Tommy Smith

18th January 2013 at 00:00
A group of teachers guided and inspired the jazz saxophonist and made music a key part of daily life

The first teacher who helped me was my stepfather, George Smith, because he was a jazz drummer and he had recordings that he would play pretty often, particularly this record of Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins. He was always asking me if I wanted to be a tenor man - I didn't understand what he was saying.

When I went to WHEC (Wester Hailes Education Centre), I took this music test, the Bentley test, which figures out if you have any musical ability, and I got to choose an instrument. I wrote "tenor saxophone". I'd never seen one except on record covers.

Jim O'Malley was my saxophone teacher, although he was really a clarinet player. He always says now he was only one page ahead of me in the book. He was used to teaching his students one note at a time, but I had just gone home and learned all the notes. When I came back, he was a little bit shocked. I'm now teaching his son, Phil, who's on the master's course at the Conservatoire and plays the trombone.

Jim was not a jazz musician and I wanted to put a jazz group together, but Jean Allison, the head of the department, helped me. There wasn't really any jazz anywhere, but one guy, Gordon Cruickshank, visited our school because he was putting on a jazz concert. There was only one ticket sold - and it was me who bought it. They had to cancel it and give me my #163;2 back.

But Gordon Cruickshank ran a Saturday morning jazz school at Broughton High. I met a group of people there and formed a band. They included a consultant pathologist - his name was something like Vincenzo Caracciolo. I was 13 and he was 40, and he played the piano. Vincenzo would teach me harmony on the piano and how all these chords were constructed and how the scales went with all the chords. It just made things make sense. He was an Italian guy and he spoke pretty good English. I didn't speak English myself - I spoke "schemie".

Jim O'Malley and Jean Allison both helped me to raise money to go to school in Berklee. Jean played the piano for 10 hours non-stop to raise money. I owe them a great debt.

At Berklee, George Garzone defined my approach to the saxophone and my approach to time and interplay. One of the things that really inspired me was not just his teaching, but the fact that he could also demonstrate all the things he was talking about. It would just blow your mind. He was one of the best players on the planet. He could really see what my key problems were during the first lesson and he went to work to try and find ways to help me improve as quickly as possible at the age of 16.

But Gary Burton was the greatest teacher of them all - everything from improvisation to his conceptual approach to mental techniques and the way thematic development and improvisation work and getting in the zone. I joined his band at 18 and had been to his lectures at Berklee. He had two classes - improvisation and the music business - and they were packed out all the time. You were lucky to get a seat. He was one of the most influential teachers there has ever been in jazz music because he has an amazing way of making it simple. He would use parallels with other genres, such as English literature.

I never wanted to be a teacher or lead a big band. I just wanted to play. But after all the help my community gave me when I was younger and seeing the lack of a jazz infrastructure in Scotland, I felt something had to be done.

It took 11 years to get a full-time course at an institution established, but I got full backing from John Wallace and the Conservatoire. We're having our first graduation ceremony in the summer.

Tommy Smith was talking to Elizabeth Buie.


Born: Edinburgh, 1967

Education: Dumbryden Primary, Wester Hailes Education Centre, Broughton High music school, all Edinburgh; Berklee College of Music, Boston

Career: Joined Gary Burton's band at age 18; signed for Blue Note Records at 20; established the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in 1995 and the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002; launched full- time jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2009.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today