Tommy Smith’s special talent was obvious as soon as he appeared on the Edinburgh jazz scene in his early teens. He recorded his first album, Giant Strides, at the age of sixteen in 1983 with a trio featuring drummer John Rae, and that same year he won a scholarship, assisted by an extensive fund-raising programme organised by his music teacher, Jean Allison, to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Born in Edinburgh on April 27, 1967, to a Scottish mother, Brenda Ann Urquhart, and father, William John Ellis, whom he never met, Smith was brought up in the Wester Hailes area of the city. Here he was encouraged by his late stepfather, George Smith, an avid jazz fan and drummer in the Gene Krupa style, to take up the tenor saxophone at the age of twelve.
Under the skilful direction of Jim O’Malley and Jean Allison of the music department at Wester Hailes Education Centre, Smith made swift progress and was soon gigging around Edinburgh and Scotland with his quartet with John Rae. Within four years he had recorded Giant Strides (GFM Records) and was on his way to Berklee, where he formed the co-operative group Forward Motion with Norwegian bassist Terje Gewelt, Canadian drummer Ian Froman and Hungarian pianist Laszlo Gardonyi. This group remained active with varying personnel until 1994 and recorded two albums, Progressions and The Berklee Tapes.
At eighteen and on the recommendation of Chick Corea, Smith joined Berklee vice president Gary Burton’s group, alongside bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Makoto Ozone and drummer Adam Nussbaum, touring the world, recording the Whiz Kids album for ECM Records and catching the attention of critics including Larry Kart of the Chicago Tribune who opined: “The key addition is Tommy Smith, who, if memory serves, is only the second saxophonist Gary Burton has employed in his twenty-odd years as a leader. Smith’s angular, bristling lines suggest he has his own story to tell.”