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


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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.
When I first spoke to Tom Smith, during the summer of 2002, I considered him a curiosity. Professor Smith—a 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, and—most importantly—self-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.

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?

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.

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