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


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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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