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8 Bars with Cecilia Smith
Our guest is vibraphonist, composer, bandleader and educator Cecilia Smith.
8 bars with, is a series on Educated Guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
For the past four decades, Cleveland-raised, Berklee-educated, Brooklyn-based vibraphonist/composer/bandleader/educator Cecilia Smith has been one of the leading virtuosos on her instrument, and a master of the four-mallet technique, since her arrival in New York in the eighties, Smith has performed with a number of musicians and singers including Gary Bartz, Cassandra Wilson, Cindy Blackman-Santana, Digable Planets and Jennifer Holiday. Smith wrote the score for the 1996 independent film Naked Acts, composed large-scale commissioned compositions and debuted her first multimedia work, Crossing Bridges in 2009. Smith’s career as an educator includes teaching music to unique learners - people with an assortment of disabilities and mental illnesses - and to underserved communities in Boston and New York. She also taught jazz improvisation at Berklee and toured with the State Department in Bolivia.
Smith recorded four recordings as a leader on the Brownstone label from 1992 to 1998. In 2006, Smith released Dark Triumph on her own CEA Music Company label; a spoken word orchestral work that celebrated the life of her aunt, Victoria Lancaster Smith, who worked as a nurse and volunteer for The Red Cross and Peace Corp. Smith’s latest recording, The Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project: Small Ensemble Repertoire, Vol 1., is her critically-acclaimed tribute to the pioneering jazz pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, featuring pianist and duet partner, Lafayette Harris.
1. Hearing Jazz in Cleveland Growing Up:
My parents took me to see and experience all kinds of music. Everything from The Ike & Tina Turner Revue and Sarah Vaughan, to the Brothers Johnson and VSOP with Freddie Hubbard. I had a high school teacher (Mr. Moore) who recognized my love for jazz. He got me into Cleveland clubs, as an underage minor… I got to see Weather Report, Yusef Lateef, Phoebe Snow, Ronnie Laws, and Roy Ayers (who I got to sit in with as a teenager). My neighbor was a classical pianist. She took me to see the Cleveland Orchestra multiple times. She used to talk about her cousin the drummer Billy Hart! To be exposed to that kind of music creativity as a young person was so amazing and inspiring!
2. First Vibe Lessons:
I was also fortunate enough to live in a community, Cleveland Heights, that had a robust K-12 music education program. My folks paid for piano lessons, drum lessons, mallet lessons, tympani lessons and music theory and composition lessons. I had fantastic teachers, who geared me up with college preparation of intense study. I took mallet lessons in high school, mainly to be able to play mallet percussion parts (xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, and vibes) in the Height High Orchestra and Symphonic bands. I was studying to be a classical percussionist. I played vibes and percussion in the high jazz ensemble, and the drum set in the stage band. I had Modern Jazz Quartet, Roy Ayers and Gary Burton recordings.
3. Why Four mallets?
When I went to Berklee, I saw four mallet vibe teachers the first week of classes, in a faculty concert and the decision was made! I couldn’t believe how much they could do with four mallets. It’s one thing to hear it on a recording, it’s another thing to see it, understand it and experience how much more you could play with the use of four mallets! I had some of the finest 4-mallet players on the planet: Mike Hatfield, my first 4-mallet teacher, Ted Wolff and Ed Saindon (who I still study with from time to time)… all protégés of Gary Burton. I studied with Gary for about a year after I graduated from Berklee.
4. Berklee Education
Being a student at Berklee was one of my favorite musical life experiences... The level of passion that everyone had for learning and playing music back then, is still amazing to me! Here are some of the musicians that were at Berklee at that time: Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Cyrus Chestnut, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, and my roommate, and still good friend today, Cindy Blackman-Santana. The standards for learning were so high. Even today, my practice standards are grounded in that early music education that I received at Berklee.
5. Working in New York
When I moved to NYC initially I did my rounds of sitting in at different clubs. I was also able to do gigs during the early part of the week at the Iridium and Birdland. I also did local gigs through non-profit arts organizations, and was able to play with all kinds of musicians in New York. One of my first gig experiences was playing at the Brooklyn Museum with master Bassist, Milt Hinton! That was a memorable gig! I also had spent a year rehearsing for Cassandra Wilson’s recording Traveling Miles, where I played vibes and marimba. We also played a week at Lincoln Center, probably one of my most creative gigs as a side musician ever!
6. A teaching artist
I currently teach an online course at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) , for a program vocalist and composer Dr. Lenora Helm Hammond created entitled: the Teaching Artist Teaching Certificate Program (TACP). It’s based on Lenora’s dissertation on her experiences working as a teaching artist when she lived in New York City. Because of her full schedule as the Chair of the Music Department at NCCU, and my in-depth knowledge as a teaching artist, she asked me to take over that course. I’m teaching artists how to teach, by teaching them how to create lesson plans, study guides for performances, as well as learning theories. It’s a remote course, and it's available to any artist globally.
7. Virtual duets with Lafayette Harris:
Lafayette has been a life saver, especially during Covid and beyond. We are neighbors in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and would often have coffee at the many coffee shops in our neighborhood. He asked if I would be interested in doing a virtual concert with him during Covid. At first I was hesitant… I had no idea if we’d play duets well together. We began rehearsing. We “vibed up” well, in fact, better than I expected. You must be open to play with a four- mallet vibist! I of course had heard and studied the Gary Burton/Chick Corea Crystal Silence recording extensively. I never thought I’d find a pianist that would actually ask to record with me in a video setting. I am most grateful for Lafayette’s invitation and willingness to play duets with me.
8. Recording the Music of Mary Lou Williams:
I studied Mary Lou Williams in-depth over a period of years, and composed music based upon her harmonic concepts. I also was able to present this work in lots of different ways with the incredible repertoire that I developed for this particular work. I decided to name this aspect of my work the Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project (MLWRP). I could never find an opportunity to record this work, mainly because I have so much material. The Chamber Music America Project Grant, along with the American Composers Innova Records Grant allowed me to record the small ensemble pieces from the MLWRP repertoire.
I was not quite sure how the work would be received, especially since I have not had the opportunity to record for many years. To my surprise, the recording has done quite well on jazz radio charts and has gotten great reviews. I am so elated that I’ve had this opportunity to record this work with a great ensemble that has been playing this work with me for many years that includes Ron Savage, Kenny Davis, Carlton Holmes, Carla Cook and Lafayette Harris, Jr. Now, I must figure out how to get funding to record the big band, choir and yes, more small ensemble repertoire. That of course will be Volume II.
9. Bonus Question:
Trying to figure out just how to get my second multimedia project titled Decisive Moments produced, has been more than a notion. I have spent the last 10 plus years putting all the elements together for this new work. Now, I’ve got an interested presenter and a new team of artists that are working with me to bring this new work to full fruition. It’s still in its infancy, so I want to leave this new work with just the title for now. I am very excited about it to say the least!