From jazz to classical

Tom SmailMon 21st January 2013

Making the move from professional jazz drummer to classical composer

Composer Tom Smail began his musical career as a professional jazz drummer before turning to classical composition. On January 23, at a concert in London, four new chamber works by Smail were premiered. The works include a setting of Samuel Beckett’s last poem, 'What Is the Word', scored for two sopranos, cello and narrator, and a setting of WS Merwin’s poem, 'Instructions to Four Walls' scored for the unusual combination of two sopranos, two contraltos, harp and glass harp. Smail writes about making the move from jazz drummer to classical composer below:

‘I'll give it two years,’ I said to my father upon leaving university. ‘And if I'm not making a living by then, I'll get a proper job.’ So began my career as a professional jazz drummer. I had taken up the drums at school. Transfixed by the sight of an old, battered Pearl kit put up for sale by an Australian fellow pupil with the unoriginal nickname, Digger, I had persuaded my parents (it took many months and I am grateful to Digger for waiting) to buy it for me. I already played the piano and the horn - orchestra, opera, wind ensembles - but this was my new passion. Lessons followed, school rock bands (how good we thought we were…), school shows. Then on to the big smoke, to University College London. I met a young man in the first few weeks, known as Dave the Bass. He played the bass. He introduced me to Tim, who played the piano, and immersed me in the world of jazz, old and new. I was smitten. Before too long, we were playing publicly three nights a week. This was the 80s, and wine bars and bankers-with-braces (for trousers, not teeth) were everywhere. There was no shortage of places to play. At the end of my four-year stint at UCL, while others were frantically scrabbling around for career ideas and interviews, I just carried on what I had been doing for the last four years.

I started a 17-piece Big Band playing Ellington, Basie and Kenton; I started a five-piece Jump Jive band (Louis Jordan); and I had my own trio that played in all the bars I could find. My skills, at this time, were not as developed as my confidence. I booked the finest musicians in London. They came - a paid gig was a paid gig, after all - but it took me a few years to dismantle my reputation as a fine fixer and a less fine drummer. I got there. A great deal of practice, a great deal of listening and an enormous number of gigs later, my skills had reached the level of my confidence. Functions. We played at hundreds of functions: office parties, summer parties, Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays, christenings - even a divorce party. Sometimes people listened. And we played the 'proper' gigs: modern jazz in smoky rooms with people who wanted to hear you. Mostly.

At the age of 27, when the two-year probation period discussed with my father had long ago expired and still there was no need for a 'proper' job, I began to feel a growing need. I loved the drums. As a jazz drummer, one is not just a time-keeper. There is an element of that, of course, but there is so much more. A jazz drummer is an instrumentalist like everyone else in the band. True, he/she does not have to know all the complex chords and harmonies that the others do (and there was an element of slight 'otherness' attached to this, which I did not like and tried to overcome with learning), but the jazz drummer plays music. Not just rhythm - music. Not melodies as such, but shadings, colourings, inferences, moods, lines, sentences, questions, answers, atmospheres: music. Which is all to the good. And when you are playing in a band and it's working, really happening, it is a glorious feeling. But it was not enough. The need I began to feel was for melody, for harmony, for a structure that was all mine. My friend Alex, a pianist of exceptional skill, had always been my harshest critic. ‘Hit those drums; don't tickle them,’ he had been known to say. I learned to hit them, but the niggling doubt was always there: that rhythmical Alex was really a drummer, and that sensitive, tickler Tom was really a pianist.

But I didn't want to become a jazz pianist, so I continued to drum, hitting and tickling as the occasion arose. I was at the peak of my powers and life was good: I toured Britain and Europe and, the jewel in the crown, India, with my 6-piece band. But the need was growing. And then, one day in my 29th year, I awoke with a piano piece in my head. A finished piece. I went to the piano, played it, wrote it down and recorded it. The next day was the same. And the next. And the next. Composition had arrived. Late, perhaps, but arrived it had. I had written the odd tune as a child - several, in fact - but had always assumed everybody else did too, so paid it no heed. This was different. This was a need, a physical sensation, a gift perhaps - there these pieces were in my head, after all. Left by some unseen hand for me to find, it seemed.

My early music was naïve - whose is not? It had merits, but the snippets with merit were just that: snippets. And I could find no way of joining the snippets together into a coherent whole, except by joining them together. Which was, of course, not a coherent whole. Skills were required: in particular, knowledge of the skills of development. I set to with various teachers. The first had me writing in the style of the 12th century. ‘Start at the beginning,’ he said. So I did. The second turned out to be obsessed with brass bands, which I was not. And rather too interested in my beer. The third gave up on me, as I sent him too many scores to correct. The fourth was the one for me: Huw Watkins, up-and-coming (now arrived) young Welsh composer. From Huw, in a relatively short space of time (months) and with an abundance of writing and a great deal of listening to his calm and knowledgeable advice, I learned much. Enough to be taken seriously by those to whom I showed my work. And enough to go forth on my own. I immersed myself in classical music, as I had immersed myself in jazz. In truth, I had never really left the classical world, but I dived in now, as never before. I listened. And I wrote.

I don't see the drumming years as mere preparation for the composing; I see them as the early part of my musical career. And yet preparation they were. I learned a great deal: about rhythm, about jazz, and harmony and melody and structure, about the possibilities for blending the tonal and the atonal, about the difference a live musician makes to a note on the page. And about people. So here I am, some 11 years on. I don't write jazz, but the influences are there to hear. If you know where to listen.

Tom Smail

Tom Smail is a jazz drummer-turned-composer of orchestral, chamber and choral music. His works include the 'Requiem for the Routemaster', written to commemorate the decommissioning of the Routemaster bus, and the five 'Fairy Tales' for orchestra and narrator, with words by Emma House. Two of these were toured nationally by English Touring Opera and recorded narrators include Michael Gambon and Harry Enfield. Smail has frequently worked with Douglas Boyd, Richard Hosford, Marieke Blankestijn, Synergy Vocals and The Gaudier Ensemble. His String Quartet No 1 (‘For Alba’) was recently performed by the Allegri Quartet and his most recent symphonic work, 'Music in the Marble', was premiered last year by City of London Sinfonia (video footage on his website). He has also written extensively for film and television.

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