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Feature: Hamish Smith


By Dave Lisik

Published September 19, 2023

Hamish Smith is one of New Zealand’s brightest jazz exports. A recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Hamish was making some significant strides as a working New York City jazz musician, even before he’d reached the midway point of his Jazz Performance degree.


I often have a negative reaction to teachers who say, “I learn as much from my students as they learn from me,” because I’ve seen too many instances where they are literally talking about learning the basic material at the same time as the people they’re being paid to teach. I understand the positive intention in other cases, where you're open to learning about life experience from students or, in the case of music, having a younger generation keep you aware of new trends and artists. 

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But in Hamish's case, as much as I’ve just been happy to see him do the right things, work hard, progress, and succeed, there are real lessons to learn from his experiences, especially for anyone I teach in the future who might be on a similar path. All indications at this point are that Hamish did it pretty much right.

He also must have felt that he had something valuable to share other than his exceptional bass playing because he recently published an ebook called Notes of the Move, documenting his physical (and mental) journey from his home in New Zealand to New York City where he was a jazz performance student at the Manhattan School of Music. 


Considering that Hamish’s home country of New Zealand is small and on the other side of the world, there’s more than a token amount of jazz education happening here. Hamish is fortunate to have come up through two of the schools that are handling jazz as well as any schools in the country: Chisnallwood Intermediate School and Burnside High School. He won several awards over the years at the high school jazz festival we started at the New Zealand School of Music and, for a decent stretch of years, was a member of the New Zealand Youth Jazz Orchestra and attended the National Jazz Workshops that we coordinate through the New Zealand Jazz Foundation.


Part of those programs involved bringing international guest artists to spend real time with the young jazz musicians. A particularly satisfying moment, from my far away vantage point, was when Hamish started getting calls to sub on the bass book in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra on Monday nights. Only a few years before, we had been bringing in guest artists for the NZYJO and Summer Workshops. Dick Oatts, Scott Wendholt, Luis Bonilla, and John Riley were all VJO members who made the long trip to New Zealand, precisely to inspire and help move kids like Hamish along.


To see him start to have some really high quality musical experiences in his early to mid-twenties has been equal parts satisfying and informative. 

Dave: Hey, Hamish! I’m okay. How about yourself? Is that your apartment you’re sitting in?

Hamish: I'm good, man. Yeah. 

Dave: Where do you live, exactly? Well, not that you have to tell me exactly. I'm not ordering a drone strike on your apartment or anything. [laughs] What part of town do you live in? 

Hamish: We live uptown on the West Side. We're on Riverside Drive, right next to the Hudson.

Dave: Yeah. Makes sense. What’s the cross street? [Redacted for security purposes. JK] Yeah, that's pretty good.

Hamish: It's a nice area, man. It's very close to MSM, actually.

Dave: Right. What street is that on, 120s?

Hamish: MSM is on 122nd/123rd.

Dave: That's pretty good. Good subway stop there? Do you go to any baseball games? 

Hamish: I don't.

Dave: You're not a baseball guy? 

Hamish: I'm not a baseball guy. I never got into it, man.


Dave: You should become a baseball guy. There's still time, right? 

Hamish: There's still time. I've watched a couple of games, but it's very Americanized and hard for me to kind of get a real grasp on it. 

Dave: It'd be a bad season to start caring about the Yankees, too, because they're in last place. [Technically, at this point, Boston was in last. It was still bad.] It's funny because you go around New Zealand and you actually see a lot of people with Yankees caps and Dodgers caps. Those are the two you can buy even at the convenience store. The “NY” and the “LA,” you can buy those caps everywhere. I’ve always wanted to do, like, a mini documentary going around filming people and asking them, “Do you like the Yankees, or is that just a cap?” I’ve actually have liked baseball for a long time, and I’ve actually like thed Yankees since I was a kid.

Sometimes I do ask people randomly, and nine out of ten times it's like, “Oh, it's just a cap.” I don't even know that they know it's a team or what sport it’s from. I think they just think it has an “N.Y.” on it so it looks cool and far away. The Yankees don’t care tough because every cap is money in their pocket regardless.

Hamish: Haven’t they just lost like eight games in a row or something?

Dave: Yeah. They're under 500 now, so it's not good. [.507 today]

Hamish: Not good. 

Dave: No, it's a bad season. Really bad season.

Hamish: This drummer I play with pretty regularly, Jimmy Macbride, he's a real Yankees supporter. He goes pretty often to the stadium and checks it out. He was saying that the squad right now is full of kind of younger people that they're training up, kind of thing. So in like a year or two, they're going to be really good. I mean, hopefully.

Dave: The thing is that there's no parity in baseball for player salaries. Some teams have several hundred million is player payroll and some teams are under 100 million. But just spending the money doesn't automatically make you a World Series champion team either.

But if you don't grow up with the sport, it's a little difficult. That’s my feeling about rugby and cricket. As a Canadian hockey is like way up here. 

Hamish: Ice hockey, right? 

Dave: Yeah. We don't call it ice hockey.

Hamish: It's just hockey.

Dave: Well, that's a cool thing, too about New York. You’ve got a couple of hockey teams there. Three with New Jersey. There were several things about New York that I loved before I even knew anything about jazz. I think probably the first thing I knew about New York was that Spider-Man lived there. When I was a really little kid I was watching the old cartoon, from the 1960s. It was the late 70s when I started watching it. The music in that show was amazing. Subconsciously it was a major influence on me.


Hamish: I have a funny story about that. I played a gig at the high school that Spider-Man supposedly went to.

Dave: Out in Queens? 

Hamish: Yeah.

Dave: It's called “Midtown High” in the comics. I don't know what it would have been in reality.

Hamish: It's like pretty deep in Queens. It's near Flushing and kind of a white, suburban, very upper middle class neighborhood. I'm going to try and remember the name of it. But that's the high school that Spider-Man supposedly would have gone to.

Dave: Yeah, because they've reinvented Spider-Man as a teenager so many times in movies, TV shows and comics that take place in different universes. In the original comics he was a teenager in 1962. But he graduated from high school like, I don't know, like two, three years later. So in the comic books, he hasn't been in high school since 1964, 1965 or something.

Hamish: It's called Forest Hills High School. 

Dave: Okay, yeah, because that was the neighborhood in Queens that he lived in, Forest Hills. But they keep reinventing it. In the ‘60s It was just Midtown High School. They weren't as specific about things back then as they might be now. Midtown doesn't intuitively refer to a part of Queens. Then in more recent times, they've made it out to be this science magnet school and whatever.

Dave: When I was a kid, my favorite hockey team was the New York Islanders, partly because they were a dynasty and they had some great players. My Dad and I had season tickets at one point to the Winnipeg Jets but I had an Islanders jersey I wore to the games. But whether you like the American sports or not, it's pretty exciting to go to stuff, especially Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium. 

Dave: But the cool thing about baseball is that there's a narrative to it. Especially when you get into the games that matter, like in the playoffs. There's real drama in baseball. And a cool thing about it is that, in theory, the game isn't over until it's 100% over. So you could be ten runs down, it could be the bottom of the 9th, you could have, like, two outs, and theoretically, you could still come back and win.

In hockey and football and basketball, whatever, if you're a huge number of points down and there's only two minutes left, you know you've lost. It's mathematically impossible for you to come back, but in baseball, it's not.


Dave: Anyway, it's good to see you. 

Hamish: You too, man.

Dave: Let's have a conversation about all the musical things you've been doing recently, which is a lot. What year did you get to MSM [Manhattan School of Music]?

Hamish: 2018.

Dave: And you started at the typical time, in the late summer? 

Hamish: Yeah, the end of August, early Autumn in the United States. I moved to New York in the middle of August, 2018. But I had also come to New York at the beginning of 2018, during the winter. I was here for just over two months, two and a half months visiting.

Dave: Right. Was that when you did some university auditions, or did you do that at a separate time? 

Hamish: Yeah, no, that's when I auditioned.

Dave: And did you say your early plan was to go to the New School? Was that your first choice? 

Hamish: The first year I auditioned for schools in New York was right when I finished high school. I auditioned for maybe three or four schools. All of them I did by video, virtual auditions or recorded. I didn't come to the States that year. I got into all the schools, and they offered me some money. And the New School, they actually gave me a pretty decent deal. It was probably a little higher than what the majority of people get to go to school, but it still wasn't full tuition. It wasn't really viable for me to go, especially when you convert everything into New Zealand dollars, which, as you know, it's a drag. 

Dave: Yeah, especially now. Right now it's hideous. In the fourteen years I've been here, it’s fluctuated much more than the Canadian dollar ever does against the American. It's been pretty good, about eighty-eight cents at one point. But that was when the economy in the US was in really big trouble. 

Hamish: This is like 2010 or 2011 or something, right?

Dave: Yeah. Somewhere around there. And even then, you're still losing money on the exchange, but it was closer. So it's a good thing I don't have to convert a lot of money at the moment. 

Okay, so 2017, you auditioned for a few places, got some money. So you graduated from high school at the end of 2016? Like in November or December, whenever?

Hamish: Exactly. December, yeah. The New Zealand school year works like the calendar year.

Dave: So then you hit some auditions immediately. But even though they offered you a bunch of money, whatever's left is still gigantic. And did you get any feedback from those other than being accepted to the schools, (which is feedback in itself)? 

Hamish: No.

Dave: And were you connected with the people, the teachers that you were trying to study with?


Hamish: I wasn't, actually. I was pretty much just blind going in. I knew of some schools that I was interested in going to, and, as you said, at that time I was really kind of hooked on going to the New School because that seemed to be where a lot of good people were at the time. And actually, I was pretty right about that in retrospect. A lot of guys who are now incredibly big names within the young circuit of jazz musicians were there around that 2016 to 2020 time. Like Joel Ross [vibraphonist] was there. And Kweku Sumbry [percussionist] was there. Micah Thomas [pianist], a bunch of these people who are now well known like Immanuel Wilkins… well, he went to Juilliard, but these kind of names were floating around New School at that time. It did have a buzz about it, for sure.

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Dave: There are several things I’m sure we’ll get to because I'm really interested in your perspective on the audition and application process. That and the way that your perceptions might have changed. Advice that you have to give to other young people now is actually really valuable. One: because it's recent, and also because it's firsthand, and you're not some North American guy trying to tell people what to do. You're a Kiwi who has gone through that process from New Zealand and made it work to what appears to be a really good level compared to what almost anybody else has done.

And you went to one school but have friends and people you played and hung out with who I’m sure have talked about their different schools. So that will be interesting to hear about. And of course it matters where you go to school. But it’s interesting to think about people who have become successful players and how they might have made it work regardless. That what they bring to the situation and to the table and what’s essential to do what you're doing.

Hamish: Sure. Yeah, of course. I think really the first step in analyzing the whole thing, broad lens, is the location where you go to school is the most important thing.

Hamish: You can go to school almost anywhere in the world for jazz at this point. Well, a lot of places have jazz programs. In Europe, there's a lot of them, even in New Zealand and Australia. So for me it was really about going to a place where I felt like I was going to be pushed the most. I think there are two components to it: the school you’re in, which has its own scene and bubble going on. You're immersed with all these really great, motivated students. When I first got to MSM, I was totally mesmerized by how high of the students was. It was insane just from the beginning. “Wow, there are some incredible musicians here,” and people who are already kind of on the New York scene, playing gigs with a bunch of the who’s who in jazz. So I think that's really important to be around those people. 

And then the second component is because you're studying at MSM, or one of these other conservatories in New York, you're also immersed into the New York scene. You can go and see Mark Turner play or you can go and see Sullivan Fortner play, or Lage Lund, you know? Everyone is here. So you can actually go and witness these guys, in the front row, Smalls Jazz Club or wherever. And that in itself is an education you can't really get anywhere else in the world except for New York. Looking back on it, that was really what I wanted to get out of being in school here.

And that trip that I made at the beginning of 2018 really opened my eyes to so much. Even in those two months, I noticed how much I had grown with my vision of the music and everything else. It showed me how much I could be exposed to the music here. 

Another important thing about choosing a school is knowing who you're going to study with. So looking at the faculty. I went to MSM because I knew that there were a bunch of good bass teachers there, but also the wider faculty was really incredible: Donny McCaslin, Miguel Zenon, John Riley, Kendrick Scott, Marc Carey, Dayna Stephens. There's a bunch of great faculty at MSM. So I knew that part was taken care of. I was going to get a good information from these people. And then I think the other important thing is you have to come to realize for yourself, where you stand. I've had this conversation with a lot of people, older people than me at this point, about trying to move to New York to go to school. Are you moving to New York to go to school or are you moving in New York to play? So for me, my answer was always kind of both. I want to move to New York to go to school, but I also want to play. And that's what ended up happening for me. 

I had this mindset right away: “I'm in school and I'm learning and I'm studying with these great people, but I'm also here to try and play with these people.” But you have to realize that great players aren't going to be calling every student at the school to play gigs with them. So if you feel like you need time to hone the craft more, you just want some time to practice and absorb a bunch more information, absorb the language, that's why a lot of people end up going to places like Berklee or New England Conservatory in Boston. They’re close and you know you have the option of taking the bus to New York which is like four hours or whatever. You can live in a different city and have your intense studying environment, but then have the option of going to New York and seeing all those people like Mark Turner, or whoever, play. It depends on what you're looking for in terms of your engagement with the scene and how much you want to be exposed to that while being in school and dealing with that other workload.

Dave: Some really good jazz schools in America really are out in the middle of nowhere, not like New Zealand in the middle of nowhere, but I know what you’re saying. There’s not much besides the school, which can be good if you’re easily distracted.

Hamish: Sometimes you're trying to deal with school work and everything and it's like, “Hey man! You’ve got to come and see Gilad Hekselman play at the jazz gallery tonight.” Then it's like, do you want to be practicing in school or do you want to go and see Gilad play at the jazz gallery? So these things pop up all the time when you're here because you want to go and see Gilad play. But you're also, “Well, maybe I should be in the practice room.” So I think these are really kind of important self evaluations that you have to make early on. And I think that also impacts where you choose to go to school. 

Dave: How did you balance those things out? Because you graduated, right? And you could have not done that. You could have dropped out at some point. I think I had a conversation with Luis [Bonilla] about you where…he obviously doesn't have you in a straitjacket or anything, but he really encouraged you to finish school rather than not do that, right? Because if you drop out halfway through, it's only a couple more years to get it finished. But how did you manage the psychology of that? 

Hamish: It's funny that you mentioned Luis, because there was definitely a time, probably halfway through my sophomore year, so my second year of college, where I was starting to think about it. This is after I had started to play in Paquito’s band, because I really started that in my second year in about 2019.

And then I also started to play with Manuel Valero and a couple of other people, Mike Rodriguez. And so I was already kind of going out of town a bit, starting to miss school and classes and stuff. And there was a little bit of this idea of, well, I have two more full years after this. How am I going to balance it? And then COVID hit. So really COVID was a bit of a blessing, and that kind of made me stay in school and finish it off. And in retrospect, I'm really glad that it happened because I think finishing school is totally a great asset to have.

Dave: Yeah, you're the one person for whom COVID was a blessing. [laughs]

Hamish: It was a blessing, man. And I was studying with Donny McCaslin at that time. And Donny was like, man, you may not realize it right now, but you're in the best place you can be right now. And I'm like, what's that? You're in school, man.

Dave: I thought that for myself. If this was a normal situation I’d love to have that much uninterrupted time to just do stuff. But my second daughter was born right at the beginning of COVID right. Middle of March. So I was going to be sort of sequestered with that anyway. Unfortunately it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is awesome, because if we can't go anywhere, I can get a whole bunch of shit done.” I can see that side of it though. It didn't work out for me because of the kids, but I think for a lot of people, you either went kind of crazy or if you had the mentality that handled it well, you probably really took advantage of it. It was a good opportunity for some people.

Hamish: Right. And that was the thing for me. Before COVID I was busy with gigs and whatnot, but then there were no gigs for a year and a half, maybe close to two years. No one was playing. So it was really a great time to just get that degree done with. And then it was around the beginning of my senior year that gigs started opening up again. I started touring a little bit at the beginning of 2022, which was the beginning of my last semester at school. It really worked out great time wise for me in that it was like, okay, I got all this school stuff done while there are no gigs happening.

Dave: But you think there might have been more pressure under normal circumstance to not finish? 

Hamish: Yeah, I can't attest to that because it didn't happen. So I can't know for sure whether I would have finished. But all I can say is that I'm glad I stayed. And it was definitely worth doing the full four years. And I had an amazing time at that school. I met a lot of great people, students and faculty who are now friends and colleagues. I play all the time with my fellow students who went there. And faculty, too. I play with a bunch of the guys that I ended up studying with. I play with their groups now. 

Dave: Who were your main bass teachers? 

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Hamish: For Bass, I was with Jay Anderson, predominantly. But except for my first year, I always split my lessons. Except for my first year when I studied with Buster Williams. After that I split my lessons between Jay and then a horn player. So I was with Donny off and on for a couple of years, and then I was with Dayna Stephens off and on, and then Mike Moreno for two semesters. It was great to hang out with those guys. They definitely gave me a lot of good things to think about, not just as a bass player, but more compositionally. We kind of workshopped a lot of things and I would bring in a band to play with them. So that was great.

I like the fact that MSM gives you that option of studying with someone who's not on your instrument. 

Dave: Yeah, that's a great idea. So that's how you got Donny [McCaslin] to be on your senior recital.

Hamish: Exactly. I had studied with Donny for…I guess I started with him in 2019. I was with him until the pandemic. So I did two semesters and then I did my last semester of school with Donny. So three semesters.

Dave: I watched a couple of those videos from your recital the other day. You sounded really good. The band sounded good. But the idea that Donny is just standing there playing in your recital, You're a young college kid. It's your senior recital. And you know what I think of Donny. So that's somewhat unusual. But also, other than in jazz, how often would something like that happen? It'd be like if you're an undergraduate violin student and on your senior recital, you're going to play duets with Joshua Bell or Yo Yo Ma. 

Hamish: Pretty unlikely. Sure.

Dave: I think you touched on it a bit in your PDF but there was also a Dick Oatts quote and maybe something that Luis [Bonilla] said to me a long time ago that tie together in this way: When you're a kid and you buy records with people like somebody like Potter or Coltrane or anybody great, maybe they're dead and they're legendary. There's this hero worship thing that you have, of course. You have a level of hero worship for the Beatles or some actor you’ve never met or whoever. But when you finally got in contact with some of these people who are really good and at the top of their game. Or playing with Paquito [D’Rivera] at a reasonably early stage in your development. You’ve got to have respect and reverence for what these people have done. You love the music more than anything. It's fantastic. But also, I can't exist in this guy's band if I'm, like, looking over at him and thinking about who he is and what he’s done like a fan. What's your take or your advice on that idea? 

Hamish: That's a really good point, man. And it's something that I thought about even at the beginning when I first started playing, because when I got the call from Paquito, it was right towards the end of my freshman year. I would have been 20 or something. When he first emailed me or called, I think he called me on the phone, to see if I could make some gigs with him. Once that all kind of started rolling, as I wrote about in the ebook, it all happens kind of fast, at least from my impression. Then I started getting calls for different things.


How do I describe it? Obviously it's incredibly exciting because it's a dream of mine to play with people like Paquito and other great players. It's very cool and it's flattering and humbling for me. I wasn’t sure at that point though. I’m sure I was like, “Really? You want me on that with you? You have the right number here, man.”

I wasn't sure I was ready for that opportunity, but at the same time, I realized quickly after that these people are calling you for a reason. They’ve at least heard something about you. Not, “This must be a mistake.” Like, say, if Herbie [Hancock] calls someone for a gig. Herbie doesn't just call a random person for a gig.

Hamish: Neither does Paquito. They've done some research. They know what they want because they've been in the game for so damn long at this point that they just know.

And you trust them, based on their experience and the strength of their musicality, that you are the right person for the gig. And then, what you're kind of asking is, when you're actually on the gig, how do you go about that? For me, it was really just trying to treat it like I was playing with my friends. When I play a gig with someone who's twenty to thirty years older, or Paquito is like fifty years older than I am. You really just have to treat it as though you're making music with another fellow musician. Not, “I'm making music with a fifteen time Grammy Award winning saxophone player.” Rather, how do I do my job the best in the moment? How do I fulfill my role in the band to the best compatibility? And that comes with a tremendous learning curve.

People have been very gracious and given me great advice along the way. Drummers that I play with or piano players…older musicians always like to give you a little bit of, I don't want to say it's like advice, but just like it's a form of advice that they're just trying to point you in a direction that's maybe going to suit that gig better.

Dave: Wisdom?

Hamish: Exactly. That's the word I was looking for: wisdom. At the beginning, there were definitely times where I had some people impart their wisdom on me, and that's fantastic. That's how it should be. You know, when you're playing with people who are a lot older than you, they're more experienced. And so that's part of the gig is that you're going to learn something from playing with everyone. And those guys are going to learn something from playing with someone younger than them. That they're going to take some things from playing.

Dave: Yeah, well, youthful exuberance for sure. And changes in harmonic vocabulary. And for older people who have always loved the music, they probably see themselves in you on some level. They remember when they were your age, right? If you've done something for your entire life and you love this thing, it's got to be super encouraging to find nineteen year olds who love that thing that you love as much as you, or as much as you did when you were nineteen. And to see that it’s still going. And it's got to be heartening because there are a lot of things in life that you grew up with…we're separated by a couple of decades, and our pop culture experiences and things we were attached to are different. We're all going to have different experiences that we won't understand. But Paquito can be seventy-five and you can be twenty-five, share something and understand it.

Like back at the start: one of those things is sports. That's more geographical than generational. I’m sure it’s great if you live in New York and if you have a son or a father and they can all share the love of some sport. I’m old and finding out how to connect with my own kids, so I think about these things.

Hamish: Yeah, part of it would be in a mentorship capacity, but just the fact…exactly. 

Dave: The fact that there are teenagers that really love jazz and are committed to it and are in school for it and are really sounding good. And clearly they're just going to go after it with everything that they've got, indefinitely. Yeah, that's got to feel good. There are a lot of those people.

Hamish: Yeah, there's a lot of really great young eighteen year old, nineteen year old jazz musicians who are going to music school to study jazz and they're hungry for it, which, I think, is what keeps pushing the music forward. As you just mentioned, the word “mentorship,” I think that used to exist far more than it does now. And I'm very lucky that because my generation of musicians, not many of them had that opportunity of getting called by someone like Paquito, right after their first year of college. That doesn't happen as much anymore. It used to more back in the day.

The mentorship thing was how guys came up. Like, you look at the Marsalis brothers, they came up through [Art] Blakey, the Jazz Messages and then they started their own thing. 

[I like how when Hamish thinks back in time, far beyond his years, it’s to the 1980s.]

Dave: Before, you mentioned Berklee. I don't know because I haven't spent any time there and I’m sure the model is completely different now. But back when Branford went there it seems as though there were a huge number of people looking to find each other, like-minded musicians.

And it was already expensive to go to school at some places back then. Even in Canada, they were pretty freely handing out Berklee scholarships to kids at educational jazz festivals. Almost anyone playing a decent solo. Something like $2500 or $5000 scholarships, which would have more than paid the entire tuition at the local university. And that was exciting to be acknowledged in that way but it was a tiny percentage of the total bill. We looked at how much it cost to go there and it was still unmanageable. But like in your case, school wasn’t going to work the first time financially so you figured out how to up your game to get there on better terms. That says everything to me about you.

But I think Branford [Marsalis] met Jeff Watts at Berklee, right? I think that was a pretty common story back then. I’m not sure how many people decided at the outset that they weren’t going to finish the degree but, at some point a lot of people made that decision. A ton of great people went to a lot of places and didn't finish. And in general, I think it’s a good idea for people to finish school. Jack Cooper was always big on getting students “across the line” who were maybe having trouble at the ends of their degrees, because having the degree was going to be more valuable in the future than they realized. And these weren’t kids deciding between finishing school and going on the road with some big name musicians. But I’ve never thought there was an argument that people on the level of Wynton or Branford would have been better off graduating. And guys like Wynton and Miles are extreme because they went to Juilliard for almost no time. Or I remember Ryan Kisor saying in a masterclass, “and I went to Manhattan School of Music, for a minute.”

Hamish: That's kind of the way it used to work, but not really anymore, at least in my perspective. You kind of have to finish school and use those four years, because that's pretty much how long it's taken to develop things. It’s at least four years to start to sow the seeds that get your career started. That's how it starts to develop, by being in a place for that long. You've had the chance to form some strong roots within the group of students and also with the faculty members.

It's not like you can do one semester or one year at Berklee, drop out, and move to New York, and then suddenly you're a big deal, right? These days it doesn't really happen.

Dave: I spent time talking with Donny a couple of weeks ago and did a long write up about our conversation. I’d assume that you probably know him really well by this point after those years of lessons with him. It seems like Donny is a great example of so much of what you're just talking about. His background is so diverse and eclectic, but also his dedication has been extraordinary. I made a comment about how every time somebody says, “I think this is the end of jazz. Everybody sucks now. There are no good young players, players aren't going to be the same, and jazz is going to be a dead music,” I always think of Donny. Because I'm saying to myself, “There will always be somebody like him.” They're not going to be evaluating how many gigs there are and how much being a jazz musician is going to pay and whether I'm going to be able to buy a house or any of that. But there will always be people. They just love the music and they're going to make the music, and they're going to do it for a ton of hours to get to where they are.

And maybe you're one of those guys. The one thing I'm most impressed about with you is you had a certain amount of tenacity, and you can kind of only know after the fact whether that's going to be the case with most people. And Donny just seems to just be the epitome of all that, and he's such a positive guy. That's a good thing to talk about from your perspective.

How much have those kinds of interactions with great musicians propelled you forward during the last five years? 

Hamish: Totally. And I love Donny. He's a fantastic person and an amazing musician. And I do think that these experiences, hanging with these guys and playing with them is really the most important education you can get. No one can really teach you how to play jazz. You know what I mean? You can teach them the theory of everything, the theory of playing jazz music, and the theory of jazz composition, and everything. But that still doesn't really set you up to play on a level like you might want to play, or how someone like Donny plays, because you really have to kind of be thrown into the deep end. That's another thing that I forgot to add earlier about why I chose to study in New York and move to New York was because you really have to throw yourself in the deep end. Or at least try. And all of a sudden you're playing a tune with Donny McCaslin or whoever it may be. We're using Donny as an example right now, but that's really how you learn to see what's up.

That's really the best self assessment. You're in a room playing a trio or a quartet session with someone great, or whoever you're studying with, and then you're like, “Oh, man. Okay, yeah, now I see. Boom.” I think that’s the way you really learn and progress. You have to take your playing to a level of seriousness so that these people might actually call you for a gig.

And maybe they're going to say something to you in a direct way, or maybe they're never going to. Every teacher is different and every musician is different in how they want to deal with imparting some wisdom onto their students or onto younger musicians.

Some of them don't really say anything at all, and you’re just going to have to figure some things out for yourself, which is why it's important to record all your lessons and record your sessions.

Playing with others is the biggest lesson for developing playing. And I think now it really comes down to your experience in school.

I think for an earlier generation, someone like Larry Grenadier or these guys were getting called to play with Gary Burton when they were like nineteen or twenty years old. All of a sudden they're on stage with Gary, who was obviously a huge deal for them because he was their idol. And then for someone of my generation, we're looking up to Donny and Miguel Zenón and Larry Grenadier and all those people. So you have to put yourself in that situation. And I think that's why the school that you go to has such a big effect on that.

As we discussed a couple of minutes ago, these opportunities with older musicians calling younger musicians for gigs, this mentorship thing doesn't happen as much now as it used to. Which is why it's so important, I think, to put yourself in those situations.

Dave: Yeah. So that brings up a really good point about the nature of education. You just said you can't teach someone how to play jazz. There are so many things to figure out in that statement. There are a lot of things, definitely, that you can't teach. Or maybe things that a teacher can’t “experience” for their students is more accurate. If you're thinking about education on some sort of superficial level like, “I'll present a lesson to you. I'll give you fifty minutes worth of information and then you go away and do something with that information.” I think that's the reality of education in some places. Maybe it works in some disciplines.

Given that you're a couple of years out of school, still pretty close to that experience but you're also had some time to reflect, it will be good to get your thoughts here. Presumably you're doing well enough that there wouldn't be a lot of second-guessing your experience: “What could I have done differently to even make myself better?” But I'm sure that you collected a number of ideas, especially being around really good jazz musicians. 

Great jazz musicians have a number of criticisms about organized or institutional jazz education, right? In the future, we're not going to get rid of jazz schools or formalized education. So maybe the key to jazz teaching and mentorship in the future is taking those criticisms and finding solutions to what’s missing.


What are your perceptions about the criticisms that exist in the way jazz is taught? Now, presumably, you might not be an expert in this because I’m guessing what you got was pretty good because some top people were doing the teaching. You might actually be less aware of what happens in lesser places. [laughs]

But still, what are your thoughts about the nature of education in the future? How much of getting education right is understanding these great players, their criticisms and then reinventing jazz education in a way that takes those things into account? That was super long-winded and convoluted. 

Hamish: No, it's a really good question, man. And it's really hard to put it into words, in a way, because no one person is going to have the same vision or the same ideal desire of what they want to get from a jazz education. 

Dave: Right. 

Hamish: And they shouldn't, necessarily.

Dave: That's why you're taking a bass lesson and lessons from a saxophone player in the same semesters. You saw value in that, and the school sees value in that variety of perspective.

Hamish: Right. I'll touch on that in a second. But going back to the original point, for me, I think there's never really been, at least to this point, a really great way to write jazz into a textbook, because you can't.

Dave: Arranging books, too. You try to put yourself in the place of a student who doesn’t know what they’re doing and think, “Is this book is going to get them there?” It’s almost always miles away. 

Hamish: It's very hard to structure a formulated way of teaching people to play this music, because what it really comes down to is, are they going to put in the effort that it needs? Because you can give everyone the information, right? I guess in my upbringing, you gave me a ton of information when I was still in high school, and that was fantastic. But it's what you do with that information that really counts. 

I remember you sent my school a bunch of stuff about jazz harmony and progressions and ways to play over changes and all these things. But you can't really play the music with just that. Without a lot of things [that can go on a page, the students] aren’t going to make music sound like jazz. It's might just sound like some kind of weird arpeggio thing over chords.

Dave: Yeah, there’s no substitute for a mentor to explain things and balance things. That’s what you struggle with as a teacher, especially at events like a jazz camp where you only see the students for a few hours, one week a year.  I actually call it the “band camp method” of jazz improvisation and almost all of the approach is the opposite of what you should do if you have more time. 

Hamish: So how do we get this information and then translate in a way that actually sounds like jazz? To me, that really comes down to playing with people as much as you can. 

Dave: Just that: you saying to a student that, “This information is good but you need to play a ton with real people.” That’s a huge difference right there.

Hamish: Playing with people as much as you can and listening to the music as much as you can. And that's what I talk about when when I teach now. If I'm teaching a private student or a clinic or master class at a school or university or whatever, I always ask people, “Are you really listening to the music in your own time? Are you really absorbing all of it?”

And when I say listening, I mean like wearing out the CD player. That's the kind of listening I'm talking about. You really have to almost memorize the whole album by ear. You can put on an album, sing all the solos, or, you know, where all the drum hits are, all that kind of stuff. That's the kind of listening I'm talking about. Where you really immersed yourself in the music. So I think that isn't talked about enough. People are always like, “Yeah, you’ve got to listen to this record. You got to listen to that record.” But I feel like that's maybe one of the most important things that I did, and what a lot of people have done, is really listening a lot.

Hamish: Obviously, being able to play your instrument incredibly well, that's fundamental. You’ve got to be able to play the instrument if you want to try to improvise. If you're having problems expressing yourself because you're confused about fingerings or positions, or whatever technique you’re lacking, then you’re never really going to be able to freely express yourself, right? So that's the first thing. 

The second thing is listening to the jazz greats to understand the language. And transcribing them. “Okay, that's cool.” You can transcribe them and stuff. But to me, you can listen to a solo and write it down, but do you really know a solo, or do you know how a tune progresses because you can put it on and then sing the whole thing? That, to me is when you really know that record or you know that song.

And then the third thing is playing with people all the time. When I first got to New York, you know, I probably did between ten and fifteen sessions a week when I was a freshman at MSM. Some nights I would do two or three sessions in one night. And go until very late. But playing with as many people as possible, learning tunes on the spot that I didn't know, playing with different drummers, seeing how my feel locked into different drummers in different ways.

And piano players comping. How do I navigate that along with what I'm doing? What about the soloist? How do I interact with them? There are all of these components that come along with playing with people that can't be taught in a classroom setting unless it's a performance class. So I guess this whole tangent about jazz education comes down to needing more performance based time, more listening, and the fundamentals of your instrument. So I don't know if that answered your question. 

Dave: It's a lot of good information, but it doesn't necessarily give anything viable for a more average person, right? It’s hard to see a pathway that’s a more casual approach. Not that I want to but we’re always being sold some version that supposedly makes it easier but never ends up with the right result. This is something we were wrestling with at the beginning.

Hamish: It's very tough to put into words. And what I want is not necessarily what the next person is going to want out of a jazz program.

Dave: I remember feeling like certain things were a million miles away. Winnipeg, where I'm from, has three quarters of a million people. The distance between where I was and bigger cities in Canada or the US, and not just the geographical distance, was large. In New Zealand, it’s greater in several ways. You remember Richard Thai from Christchurch? Really good tenor player. I think he was in second year when I got here. Eventually he left to do a master’s degree. I think he started at City College and then transferred to Queens. But he got to New York before the school semester started and was having a tough time adjusting at first. And I was like, “Listen, it's like the beginning of August. School hasn't started yet. You haven't met anybody. You’re going to meet good people, nice people, and realize that, musically, you belong there. But it’s an adjustment. And if you move from Christchurch to New York and there isn’t some period of freaking out, something’s probably wrong with you. [laughs]

Hamish: You have to be patient with yourself and give it time. Because then, as you said, once you get into that school environment, all of a sudden you're not going to have time to be thinking about the other things going on with living in New York. Obviously, moving a long way from home is difficult and being in a different environment, different culture, with different kinds of people.

Dave: I think there are significant cultural differences between New Zealand and the United States, just in general. If you’re from Canada, it’s not as though there aren’t cultural differences, they’re different by region, but it feels like we’re at least aware of them. It’s good that you were able to spend more than two months in New York City before going to school. It must have normalized things considerably, right? 

Hamish: It did. It was like a really good transition for me to see how I actually liked being here. It's not a huge amount of time, but it's enough to get a feeling of how it would be to live here. If you visit for a week or two, that's really not enough to give you an idea. I don’t think everyone can realistically come to New York for two months before college, but visiting the places that you're interested in going to school for is really a good idea.

Dave: How old were you when you started playing the bass? Was that your first musical experience? 

Hamish: I played quite a few instruments before I played bass. I think I started at five or six on clarinet and guitar at the same time. Then I was dabbling in some other instruments for a while, so I was always very interested in music. 

Dave: So how did that happen though? How did you play clarinet when you were six in Christchurch? That has to be unusual.

Hamish: Yeah, probably. Just through school. There was an advertisement or whatever. They had music lessons available at the school I was at, I guess, obviously, clarinet and guitar. So I did it. I don't know how. Maybe my parents would be able to say it better than I am. But they still tell me now that there was always something about me that was interested in music.

And I have to credit them a little bit in that my parents were always playing music around the house. They're not musicians themselves, but they are huge music appreciators and lovers, and so they are always playing music at our house. And I think that definitely has a lot to do with it, because when you're a child, between being an infant and being a five year old, those influences that are happening around you, even listening to music, are huge going forward.

And some of my parents record and CD collection is jazz. There are all these little spots or reference points, I think, in life that kind of signal what you may end up doing. I'm not saying that I was six years old and knew I was going to be a musician, but I think it must go back to that point, man. I was passionate about music and obviously I enjoyed listening, even though I probably wasn't really aware of what it was. I wasn't six years old and being like, “Boom, that's Frank Sinatra on the CD player.” I didn't know that.

I started the bass when I was eleven. I think I was in middle school, intermediate school as they call it in New Zealand.

Dave: Yeah, you were at Chisnallwood, right?


Hamish: Right. They had a jazz program at Chisnallwood. And they had a very dedicated music teacher [Judith Bell] who happened to know quite a lot about jazz for someone who lived in New Zealand.

There's not a great magnitude of people in New Zealand that have a whole lot of information about jazz music. So I was lucky that I went to a middle school that happened to have someone who knew about jazz. I guess I was just really lucky, man. That I just met the right people at the right time. And that continued through high school. The high school I went to had, and still has, a strong jazz program with teachers who have a good knowledge of jazz. It just paved its way through until then, eventually, I met you and then I met people through those programs in the New Zealand Jazz Foundation.

The [NZ] Youth Jazz Orchestra was obviously huge for me in that I met Luis [Bonilla] and Scott [Wendholt] and Dick Oatts and those guys, you remember at that time, they were all very encouraging to me. And all those guys, even at that point, were suggesting that I look to move to the US, for school and whatever. So there has been luck, you know, because there was, there there was a lot of luck. But I was also very passionate about the music and I think that those things intersected well. I was passionate, keen, willing to learn, had a really strong love for it from an early age. And then I just met these people who were willing to dedicate a bunch of time and energy to me going on to do things that I dreamt of doing. And you're one of those people. 

Dave: I appreciate that. 

Hamish: It's cool that we get to talk about it a long time later because I think, when did I meet you, man? I was probably thirteen or fourteen or something.

Dave: Yeah, I think a little over ten years. There are pictures of you looking very young. And if you'd had no music experience in your house, no musical experience in intermediate school, nothing in your high school, no lessons, no youth band, well, you probably wouldn't be a jazz musician without all those things. Maybe one in a million people has some sort of insatiable investigative spirit where they just realize…they hear one jazz record and that's all they're ever going to be obsessed with. Maybe that was you, but statistically, probably not.

But with what you had, you still jumped over that year, made that year into something. You made some progress, but you didn't take your eye off the ball. 

Hamish: Yeah.

Dave: From an educational standpoint, what I struggle with now is, can you teach, not just one person who wants to be taught, but many somebodies? I think with the right motivation, I can tell you a whole bunch of things that will be super helpful. You can point someone in the right direction.


Hamish: That's how I like to describe it. You can point someone in the right direction, you can give them all the tools, all the information, but then, really, it's still up to them, man. At the end of the day, it's totally up to the individual and their drive and their wanting and their desire for the music, their desire to improve and get better. That's the thing. Even with top guys: Donny, Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, Miguel Zenon. All these guys are constantly doing this. [upward gesture] It's not like there's a point where they're satisfied with their level. It's just exponential. It's a lifelong pursuit of getting better. 

Dave: Right.

Hamish: I think the ones who turn out to be the more musical people are the ones who just have this constant desire to explore and improve. And that doesn't end. So maybe this notion is actually embedded far earlier than what we think it is.

Dave: That's almost the identical topic I was talking about with Donny.

Hamish: When you're in high school and you're starting, and maybe you have current students at the New Zealand School of Music who, if there's not this initial drive, then it's going to be really tough. Like, the tunnel will close before we really want it to. It just has to be a constant vision of going forward on this road, and that's just not going to be in everyone. And that's okay. We can't discriminate against that because not everyone is born to be a jazz musician.

Not everyone's born to be an artist in general, right? So we have to acknowledge that.

Dave: Even among the people who have declared that they want to be jazz majors. A long time ago, I thought, "Well, once you get to a point where everybody in the program has declared that they want to be jazz musicians, because they're doing a degree in it..." but it’s still so uncertain. Of course it’s the case at Juilliard and MSM, too. A ton of people you went to school with won't be jazz musicians in five years.

Hamish: 100% 

Dave: Or even now. 

Hamish: Even now, yeah.

Dave: And depending on the school, some or a lot won finish the degree, and not because they’re quitting to go on the road with somebody great. They'll just be doing something else. And this is just my own OCD or something. There are so many disciplines, like I always say, in business, you can do a business degree and  run a local convenience store, maybe just making enough money to survive in some cases, and that's still success. You could be a CEO of a company and make $20 million a year, and that’s success. And everything in between is success, potentially. And having music or art as a really serious hobby is great and there’s virtue in that. But there’s not much room for a middle ground among jazz musicians if you want some money attached.

Hamish: The ones that are at the top, that's the smallest layer. The ones that are at the top, that's the smallest layer of that pyramid. 

Dave: Oh, it's a tiny part.

Hamish: It's a very small layer. Things have been challenging though, especially during COVID. A lot of these guys moved out of New York because at that point they're like, “Fuck it, I'm out of here.”


Dave: Right. And there are real logistical problems with that. I guess if you owned your condo outright and you could just leave for a while and come back. But I’m sure that's not the way things worked for most people.

Dave: Anyway, we’ve got to talk about the Vanguard Orchestra. Because that's pretty cool. How many times have you played in the band so far?

Hamish: Good question. I haven't done it for a while. I did it several times about over a year ago. I think I might have done it four or five times. And then I got asked to do a couple more, but I couldn't make them. I haven't done it since then, because when you can't make it a couple of times, people start calling other people. But I did it maybe four or five times within a pretty short period, which was great. And I really enjoyed doing it. 

It's a fun gig, the music is cool. But it was kind of a full circle moment a little bit because I'd obviously been listening to that band for a while and I had met several of the players in New Zealand when I was still in high school. I’d had this affiliation with that band since I was young, so it definitely was cool to play with them. 

Dave: Was John [Riley] there every time you played? From a bass player standpoint, that would be my first question.

Hamish: That was funny. So the first time I did the gig I really didn’t have much knowledge of the situation going in. I didn't know too much about what to expect. And then about two hours before the gig, John Riley sent me a text saying, “Hey, sorry man. I'm stuck in Toronto. My flight is canceled due to weather. Someone else is going to be playing tonight.”

I already know that there are going to be a lot of things that I'm going to have to deal with when I get there. But then knowing that John wasn't going to be there added kind of a complexity to that because John's been playing in that band for so long and now it’s going to be a different guy. But thankfully it was Paul Wells who's playing drums and he's fantastic. He knows the book really well, so it turned out fine. And John was there the other times that I did it, but the first time I'll always remember that John wasn't there. Because he was the one who called me to do the gig in the first place. 

Dave: Were you gone to New York by the time John [Riley] was here? 

Hamish: Yeah, maybe I could have already been gone at that point  because, of course we had Luis [Bonilla] and Scott [Wendholt] and Oatts several times. You know what,? I remember now, I was visiting New York when John came. He would have been there in January 2018.

Dave: Right.

Hamish: Okay. Because I was here and I saw him at the Vanguard. I think it was my first night in town and I went to see the band and John was like, “Oh, man. I'm going to New Zealand in a couple of days.” Yeah, that was a fantastic trip for him.

Dave: That was great to get to hang out with him for that week and a bit he was here. Our book had just come out and he was especially appreciative about it. And now I’ve done a couple more recording projects with him, Ryan’s big band project that you did, and the Thad Jones 100 albums, since then, and he’s brilliant. Equally musical and meticulous with details in tunes with charts.

Hamish: It's a fun gig. The music is great and the band is great. But you have to sift through three huge books that are about this wide each to find the chart that you get to play. And you know how it is. It's hundreds of numbers and it's a huge, dusty old book. The charts are really old and you can't see some of the titles because Richard Davis's handwriting is sketched all over the bass part and shit. Dennis Irwin’s bowing.

It's got a history and it's cool to have put my foot in it a little bit to see what that environment is like. And obviously, playing at the Vanguard is an incredible experience. Amazing room to play in and everything.

Dave: Have you played in any other gigs at the Vanguard other than the big band? 

Hamish: No. Just with the big band. 

Dave: So that's coming.

Hamish: That's hopefully coming one of these days.

Dave: That's fantastic. Okay, so what are you going to be do next? Do you have any interesting projects in mind, like for your own music? 

Hamish: I'm in New York for the next week or two. And then in October I'm traveling a bit. I have some light tours with the piano player Henry Hay. He just recorded a new trio album. So we're doing kind of a release tour with that. We’re doing a residency at the University of Alabama with him and Jochen Rueckert, the drummer, is doing that with us. 

Then I'm playing some gigs with a piano player from Cuba, Elio Villafranca. He has a trio we're doing some touring with, also in October. And a bunch more dates with the regular guys that I play with like Manuel Valera. I'm playing with Manuel in a few days doing a gig for this series called the Mosa Concerts. We're doing the opening concert for their season. And that's with myself and Mark Whitfield Jr. playing drums. I do quite a lot with that trio now. We just recorded an album with Manuel's quintet at the beginning of the year, which just came out two months ago. That's on Criss Cross. It's called Vessel.

It's a really nice album with Mark, myself, Manuel, and then two horn players, John Ellis, the saxophone player, and Alex Norris, the trumpet player, are on that. And we're going to be doing another recording with that quintet at the end of the year for a Chamber Music of America grant that Manuel got. Those are some of the sideman stuffI've got coming up. So it's all going to be fun.

And then, as you know, the sideman stuff obviously takes up most of my time. So I am in the process of planning to record my first album. I did a show at the Jazz Gallery right at the end of last year with my quintet and hopefully we're doing another one at the end of this year and then we'll be going into the studio soon after that to record everything.

Dave: Yeah, that'll all be awesome.  

Hamish: That's kind of what's happening in the world of me. 

Dave: Sweet, man. Well, it's been brilliant and a pleasure to talk to you and get a little more inside the things you’re doing and it’s so good to see.

Hamish: You too, man.

Dave: I’m proud of you and great to see you doing some cool shit.

Hamish: Thanks. It's fun to be doing it.

Dave: Yeah, it's got to be exciting. But also I'm imagining, on the back end of the amount of work that it took to get there, it’s also probably a bit of a relief. But you're at the point where you're young but mature enough that you're not deliriously excited about it because you've actually earned it. 

Hamish: Right.

Dave: Does that make sense? 

Hamish: Yeah, I'm comfortable with how much stuff I've gone through to get to this point and there's obviously been a tremendous amount of hoops to jump through, not just musically, but personally… 

Dave: Legally. 

Hamish: Exactly. Which I talk about in the ebook resource as well. There's definitely been a lot to deal with, but that's part of it. And I wouldn't change any of that because it's a valuable experience to go through and it definitely formulates a lot of other factors in my life. 

Dave: Yeah, I’d change the American immigration system part. But I know what you mean. I had to deal with that for a long time, with three different student visas, OPT, and then the NAFTA "visa" for my college gig in Memphis.

Hamish: It's really a whole thing, and it's a lot of hard work and determination to make it happen, but it all pays off in the end.

Dave: Well, it has for you so far anyway. 

Hamish: Right.

Dave: So keep in touch. It's so cool to see your gigs and all that activity all the time. Beautiful. Thanks for talking.

Hamish: Cool. Solid conversation.

[If you're interested in reading Hamish Smith's ebook resource: Notes on the Move, you can find it: here]

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