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Interviews

Mr. Smith Goes to Bucharest: Fulbright Scholar's Return Energizes Romanian Jazz Musicians

By Published: July 12, 2004

AAJ: How many students are currently enrolled in the conservatory jazz program?

Tom Smith: When I arrived there was a mere handful. But, it was easy to see that scores of students were entering the tiny jazz room every day. This prompted me to assist the jazz section in getting out from under the composition section of the curriculum and into the performance section where most of the students actually were. We also went to a lot of trouble to see to it that anyone (irregardless of major emphasis) could be an active participant in the jazz section. Once this had been achieved, the number of jazz majors quintupled. I suspect there are at least fifty jazz majors, with many more passing through for an exploratory adventure.

AAJ: What classes did you teach?

Tom Smith: At present I teach two big bands, a jazz vocal group, a couple of combos, improvisation and jazz history. I also lecture weekly at the University of Bucharest. It's a lot of work. But it's a great deal of fun.

AAJ: Did you find it difficult to adjust to Romanian culture, language, people?

Tom Smith: English is pretty easy to speak within the intellectual circles of Bucharest. Initially, I was prepared to speak Romanian. But usually, my people always want to practice their English on me. For the most part Romania is a very comfortable country. Everything is inexpensive here, and food is plentiful. There is also a very practical and cheap transportation infrastructure in Bucharest. Romania does suffer from a crippling bureaucracy. It infiltrates all aspects of life-and it drives me nuts.

AAJ: Describe the jazz club scene in the city.

Tom Smith: There are two principal jazz clubs in Bucharest, and they exist within a five minute walk of each other. Both clubs are always packed. Art Jazz is the more mainstream venue, and is the one most frequented by music students. In the past three weeks, I have performed a Dixieland concert, a Bill Evans concert and a Keith Jarrett concert there. Green Hours offers the cutting edge stuff, fusion, free jazz, midi overdoses, acid jazz and jazz raves. In the winter months, it is mostly attended by the intellectual underground and the beautiful people. During the summer months, everything moves out into the courtyard and the music is a little more traditional. Green Hours during the summer months is a very pleasant experience. There are also a number of similar venues that feature jazz on a very regular basis. Laptaria Enache is located right across the street from Art Jazz, and it is the only place Johnny Raducanu plays. The club scene in Bucharest is relatively small for a city of two and a half million people. But, what does exist is frequent and of very high quality.

AAJ: How were you treated by the old guard versus the younger players?

Tom Smith: I am treated great by both groups. People here have never seen the western traditions related to versatility. They stereotype even more than we do in the States. So they are surprised that I enjoy playing all the styles equally, and with any group that plays them well. Romanian jazz musicians want you to be straight with them. For the most part, they are a pretty suspicious lot. There are so many people trying to scam them, enough that when you treat them with honesty, they love you forever. Anyone who comes into Bucharest with ulterior motives is thrown out on his ear.

AAJ: Why are musicians undercutting each other instead of working together?

Tom Smith: Everybody is scared. They think all the money will disappear tomorrow at six o'clock. Since there is no real music education infrastructure, there are none of those music teacher day gigs. It must be very confusing for them. Really, how can we judge these people considering what they endured for fifty-plus years? Once they understand the delicacies of capitalism, this will improve. It gets a little better every day.

AAJ: Is it true that you had a lot of opportunities to perform on Romanian TV and the radio?

Tom Smith: Yes. Performing on Romania mass media is a piece of cake for a jazz musician. Radio Romania broadcasts something like 40 hours of jazz per week. That's a lot of jazz.

AAJ: You mentioned that there is a great deal of unreleased jazz recordings. Would you like to have this music be released?

Tom Smith: Absolutely. There are so many creative people here doing the homemade stuff, and so much of it is so, so good. It is funny though. A guy will tell you, "I am going into the studio today to record a CD." The next day he is selling it on the streets, homemade cover and all. Studio time is very inexpensive here. But you get what you pay for.

AAJ: You returned to Bucharest in January, 2004. Why quit your job and return to a chaotic situation?

Tom Smith: When I left Bucharest the last time, I felt there was much unfinished business to attend to. Before this Fulbright adventure I had initiated something like 40 community and regional jazz and wind ensembles. In all previous cases, there had been some type of conclusive outcome. Sometimes the outcome was not to your liking, but it was an outcome nonetheless. In this case, I felt like I had run like crazy, saw the finish line over the horizon, then stepped off to have dinner while the whole thing finished out on its own. Something about that outcome bothered me. I was especially concerned about the future of the Romanian jazz musician. These people will join the European Union in 2007, meaning that all Romanians will be able to work anywhere within the borders of the EU. Now, it goes without saying that many of these guys think they will cross into Hungary, and suddenly there will be hundreds of high paying gigs for the asking. My concern is just the opposite.

The flipside of the Romanian dream is that anyone from the EU will be allowed to work in Romania. At present all those large, high paying Elton John-, Whitney Houston-type shows (where the role of backup musician always goes to the versatile jazz musician) stop at Budapest before turning back to head west. After EU ascension, Bucharest will be a regular venue. This will also coincide with a proposed superhighway extending from Budapest to Bucharest. If the Bucharest musicians continue their divisive undisciplined ways, there will instead be a sudden reverse migration TO ROMANIA. Leading the charge will be German, Dutch and Hungarian jazz musicians, tired of waiting their turns in saturated, overly competitive markets. Once these guys discover that slightly above average musicians can get television contracts in Bucharest, the floodgates will open, rest assured. I believe there is the very real chance of a future Romanian musical culture devoid of Romanian musicians. Sadly, Bucharest will have brought this unfortunate turn of events upon itself. I hear all the time about musicians who say "we will pass a law to keep this from happening to Romanians." But the EU scenario does not operate that way. Most Bucharest musicians live in a dream world. They will be powerless to stop the EU juggernaut. This situation also applies to the Bucharest classical musicians, who are probably the most undisciplined in Europe. After all, what conductors will need tolerate rehearsal tardiness and cell phones, when they can recruit westerners who are willing to work like Prussians?



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