The list of Cincinnati expatriates keeps growing this year with the addition of Alex Smith. An emerging jewel in American Jazz, Smith is heading off to New York City not to get more education, like many upcoming musicians, but to woodshed, jam and establish himself in the competitive musical landscape of the Big Apple.
Born and bred in Cincinnati, Smith, 23, has established his name as one of the city's leading young pianists. Even so, you'd think that such a fresh-faced kid from provincial Censornnati might be shit-scared to cross over to the harsh — if not merciless — New York scene. But as College-Conservatory of Music Jazz professor Phil DeGreg (of the Blue Wisp's Phil DeGreg Trio) notes, Smith had the fire in his belly starting at a very young age.
"Alex is one of my best students ever," DeGreg says. "I started teaching him when he was in high school, and have watched him grow from the beginning of his experience in Jazz. He is really dedicated and focused, and absorbs everything around him. He is very detail-oriented. I think he is going to do fine in New York."
Smith, a recent CCM graduate, has no fear of the New York scene. Over the course of his undergraduate education, he's developed contacts there and become familiar with how things work.
"Certainly, there are absolutely just some of the best players in the world in New York: That's definitely intimidating," Smith says. "But the musicians are, as I see it, a family. If you have a certain level of competency, then people are going to treat you pretty well. I'm not expecting a lot of work when I get there, but I feel confident enough to go to jam sessions and meet people and hopefully have them come over and play sessions. That's how you make your way in.
"You're all in the same position," Smith continues. "So in that way I feel confident that I can play and hang with those guys. There are heavy piano players who come in and make you look bad, but that's part of the learning experience. That's what I want: I want to get my butt kicked and have that inspiration in hearing those musicians who have a real strong drive to pursue their music."
Not only has Smith forged relationships with his peers, but he's got the ear of Fred Hersch, as well. Also a native Pork-baby, Hersch fled Cincinnati for New York in 1977 to become a superlative soloist, arranger and interpreter of Jazz ballads. Stepping up into the quasi-feudal lineage of Jazz, Hersch has played with none other than Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Art Farmer and clarinetist extraordinaire Eddie Daniels. Basically, Hersch, as Miles Davis would have put it, is "as clean as a motherfucker." And Smith knows it.
But there's something else Smith knows.
"There's a certain amount of complacency that happens when you're in Cincinnati," Smith says. "At my stage, I'm a young player with a little experience. I've been working fairly well here, but the thing about this city is you can do that — that's what is great about a small city. You can make your way into the scene at a young age.
"But I think that you can get into a rut. You fall into that category of just being a working musician who's reached a certain level of competency. You're going to get calls. You might not be the best in town, but that's OK. I think, for me, I need to jump into the fire — that's what New York is about."
Like a late-night, long-distance hesher, Cincinnati can't seem to get the red out. Too groggy to really get a scene going and too blood-shot to see what should be better appreciated, Cincinnati gives little respect to the hustlers and fosters a less competitive climate than other, bigger, more cosmopolitan cities.
However, that's sometimes a blessing, according to Smith, and he claims the nature of the city provided him opportunities he'd never have gotten elsewhere.
"I think the advantage of growing up here is that I've gotten to work with some great players," Smith says. "Having that experience has helped me out tremendously.
"Say if I grew up in New York, I certainly wouldn't have had the experiences I've had now, because when you're 16 in New York, you're not going to get any calls. There are not that many piano players in Cincinnati right now. It was an opportunity to play with great players you'd never have in New York. People like Steve Schmidt, Phil DeGreg and Jim Connerly — I got to go out and hear them all the time, and they were the kindest people. They pushed me in the right directions all the time. They saw I was serious about music, and they gave their advice and help."
After ending a long-term Sunday night residency at the Greenwich, Smith is packing up for the move. Without any definite plans, it's hard to say what will happen. But he's got the bases covered. Along with a friend, Smith intends to get a job selling subscriptions at Carnegie Hall, a typical day job that most artists need to survive while they struggle with their discipline and careers.
Down-to-earth and humble, Smith expects little but hard work and a chance to grow beyond Cincinnati.
"I don't plan to have a recording contract in the next three years. Nothing like that," Smith says. "Basically I want to go there, step into the fire and really practice and study and work on my craft. Conceivably, it is something I could do here, but for me, I just want a change." ©