By Jason M. Rubin
Percussionist Syd Smart is a Boston treasure to whom we will soon have to say farewell. But his talent, spirit, and energy will remain with those fortunate enough to see him play.
For more than 50 years, Syd Smart has been a hidden gem in the Boston music scene; hidden, that is, unless you know where to look. Smart is a master percussionist who has carved out his own unique niche teaching and playing improvisational music that could be labeled free jazz or world music. Whatever you call it, Smart plays it with great musical talent, spiritual power, and cultural knowledge. Sadly, he is leaving Massachusetts for New York City; by way of a farewell to the area, he gave a mesmerizing outdoor performance at Temple Sinai in Marblehead on August 22.
Before I delve into the concert, the entirety of which has been posted on YouTube with Smart’s blessing (see above), there is more to tell about him.
Syd Smart was born in Cleveland. His earliest percussion teachers were his father and older brother. Over the years, he studied with the likes of Chief Bey, Milford Graves, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Babatunde Olatunji, Steve Barrios, and Ibrahima Camara. Smart majored in Music Education at Central State University in Wilberforce, OH. He moved to the Boston area in the late ’60s, but in 1973 he received a Black Music Fellowship to teach and study at Bennington College in Vermont. Back in Boston, Smart formed the Boston Art Ensemble (after the Art Ensemble of Chicago) and founded Friends of Great Black Music, an organization dedicated to supporting local artists of color. He also cofounded Boston’s annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert, the first of which was held on July 17, 1977, in his own loft, which was located on the corner of Beach and Lincoln streets in Chinatown.
As if that weren’t enough, Smart also holds a Master’s degree in Education from Lesley University and has taught music in the Cambridge Public Schools. In 1992, he was a resident performing artist at Expo 92, the World Exposition held in Seville, Spain.
Smart has played with too many musicians to list, among them Stan Strickland, another local jazz giant with whom he has also worked in Express Yourself, a nonprofit that brings creative arts programs to youth in residential and outpatient treatment facilities. I asked Strickland (who is co-executive director of Express Yourself in addition to being a noted saxophonist, singer, flutist, and actor) to comment on his longtime collaborator. In a statement, he said, “Syd Smart is my longtime friend and mentor. We came to Boston from our Ohio college many, many years ago. He has taught me so much about music, rhythm, and life. Syd is a master percussionist and one of the heroes of the American creative music scene. We’ve had some amazing times together on and off the bandstand. I’m wishing him all the best in The Big Apple. Fortunately New York is not so far away.”
This leads us back to the recent concert, billed as “Syd Sonic & Friends: Drum Songs.” The lineup was: Smart on tambourine, electronic percussion, and vocals; Shira Moss and Stephen E. Whitney on congas and other percussion; Stone Montgomery on African percussion; Steve Tapper on flute; and Matt Crane on cajon. I arrived 15 minutes prior to the posted 5:30 p.m. start time and found the band already in flight. As Smart eventually explained, the players unintentionally went straight from sound check to first set: they simply never stopped playing!
Over the course of two sets, all the pieces appeared to be group improvisations conducted by Smart, who would gesture to individual musicians to indicate what he wanted. He used his gruff but emphatic voice to sculpt the pieces’ structures. Quotes from Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” and, surprisingly, the Blues Project’s “Flute Thing” (composed by rock journeyman and current Somerville resident Al Kooper) were easy to pick out, as were a couple of Hebrew liturgical songs. The entire two-hour performance was a deeply moving experience. The five percussionists created a joyful weave of rhythm over which Tapper’s echoey flute danced elegantly. Crane’s cajon playing was particularly impressive, even though he didn’t join the ensemble until 40 minutes into the first set. But at the center of it all was Smart, seemingly having the time of his life, enriched by the act of creating music that in turn enriched the audience.
In between sets, Smart told me that the reason for his moving to New York City was to be closer to family, especially his grandchildren. These days he walks gingerly, with a cane, but he didn’t suggest he was moving into retirement. He hopes to set up gigs in New York and doesn’t discount the possibility of venturing back to Boston for a visit.
He calls himself Yedidyah Syd Smart (“Yedidyah” is a Hebrew name meaning “friend of God”) and he is a Boston treasure to whom we will soon have to say farewell. But his talent, spirit, and energy will remain with those fortunate enough to see him play. I wish him safe travels.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective (neiac.org) and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.