Interview by Shannon West
Guitarist, composer, sideman, producer, teacher, mentor and one of the most charismatic performers in Smooth Jazz - that just begins to describe Richard Smith. His recording career spans over 15 years and his academic accomplishments are even more impressive. He is on the faculty of the Thornton School at the University of Southern California, one of the nation‘s most prestigious music schools. He became the youngest department chairman and later was the youngest guitarist in the school's history to make the rank of Professor. Smith spent several years touring and recording with Richard Elliot while releasing a series of solo CDs and recording and touring with smooth jazz luminaries like Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Guitars and Saxes, Steve Reid, Dan Siegel, and Kenny G. His latest release, SOuLIDIFIED, features the top five smooth jazz hit "Sing A Song" and his current single "Whatz Up" is getting airplay nationwide.
The ongoing themes of this conversation were passion and collaboration: the joy of working with others, sharing skills and supporting creative growth. This is an artist who will inspire you to nurture and chase your own dreams with intensity and commitment too.
SmoothViews (SV): How did you end up on the academic side?
Richard Smith (RS): Teaching college is the family business. Dad was a Professor of Architecture; Mom has a PhD and taught U.S. History. I have an aunt who taught philosophy at Tufts and another who was a Philosophy Professor at Oberlin. One uncle was a Humanities professor at MIT, another was a Philosophy Professor at Michigan. I grew up next to the campus at the University of Oregon. It was my paper route back then and last year I was the outstanding Music school alumni, which was a great honor for me.
SV: How do you juggle teaching with performing? How do you keep it fun and when do you find time to practice?
RS: It is all fun. Music is easy to talk about but tricky to do. The fascinating thing is the teacher and the student are the same. The same fundamentals that students deal with are a daily struggle for the most experienced pro. My words would be useless if I didn't back them up with action! You have to enjoy the engagement of a challenge to enjoy a life in music so I believe I am still as much a student as a professor. As far as practice, I try to play and learn every day. When you teach, you learn twice, and since I am a slow learner that works out well! I teach with some great musicians as well, people like Peter Erskine, Alphonso Johnson, Ndugu Chancellor, Patrice Rushen, Alan Pasqua, Joe Diorio, and the L.A. Guitar Quartet. USC is a great neighborhood for players who teach.
SV: How did you end up being drawn to music and when did you start playing?
RS: My grandparents got me a guitar when I was about… hmmm... 10? As many guitar players discovered in the 70s, it was a great way to meet girls, and that was my main motivation until I heard Chick Corea live. That did it! One concert and I was hooked for life.
SV: When did you decide you were going to do this professionally? How did you get
RS: Well, after that Chick Corea concert I realized that I couldn't do anything else so I just started playing and auditioning and forming bands. I was playing jazz clubs when I was 15 years old. We were really broke, so the extra money helped out too.
SV: Of all the types of music you can play and have experienced as a musician and a listener, how and why did you end up focusing your recording career on contemporary/smooth jazz?
RS: It has the harmonic and rhythmic structure that I feel I can best express myself with. I love it!
SV: You have released seven CDs on five different labels over the last 16 years or so. A lot of Smooth Jazz artists seem to go through this process. How do you find a record company? What is it like to be recording and not know when or how it is going to be released?
RS: The labels usually find me. The key is to write a lot and really desire to have your compositions heard. It is a “nurturing-of-your-own-song” process. One of the greatest musical highs is hearing your creation realized, and then hearing it on the radio. Writing is a very special part of the music process for me. I have enjoyed working with some remarkable and inspiring musicians too.
SV: Your first CD, Rockin' The Boat , came out in the late 80s and featured a group of musicians who were on the way to becoming a "who's who" of smooth jazz. You had Kenny G, Dan Siegel, Jeff Kashiwa, Richard Elliot, Brian Bromberg, and Tony Guerrero on there. How did you get such a stellar group of people for your debut?
RS: Well, they weren't all that stellar back then. A lot of them were just getting started too! But, they all were and still are incredible musicians and I am really lucky to have had them aboard. I worked with all of them a lot in various configurations, usually as a sideman. They were all nice enough to call me back and come play the sessions when I asked them to.
SV: You produced your early CDs and then went into the studio with Paul Brown for First Kiss right when he was beginning to be seen as the “go-to” producer for the smooth jazz radio sound. The CD was a different direction for you stylistically and production-wise. What was that process like?
RS: It was a shift towards more of an R&B approach. The focus was less on harmony, and more on stronger beats and cool bass lines. It is great to work with a producer who "gets it" and just watch over his shoulder a little. This was a good learning experience for me. Paul also helped me focus in on my own solo voice and that was really important for me.
SV: The other producer you've done a lot of work with is Brian Bromberg. What has been his influence on you and on the sound of your music you created when you were with him? How was it different from working with Paul?
RS: Well, it gets pretty detailed. Paul honed me in on particular techniques that were unique to me. The way I tug the strings, the way I play octaves, the guitar I used. Before those sessions with Paul, I was coming from a session musician and sideman sensibility where the artist or the song was always right. That's still true but now that I have done so many dates with my own band and a few more albums I have really “ SOuLIDIFIED” more of a personal sound. I just got started a little later on. Brian Bromberg is a very different producer. He became such a good friend that I was able to relax on a whole other level as a player. I really believe you can only play as well as you can relax your mind and move beyond the mechanics of playing. That's where the real music is. So between my enormous respect for his integrity and musicianship and our great friendship, I grew as an artist in more subtle ways.
SV: You're starting to work on your next CD. Can you give us a preview?
RS: Well, I am being pulled in some interesting new directions and just really enjoying the process. Thanks to being able to hear and buy many types of music on iTunes and all the traveling I have been doing I am stretching into Spanish pop and English chill sounds and I am playing a lot of straight-ahead jazz in guitar duo situations. I have written 17 tunes since February thanks to this sabbatical, and it is all kicking around in my head like a Red Bull cocktail. Very energizing, but a big dizzying at times. I'll start to put some cohesion to it soon, but right now I am enjoying saying yes to a lot of new ideas.
SV: Your faculty recital last year was a smooth jazz band performance. Faculty recitals are traditionally more academic and focused on traditional/straight-ahead jazz. How did you come up with the idea or the brave and crazy guts to do it and how did it go over?
RS: It was an absolutely awesome experience. The big kick was that the students were so interested and complimentary, and they wanted to get their hands on it! It was a big eye-opener for me. Smooth jazz has so many sounds and feels that are essentially its own that I think the audience there was really engaged by the freshness of the concepts… a really funky groove, strong and accessible melody, improvisation and interesting harmony. These are all-important components of good music but in a style all its own.
SV: You have been an advocate of not just bringing in and teaching commercial music within academic jazz programs, but also exposing and requiring your students to explore and learn other types of music and perform in a variety of settings. Why do you feel that this is important and how do you do it?
RS: Being a diverse listener and player isn‘t just smart, it's good art. The dividing lines between genres are getting thinner and thinner and for me the more exciting music is from an exploratory rather than conservatory approach. The level of snobbery that exists among many jazz educators and "spokesmen" for jazz education is a concern to me primarily because I know that a closed mind means career suicide for a young musician and, as I said, it is just bad art. Jazz is inclusive and innovative at its core and this is not recognized nearly enough.
SV: You've been performing and teaching master classes and doing recitals in Europe recently, especially in Italy. How is the music scene different there, especially regarding jazz and smooth jazz?
RS: I am completely blown away by the range of music that people listen to and are able to enjoy. That sensibility is also in many composers and players there. It is not unusual to hear distantly related styles integrated masterfully and played magnificently within one composition. You hear jazz/flamenco/classical/polka/rock/hip-hop. Music's borders are coming down and what is taking place is wonderful and deep and intoxicating to me. The clinic/concerts are a ball. The students and audiences play or enjoy literally all styles of music so I'll play country, rock, swing, jazz as well as my own smoother style. It is really wonderful to reach the audience in several different ways. I am half-Italian and am always trying to learn the language. I love the culture and the cuisine and I would like to live there some day!
SV: How do you feel about the narrower focus that most college and graduate jazz programs still adhere to?
RS: It is academic malpractice. Unfortunately, the vast majority of American music schools and kindergarten through high school programs are well behind keeping up with the creative curve of our mainstream American music culture. Popular music is this country's greatest, most positive cultural export, but it is barely recognized or utilized by the music education system. When music education becomes truly responsive to the diverse demographic as well as the listening preferences of the majority of the students and their parents, we will see a renaissance of music culture across the board in this country in jazz, classical, and popular forms.
SV: You started an after-school music education program for inner city kids called GuitarMasters that has touched a lot of lives. Share a little bit of what the program is about, how it started, and how it is going now.
RS: GuitarMasters gives free lessons and guitars to at-risk kids in south central Los Angeles at the Challengers Boys and Girls club there. Some USC guitar students get teaching assistant credit and some volunteer to teach in the program so it also sets up natural mentoring scenarios. We have expanded the scope to guitar classes in schools around the USC campus and we are getting assistance from the International House of Blues Foundation. Since we started the program in 2002, I am continually reminded of how I was indeed an at-risk kid and I know my passion for music kept me out of serious trouble and gave me a career. Things could have turned out much differently had I not picked up that guitar and started dreaming big.
SV: The mission statement for the GuitarMasters program seems to be your own mission statement/mantra. "Find your passion, lose your fear, dream big, talk small, work hard, in your dreams so shall you become.” For a lot of folks, especially the ones who are artistically inclined, the first part seems easy. The rest is the hard stuff. How do you do that?
RS: Actually, finding passion is one of the trickiest, but it's the most important thing there is. I encourage my students to be on the lookout for inspiring situations - to attend a lot of concerts, discuss politics, attend sporting events… heck, it might even be a NASCAR race. When it really connects, they'll know. It may not be music at all but passion is the thing! The other thing to remember is that passion isn't just something that you get and have, it is something you nurture, and it becomes more important as we get older - the awesome power of dreams as well as combating the killing effect of fear. I am constantly dreaming things up and trying them out; it is generally fear that keeps them from happening. I have learned how to grapple with fear more and more. If you are passionate, the fear falls by the side.
SV: Right now the industry climate is not real supportive for smooth jazz musicians to tour, even record and distribute their music. Why do you continue to do it when you could settle into the academic side totally?
RS: Any area of music has its challenges. I am really lucky because for some reason touring has never been better. I do a few different things. My smooth jazz band is awesome, and I am doing the clinic concerts and guitar duets with Steve Trovato, Francesco Buzzurro and Daniel Corzo. So it helps to diversify a bit. This year I have been to England, Italy, Sicily, Mexico, Argentina and Jacksonville Beach ! It gets back to wanting to be relevant and useful to my students by practicing what I preach. I just had a meeting with some entertainment people and I am developing my television and film possibilities. I'm working on an indie film now. Essentially though, this has always been a tough business, so it is all just another set of challenges. There is a line from a Swahili War Song that says, "Our destiny is in the hands of the Gods, so let us celebrate the struggle." So I do.
SV: You are involved in so many projects, and you do them all at such a level of excellence and commitment. How do you do that? How do you juggle all of it and keep the balls in the air?
RS: I feel like a hack most of the time. I try to engage the inspiration and passion part of my job as much as I can. I have a group of inspiring colleagues, friends, and family. That is huge. The books I'm reading now are Stephen Covey's The 8th Habit as well as Zen Guitar by Philip Sugo and a good Italian verbs book, my Italian grammar is terrible! I want to grow a lot so I can be a better teacher and player. Teaching, writing and playing music are the most rewarding things on earth that I know of. So it takes a lot of work, but it is all joyful work.
SV: What would you say to an aspiring musician/performer who may be reading this and either be young and learning or gigging in small venues and touring in their car?
RS: There has never been a better time to chase your musical dreams. I have been a professional since I was 16 years old, and we are living in a time of not only greater opportunity, but of seemingly inexhaustible artistic richness. It is a tough profession, but if it is where your passion lies chase it hard!
Visit Richard's website at
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