The good ones often start young. Cecilia Smith was eight when she began taking piano lessons in Cleveland first with Margaret Heller and later with Earl Todd, who told her, you are good enough to make music your profession.When she was twelve, Cecilia studied with Ronald Papalio, adding drums and percussion to her music exploration, and at fourteen moved on to mallet percussion. In her teens she expanded her studies to include composition, working with David Kechley, a doctoral student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Cecilia attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where in addition to studying arranging, composition and film scoring, she studied vibes with Ed Saindon and Mike Hatfield and improvisation and composition with Andy Jaffee and other noted faculty. Following graduation she continued studying with members of Berklee’s faculty. Cecilia studied vibes with Gary Burton and improvisation with Charlie Banocas. In 1989 she joined them and taught at Berklee for four years before moving to New York City. Cecilia continued to study after moving to Brooklyn. She studied composing and arranging with Cecil Bridgewater and improvisation with Billy Pierce.
Over the past 30 years, Cecilia has built a multifaceted career in music as a performer in concert halls, nightclubs and festivals throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia and West Africa, as a composer/arranger and teacher.
In 2000, Ms. Smith was asked to present a concert devoted to compositional work of Mary Lou Williams at Our Lady of Victory RCC where several senior church members had known Ms. Williams. In preparation for this gig, Cecilia studied Mary Lou Williams’ archives. The breath and complexity of Ms. Williams’ work—comprising more than 350 compositions and including works for Big Band, Small Ensemble and Chorus—was mind-blowing. This research led her to a multiple year Artist-in Residence at New England Conservatory of Music’s – Jazz Studies Department where she was able to further study, lecture and perform MLW’s work. Mary Lou Williams became Cecilia’s passion. And Cecilia’s desire to expose audiences to Ms. Williams’ compositional work evolved into The Mary Lou Williams’ Resurgence Project (MLWRP).
In 2005 the MLWRP presented the Sacred and Secular Music of Mary Lou Williams, a concert that included a big band, choir and vocalist, at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Following the DC concert, Mike Joyce wrote in the Washington Post,
“Her (Cecilia’s) research provided the impetus for Friday night's multifaceted concert, featuring the Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Big Band, led by Smith, and the Morgan State choir, under the direction of Eric Conway. When the two ensembles joined forces in the second half of the program, the sheer intensity of their union was something to behold, sounding dramatically unlike anything heard at the festival in previous years. The performances of Williams' I Have a Dream, based on the Martin Luther King Jr. speech, and her gospel anthem Come Holy Spirit were particularly eloquent and exhilarating.”
Subsequently this concert was presented, incorporating local musicians into the big band and using local choirs, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA (2006); the Discover Jazz Festival in Burlington, VT (2007)and at Montgomery Community College in Troy, NC (2010). The National Endowment of the Arts awarded the MLWRP an American Masterpiece Award for this performance.
Highlights of Cecilia’s other performance over the past decade include: the International Marimba Festival in Chiapas, Mexico (2012); performing with the Morehouse College Choir at their 100th Anniversary Awards at the Schomburg Center in NYC (2011); the Ichnusa Cultural Festival in Sardena, Italy (2008); the Stanbic Bank Ghana Jazz Festival in Accra, Ghana (2006); the African American Jazz Preservation Society in Pittsburgh, PA (2007); the Charlotte Jazz Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina (2006).
Cecilia has also appeared or recorded with the following artists: Gary Bartz, Bennie Powell, Cassandra Wilson, Amina Claudine Myers, Cindy Blackman, Jennifer Holiday, Donald Byrd, Alan Dawson, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Cecil Bridgewater, Hubert Laws, Milt Hinton, Mulgrew Miller, Billy Pierce, Rufus Reid, Vanessa Rubin, and Mark Whitfield and has performed duets with Jay Hoggard, Randy Weston and poet, Tracie Morris.
Currently one of the leading vibraphonists of the four-mallet technique in the United States, Cecilia is the first woman to release material on vibraphone both nationally and internationally. Ms. Smith has recorded four CDs as a band leader: The Takeoff (1992); CSQ Volume II (1995) with guest artist Billy Pierce; High Standards (1996) with guest artistsBilly Pierce and Javon Jackson;and 1998’s Leave No Stone Unturned featuring Gary Bartz, Greg Osby, and Cecil Bridgewater. Cecilia’s collaboration with Japanese vibest Yoshi Karori was recorded in Paris and released in Japan in 1997 as Carmen R&B. Her latest CD, Dark Triumph (2006) combined music with spoken work. Cecilia composed and arranged all the tracks for this project that included a large ensemble with a string section, and performances by the Boys’ Choir Of Harlem and vocalist Elon Robin Dixon. Dark Triumph can best be compared with composer Aaron Copeland’s A Lincoln Portrait, which uses orchestration and narration to highlight Lincoln's life. Cecilia’s CD traces the life of an ordinary woman, African American, senior citizen Victoria L. Smith who devoted her life to service. Dan McClenaghan had this to say about Dark Triumph in “All About Jazz,”
“This is a mix of storytelling and music of the highest order, Ellingtonian in scope and magnificence, unmistakably American, a tale that should be included in every school's curriculum. Cecilia Smith's Dark Triumph is a compellingly honest look at an underdog … A story of uplifting beauty; a masterpiece.
In addition to scoring Bridgett Davis’ feature film, Naked Acts, Cecilia has received numerous compositional grants and commissions that include:
- a New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA) grant to work with selected high school students from Westchester County’s Hawthorne Cedar Knolls UFSD and Mt. Pleasant Blythedale Children’s Hospital to compose music for personal stories that they animated under the direction of animation artist Howard Better; (2013-present)
- the Big Read Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to compose music based on quotes from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God that were performed by students in Amherst Public School System in Virginia (2014);
- a Joyce Foundation Award for Music Composition and Multimedia Art to collaborate with Cuyahoga Community College to create a inter-media project, Crossing Bridges, that explores the issues of identity and the collective human experience through music, images, text, and sound. Ten original stories written by Cuyahoga students are told using live actors and multi-screen digital film. Cecilia’s original compositions anchor the piece that, in the Cubist Theory Perspective, analyzes culture simultaneously through several artistic perspectives. Crossing Bridges was presented at the 2009 Tri-C Jazz Festival (2008-09);
- a commission from the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to edit and complete incomplete works that were performed at the New England Conservatory in winter 2003 (2002-2003);
- a commission from the Cooper-Hewitt Museum–Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Design in NYC to compose Native To Native–An African American/Native American Perspective On Music. Ms. Smith created a new music form that combined a jazz quartet with four Traditional Native American musicians (1996).
Cecilia’s exploration of music and spoken word, which began with her collaboration with poet Tracie Morris, has evolved into a multi-media project, Decisive Moments, currently in pre-production. Following her Tri-C performance of Crossing Borders, Cecilia began investigating ways to expand this cubistic perspective that mirrors our fast-paced, multi-tasking world. Decisive Moments reflects the fragmented way we receive information today—from television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, texting, email, and the ever-evolving social media. It explores the issues of identity and the collective human experience through eight stories, written by prominent authors from different cultures, classes and experiences, and one “urban legend” amateur writer. Multiple screens (that will project both video and animation), live theater and live music will illustrate different aspects of each story. Cecilia will compose the music for Decisive Moments and is collaborating with filmmaker and video artist Kevin Frech, renowned for his work with The Blue Man Group.
Cecilia has led educational clinics and taught or lectured at colleges and universities throughout the US and abroad that include:
Cuyahoga Community/Tri- C Jazz Festival in Ohio
The Department of Arts & Culture in La Paz, Bolivia
Floyd Campus of Georgia Highlands College
Indiana State University
Lesley University, the New England Conservatory of Music, Nichols College, Worcester Poly Technical Institute, Williams’ College, Curry College, and University of Massachusetts Boston all in Massachusetts
Shorter University in Rome, GA
Spelman College in Atlanta, GA
University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia
San Francisco State University, and California State University Santa Cruz in California
Cornell University in Ithaca, NY for three years.