Born in Edinburgh in 1967, Smith grew up in the housing schemes and began his prolific career at 14 when his quartet won Best Band, and he received Best Musician Trophy at the 1981 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. A year later, he was invited to appear on the TV show ‘Jazz at the Gateway’ with Niels Henning Ørsted Petersen and Jon Christensen; toured with the European Youth Jazz Orchestra, and recorded his quintet for BBC Radio. At 16, he released his first two albums, Giant Strides and Taking Off! and studied at Berklee with financial assistance from Sean Connery.
He joined Gary Burton’s quintet after a recommendation from Chick Corea at 18, toured worldwide, and recorded on ECM’s album Whiz Kids. Smith has documented over thirty solo albums for Blue Note, Linn, ECM and his own Spartacus Record label; toured 50+ countries, composed over 300 works, and collaborated with musicians, poets, and visual artists, including Arild Andersen, Scofield, MacCaig, Alan Davie, Kenny Munro, Jaco, Wheeler, DeJohnette, Liz Lochhead, Christine de Luca, Trilok, and poet Edwin Morgan who he developed a unique artistic relationship in 1996 collaborating on 55 works of poetry and music.
In 1995 he established the SNJO and ensured its progress until funding began in 1998. He founded the TSYJO in 2002 to provide an educational opportunity for the country’s best young jazz musicians and fought to establish the first full-time jazz course in Scotland. In 2009 Smith was appointed head of Jazz at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and became Professor in 2010.
Smith holds numerous jazz accolades from BBC, British, UK Parliamentary and Scottish – Jazz Awards. His contributions to Jazz were recognised nationally when in 1998, he became the youngest-ever recipient of an honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in recognition of his extraordinary artistic achievement. He subsequently received honorary doctorates from Glasgow Caledonian and Edinburgh Universities. In 2019 he was given an OBE for services to Jazz from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.