American Jazz Teaching Arrives in Romania

American Jazz Teaching Arrives in Romania

by Virgil Mihaiu

copyright © 2003 Virgil Mihaiu

Lately, Romania's lethargic jazz scene has been livened up by the arrival of two very active Fulbright scholars. One of them - trombone player/conductor/arranger/professor Tom Smith - sums up the situation he encountered on the spot as follows: "At present, the state of Romanian jazz is filled with contradictions. While festival and club activities have actually increased, musician salaries continue their downward spiral. In no place is this more apparent than in Bucharest, where musicians uncertain of their long term futures in the newly evolving capitalist economy, regularly engage in stealing gigs from their colleagues. They use a variety of means to succeed at this practice, with price under-cutting being the most common. The end result is of course lower prices for all concerned. While a decent number of Bucharest musicians continue to make a go of it, the rest of Romania experiences an alarming jazz exodus, with Eurozone neighbors Hungary, Austria and Germany being the biggest unintentional profiteers."

Since February 2002, Romania has been awarded guest residencies from no fewer than three American jazz Fulbright Scholars. Of those three, two have held down extended professorships, courtesy of the U.S. State Department. Stan Kenton alumnus, and McNeese University professor Rick Condit arrived first, and established himself at the George Enescu School for Fine Arts in Iasi. During his successful five month term, saxophonist Condit taught jazz history courses and regularly participated in significant Romanian jazz concerts, while in the company of Ion Baicu, a gifted pianist who often performs with Tim Hagans Swedish Big Band. However, it was Condit's short term guest residencies in Bucharest that garnered the most attention, and led to a most improbable adventure with Romania's notorious National Radio Big Band.

After a successful Bucharest television appearance with Armenian based Fulbright scholar and New School (New York) faculty member Armen Donelian, Condit was approached by the management of Radio Romania to produce and direct a jazz program with the grizzled veterans of NRBB, a group not known for their tolerance of new initiatives. In fact, NRBB musicians rarely possess an inclination to perform at all, since they are paid a monthly stipend whether they play or not (one of the last remaining vestiges of the old broken down communist system). When the musicians discovered that Condit's charts would require more than a quick sight reading, they refused to play them. Not to be deterred, Condit turned to pianist Mircea Tiberian's jazz students from Universitatea Nationala de Muzica, and diligently rehearsed the same program with them for two straight weeks. The end result was a very successful radio and television presentation, and the birth of a new student big band for Romania's oldest and largest music conservatory.

Despite Condit's efforts, there was still a deficiency of arrangements, instrument supplies and jazz resource materials needed to sustain the band for the long term. Afraid that Condit's project would dissapear, Tiberian pressed the Fulbright Commission for assistance. To his surprise he discovered that yet another jazz Fulbright Scholar was scheduled to reside in the western city of Timisoara for an entire academic year. Tiberian already knew that Timisoara had lost most of its jazz population to emigration, and pressed the Commission to transfer this new scholar to Bucharest. Tom Smith, a director of instrumental music at Pfeiffer University, and initiator of over forty community and regional jazz ensembles in the United States was persuaded by the Fulbright Commission to accept a transfer, and by September 2002, he had accepted a temporary professorship at Universitatea Nationala de Muzica.

Smith established a level of artistic intensity rarely seen in Bucharest. He tended to see the growth of Romanian jazz as a kind of war game, with discipline and apathy being his principle targets. He immediately won over his colleagues by eliciting donations for over thirty thousand American dollars worth of music, recordings, improvisational methods and supplies; thus eliminating much of the resource deficiencies that previously existed.

Within three weeks of his arrival, he had already successfully directed the student big band in a nationally televised broadcast at the Bucharest International Jazz Festival. In the days leading up to that performance, it was said that Smith literally "beat" American concepts of articulation, style and discipline into Tiberian's initially surprised students. More radio and television broadcasts immediately followed, including a highly rated Christmas special, where the students served as backup band for most of Romania's top artists and entertainers.

If there was any one time when Smith infiltrated the consciousness of the Romanian jazz world, it was from mid January until late February 2003, when he performed in or produced no fewer than a dozen live radio and television broadcasts, while simultaneously leading all three of Bucharest's big bands. In addition to regular conducting duties, he regularly played trombone with Tiberian, saxophonists Nicholas Simion, Garbis Dedeian and Cristian Soleanu, Vlaicu Golcea's popular East Village Band, and Romanian jazz icon Johnny Raducanu. As had been the case the year before with Condit, Radio Romania approached Smith about guest conducting a jazz program with the Radio Big Band. Determined not to suffer the same insult endured by Condit, Smith instead offered the Radio Big Band a programme of music written and arranged by German band leader and Bucharest native Peter Herbolzheimer. This famed leader of Germany's Youth Jazz Orchestra, was well known to Smith, and had already given him over twenty of his arrangements for the university library. Although the concert proposed by Smith was every bit as difficult as the one offered by Condit, Smith knew that the RBB would never overcome the political arrows associated with dismissing one of Bucharest's favorite sons.

Within a period of ten days, Smith greatly surprised his audience with the quality of the NRBB's performance, and by doing so acheived a personal triumph that exceeded all of his previous Romanian efforts. But Smith's greatest triumph was to occur the following week when he staged a gala history of jazz concert, sponsored by the American Cultural Center. The main purpose of the event was to unveil his newly formed Romanian National Jazz Ensemble. For the first time in recent memory twenty-three of Romania's most important jazz musicians appeared on the same stage for a single unified cause. A capacity crowd attended the event, and has since been called "the greatest jazz concert ever held in Bucharest."

Two weeks later, Smith was again cast into the spotlight, this time as the recipient of a National Radio Music Award in Jazz. The fact that no one questioned giving this high honor to a foreigner was deemed even the more extraordinary. In the months following, Smith continued to expand his influence in Romania through a series of television programs not always associated with jazz, while presiding over numerous festival bands of all shapes and sizes.

Tom Smith concludes his remarkable ten month run under a cloud of uncertainty. At present he worries that no one exists over the horizon to continue the work started by himself and his colleague Rick Condit. Still, Romania is an unpredictable place, where many things can happen when you least expect them.

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