The Young Years of an Old Soul: Exclusive Interview with Laila Smith

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Most musicians don’t start by learning jazz in preschool, but then again, most musicians aren’t Laila Smith. Thanks to an early music teacher, Smith discovered her passion for jazz at the age of four and debuted on the Summer Fest stage accompanying a jazz choir when she was only six. Thirteen years later, she’s about as decorated as a singer her age can be. Her latest award may be her most notable – she was recently recognized as one of 20 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

As she mused during our interview, “I’m aware that I’m a product of the jazz education scene in the Bay Area. Very aware,” revealing an artist who sees her progress as more hard work than raw talent. No one at Summer Fest better captures San Jose Jazz’s education and performance mission than Smith. A true gem of the South Bay, she will be performing 1pm Saturday on the Silicon Valley Stage.

This will be your 12th straight year at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Considering that you’ve essentially grown up at this festival, is there any point that you find to be a watershed moment for you?

I guess the definitive moment for me was when I got my first solo gig. I played on the Smith Dobson stage, which was nice because Mama Dobson – Gail Dobson – used to teach me. I’ve taken lessons from her daughter Sasha too but I never knew Smith, so that was a nice tribute for me, playing my first solo gig there.

Tell me a bit about the process of becoming a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts

It all started with this program called Young Arts. They invite 150 of the top artists, whether it be visual, dance, creative writing, [or] voice in all different styles, and we go to Miami for a week. We take master classes and we perform. From there, we have an application process that is very much like the Presidential Scholars application process in that it’s entirely academic and they grade your essays and all that.

It was interesting because it wasn’t just about what I had done musically, which I found super important. A hunger for music goes right along with a hunger for knowledge because, in the end, that’s what it’s about, just gaining more knowledge in different facets of your mind. You’re presenting your performance but you’re also presenting a case for yourself as not only an artist but a pillar of your community.

Why is it that you still favor jazz over the many other genres and styles you’ve been exposed to?

Well, I figure I’ve got to trust six year old me. Part of this, I really have to say, was my parents. They saw that I was strong in this field and that I really liked it. It totally wouldn’t have happened without their support and their creativity, thinking “How can we get her involved?” when I was so young. Six year old me kind of decided that. I didn’t think the pop music going on at that time was emotional, but when I heard Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McCrae sing, I thought “Wow, that’s something real.” I didn’t understand love or any of that, but did I have to? It emotionally compelled me from the beginning and that’s what I’m sticking to right now.

Does your passion for music always shine through or does your involvement with so many different programs feel like a chore at times?

My teachers warned me – “Laila, you’re working too hard. You’re going too fast. You’re gonna burn out.” I remember I used to be afraid of it, but I just promised myself “You’re gonna keep going as hard as you can.” I haven’t burned out since and I’m still doing it. Something happens that’s inspiring every day, so I don’t see how I can burn out.

Is there anyone in particular that you’re excited to see at Summer Fest?

A lot of my friends are playing gigs. Some people from New York that are at the Manhattan School of Music, they’re coming down. They’re gonna back up a singer from up there, Natalie Cressman. She’s so awesome! I met her a few years back and she’s great. Dianne Reeves is awesome. Through Monterey Jazz, I got to work with her a couple years ago and she blew my mind. I remember she told me “You sound like Esparanza Spalding. You’ll get over that soon enough.” It just totally made me realize that I need an artist statement. I have my own thing to say and I’m not sure if I know what it is yet but I’m figuring it out as I go.

You got your musical start in preschool, being taught jazz during a time some would say was far too early. Do you think that mentality, of not limiting jazz to musicians based on age or expertise, has contributed to how fertile the jazz education community is in the Bay Area?

Yeah, totally. Whenever I talk to young people about jazz, it all comes back to listening. Even if your facilities don’t allow you to play what you hear, at least you’re hearing it. Technical ability can be learned at any time, but having that inner ear – being able to hear bebop and being able to hear what you want to say when you’re improvising – that comes with time. If you give that to a kid at young age, they’ll pick up on it, no doubt, just like kids can pick up on anything – language, for example. Music is a language, so if you speak jazz to a kid, they’ll pick up on it and they’ll learn it by themselves.

Do you think that among a lot of the youth, jazz is an under-appreciated art form? As someone so heavily involved in jazz, is it frustrating for you sometimes to prove the art form’s merit to people who may just not be exposed to it?

Yeah, it’s hard, but I also feel like today’s youth, for some reason, is more open to it in a way. Jazz is having a come back. [Take] Robert Glasper’s album. He’s being interviewed on how he’s making jazz important again. I feel like with a lot of hip-hop, there’s definitely rap that doesn’t speak to the roots but good hip-hop will speak to the roots of jazz, and there’s so much sampling of jazz record that people who listen to hip-hop will listen to jazz. Hip-hop’s a huge part of pop music nowadays. I see the re-emergence of jazz. It’s approaching if it’s not already here.

 Do you plan on catching Laila Smith or any of the other local acts on the Silicon Valley Stage? Connect with other fans of the local jazz scene by commenting on our Facebook post!