Alumni Spotlight: Peter Smith ’91

We recently caught up with PETER SMITH ’91 to discuss his album and his time on the Hilltop.  Click READ MORE to read our Q&A with Peter.  
Alumni Spotlight: Peter Smith ’91

In addition to being a Hackley alumnus, Peter Smith ’91 is an accomplished pianist, composer, arranger, songwriter, and music director. In March of 2023, he released “Dollar Dreams.” with the Peter Smith Trio which he dedicated to his classmate Jason Fisher ’91, who passed away in 2022. On Sunday, July 23 Peter is performing at the Jazz Forum Club in Tarrytown and is excited to be playing in the area again. He played his first professional gigs at Dudley’s in Ossining and Sonoma restaurant in Croton the summer he graduated from Hackley. Since then, Peter has composed and arranged music for film and TV, has worked on various TV shows with industry greats such as Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Nettles, Robin Thicke, and John Legend, and also worked with Natalie Cole and Molly Ringwald. We recently caught up with Peter to discuss his album and his time on the Hilltop. 

Hackley: You’ve had great success in the music business. Where did you get your love of music and in particular, jazz?
Peter Smith: I grew up in a musical family. My mother played guitar and piano and also sang, and my dad plays jazz Vibraphone and even studied with Milt Jackson, one of the five most-recorded jazz artists of all time. I started playing piano when I was four years old.

H: How and why did you get involved with the music department at Hackley?
PS: I was playing Jazz so I joined the jazz band. It wasn’t much back then, but Mr. Goidel was a good teacher and I got to play with good musicians like Dan Fisher 89, Chris Isom '91, and Julianne Puente 91(and Guillermo Brown 94, who is my colleague out here in LA and still killing it as a drummer!).

H: What were your favorite songs you played during your time in the Hackley Jazz band?
PS: Oh gosh. We did one of my tunes. I think it was called Clairvoyant Chiquita. How embarrassing! It had an Afro-Cuban flavor to it.  Julianne played it with me. Her grandfather was the great Tito Puente!

H: Your recent album Dollar Dreams has received raved reviews.  What was the inspiration behind the title? 
PS: My producer and college pal, Dante Polichetti, took the cover photo back in the early 2000s. That’s across from BAM in Brooklyn, on Fulton Street. I thought it was a cool image, to have the Dollar Dreams sign and “.25 cent all day parking” in faded ink on the brick facade across the street. That was indeed a “dollar dream.” I’m hopeless with anything visual, so Dante took the picture. When he joined my project, it seemed natural to make that the cover and to name the album and one of my tunes “Dollar Dreams."

H: You have an eclectic mix of songs on your album. Tell us about some of the songs you included.
PS: The title song Dollar Dreams is a blues song I wrote and Sweet Georgia Brown is an old song that I first heard watching the Harlem Globetrotters on TV in the 1980s. No, You Go is proof that you can write a song about anything. It’s supposed to convey that stop/start feeling at a four-way stop sign, when everyone is trying to “out-polite” everyone else. Love For Sale is a Cole Porter tune I arranged, inspired by the great pianist Kenny Barron. Piece of a Dream is a song I wrote that literally came to me in a dream (the first and last time that’s happened). I woke up and remembered the song, and wrote it down.
Prayer for Jay was something I improvised in my studio when Jason Fisher died. I had my phone recording a video and I put it on Instagram, thinking that if it helped me with my grief maybe it would help with someone else’s. I wasn’t planning on recording it, but Dante insisted. I’m glad he did.

H: How did you come to dedicate the album to Jason Fisher?
PS: We recorded this album about a month after Jason died. Jason was my best friend at Hackley and my college roommate during my first year at Columbia. Dante was a close college friend, and with this project already in the works when Jason passed, it was apparent that we must dedicate it to him. He was a fearless person, maybe too fearless. He was the funniest person I’ve ever known. He was also very supportive of me as a musician, always encouraging. One of my favorite Hackley moments occurred at the talent show my senior year, when Jason impersonated a lounge singer. I had a satin baseball jacket that he borrowed, and he found a wig which he stuffed down the front, giving him a plume of “chest hair” as he belted out “Hey There” in a soaring parody. I have so many treasured memories from Hackley— especially on our undefeated soccer team in 1990— but that one stands out.

H: How did your Hackley education prepare you for your music career?
PS: Hackley taught me how to write. I took some great classes, including a seminar on Prejudice with Scott Nelson. We read so many great things, like Black Like Me.

H: Who were your favorite Hackley teachers?
PS: Anne Siviglia was certainly my favorite. Because of her instruction, I was placed out of freshman English at Columbia. She was such a great teacher. Walter Schneller was great, of course. Julie King, now Julie Lillis. Oh, and Jon Leef! I managed to make it to calculus, and I was able to survive that difficult class because of him and the way he tirelessly offered himself for extra help.

H: What are your future plans?
PS: I’m scoring a short film right now called “Pirouette,” written and directed by Johnathan McClain. It’s beautiful and I’m so excited to be working on it. I also hope to record another Jazz album next year.

 Don't miss the Peter Smith Trio at the Jazz Forum in Tarrytown on Sunday, June 23 at 4 and 6 p.m.