Jazz orchestra founder Tommy Smith says he will quit over funding shake-up

Tommy Smith, one of the UK's leading contemporary jazz saxophonists. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Tommy Smith, one of the UK's leading contemporary jazz saxophonists. Picture: Callum Bennetts
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Musician Tommy Smith has threatened to quit the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, which he founded 17 years ago, if the group is forced to “go commercial” by radical changes in funding for Scottish arts organisations.

Smith, a leading jazz saxophonist who has toured worldwide, called the decision a “bitter pill” to swallow in a week the SNJO was “flying the flag for Scottish jazz abroad”. “To say we were disappointed is an understatement,” he said.

Last week, the arts agency Creative Scotland (CS) announced that nearly 50 Scottish arts organisations will lose annual funding agreements in favour of one-off project grants. The decision has met with widespread confusion and anger.

Mr Smith said he heard the news just half an hour after the orchestra, which at present gets £170,000 a year, had performed for an audience of 1,300 in France.

The SNJO, which typically performs with between 16 and 20 musicians, won Best Jazz Ensemble at the UK Parliamentary Jazz Awards last week. On Monday, it has a first album out with the best-known European jazz label, ECM, called Celebration.

SNJO chairman Michael Connarty MP said he was seeking talks with Creative Scotland boss Andrew Dixon and culture minister Fiona Hyslop.

The SNJO has argued in the past that it should receive direct funding from the Scottish Government. “It is regarded as the primary orchestra in the jazz field in the UK and in Europe,” said Mr Connarty. “Something is amiss in the way Creative Scotland is looking at this.”

The UK distributor for ECM records, whose artists include American jazz pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, said: “In terms of status this album means a lot. The orchestra is one of the few big bands remaining and they have a big reputation.”

CS says it is moving 49 arts organisations off “flexible funding” arrangements to individual funding for projects and programmes, funded by lottery cash. Chief executive Andrew Dixon, has insisted the move is “nothing to do with cuts”. The orchestra is due to hold talks with separate organisations in the coming weeks.

“Every organisation in Scotland’s cultural ecology is valuable and we are willing to invest more in many of them,” said a CS spokeswoman.

But observers remain concerned as to why successful, high-profile organisations, from the Celtic Connections festival to the Grid Iron theatre company, will be forced to compete for a general funding pot. Concern centres on the lack of any reliable year-to-year funds to keep staff and develop future projects.

The award-winning Wee Stories children’s theatre company lost £160,000 in regular funding in a previous review. Its creative director, Iain Johnstone, said that even after winning four grants, “we are one failed application away from closing our doors … Now the competition will be even more fierce.”

Mr Smith said: “I don’t play to make money, or to follow commercial desires, or I would have done that from the outset. If we have to become commercial to exist, then au revoir.

“We are very grateful for any funding that we get, and over the years we have been supported more and more.” But now, he said, “it’s all gone backwards”.