Giacomo Smith is a jazz musician and the co-owner of Kansas Smitty’s, a jazz club on Broadway Market, underneath Off Broadway bar. After only two years of activity, Kansas Smitty’s is at the core of London’s underground music scene. Giacomo has been playing music his whole life learning the piano at 5, clarinet at 10, saxophone at 12. After completing his education . He moved to London to work in the administrative office of Boston University’s London programmes before leaving his job to become a fulltime musician. He is the leader of the Kansas Smitty’s House Band, which plays all around London. ASBO caught up with Giacomo to discuss jazz today and who is making it.
ASBO: You are an incredible musician as well as, a business man. The typical image of the business man doesn’t get along with the one of a jazz clarinet player. When did you realize you could be both? Where does one end and the other begin?
Giacomo: I should be really clear that I have a lot of help in both the business and the music side. There is an amazing team who helps run the bar and that allows me to integrate into a business setting. I am much more of a musician than a business man, and at the end of the day my ambition is to play music, not to make millions. I don’t see them as two separate things: the bar and the band are really symbiotic, when one has a victory, the other benefits. We use both to grow both. A lot of people actually assume that Kansas Smitty’s is in New York when I tell them it’s on Broadway Market, and that I am a musician travelling to play at some exclusive gig. But Kansas Smitty’s is a little basement bar, right here in London, and it’s far from being inaccessible or exclusive. You could go there right now.
ASBO: You haven’t always been a full time musician and owner of a jazz club, you worked in an office for a few years. Switching from an office job to be a full time musician is a step that many people who are serious about music dream about. How is it to be 100% involved in music?
G: Well, for me it wasn’t a drastic change. Some people twist their careers completely, acquire a new skill and leave anything else to pursue it. I was working in an office because I needed to make cash and it was great, I have learnt a lot, but I never abandoned the idea of a career in music. It’s true that it takes a lot of courage to throw yourself into being someone who draws his entire income from music and performance. It can be very stressful and you have to realise if it’s for you or not. That said, London is quite a good place to work: we have been all over the place doing studio performances and gigs; playing in bars and restaurants; creating the atmosphere at weddings, birthday parties, funerals… Name it, we have probably played there.
ASBO: At Kansas Smitty’s the creative people also run the business. Would you call this a new business model?
G: For us opening a bar was more a necessity than a full-formed business idea. It didn’t start with guys in suits sitting in a room, thinking ‘oh, we could really make a killing on this’. It started with a group of musicians with a hunger for a new interpretation of jazz, a kind of music that seemed to be easily waylaid by a stereotype, and there was no place where they could do that and grow. So we opened Kansas Smitty’s to have a place for us to practice, a self-funded rehearsal space. Our idea was to use this space as our Homebase and then perform elsewhere. Since then, the Kansas Smitty’s resident ensemble has been around a lot in London, but in the end - and I think I can speak for the rest of the band - this is our favourite place to perform.
ASBO: Good live music often means expensive tickets, but at Kansas Smitty’s it doesn’t really work that way. What is Kansas Smitty’s doing on the London scene and who is your audience?
G: There is a common place in the art world that if you sell something for cheap, people are going to assume it’s bad. Like when Joshua Bell went and played in the Washington D.C.’s subway. Do you know that story? Joshua Bell is a classical violin soloist with an exceptional musical talent. The idealist says, if people are given the opportunity to know what good is, then they will love the place where they can find it at a reasonable price. We’ve been trying to breed a culture around this place. This doesn’t mean that everyone should like jazz, we are all different and like different things. It just means that we would like to give the message that jazz is available to everyone.
M: What is happening to jazz and in jazz in London?
G: I’m trying to learn more about that every day and find out what musicians are doing. There is a burgeoning scene of people making music in the jazz idiom right now. People like Theon Cross, Ezra collective, Moses Boyd and the generation before them, have been claiming jazz as their own. I think that’s beautiful. We try to do something similar, make jazz our own by taking its format, improvisation, and reinventing the content. We embrace cultural rhythms from New Orleans, Cuba, West Africa, India, or anywhere else in the world and then we interpret it within the format of jazz and we put our own spin on it. Jazz critiques loves asking this question: is this jazz? But the music material we are working with today is more malleable and there is a much looser interpretation of what jazz is. It is undeniable, though, that what is happening right now has a unique cut, and it is contributing to jazz towards the future of music, not a return to the past. This new London scene is so obviously British and so characteristically London that the music played here now couldn’t come from anywhere else. It makes me think of the Chicago’s sound of the 20’s, the Kansas City of the 30’s, the New York of the 50’s and 60’s: defining moments in the history of jazz. It’s really exciting to see it happening right here and right now.
ASBO: What is missing from the jazz scene?
G: Well, one of the reasons why we want to be open and make clear that jazz is available to everyone is to fight off that sense of exclusivity that surrounds it. Exclusivity on so many levels pushes people out of experiences that they could have and enjoy. For example, the jazz performance is still very male-centred and this is something I really want to see change through accessibility. I also do some outreach work in education for the Abram Wilson foundation, music workshops and classes. I hope that kids of all kinds of genders and backgrounds, whatever they are coming from in this urban setting, will feel like they can play jazz, appreciate it or be involved in it, because I think it is a beneficial thing to have in your life and because the scene would be enormously enriched by that.
ASBO: If there was a collaboration between jazz and another art discipline, which one would you want to collaborate with?
G: Oh, any! Very recently I went back to my college in Boston, which was a visual art, drama and music school. I was talking with my old music theory professor when he asked me: ‘How many students did you know outside of the school of music when you were here?’ The answer was zero. Artists are often so concerned with their own artistic output and the artistic output of their peers in their specific field that they easily forget there is a whole bunch of talented people out there doing other inspiring things. I am totally guilty. I am not speaking about it as the voice of change, but I would be definitely interested to see more collaborations between arts. We have had a few experiments with projections and visual art, but nothing in the scale that I would like to see.
Words: Marina Dora