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Chris Smith: At The Intersection Of Scholarship, Performance and Pedagogy

David A. Orthmann By

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In the introduction to his book Jazz Matters (University Of California Press, 2010), David Ake writes about bringing "together the practical side of making jazz, the pedagogical side of teaching it, and the academic side of writing about it." (p. 12) "Nothing but good," Ake adds, "can come if we increase the numbers of scholars who can play, players who can cite the music's sociocultural history, and instructors who can do both." (p. 12)

Ake's exhortation to reach for excellence in a variety of musically related endeavors brings to mind Chris Smith, a young scholar, drummer, and educator. In the fall of 2014 the University Of North Texas Press published The View From The Back Of The Band, Smith's scholarly, accessible biography of drummer Mel Lewis. In addition to amassing a notable discography as a sideman, Smith is beginning to make a name for himself in New York City's notoriously competitive jazz scene. With an eye to eventually securing a full-time teaching position in academia, Smith teaches privately and gives clinics and master classes, as well as performing as a guest artist, in colleges and universities across the country.

All About Jazz: Did The View From The Back Of The Band originate as your doctoral dissertation from the University of Northern Colorado?

Chris Smith: It did. I graduated in 2012.

AAJ: Why did you choose Mel Lewis as the subject of your dissertation?

CS: A couple of main reasons, really. He was a drummer I had always admired, yet I knew that I hadn't really checked him out enough. I loved his playing, but I knew that I had a lot more recordings of his to check out. I didn't know anything about him—sort of the trajectory of his career. I didn't know anything about him as a human being. I also knew that, as a drummer, I didn't sound like him at all. I had been trying to work on getting a more legato sound out of the drums and cymbals. And I had really been working on my ride cymbal beat. And so who can you really get into to improve those aspects of your playing? Mel is an obvious choice.

The other thing is that there had been no major research on him. That was obviously a rule in academia for doing the dissertation—doing original research. It was kind of obvious, but it was a major reason, as well. The ten or fifteen pages that Burt Korall wrote in Drummin' Men were the largest single source of information on Mel. There seemed to be a need out there.

AAJ: Was it difficult to engage the support of the university and your dissertation advisor in terms of researching and writing about this particular topic?

CS: Not at all. I did this at the University of Northern Colorado, and I was actually the first person to graduate from there with a Jazz Doctorate. So I have a DA in Jazz Studies. It was a jazz research project from the get go. My committee included an English Professor—because there had to be an outside professor on the committee that's not from music. And even though he was in the English Department, he had lived in LA in the 50s and was an amateur jazz pianist. How great is that! Everyone else on my committee was a Jazz Studies faculty and completely on board, I was lucky in that regard. Jim White, who I was studying drums with there, was very helpful. The English professor, Dr. Norm Peercy, out of the goodness of his heart and because he really cared about the research and information, edited the entire dissertation with me for free. He wanted to make sure that it was really great. So I had all the support in the world from Northern Colorado. No one was trying to make me write the research they had always wanted to do. It was my project and everybody was on board.

AAJ: Generally speaking, what were the primary challenges of doing the research for the dissertation?

CS: At first, the primary challenge was putting together Mel's life before he joined Stan Kenton. Basically, everything from 1929 to about 1955. That was difficult at first, but then one morning I got an email from Adam Nussbaum and then twenty minutes later I got an email from Ed Soph. It was circulating around this bootleg audio interview Mel did with Loren Schoenberg. Mel did all of those famous interviews with Loren about the history of jazz drums. There was one episode where Mel talked about his own life. When I got that it was like I had been racking my brain trying to put all of this together, and the next thing I know I'm sitting in my living room hearing Mel tell the whole damn thing! It was almost a two-hour interview with Mel talking about his career from birth to 1955. This sounds weird, but I kind of felt like Mel knew what I doing and, somehow, he got that into my hands. Then it was a matter of transcribing and digging into that information. So, initially, that was the biggest challenge. And it got sorted out, miraculously, by hearing Mel tell it. That was a remarkable thing.

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