Tommy Smith was born 27th April 1967 in Edinburgh, Scotland and began his prolific career at sixteen when he recorded his first album Giant Strides. He was rewarded with a scholarship to Berklee College of Music, an experience that has shaped his affirmative approach to jazz. Smith grew up in various impoverished areas of Edinburgh, including Pilton, Broomhouse, and Wester Hailes. Although these areas are well known for their deprivation and the disadvantaged, no social-worker informed him he was deprived. He was happy as a pig in muck, as it is only in retrospect that you know anything about deprivation.
Arriving at Berklee in Boston in January of 1983, Smith always thanked and recognised the massive support from Sean Connery and his community in Edinburgh for raising funds for him to study in higher education. After a year at college, he was recommended by legendary pianist Chick Corea to join Gary Burton’s quintet with Steve Swallow, Makoto Ozone, Adam Nussbaum, and subsequently toured worldwide and record on ECM’s album Whiz Kids.
Since then, he has recorded over thirty solo albums for Blue Note, Linn, ECM and his own Spartacus Record label, toured 50+ countries, and performed with many influential figures in modern twentieth-century jazz including Arild Andersen, John Scofield, Paolo Vinaccia, Jaco Pastorius, Kenny Wheeler, Jack DeJohnette, Dizzy Gillespie, Trilok Gurtu.
Although he is primarily a jazz composer, noted for assertive large-scale pieces such as Torah, World of the Gods, Spirit of Light and Beauty and the Beast, Smith’s work has frequently taken him into other spheres. His first pieces of classical music were Unirsi In Matrimonio in 1990, and Un Ecossais A Paris in 1991. He later collaborated with classical pianist Murray McLaughlin for Sonata No.1 – Hall of Mirrors and Sonata No.2 Dreaming with Open Eyes, both for saxophone and piano. Smith’s saxophone concerto Hiroshima was premiered in 1998, followed by Sons and Daughters of Alba (2000) and the Edinburgh Suite (2002). In 2016, he released his symphonic work Modern Jacobite, recorded in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
While with Linn Records, Smith first met Glasgow’s inaugural poet laureate, Edwin Morgan, developing a unique artistic relationship and close friendship that continued until Morgan died in 2010 creating 55 works of poetry and music. In 1996, they recorded Beasts of Scotland and then collaborated again in 1997 commissioning Planet Wave, a significant project of poetry and music addressing the subject of time. Monte Cristo in 1998 based on Alexandre Dumas epic novel featuring a hybrid ensemble of classical and jazz musicians. Smith received an inaugural Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish Arts Council in 2000 that let him fulfil his ambition to record the atmospheric Alone at Last: a solo programme that again featured Morgan’s poetry. Smith and Morgan next premiered Sons and Daughters of Alba at the Glasgow Jazz Festival: a blend of folk music and poetry and in 1999 wrote Song for Glasgow followed by The Morning of the Imminent for Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth as a tribute to the millennium, and in 2002 they created Planet Wave, part 2, Evolution. He has collaborated with other renowned poets: Tom Pow, Norman MacCaig, Liz Lochhead, Christine De Luca, Kenneth White, and Alex Cluness.
Meantime, during his prolific period with Linn Records and despite receiving no institutional support, Smith found time to establish the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in 1995 and single-handedly ensured its progress until proper funding was secured in 1998. He then founded the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002 to provide an educational opportunity for the country’s best young jazz musicians and fought for over a decade to establish the first full-time jazz course in Scotland at the Royal Conservatoire. In 2009, Smith was appointed its inaugural head of jazz and became Professor in 2010.
Smith was awarded a second honorary doctorate by Glasgow Caledonian University in 2008, and in 2009 he was appointed as the inaugural head of the first-ever full-time jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. The Conservatoire also bestowed a professorship upon Smith in 2010, and three years later, in 2013, he received his third doctorate courtesy of Edinburgh University. In 2019 he received an Order of the British Empire from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. Other selected awards include the Lord Provost Music Award, A Scottish Jazz Expo Award, BBC Heart of Jazz Award, two Parliamentary Jazz Awards, and nine Scottish Jazz Awards.