Mr. Smith Goes to Bucharest: Fulbright Scholar's Return Energizes Romanian Jazz Musicians
AAJ:> How would you summarize your second, six-month residency in Bucharest?
Tom Smith: This past Fulbright residency has run the gamut of progress and emotions. I rejuvenated the National Jazz Ensemble, conducted and greatly improved the Radio Big Band, and at the conservatory I established a jazz vocal group and a second big band. I also continued my lectures about jazz and their correlations with American culture at the University of Bucharest. I performed at several of Romania's international jazz festivals and became a regular fixture at the Green Hours and Art Jazz clubs, performing a variety of combo concerts most often with Mircea Tiberian, Vlaicu Golcea, Garbis Dedian, Mihai Iordache and Cristian Soleanu. At last, the conservatory big bands (very strong groups now) will receive course credit in the fall, as a result of regular afternoon big band concerts in the George Enescu hall, including a well received Ellington concert that featured Johnny Raducanu. Unfortunately, my colleague Mircea Tiberian, head of the conservatory's jazz program, disappeared (unannounced and with no one to teach classes, etc.) in April to perform private gigs. This was a real setback, since we had made a lot of plans. When I discovered that he planned to take even more out of town gigs during the period of our all-important 140th anniversary concert (the conservatory's long overdue recognition of jazz as a full fledged art form) on June 27, I decided to cut my losses for the moment and assist Hibiscus College in Timisoara establish their own jazz studies program.
As of last week, that is what I am doing. I told the Conservatory Rector that my hands were tied at the moment until they decided what they were going to do with Mircea (the Rector was pretty upset with him). The Fulbright office agreed with my decision, since they believed Mircea's behavior was an exploitation of the Fulbright goals-a kind of "now that I have somebody who can do my job, I am going to take off while no one notices, and make some extra cash." See, with no class credits to hold them, conservatory students can run off to play really stupid gigs at anytime (usually with little or no pay), and completely miss out on their free quality education. This is a real problem at the conservatory within all musical genres, not just jazz. Presently many undergraduates are in serious academic peril for doing this and are being threatened with expulsion. Until April 1st, we had the students completely trained to do the right thing. But when the department head starting engaging in the very same behavior, it encouraged some of the marginal personalities to follow his poor example. The extra work this caused has made me very ill; I have been fighting a SARS-like virus for the past three weeks.
I travel the 9-hour train ride to Timisoara for a couple of days per week, while I continue to reside in Bucharest until July 8th. Timisoara is a great place to do this. With their close proximity to Hungary, it opens a lot of doors, although I will never give up on Bucharest. Still the Timisoara crowd really wants this to happen based on the Bucharest successes. Mircea's behavior is pretty typical for around here. Just when the entire world is ready to make acknowledgments, these guys sort of freak out and bail. They all think very, very small. But, I will not be deterred. If I find it necessary to go back home to the States, I will return ASAP with a new plan. Currently, there are a lot of people trying to set me up permanently here. If this does not work, I have been offered decent gigs in the States. On a personal note, my fourteen year old son Matt's experiences here and his studies with Romania's preeminent drummer Vlad Popescu have turned him into an amazing young jazz drummer. Moreover, my wife taught English to Turkish kids at an International school, and after years of searching, found her true calling. This story is not over, not by a long shot.