RCN: What did you think when Societea Romania de Radiophone gave you the Grand Award of Jazz (National Music Awards)? You are after all an American.
SMITH: Well, I obviously believed it was a mistake, and I wondered how it was possible after only being here six months. There are some musicians in Romania like Marius Popp who should have already won. In a way I felt like handing my award over to him.
RCN: Are you as well known in America as you are here?
SMITH: (laughing) Good grief no! I had a very brief minor run in the mid to late eighties. Then I faded out of view for awhile. That is the way things operate in The States. It is always about “what have you done for me lately?” and revisionist history. Still, even if I was not in any kind of national American spotlight, I saw a number of my students and colleagues get there. So in a way, that was sort of gratifying.
RCN: Tell us about this revisionist history.
SMITH: You mean I have to explain revisionist history to a Romanian? (laughs) As you know, the music business is very political. Therefore, a number of games are played by all participants in order to as we say in The States, “get a leg up.” One of them is to categorize and stereotype. Romanian musicians are probably more guilty of this practice than Americans, but they are more benign about their reasons for being this way. For example, I conduct symphonic wind symphonies at home. But, I seriously doubt I will ever be allowed within a hundred meters of a classical conductor’s podium in Romania. Now that is not to say there is not a mutual respect between myself and the Bucharest classical community. Here, it is simply a matter of old habits. In Romania, I supposedly have my turf, and they supposedly have theirs. I believe the Romanian viewpoint is more like “why would he want to be with us?” as opposed to the more cynical exclusionary practices of Americans. Now with that said, Bucharest jazz musicians are as rabid towards each other as any group I ever been around, and I think financial considerations play a huge stake in this. People get a little crazy sometimes when there is not enough money to go around.
RCN: What do you believe are the American exclusionary practices?
SMITH: First let me preface by saying that I am not complaining. Part of being in the music business is learning to develop a very thick skin. I handle things a lot better now than when I was younger. You have to in this business, or you just don’y make it. American music is the most competetive in the world. We have two hundred thousand SCHOOL jazz ensembles. Europeans cannot fathom how many American musicians are out there, and much of that has to do with the hundreds of thousands of free band, choral and orchestra programs in the American school systems. Because of the intense competition, American musicians are often honored to play with anyone. With that said, a large number of American musicians will do anything possible to guard their territory. Therefore, in the minds of some misplaced individuals, exclusion is necessary for survival. I remember back in the eighties, when I had a top notch big band. As long as I was the non threatening new guy, everyone was very polite and cooperative. That all changed when I started to become the main guy in my region. That’s when I saw the other side of the music business dynamic. Still, you have to try not to sustain long term animosities. Instead, you try to understand the insecurities inherent of said behavior. Often, the dark stuff begins with the young musicians, although this is not to say that veterans are exempt. Sometimes, these musicians are merely frustrated, immature, or a combination of the two. But, you try not to give up on any one musician, unless they are really asking for trouble. Often, these same people eventually grow up, mature and become positive influences on music.
The same kind of thing applies to Americam intellectual circles, although these people are often loathe to admit their own personal trangressions. There are some for example, who might categorize me as an intellectual light weigt, merely because I do not habitually speak in a manner reminiscent of the conversational dialogue forwarded by Einstein and Tessla in the 1920s. And here I am a Senior Fulbright Scholar. I also write, and you better believe that the literary world does the same thing. That’s exclusion. I wish it did not exist. But, I guess that’s the nature of our business. I once wrote a paper where I used the theory of relativity as a spring board for describing the sentient nature of music. Now imagine me sitting at some table at the club after a gig talking about that? That would exclude me for sure! (laughs).
RCN: Tom Smith, Fulbright Scholar, bandleader, honorary distinguished professor. Thank you very much.