Jeremy Smith has a unique way of weaving a story. Recently, Jeremy sat at a coffee shop recounting the story of his life. Over an hour, he divulged a remarkable retrospective of perseverance, empowerment and insatiable drive. The story is hypnotic and winding, and just as suddenly as you realize you’re off the path, Jeremy will pin it to a decisive moment in the grand story. Or, as he likes to call them, bookmarks.
Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama in August pursuing his doctoral degree in music composition. He brings with him an incredible professional history, having already studied under heavily decorated professors, took part in highly competitive residencies and has already created works that, in a vacuum, would place his career considerably ahead of schedule. The works range from a ballet to a mass to a pocket opera, and more marching band arrangements than he can count.
These accomplishments are remarkable on their own, but to fully appreciate them, you must start from the beginning.
The northwest tip of Alabama is home to an area known as “The Shoals,” which comprises three small towns tucked along the banks of the winding Tennessee River. The Shoals have a knack for inspiring talented musicians, and locals have made a habit of mentioning there must be something in the water. Legends such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Paul Simon can attribute some of their success to recording their greatest hits in this tiny corner of Alabama. Jeremy grew up in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the smallest of the three towns, and graduated from Muscle Shoals High School, where he admits he wasn’t a great student. However, his high school was a titan in the concert percussion world, and Jeremy flourished within the program.
I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class.
Right across the river, The Shoals is also home to the oldest university in Alabama, where Jeremy found himself after he graduated high school.
“Undergrad was…long,” Jeremy said. Likely because he stretched it over an eight year period. Jeremy enrolled in college in fall 2010, seeking a degree in music education. He finished his first semester with a 0.27 GPA.
His second semester wasn’t better. He continued to forgo classes and assignments. Jeremy said, “I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class or, it’s closer to two years I didn’t pass a single class at all.” The university allowed community members to join their marching band, therefore in the fall of his sophomore year, Jeremy decided to only participate in marching band before re-enrolling in the spring semester.
In what felt like his last chance, Jeremy returned to school under academic probation and took on part-time status taking Physics 101 along with concert percussion in spring 2012. It cost him $3,000. Unfortunately, no motivation followed him back to college. Jeremy noted, “I didn’t go to class at all and didn’t do any of my homework, and my professor pulled me aside and said ‘You’ve missed too many classes to pass this course at this point. I’ll give you one more shot, but if you miss one more class, I’m going to fail you.’”
It was the wake-up call Jeremy needed. For the first time, Jeremy felt like he rounded a corner and really committed himself to accomplishing a passing grade. “What seemed like the entire semester for me was more like four weeks,” he said. “I did all the homework, went to all the classes, I started doing well. Until we had a test and I overslept and missed it, and he failed me.”
I was basically squatting in a house with no power.
During this time, Jeremy lived in a house near campus with one of his best friends. The homeowner was in Afghanistan serving in the military, and the owner’s brother oversaw the property. The house wasn’t for rent and had been empty for years, but Jeremy and his friend liked it and begged the brother to let them rent it. Jeremy recalled, “The front door was the only way to get in. There was a back door, but it was boarded up, and I was in the back of the house, so if there was a fire or something, then I would’ve been dead.”
Jeremy’s lack of motivation started creeping into other parts of his life. He and his friend stopped paying rent, and one cold day in December the power went out. “I was basically squatting in a house with no power,” he said. “We hadn’t paid rent in like four months and (the landlord) just never really said anything. I would charge my laptop at school and then come back home and would watch Netflix on my neighbor’s Wi-Fi under every blanket I owned until I fell asleep. It was rough.”
When his spring semester of sophomore year ended, Jeremy had already chosen to not make payments on his loan and he failed Physics 101. He also failed his sophomore percussion proficiency exams. With music being the forefront of his life, things were looking grim.
In the coffee shop Jeremy paused and took a sip of coffee, reflecting on one of the most pivotal moments in his life. “When I failed all of those classes and flunked out of school, I also owed the school $3,000,” Jeremy said. “It became an almost insurmountable thing for me because I had never had $3,000 before in my entire life.”
With little in front of him following that semester, Jeremy was sitting on a ripped couch, squatting in a house with no power, failing out of school for the second time and in insurmountable debt. He then received a letter from the university letting him know he wasn’t welcome back. Jeremy recalled, “That’s the moment where I realized ‘I’m going to have to figure something out.’ And I was crying. I just didn’t realize the consequences of the things I had done until all of them hit me all at once.” Bookmark.
I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.
Jeremy’s resolve was compounded even more when he saw a visual representation of the many emotions he was feeling. He watched the movie “Jobs,” a biographical drama of former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. Jeremy explains that the move scored a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes and was “wildly disappointing,” but one scene in which Jobs reacts to a shallow point in his life by tucking his shirt in violently resonated with Jeremy.
“To me, that said, ‘OK, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this seriously,’” Jeremy said. “That moment on the couch is when I decided to figure things out. I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.” After that, pieces slowly started to come together, and the determination started kicking in.
The summer of 2012, a few weeks after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy had the opportunity to continue his marching career through Drum Corps International: “Marching Music’s Major League” in Nashville, Tennessee. In debt and with no direction, Jeremy decided to back away from this opportunity and return home to figure out how to put the pieces back together. “It was one of the hardest decisions I had ever made at that point, but it ended up being absolutely crucial,” Jeremy said. Bookmark.
The corps director found Jeremy a position with a high school down the road from Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. After teaching band camp, Jeremy was offered a job teaching the drumline for the rest of the season. With college on hold, he accepted and moved to Murfreesboro.
Jeremy began to develop a new resolve. “I’m the guy that everyone thinks is funny, but this isn’t getting me anywhere, and that can’t be my identity, and that can’t be who I am,” he said. “It was a long process for me to learn how to take things seriously.”
Following that band season, Jeremy moved back to Florence, back into the house near campus. This time, the power was on, the rent was paid and he had a new roommate.
In spring 2014, two years after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy re-enrolled. He also started teaching a drumline an hour and a half north of Florence. “Suddenly, I was making $30 an hour so I could pay off my debt and pay for college,” Jeremy said.
The excitement was mounting, and Jeremy was tenacious in his efforts. Jeremy traveled back and forth between work and school for three years and became a model student, making the dean’s list nearly every semester. Nearing the end of his undergraduate career, Jeremy was itching to return to Tennessee full time and decided to take every in-person class required in one semester.
While driving to and from work in Tennessee, Jeremy took 23 hours of courses, including two 500-level philosophy classes, two science classes with labs and a senior recital for percussion. Against many of his peer’s recommendations, he also decided to finance, produce and premiere a ballet.
“I’d reached this point in my life, this is where I started, and this will be a bookmark in my life,” he said about the ballet. “I’m going to put this here, and I was really hellbent on doing that.”
I felt like Steph Curry. I was draining it from half court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss.
The ballet was more successful than he could have imagined. “The Singularity: A Modern Ballet” premiered in April 2017 to two sold-out crowds that paid for the project. More important, the exposure Jeremy received from it was worth its weight in gold. He was immediately asked to write a piece for the Shoals Chamber Singers and he offered to write them a mass.
“A mass, like a ballet, is a major work that many composers strive to do,” Jeremy said. “A lot of the composers that I admire have done one. So, I decided at 24 that it’s a good time for me to make that mark.”
Jeremy also started getting more commissions for high school marching band shows than he could take on. “I felt like Steph Curry,” he said. “I was draining it from half-court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss. It was a really rough semester, but a really triumphant one as well.” Bookmark.
Jeremy spent his last semester online living in Murfreesboro, where he ultimately received a head teaching job with a marching band. After failing out of college with a 0.27 grade-point average, Jeremy finished with a 3.98 GPA.
Jeremy’s unfaltering spirit that took off his final year of undergrad still hasn’t stopped.
Things didn’t slow down in graduate school. To keep up with demand, Jeremy founded Southcoast Music and Design, focused on delivering world-class marching arts packages. The company is growing to this day and remains a part of Jeremy’s long-term career plans. Jeremy mentioned, “When I got to grad school, I was at a point where my work was speaking for itself.”
At the end of his master’s program, life was chaotic for Jeremy. He attended classes in Murfreesboro, taught percussion in Nashville and lived in Florence, while working at a radio station and holding a graduate assistantship and continued to build his company. He spent his Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Alabama and his Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in Tennessee.
After another sip of coffee, Jeremy pivots the story.
“Growing up, we were always big Alabama fans,” Jeremy said. “My parents had a framed portrait of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant above their bed, but the university was a place where other people went.”
Jeremy is the first college graduate in his family, but since graduating, his mother has finished a degree, and his brother is well on his way. After building up his curriculum vitae, Jeremy had an abundance of universities vying for an opportunity to name him their doctoral candidate. In the end, it all came down to a Zoom call one late Friday night with Dr. Amir Zaheri, the Associate Director of the School of Music at UA.
Jeremy recalled, “Dr. Zaheri met with me at 8 p.m. on a Friday night and talked with me for two hours. How important, and valued, and accepted I felt after those two hours… I was sold on Bama.” Bookmark.
After leaving lessons with other highly regarded professors, Jeremy realized that the Capstone was his home. With the help of Dr. Zaheri, Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama a few months ago, in 2021, in pursuit of his doctoral degree in music composition. Empowered and dedicated, he has already hit the ground running with commissions coming in left and right.
“It’s crazy,” Jeremy said. “Within a few weeks of me starting, I got asked to do a piece for the Southeastern Tuba and Euphonium Conference, the National Saxophone Conference, a piece for the concert band and quite a few more. I’ve had to start saying no to things. These are major opportunities that have either come through UA or because I’m at UA.”
Jeremy is also teaching as an adjunct professor, working with the Million Dollar Band and working on academic compositions.
It’s this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.
As Jeremy finished his coffee, he reflected on where he’s at. “I think it’s important to note that while I did a lot of this myself, there were people along the way that helped,” he said. “I have been so lucky to have strong people who believed in me, even back then.”
Because of his mentors, Jeremy plans to teach at a university when he is done with his studies. His hope is to inspire and help people through their most formative time. Jeremy went on to explain, “I think my experiences and things that I’ve gone through are not something that most college professors have been through. So, I’m uniquely qualified to teach and do that and understand from a different standpoint, and I want to use my experiences to help others.”
Finally, Jeremy closed the conversation with encouragement to anyone considering The University of Alabama for a graduate degree. “Don’t underestimate Tuscaloosa,” he said. “Tuscaloosa is this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.”
An incredible journey has brought Jeremy Smith to The University of Alabama. His grit and determination will take him even further. While unsure of where life will take him next, one thing is for sure, nothing will stop Jeremy from reaching his next bookmark.
Footnote: Since this article was published, Jeremy Smith has gone on to receive full funding for his PhD.