neal smith

As a professional musician I’ve been privilaged enough to work around the world with some great people. I like to share what I’ve done because I’m proud of it but, most importantly, because it can show others breaking into this ever-changing business some of what’s possible.

why so nervous, neal?

how neal earned his nickname.

In short, “nervous” was a nickname given to me by a frustrated bandleader. Two years out of music school, I was eager to sacrifice my stifling position in retail management to go on tour as a professional musician, with a charismatic guitarist who, although a few years younger, seemed to be making a name for himself. Two months of rehearsals produced a band that was both tight and energetic, but during the long drive toward the first two-week long engagement of the tour, I was given the news. A series of events initiated by a bar fight rendered most of the band unavailable for the tour.

“It’s just the blues. We’ll pick up new musicians along the way,” 

was the indifferent solution awarded to my concerns.

I don’t doubt that my stunned disbelief was apparent, since it was met almost immediately with what seemed to be a ritualistic renaming initiation at my expense. Eventually, “Nervous Neal” was deemed an appropriate moniker, with the “Neal” half quickly being dropped, since it was declared that I was “…nothing but nervous.”

And that’s how I was introduced on stage during the gig I hoped would be my big break into a career as a professional musician. Despite my apprehension and embarrassment, the tour was a success. Of course, there were other bands to join once that came to an end. Apparently, they had all heard the story. My reputation had preceded me in ways I had not anticipated.

…the kind of sax player I like – big tone, relatively simple (in the good sense) melodic ideas, playing with the band and not just for (himself).

‑ Bruce Iglauer, CEO Alligator Records

a bit more about me

This love of the saxophone and all things musical has taken me all over the world, giving me opportunities to work professionally with some incredible musicians and people. From guest artist roles on albums to commercial jingles and live performances with musicians ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Alex Chilton, my gradual progress through this landscape has been interesting and, at times, pretty exciting.

While growing up in Princeton, Illinois. I started studying the tenor sax when it was offered through the grade school band program. From 1979 to 1981, I was selected to participate in the Illinois All-State High School Jazz Band. I went on to study music performance, music education and music journalism at Illinois State University, performing with their top jazz ensemble all four years.

I am currently employed full time as a private saxophone instructor, jazz clinician, and freelance performing and recording musician. Check my shows page to see where and when I’ll be playing next, or message me to sign up for a lesson. I’d love to hear from you!

check out some more of my experiences and accomplishments as a musician below!

  • Employment as an undergraduate teaching assistant and music copyist at Illinois State University from 1982 to 1985.
  • Saxophone instructor at Blackhawk College, Moline, Illinois (mid-1990s)
  • Saxophone instructor and jazz band director in the Rockridge (Illinois) School District (early 2000s)
  • Saxophone instructor at the Third Time Theater, Davenport, Iowa
  • Saxophone instructor and jazz clinician with the regional The All-City Junior Jazz Band based in Davenport, Iowa
  • Dizzy Gillespie (1984)
  • Bernard Allison (1988)
  • Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty
  • Jim Schwall
  • The Temptations
  • Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
  • The Marvellettes
  • Alex Chilton & The Box Tops
  • Louie Bellson (in big bands and small groups)
  • Buddy DeFranco
  • Clark Terry
  • Chuck Loeb
  • Garrett Morris of “Saturday Night Live”
  • Featured as a soloist with Grammy-winning vocalist Debby Boone and the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (2013) and with Terry Blackwood and The Imperials (2015)
  • Storyville Jazz Hall – New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Margaritaville – Key West, Florida
  • Disneyland Paris – Chessy, Frnace
  • South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival – Austin, Texas
  • Crossroads Music Festival – Memphis, Tennessee
  • Montreux Jazz Festival – Montreux, Switzerland
  • Jazz à Vienne – Vienne, France
  • Montreux Meets Brienz – Brienz, Switzerland
  • M/S Celebrity Equinox (inaugural season)
  • M/S Celebrity Eclipse (inaugural season)
  • M/S Celebrity Silhouette (inaugural season)
  • RMS Queen Mary 2 (two transatlantic seasons and a world voyage)
  • Original composition for The Kabalas, “The Crossing Guard’s Coffee Break,” was licensed for use in the independent film “Minimum Wage.”
  • Recorded solo saxophone improvisation excerpted from “My Secret Life” (with Einstein’s Sister) featured on MTV’s “Undressed”
  • “Elliot Ness: An Untouchable Life,” produced by Max Allan Collins. Performed on the title track and incidental music. Also performed on The Metrolites’ “Old Fascist Gal” which appears on the soundtrack as a bonus track. Released on DVD in a collection entitled “Shades of Noir”.
  • “The Standard Snowboard Show,” produced for the Fuel TV network, used my composition for The Kabalas, “The Crossing Guard’s Coffee Break,” in episode 23 (winter 2006).
  • “P.K. Subban’s All-Star Special,” produced by NBC Sports, used an excerpt of my original composition “Chaplinesque” in its debut episode, January 2019.
  • “Vonn on Vonn,” produced by NBC Sports, used “Chaplinesque” prominently behind an interview with skier Lindsey Vonn, February 2019.
  • “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” produced by TruTV, used “Slip Me Some Oxygen” (retitled to “Slippin’ for You”) in episode 203, “All About Amy,” March 2019.
  • “Contact: Alien Mysteries,” produced by The Science Channel, used “Deep End of the Pool” (retitled to “Mystery Drive”) in episodes titled “Alien Crater of Doom” (September 5, 2019) and “War on the Amazon” (September 19, 2019).
  • “Drunk History,” produced by Comedy Central, reported “Chaplinesque” (retitled as “Quirky Love”) as being used for a rebroadcast of episode 4, series 2.
  • Noble Spirit – heard on the CDs “Apollo on Fire” and “Monster Island”
  • The John Gere Trio – heard on the CDs “Snapshots in Time” and “On the Fly”
  • The Josh Duffee Orchestra – heard on the CDs “A Tribute to Jean Goldkette” and “Half a World Away”
  • The Manny Lopez Big Band and Combos
  • Riverrain – the house band of The River Music Experience
  • The Metrolites – heard on the CDs “In Spy-Fi” and “For the People”
  • Featured on the Celebration Belle riverboats every summer between 1992 and 2008

Queens-based film soundtrack ensemble Morricone Youth, with regular performances in Manhattan and Brooklyn in 2011

Featured soloist on recordings by:
  • Steve Couch
  • Ellis Kell
  • Einstein’s Sister
  • Los Mocambos
  • Digital Groove Society
  • Spatterdash
  • Parish Festival
  • The Oliver Twists
  • Vitor Cunha
  • James Culver & the Kuchina Jazz Collective
  • John Deere
  • Motorola
  • Mel Foster
  • Paula Sands Live
  • Dahl Ford
  • The Mississippi Valley Fair
  • Buysse Dodge
  • Casino Rock Island
  • Courtesy Car City
  • The Rock Island Arts and Entertainment District
  • Goods Furniture
  • Northwest Bank and Trust
  • The Argus & Dispatch
  • The House of Watch Bands – Detroit
  • Methodist Medical Center – Peoria
  • The Gentry Shop
  • Granite City
  • Fleet Management Services
  • Arnold’s Motor Supply
  • Internationally-recognized klez-punk quartet – heard on syndicated radio programs “Sound and Spirit” and “The Doctor Demento Show”
  • Three CDs issued on the Dionysus label; “Martinis and Bagels”, “The Eye of Zohar”, and “Time Tunnel”

would you like to work on something together?

From taking sax lessons or hiring me for a show to collaborating on a musical project, I’m happy to talk about working together. Just reach out to get started.

let's make music!

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