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HomeArts & CultureCollege of Music and Performing ArtsApplause Award Honors W.O. Smith Music School

Applause Award Honors W.O. Smith Music School

Belmont University’s College of Music and Performing Arts will honor the transformational work of the W.O. Smith Music School with the Applause Award this Saturday, April 23, during the 32nd annual President’s Reception and Concert at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The award recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the arts in Nashville.

W.O. Smith Music School has a longtime partnership with Belmont and a shared commitment to the power of music. The school was founded by the late William Oscar Smith, a jazz great and the first African American player with the Nashville Symphony.

“It’s an organization that has been around for a long time touching students’ lives for many years,” said Dean and Professor of Music Stephen Eaves. “Our strong connection is the power of music and how it transforms lives.” 

Founded in 1984, the school began by serving 45 children from low-income families and has grown to include about 650 students. Each term, 20 to 30 Belmont students volunteer as music teachers with the school. 

W.O. Smith dedicated his entire life to playing — but also to teaching. He grew up in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 30s where he played bass in jazz bands including his first paying gig with blues legend Bessie Smith. He later studied music in New York City where he also played sessions and the club scene with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. During his military service he played and wrote for the Army band. He eventually accepted a teaching position with Tennessee State University and later joined the Nashville Symphony for an 18-year tenure. He opened the W.O. Smith Music School in 1984 in the Edgehill area. 

“It’s not necessary to be on a music career track to benefit from focused practice sessions, setting and achieving goals, or presenting a personal achievement to the public,” Smith was known to say. “We believe that the self-discipline involved in the process can help any developing person, whether or not he or she goes on to pursue a career in music. Music was my ticket out of the ghetto, and my hope is that music can help the youngsters we touch to realize their own ambitions.” 

Eaves says Belmont’s relationship with the W.O. Smith Music School reaches back to the era of Dr. William Pursell, a friend of Smith’s and late faculty emeritus of composition and piano, who joined the Belmont faculty in the 1980s. “Since then it’s been pretty organic that our students and faculty have been volunteers and teachers [at W.O. Smith Music School],” Eaves said. “Our relationship has been long.” 

The W.O. Smith Music School joins a respectable list of Applause Award winners including the likes of Chet Atkins to Cece Winans and the Nashville Opera to Tennessee Repertory Theatre. 

“Over the years we have had the honor to present this award to many of the major arts organizations and individuals who have impacted the arts in Nashville,” Eaves said.  The Applause Award will be presented at the President’s Reception and Concert, which showcases student talent with proceeds from tickets supporting scholarships for music and theatre students. For tickets, visit Belmont University | Online Ticket Office | Event Groups (

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