Shirley Smart, jazz cellist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? 

Both my parents, and my grandfather were all primary school music teachers, and so I was lucky in that music was around me from a very early age, and I had a very supportive family who understood early years music education.

I played the violin for a year, and the story goes that I went to my grandfather, who was teaching violin at my school, and requested something ‘less squeaky’. When I got the cello, after a short period of amusement in discovering that the C-string doubles as a catapult, I immediately said that this was what I wanted to do, so I suppose also the instrument itself inspired me!!

I’ve never really wavered from that, although the path that my career has taken has definitely not been a straight line, and I would never have imagined doing the kinds of things I now do at that point!!! 

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I lived in Jerusalem from 1998-2008, and I think I would have to say that my time living there, both musically and personally. I met some incredible musicians, in a variety of fields including jazz, Arabic, Turkish and North African music especially, and much of that infuses my own music now.

Prior to that, I suppose a big cellistic influence was the great Hungarian cellist Janos Starker. I only had a few masterclasses with him, and I don’t play anything like him at all, but his approach to the instrument was so incredibly systematic, and simple. Every time I have a tricky bit, or a technical problem, I remember something he said during classes, or I try to apply his pragmatic problem solving approach. He was an incredible teacher, and player, and although he had a reputation for being terrifyingly tough ( which he was), he also had a very witty sense of humour, and was an incredibly perceptive and kind person, without being sentimental in any way. I found that really powerful – there was a simplicity, directness and honesty to it that I really liked and that has staying with me since meeting him.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Hmm….well purely musically, building a career as a cellist outside of the primarily classical sphere has had its challenges. When I came back to the UK from Jerusalem, I knew that I wanted to continue playing the kinds of music I had played there, and develop more jazz playing.

Climbing over checkpoints to do gigs in Ramallah and Bethlehem also had its challenges as well…!

Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?

I was pleased with ‘Long Story Short’, which I released in 2018 and which I have been touring with my trio of John Crawford on piano and Demi Garcia Sabat on drums/percussion. I felt that this album found a real balance and synthesis of my ‘world music’ influences, but is very much a jazz album, which was really what I was aiming for. 

It featured also Nicolas Meier on guitar, who sometimes joins us for 4tet performances – which is great as he always brings a different guitar for each tune he plays!! Nicolas is also very well in Turkish music, and has a fretless guitar so he can also play the ‘quarter-tones’ that one often finds in Middle Eastern scales. (These are not technically quarters, but the terms is close enough for now!!!) It also features Nikki Iles on accordion and Orphy Robinson on vibraphone. 

Long Story Short was released on 33 records and available here:

I also recently released a duo album Zeitgeist² with pianist Robert Mitchell, which is veering a little more back towards the classical world, both in the format – cello and piano duo, and in the content. We explore various forms of improvisation, from free playing to a rendition of a CPE Bach work for piano. We both felt that improvisation was an element of classical education and performance which is lacking, and it was an interesting journey from the conversations we had to the album. 

Zietgeist² is available on Discus Music:

I also recently wrote a set of 10 sextet works which I think are a new sound-world altogether. This is for my core trio with John and Demi, plus James Arben on Tenor sax/flute, Tim Quicke on trumpet and Michele Montoli on bass.

 I’m hoping to record and release these soon!! 

What do you do offstage that provides inspiration on stage?


Also, my teaching work is a constant source of inspiration. I teach Musicianship and Improvisation at the RCM Junior Department, and also Musicianship and various academic topics at City University. 

I very much enjoy the balance of practical and academic work as well – it keeps me refreshed and thinking about what I am doing. 

Non-musically, I like pottering about, going for walks – there’s a lovely series of parks near where I live in North London, so I often do that, and I also like tennis and try to play when I can ( although I am very rusty!!)

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I suppose being able to earn a living playing music that one likes and believes in.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring musicians?

Practice as much as you can when you have the time, listen to as many musicians and as much music as you can, and learn from all of it!

Never let anyone tell you what you can or cannot so, or perhaps more – do and do not want to do musically. That is your journey.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

Well, lots of things are being talked about  with regard to gender imbalance, the issues with streaming services, under-funding and venues struggling etc – and sometimes I feel that less talking and more tangible action is needed.

A good example of this would be a recent initiative by UK guitarist Nigel Price in reaction to the closure and threatened closure of many grassroots jazz venues, and the lack of government support for these venues. Many of them are operated by independent promoters, and have no dedicated premises of their own, and so they slipped through the recovery funding net.

There was much ranting on social media about this, as you can probably imagine, but Nigel actually did something about it and has set up this fundraiser to do exactly what it says on the tin.

Many venues do not need huge sums to survive, and I understand that one or two venues have already received money from the fund to be able to continue.

This is a great initiative – if anyone is able to donate here that would probably be more help that more talking!

Save Jazz venues!!

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

I am pretty happy doing what I am doing at the moment, to be honest! Its been a long journey to find that, and to create the space to do it, but I am playing with some wonderful musicians, as well as writing and touring my own music.

I would like to finish the PhD that I am doing, and develop some of the work I am doing academically, perhaps publish some articles and write more. 

What is your present state of mind?

Right now, quite relaxed, as I am having a day off!!! I’ve had a really busy year, especially the last few months, and hardly had a day off since about January so now I have a few days to chill out and watch the tennis!

Shirley Smart Trio appears at East Neuk Festival at Anstruther Town Hall, Fife, Scotland on Saturday 2 July 4pm. Further details and Box Office:

Shirley Smart is recognised as one of the UK’s most versatile and creative cellists, equally at home and well versed in jazz and Middle Eastern music, as well as classical music. Originally trained under Raphael Wallfisch at the Guilldhall School of Music, and Janos Starker in Paris, she subsequently moved to Jerusalem, where she remained for 10 years, studying and performing a wide variety of musical traditions from the North Africa, Turkey and Middle East. She was also highly active on the jazz scene, working with artists including Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital and Yasmin Levy. Since returning to the UK, she has worked with many leading jazz and world music groups, including Antonio Forcione, Mulato Astatke, Gilad Atzmon, Neil Cowley, Julian Ferraretto, Robert Mitchell, and Alice Zawadski.She leads her own trio (with John Crawford on piano, and Demi Garcia Sabat on drums), and band Melange. Shirley is Head of Performance and a Lecturer in Music at City University, and teaches Improvisation and Jazz at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. She is a visiting tutor for the National Youth Jazz Collective, and an in demand as a workshop leader.

Photo credit Monika S. Jakobowska