that stuff. Those first few months were a real war of wills. Not one of them owned a watch-not a one. They thought it was their God-given right as recently freed men to appear for rehearsals at any time that suited them. In those first few days, you would hear ten cell phones ring at once, and suddenly the music would stop. I thought I was going to kill them all. Then one day there was a breakthrough. One of the more enlightened musicians started taking notes every time I demonstrated something. Then he would gaze attentively at the behavior of his colleagues, and start taking more notes. I had no idea what he was doing, but you can probably imagine the things that ran through my mind.
Finally after three days of this, the guy supervised a huddle with the other guys, and then walked towards me grinning like a crazy man. "Professor Smith, my colleagues and I have considered your comments regarding the strong suggestion that we be silent during repetitions (rehearsals). To our delight we have discovered that when we are quiet, the music does in fact improve." I was astonished. To him, this revelation had been the equivalent of an epiphany. "Do my colleagues concur?" he shouted to the others in the room. "We concur!" they all shouted back in unison. "Very well professor, we will never talk during the repetitions ever again." And you know what? They never did. All of this now seems like a very long time ago. In the present they behave like any collegiate big band musicians from the West and the quality of their performances demonstrate that.