Jay Smith

We’re entertainers. Our job must be to leave them with a memory.”

S: Tell me about yourself. Who is Jay Smith? Where are you from? 

JS: I’m a working musician, educator and composer based out of Bakersfield, CA who performs with The Jay Smith Group and local favorite Mento Buru. The latter named the 2019 “Best Band in Bakersfield” by readers of Bakersfield Life Magazine. I’m also a private piano instructor at Nick Rail Music here in Bakersfield and have been for the last eight years.

I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina and have also lived in Louisiana and Oregon, as well as California.

S: What instruments do you play and how long have you been playing them?

My main instrument is the piano. However, I dabble with other keyed instrument (organ, clavinet, and various synths).

S: Did you study music? What was your major or emphasis? Do you plan to continue your career with music?

JS: I received my Associates Degree from Fresno City College in 2001 studying under Olga Quercia, Mike Dana, Andre Bush, Larry Honda and Craig Vonberg. I received my Bachelors of Arts degree in Music Education in 2016 from CSU Bakersfield where I studied with Dr. Doug Davis, Dr. Chang-Parks, Dr. Rene Ferrell to name a few.  

A career in music has been a dream of mine for a long time and after years of hard work, I’m finally getting to a place where my only income comes from music. 

S: What style of music do you play?

JS: It really depends on the gig. My heart lies with swing, straight-ahead and fusion but sometimes that isn’t what the situation calls for. Realistically, it’s all music. My band has always been a melting pot of whatever we have handy at the time.

S: Does music run in your family?

JS: I never met my biological father but I’ve been told he was a musician. Apparently, there was a concert pianist in my lineage somewhere, but I haven’t been able to track that information down. My step-father plays bluegrass and folk guitar and sings as well, so, music was always around in the house growing up. 

S: Where do you draw your inspiration from in regards to playing and producing music?

JS: The first jazz record that I listened to religiously was “Django Reinhardt and his Hot Club of France.” The interplay between Django and Grappelli still gets me to this day. After that, I grabbed everything I could find; immersing myself in Art Tatum’s music, then Bud Powell, Monk, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Smith, Joey Defrancesco, Hiromi Uehara, The Bad Plus et al.

S: How long have you been performing music?

JS: Twenty-two years. My first gig was when I was 13 years old. For about seven years or so, retail was my day gig so there wasn’t a ton of performing at that time. However, since I’ve been pursuing music full-time, I’ve been averaging 160 shows a year.

S: What projects are you currently involved in? 

JS: Mainly Mento Buru and the Jay Smith Group. When it comes to being a bandleader for my group – especially in this era, without management – my job is performing, composing, booking, sound engineering, and all the necessary logistical bookkeeping.

With Mento Buru, I’ve been fortunate to find a situation that allows me to learn and grow. It helps that the band feels like a brotherhood (I’m an only child). The band has been going strong for 28 years so there’s a lot of material to cover as well as new stuff to learn. 

S: What do you think is the status of jazz today? What do you think is the status of jazz in the Central Valley?

JS: Jazz is, at it’s best, when it’s growing. Don’t forget, this music was born in dive bars and when it lacks that grit, it doesn’t thrive. 

After people would see a Broadway show in the 1940s, they would walk down the street and hear Art Tatum playing a version of the tune they walked out of the theater humming.  An audience wants to understand and make a connection with a band. 

As musicians, we should constantly remind ourselves that a connection needs to be made either through bombastic playing or subtle connection to something they’ve heard. We’re entertainers. Our job must be to leave them with a memory. 

With that, in my estimation, jazz is indeed growing in the Central Valley. Mike Dana and Craig Vonberg continue the traditional jam session at Tokyo Garden that’s been going for almost two decades. Places like Lucy’s Lounge in Fresno is specifically booking jazz acts and the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop just celebrated its 13th anniversary. We have a very supportive music scene here as well that allows us to perform as frequently as we do. 

S: What do you think is the future of jazz?

JS: Jazz will always have a future because it’s a melting pot. If one were to go back over a hundred years of jazz thus far, you’d find – decade by decade – new things added to the vocabulary.  Technological innovation seems to lead to the new thing. The banjo was replaced by the guitar and drum set. Bassists helped give stride pianists’ left hand a rest. Amplification allowed a band to be much more dynamic and allowed for parts to be heard. Synthesizers created new soundscapes. Drum machines and electric drumsets vastly changed the bands. But ultimately, the improvisational construct stayed the same. So in my estimation, as long as they’re improvising in the future, I’ll be a happy guy.

Interview by Stephanie Barraza

Find out more about Jay Smith Group at jaysmithgroup.com