Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force
"To teach and create and not expect or demand anything in return."Wadada Leo Smith, quoted in an article printed in The Houston Chronicle, November 4, 2006
On the nine-by-eleven inch cover of the February, 2010, issue of Wire magazine is a full-page photo of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Only the upper half of his body is pictured. He is wearing a dark blue, nearly black, Mandarin collar jacket, which stands out against the dimly lit, grey stucco wall that acts as the photo's background. His black dreadlocks drape softly over his shoulders and behave like a hood covering his head. His arms are lifted slightly away from his body; his hands are held in a meditational mudra, his thumbs and index fingers delicately touching. Graced by a black-speckled white full beard, Smith's face exudes warmth. His lips are pursed a bit; his smiling eyes are cast upward to the right towards the sky. He appears as though he is a monk, who has come into the light, to share his wisdom with the world.
Smith speaks in his own vernacular. His voice is not loud, does not have a consistently high or low tone, but is often emphatic. His words are pronounced with vestiges of a Mississippian accent. He carefully shapes his thoughts. The cadence of his delivery at times simulates his music. He repeats phrases as if to sing choruses of a song. When he laughs, he expresses joy and transmits the innocence that laces his creativity. His name appropriately means "love" in the Amharic language.
- An Average Day Plus
- The Essentials
- The Music. The Trumpet
- Rhythm Units
- The Sound
- The Scores
- The Pacifica Panel
- The Performance
- The Records
- And Lastly
- The Essentials
When Smith is not working, either in rehearsal or teaching at California Institute of the Arts, an average day begins between 3:30 and 4:45 am. "I wake up very early, then, I wash up. Before you do prayer, you have to purify yourself. Then I usually do prayer and read the Koran. This takes about one hour. Then I drive to the Mosque which takes about 15 minutes." Being Muslim, in order to remain Muslim, he must pray five times a day. In the Mosque, a place of prayer, reading and discussions, "I do prayer, and after prayer is finished we read from the Traditions of the Prophet, which teaches how to do things and then from the Koran, which is the language of the religion and talks about how the religion should be followed."
Of prayer, reading and recitation of the Koran, he says, "all these practices are meditational." After visiting the Mosque, Smith drives to the beach which is close to his home. He takes a walk until he sees the sunrise at about 7:15 or so. And "that is the perfect beginning of a perfect day."
Smith explains that he "leaned towards spiritual ideas from the very beginning," as a young child. The idea of the spiritual, for him, works outside of religion: literally, it is a sense of "uplifted-ness...that urgent feeling of feeling beautiful about everyone you meet. The human being has a quality not often tapped into, but can be. If you take a little bit of time to develop the spiritual side of [your] nature, seek to find relationship [then] there is a chance of [having] fair and beautiful relationships. To have a spiritual connection with your life, that is more than belief."
His walk concludes about 8:30 in the morning. Upon returning home, he may eat breakfast and then "I usually work on composition, do a little bit of research, a little bit of planning, take some time to organize myself, get things done, try to have a little time for myself. From sunrise to noon, I am vitalized for creative work." His research is either personal or for his classes. Personal research involves investigating the nature of sound. At the time of this interview, Smith was reading On The Sensation of Tone, published in 1870 (English, 1875), written by the German physicist Hermann Helmholtz. Smith's research for classes includes finding information on the subjects he covers in his Seminar on African-American Music, which he teaches every other semester. At the time of this interview, the subject of the seminar was Michael Jackson. Over a period of seventeen years of teaching, he has looked into a wide range of artists from Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington to Count Basie and Ray Charles. One day a week, Smith spends six hours "receiving students in his office, giving private lessons on what improvisation is about, what performance is about, and how to improve as composers."
If he is lucky enough to have leisure time in his day, he likes "taking a book, crawling up on the couch and reading." He reads books with spiritual and political content. He chuckles when he says that he also reads about conspiracies. He continues in this vein: "I am a weird little guy. I like books on Saints, too." He has read The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama and was inspired to write music by a book about 9-11. When he does not choose to read, he takes a walk or a nap: "I consider those the charms of leisure time."
Before his day ends, Smith "fixes food. I cook and eat organic foods, all kinds of beans and peas. The green, red, orange, white vegetables. Real rice, that is; black, red, brown and white, and whole grain foods. Pastas, cheeses, tofu-food and fish. I am a very good cook."
At sunset, he goes to bed; sleep becomes a transition to the next perfect day.