Wadada Leo Smith: The Teacher
“ Can instrumental music do that? Yes, it can. It can be a political expression. It can be a spiritual expression, or any activity that we place on it in a serious context. ”
Wadada Leo Smith's career as a creative musician spans more than forty years. The trumpeter/composer's myriad accomplishments have been well-documented, particularly recently, as his recoding and performance career have undergone a marked renaissance, the success of which has shown a spotlight not only on his recent undertakings, but also inspired a reexamination of his past works.
As an early contributor to the development of the free music revolution, Smith was an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), an integral force in the development of the free music movement. Since his early works where he helped redefine the contours of improvisational jazz, Smith has been exploring the outer and inner frontiers of improvisational music and composition via a numerous ensembles, projects, and theoretical writings. He has developed a unique musical notation system and has held formal teaching positions at the University of New Haven (1975-'76), the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY (1975-'78), and Bard College (1987-'93) and The Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.
At age 70, Smith is as busy as he has ever been performing more regularly now than in his youth, composing, leading multiple ensembles, and releasing a regular stream of recordingswith more in the works, including plans to record an expansive work over a decade in the making dedicated to the American civil rights movement.
These biographical facts, however, only skate along the surface of Smith's artistic identity, the scope and depth of which can only be appreciated when experiencing directly the intensity of his musical expression or the profundity of his philosophical enterprise. For the two are deeply intertwined and both present a similar demand on the listener; it is necessary to listen closely and reflect carefully in order to grasp the greater whole that is being presented. As with all dedicated teachers, which at heart best describes Smith, the messages being conveyed are not delivered in one sharp burst, but laid out slowly over time, from various angles, and through repetition so that the listener/student is drawn forward into the process of discovery.
All About Jazz: You were born in 1941 in Mississippi. When did you begin to know that music would be your path?
Wadada Leo Smith: Probably at the age of 12, which was the year that I started to play trumpet. I say that because I played the trumpet for approximately three months before...in school and that December I started to play in a local band that had two guitars, a bass guitar and a lead guitar and drums. And the lead guitar was a vocalist. So almost immediately I learned how to make music. I'm not talking about learning how to play the trumpet because those are two different things. I learned how to make the music actually in a living, live vibrant tradition. Meaning this: when I started I had a vague knowledge of key, a specific tonality, meaning in school we had gone over one or two relationships of how tonality was established. But not in real principals, only that this piece is in B-flat this piece is in D.
So, when I started playing with these guys, in the first rehearsal they just started playing. They didn't announce that it was in B-flat or F or whatever. They just started playing. And as they played I thought 'how am I going to figure out what they are doing?' So I asked one of the guys, the bassist, what key he was in. He said 'I'm in bass key.' Then I asked the other guy, the guitarist and he said he was in guitar key. So what I figured out from just those two inquires is that if they were in guitar key I must be in trumpet key! So I got started. I hit a few notes, and whatever those notes was I maneuvered myself around and away from those notes till I found the zone in which that music sounded in. And that zone in which that music sounded in, because it was blues from the blues tradition of the Delta, that lesson taught me something. It taught me that notes have gravitymeaning that they have a way of moving closer to the center of what the music is sounding at or away from where the music is sounding at. That is a very valuable lesson to learn because what it means is that in the long run I learned how to shape what I hear based off of what I was going to play without thinking about [the] concepts of tonality, major-minor relationship, stuff like that. Because those things are really very superficial. What is most important about a group of notes is the gravity. Which of those pitches have the strongest pull toward the center.
AAJ: You did then go on to pursue formal musical study as well, starting with your stepfather who was a blues musician.
WLS: Yes, yes yes. But he never taught me this is B-flat, A- flat or G. He taught me things like this: You express a phrase like this. You have meaning in the context of notes like this. You approach the music with the understanding that you will find your own identity in it. You don't want to be like everybody else.
Those are the kinds of lessons I was taught.
AAJ: Is the essence of that lesson what led to your participation in the development of the free music movement?
WLS: Exactly. Because since then I have really made it quite simple in terms of my notion of composition, improvisation, and Ankhrasmation (note, Smith's systemic music language). I've made it really simple. I break everything down to the smallest denominator, or the fewest kinds of things that you need to make music with. I think those early lessons with my stepfather was a view into that reality, or into that zone, of what to look for in my life. It made a big difference.
When I moved out of Mississippi I went to the Army. That is where my encounter with a vast array of different musicians from different places took place. They come from all over. That was my second close-up experience with what people call jazz. None of those guys at that time were involved in what we call free jazz. They were all involved with bebop. Music that had harmonic progression, you see? Almost all of them. And they all were striving to see if they could connect their musicality, the way that they made music, with the tradition that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt had created.
And so what I get from this encounter in the military service is a vast array of people who had different ideas about music that has harmonic progression and in one of those instances I did meet a gentleman named Carl Adamswho is still alive. He is in his 80s now and lives in Houston Texas. And believe it or not about five years ago I played in Houston and he came. I had a chance to meet him againthis guy Carl Adams was an instructor at the school of music I went to in the Army and he's also African American. The only African American instructor in this school. To make a long story short, somehow I made a connection with him and befriended him in a way. [And] one day he pulled me aside and said "I'm gonna show you something." We went into one of the practice rooms and sat at the piano and he showed me how harmonic motion moves.
Basically harmonic motion is not a complex thing. People who play harmonic music make it complex. But it is not. Harmonic motion only moves in 5ths. There is no secret about it. No big supernova idea about it. It simply moves in 5ths. All music based on tonality moves in this same relationship of 5ths. And the second part of that is every motion in music is not a fundamental motion. A move from 1 to 5 or to the tonic that is a fundamental motion. But everything else is secondary or superficial. So between the bottom and the top of a scale you have all kinds of ideas about motion but none of them are significant. Most of them are just passing realities...they don't have any way of establishing anything powerful like a change of key or the like.
So learning that from this guy was the biggest lesson I learned at the school, even though it was I think four months [long].
AAJ: At some point you encountered others who were experimenting with free jazz, avant-garde, and free music, and you became very involved in shaping it over the years. You were an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
WLS: Well, I was a member. The AACM was established in I believe 1965 as an organization. But I think they existed two years before then. I came in January 1967.
AAJ: That seemed to be a significant event for youand for AACMas it became a central force for the development of the free jazz, free music movement.
WLS: Let me clear up one of the ideas that is current in history. The first thing [AACM] did was to name their music. And guess what it was? Free music. Then the other name that they used in their by-laws and the constitution of the organization, they named it creative music. And over the years we have not deviated from those two names, either creative music or free music. And that is the real name of the AACM music.
Now, when I came to the AACM because of my own personal research, I did a lot of research in the army, I spent some time in France and Italy. I had met all kinds of players native from those countries. When I came to the AACM, I came there with a lot of information. Specifically I had composed pieces for large ensemble already. I had a stack of music that I had composed for various sized ensembles which I had experimented with in the Army because in the Army...[we] had several groups that I had led. This gave me a predevelopment before coming out to the public again. That reentrance through the ACCM, what I learnt through them, was also very, very important. I learned the connection between spirituality and music. I learnt that you could actually make and develop your own instruments, like we did with percussion instruments and things like that. Which a lot of people erroneously label little instruments, which they are not. They simply are instruments. And having the opportunity to meet every Saturday and have rehearsals with the larger ensembles where essentially everybody in the AACM attended. That was a powerful development.
The other part of it is the community activity. How do you get involved with the information and the knowledge of your listeners? Which is what we did. We developed our listeners. We created a school. We had workshops. We did many things to develop our listeners. The children who wanted to learn instruments became students of ours and we taught them how to play.
AAJ: You have always seemed to include very serious academic study as part of your life. And in the seventies, already an established musician, you went to Wesleyan to study ethnomusicology. What motivated you to go back to school for an academic course of study at that point in your life?
WLS: I wanted to find out the relationships between instruments. Because I have a theory, of if it's not a theory it's at least an idea that instruments have a specific history that people don't acknowledge. I went to Wesleyan to study the Ghanaian flute and gamelan music, and the Javanese version. I also studied Japanese music, more specifically koto music, which I still today pull out from time to time...I also studied native American music and philosophy, and anthropological studies as well.
And what I went there to concern was the way in which the instrument builders constructed them that is the way they intended for them to be written for. Now, what does that mean? In Western music all the instruments have a relationship that is almost a dictatorship relationship to the piano. You always here people say give me the concert key or the piano key. What has that done? That has made an E-flat instrument, a B-flat instrument, a F instrument a D-flat instrument...become a C-instrument. And it's an artificial C because it's not a true C instrument. The tonality of that instrument is B-flat, it's not C. So what happens is those instruments are reduced from their pure character to this artificial character which ultimately makes them sound like C instruments. Which they are not. But the extended part of this concept is that if all these instruments sound in C in the larger dimensions the way that space, rooms and environment respond it makes them sound only to the C overtone series. That means the E instrument is sounding a C overtone series, the B-flat instrument is sounding a C overtone series and the C instrument is sounding a C overtone series. That means the sphere of music only has C in it. And the other spheres that would have had F in it are missing.
Basically, when I did my research at Wesleyan I went there to try to confirm this idea which I had. And actually all of my music is [now] written the way the instrument builders built them.
AAJ: There are many who perceive a division between this type of academic study and creative endeavors, but it doesn't seem like you accept that.
WLS: There is no division. I can tell you why. The reason is this. All of the great musicians, whether they lived in Europe, or Africa, or Asia, North or South, all of them were teachers in their own right. Every one of them. If that is the case every artist should have the ability to transmit some information. Now they don't have to set it up as an institution like the University for the Arts or the Wesleyan University. They can set it up any way they want, but must be able to transmit that information. Because what happens is the moment you start transmitting that information to another person you begin to learn more about yourself and that information that you carry and that person you are transmitting the information to begins to learn not only what you are showing them but through their inquiry they cause you to create another view of what it is you are trying to present. And you also learn from them.
Education gives you this reciprocal notion. You are teaching something you are supposed to know about to someone who is supposed to not know it, but once you being to interact with them you find out that there is a lot more to what you have that you are teaching that you don't know just from interacting with that person. And that person through their inquiry asks questions you never would have even thought of.
AAJ: There seems to have been a recent resurgence of focus on your music in mainstream media and at the same time you have been quite prolific in terms of recordings and touring. What is behind that?
WLS: In terms of public acknowledgment, [you] could say that there is a new emphasis on that, OK? But I have been working all my life. I've got I don't know how many compositions but after 2,000 I stopped counting. That was maybe eight or nine years ago. I don't count them anymore. There is pretty good interest in my work right now, and for that I am very happy, because what that does is it gives me a chance to perform. For example, last year I performed in five American cities and two of them three times. I never did that before.
Does that mean I am writing more music than I ever did before? I am writing about the same amount of music as I composed before and the reason is that I don't wait for assignments to compose. When I get an urge to create a piece of music I sit down and start to work on it.
The other context we are looking at in terms of my music [recording] yes it is a rich time for me. I started working with Cuneiform Records about five years ago. Tabliq was the first album to come out with them. And since then I have been releasing material fairly regular. I recently opened up my Kabel vault. My latest release on Kabel is a duet with Ed Blackwell. So yes, there is a lot of activity right now and I just completed, by the way, a double CD that will be out in May with my Organic ensemble. So there is a lot of stuff coming out. I also got the Guggenheim, the Chamber Music of America commissioned me for some material. I've just been moving through it in a normal way, creating the music, and trying to create opportunities for people to hear more of my music.
AAJ: Do you have any theory of why there has been this renewed focus?
WLS: First and foremost, I thank God. For me this is the most important. Also, it has to do with this: I think John Zorn and Tzadik started it. Because they were the first people to seriously put my music out. Any project I did, they put it out there. For that, I thank John Zorn, not many would do that. At that time, I was getting rejections upon rejections upon rejections. For him to have the foresight to put my music out was a big blessing for me. So he started it. If you look at his label he put out a vast variety of my musicfrom chamber music for contemporary ensembles, to classical ensembles, to creative ensembles, to large ensembles for creative music, like the one I did for orchestrathat all started the thing to move. Then when I started putting music out on Cuneiform it started to move to a different level. Because essentially at Cuneiform their policy is to push the music has hard as they could. They have a very powerful network and they work very hard. All these things help to create the continuity from project to project.
AAJ: Let's talk a little about the various ensembles you are working with now, how they are distinct and what they mean to you.
WLS: Let me start [with] The Golden Quartet. I was thinking, for a long time, that I wanted to make an ensemble centered around the notion of only four people. and having essentially the same instrumentation as the orchestra. Truly the notion of a quartet, almost anywhere around the planet, in any culture has this really distinct level of respect. For example string quartets or woodwind quartets, the piano quartet, creative music quartets, jazz quartets all have this very distinct thing.
And what makes them distinct is this: you have the basic center of the orchestra there. You have a string instrument, you have a keyboard, you got a percussionist, and a wind instrument. That's it. Now why is that important? And why is four important? Four is important because in a quartet you have the maximum range for possibility of interaction for all four players. Not just the interaction of the range but also the ability to have space to elaborate and explore musical ideas. That also opens up in a quartet setting. But most specifically some of the most powerful music in the jazz and creative music arena quartet music is at the center of it. And the last reason is you have very little music...with trumpet, bass and drums in a quartet. There isn't a lot of that. It's only a small batch. There is some. with Miles Davis. And Booker Little in a quartet. That is one of the other reasons. I wanted to do something that was a little different.
AAJ: What about the Organic ensemble? WLS: I wanted to have an experimental ensemble that really used guitars in a way that [they] not only performed a sound relationship to create an electronic sphere of massive sound, but I also wanted it to have the activity of how you stroke or pick the guitar, to have that percussive quality to it. I added the two bases because it is very difficult to write for two basses. I wanted to learn to write for two basses. Skuli [Sverrisson] and John [Lindberg] had been in another ensemble of mine that I disbanded, called Southern. That was my first experiment writing for two basses and I wanted to carry that forward. I wanted to create this ensemble with this fantastic horizontal and vertical mash of sound. I wanted to have it so that that thickness was not its only quality, that is the sound and electronic part, but also the context of the way that the instrument was played would be an added quality of the ensemble. And [I wanted] the music to be experimental and have a beat to it and to have those qualities that young people are interested in. But it functions essentially in the same way as any of my ensembles. The solos have to be creative. They are not geared toward trying to make a popular music version of something, but should still expose and explore new realities about space.
AAJ: You also have another ensemble, the Silver Orchestra.
WLS: The context behind the Silver Orchestra is that I wanted to explore the idea we talked about earlier, about instruments and their family and how you let them sound in the way the instrument builder made them. Well, the Silver Orchestra allows me to have at least 10-12 performers, and I pick them based off of the instrumentation. For example, the last performance of the Silver Orchestra was on November 19th (2010) in New York City. Where I had I think 14 players. I had the French horn which is in the key of F, E-flat and D-flat clarinet. I had the alto flute which is also in F. The B-flat in the trumpet.
AAJ: So the orchestra is not always the same?
WLS: It grows over the years, because there is not much opportunity to play with it. But the focus is to get as many different pitched instruments in that ensemble so that you can hear the vastness of what this philosophy is about non-transposition of the instruments. You allow the instruments to sound in their natural key. If your instrument is in B-flat, I write the music so that it can have its own dynamics in B-flat. If your instrument is in E-flat, same thing. So when I mix the C, E-flats, B-flats, and the Fs and the Gs, in the orchestra it is going to create six different streams of musical sonics, six different sonic spheres. Not just the C sonic sphere when you transpose it. You see how important that is? I got six different sonic spheres that I am causing to sound within the space of the performance environment as well as the acoustical relationship of how pitches and sounds relate to their instruments. That is what the Silver Orchestra is about.
AAJ: I also want to ask about the Yo, Miles project.
WLS: The Yo Miles Project, to be truthful about it, is already finished. We have not had a performance in almost six or seven years. It's been a long time...but what I can say is this, we just released two online CDs of live performance from that band Lightning and Shinjuku. So even though it is a band that is essentially not active, those two CDs coming out will show people something new about it, show what it [was] live. Most of the music that is being released is my music, music I composed for the band.
AAJ: What was the genesis of revisiting the Miles' electric period and why do you think that portion of his music has been overlooked?
WLS: First of all it was overlooked because everyone thought it was rock and roll [aughs]. And that is the biggest cultural lie in the world [laughs]. Because if anybody wants to know if it was rock and roll or not let them perform this test. Play Miles Davis and then let them play any music that they think that music sounds like. They can play the Eagles, or Jimi Hendrix. Play any band next to Miles and the first thing they are gonna realize is that oh my God, I didn't think it was really this long!
But let me go back to your question. The idea was Henry Kaiser's. He came to a performance of mine, a solo performance up in the bay. Afterwards we sat talking to each other and he said he was exploring the idea of making a band that looks at Miles Davis' music and would you be interested. And I said yes, definitely. So we started thinking about who we should get, and eventually we got it together. But the idea was this: we wanted to develop that music of Miles Davis in the new decade, a different decade. Miles Davis music was in the '70s and this was the '90s, early 2000. We wanted to develop the music so it would have a contemporary expression to it, how it sounds now. And to show that that music is ageless. It is not dead by time zone. The way Miles made it, it was creative. And because it is creative it leaves lots of room for it to live on and on and on. I am reminded when I think about Miles Davis what Bob Marley said. Asked about his music he said , "my music will live forever." And he was right. It will live forever. Because truly authentic musical creations they don't belong to timing.
I would love to play with that band again. That is something I forgot to mention [before] that helped my career. Those double CDs, they got hundreds of reviews. Everywhere, you know? Hundreds of reviews! That was also a prime mover of making people take note of what I was doing.
AAJ: I was at the Library of Congress performance November, 2010. You performed several pieces that night from what I understand is a much larger work dedicated to the civil rights movement, which I understand you have been working on for well over a decade.
WLS: It is called Freedom Summers: The Defining Moments in the History of the United States of America. The collection has eighteen pieces in it. The collection is broken down into three sections so it can be performed in three successive evenings. I looked at the civil rights movement starting with in 1948 when President Harry S. Truman signed the executive order to desegregate the military forces and it ends, at least philosophically, with the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968. So the history of this work centers around the activity from 1948 to 1968.
AAJ: Has the full piece been recorded yet?
WLS: Only "America Part I" and "America Part II" with Jack DeJohnette and "Rosa Parks" on the Tabliq release. So those are the only pieces that have been recorded. But there is a movement in progress to have all three days performed and eventually to have them recorded. If we are successful with the grants we have put in, God willing, next year, 2012, that music will be out on CD.
AAJ: You said you have been working on this project for nearly 15 years. What does this mean to you?
WLS: This piece means that when I was growing up in Mississippiin a segregated Mississippiand experiencing transition from that segregated moment I felt in my heart that I would someday write about that time zone. Because of the development in United States civil liberties have been increased throughout the world because of the civil rights movement. So I want to pay specific attention to [the] individuals and events. For example, my pieces include " Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964," There are the individuals, like Emmet Till, Rosa Parks, Dred Scott. But also there are titles like "Democracy," "Buzzsaw," "September Eleventh, 2001: A Memorial," "Brown vs. Board of Education," "Little Rock 9," "Civil Rights Act," the JFK one, all of that stuff, the Washington DC Memorial March. The names of people and events that have shaped American history. Like Brown vs. Board of Education. A landmark decision, yet unfulfilled, but nevertheless it has the mechanism there to someday achieve. The Voters Rights Act. Same thing. People are in various situations being disenfranchised by intimidationwhich happened in the election of George W. Bushand so on. Even though that is there, there is still a mechanism for one day having success.
Anybody who has studied legislation in our society, none of these things have ever been made properly. They have to undergo constant revision to become what they were dreamed about, intended, inspired to be. They have to be constantly renovated, reshaped, and redone. Which is one of the problems of democracy, by the way (laughs).
AAJ: I often look to the successes of civil rights movement for inspiration.
WLS: That is the other reason why I did it, this topic of freedom and justice in a democratic society. The civil right movement has been very successful. It has transformed America. Even though things are not perfect, it has transformed it to make it possible for a Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State, or Colin Powel, or Ornette Coleman to get the Pulitzer Prize for music. There are lots of things that these unperfected pieces of legislation [accomplished]. They have actually provided transformation. And the civil rights movement represents that success and this piece of mine it represents that success as well. We have made quite a bit of an achievement. I'm not talking about African-Americans, I'm talking about Americans.
AAJ: How do you translate this kind of political statement into a creative statement?
WLS: That is a very good questions. Listen, when I think about the civil rights movement or any other political issue in our society I look at the psychological impact of those issues and ideas. And in my music that is what I am trying to translate; the psychological impact of it, or the psychological reality of it. Not the actual event itself, but the psychological impact that event has in society.
I am able to tap into that simply by making some kind of emotional contact with the issues. For example, 9/11. I'm Muslim. When I started working on 9/11, look man I felt powerfully connected with the fact that my emotions were also stirred very badly by those times. It was so effecting. I translated that into my music. For example, those dominant 7ths heard throughout the 9/11 [piece] those are the most mournful sounds you can hear. They are the foundation of what blues and spiritual music is about. Spiritual and gospel music coming from the African-American tradition. So I try to connect with the psychological part which houses the emotional, the intellectual, and the dream state.
AAJ: It seems like a very difficult endeavor to undertake. You are talking about something very concrete, a historical event, or something that could be considered very intellectual, but then translating that into an effective artistic piece is a huge achievement. Some of the pieces are dedicated to individuals, like Rosa Parks. How do you go about doing a musical dedication or portrait of an individual that is different from what you just talked about for an event?
WLS: It is still the psychological part. The basic reality of the human being is that if you can tap into the psychological reality of the decisions they made than you are into something. When I write these pieces, I walk through those peoples' lives daily while I am writing it. I don't mean physically, of course. I mean psychically. For example, Fanny Lou Hammer, who was considered an uneducated woman, never gone through more than 2-3 grades in school, worked as a plantation worker, a sharecropper who really lived in a slave system where you work all year and the money that you get for that year pays of the debt that you lived off of. Which means the next year you have to start all over because you don't have any money to go forward. How could a woman like that realize in an instant that human rights was an important issue? That she should dedicate her life to [it] and that voting is part of her civil liberties that she should partake in? So she signed up to vote and came back home and her plantation owner came to her house the next day and said, "look you go down there and un-vote or you leave my plantation." She and her husband packed their bags and left! Without anywhere to go!
Now what that does, that brings tears to me. That makes my heart open with a river of joy. Because that says that woman understood something about the human experience that most people never, ever get to in a full life.
AAJ: Then the process would be to depict that experience via music?
WLS: Exactly. And it comes through. It comes through.
AAJ: How do you define civil rights?
WLS: I define civil rights as a very important contract which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights laid out, and inherited [in part] from Britain, the basic rights that needed to be renewed and guaranteed through the civil rights movement. They are already in our documents, but it had to be renewed by the blood, sweat, and tears of all those martyrs and all those people who were victims of violence, both politically and psychologically, and economically, to reunite the Constitution to the practical values of what it means to be a citizen.
AAJ: So is it a uniquely American phenomena? Is it confined to the contract between our legal structure and its practice in society? Or is civil rights something that goes beyond the specificity of America?
WLS: It goes beyond the specificity of America. But most of those countries out there, including most of them in Europe, they don't have rights that protect everyone. They have rights that protect citizens. I can give you the distinction. I once went to live in Germany with my wife and oldest daughter. She was just a year old and my wife and I went there and because we were a so-called interracial couple no one would give me a house to live in. So I go to my friend, and he goes to his lawyer and says this is illegal. We should be able to force these people to let this man rent this apartment. And he found out from his lawyer that if I had been German then that could happen, but they had no laws that protect people from the outside. And our Constitution, I believe, those civil rights laws, protect everybody.
AAJ: So there is a distinction between civil rights and human rights?
WLS: Actually, the distinction is only in terms of geographical boundaries. But the notion of civil rights you would have to hyphenate it with human rights because I don't really see civil rights as being just within the borders of the United States. Even though that document exists here, I see it as having a connection to human rights. We have to know that the movements in this country for civil rights began in the late 1890s. By African-Americans. That movement is the same that has shaped and evolved around the planet those who want to claim and did claim their rights as citizens. Like, for example, Ghana became the first independent nation in Africa after many years of being colonized. It could not have done that without the complete inspiration coming from civil rights in America.
AAJ: Which also had a lot of its inspiration from the civil rights and human rights movement of Gandhi.
WLS: Exactly right. Gandhi's existence, that idea of nonviolence that Martin Luther King preached was influenced by Gandhi, and Tolstoy. Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy. It's international. The truth is: human beings are not defined by borders or governance.
AAJ: It's recognized that jazz, blues, and folk/protest music played an important roll in the American civil rights movement. In your experience and studies have you found the same to be true in other freedom movements?
WLS: Yes. Look at Bob Marley. Look at Fela [Kuti] from Nigeria. There is [the] famous singer in Chile, he was killed while performing for an audience. Many, many, many, artists have been involved with all these popular movements for justice and human rights around the world. And all of them use music and dance as a forum not just to gather people, but as a forum to create this undeniable quest to achieve the ultimate goal for freedom and liberty.
AAJ: Why do you think music plays such a central role?
WLS: I can tell you the main reason. Music as an art form is the only art form that you can't find an example existing on earth. Now let me clarify that. In dance, human bodies represent dance. In sculpture and things like that, all those images, no matter if they are abstract, they are physical things that come from the environment which we live in. Even if it is just a round disc, or a jagged edge, it has its existence in the physical environment. But music, music doesn't have that physical base. Music comes from this other place, the same place the inspiration to do these other art forms comes from, but music is actually housed there. Not just the inspiration. It is housed there. So when you are painting a tree, you have an idea of the tree, and you can find it in the physical world. But when you play a note, you don't find that in existence.
People say what about the heartbeat, blood circulation, the sound that cars and birds make? That's not music. It has sound in it, of course. Noise also has sound in it. But is noise music? No, it's not. If organized in the context of a composition or improvisation, that distinguishes it as being a property of music. Just like, for example, the great French composer Messiaen, who recorded all the bird songs and put it into his music. Those bird sounds then become music. But before that they were not musicthey were musical, but not music. There is a big distinction.
AAJ: Is that the reason spirituality and particularly certain types of spiritual expression are such a strong part of your music, is it that they are housed in the same place?
WLS: Yes, that is one of the reasons. Another reason is this. Coming up, listening to the bible being readI was raised a Christian coming upyou find out that one of the most fascinating stories to me was the David who wrote Psalms. David for me was one of the most important characters I read about in the bible and what was he? He was an artist. He made music. He was also a prophet. He was a spiritual leader. He was also a governor. You see the connection? Artists can do all of these things. That model of David, and that model of Bob Marley, which is one and the sameor that model of [a] Sufi master who also plays music, they are one and the same. And all of that influenced me. Made me think, can instrumental music do that? Yes, it can.
It can be a political expression. It can be a spiritual expression, or any activity that we place on it in a serious context, it can express that.
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith Yo Miles!, Shunjuku (There Records, 2011)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith Yo Miles!, Lightning (There Records, 2011)
Wadada Leo Smith, The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer (Kabell, 2010)
Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, America (Tzadik, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Tabliq (Cuneiform, 2008)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith Yo Miles!, Sky Garden (Cuneiform, 2004)
Wadada Leo Smith, Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik, 2001)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith, Yo Miles! (Shanachie, 1998)
Wadada Leo Smith, Tao-Njia (Tzadik, 1996)
Wadada Leo Smith, Akhreanvention (Kabell, 1981)
Marion Brown, Geechie Recollections (Impule!, 1973)
Wadada Leo Smith, Creative Music (Kabell, 1972)
Anthony Braxton, 3 Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark, 1968)
Read Wadada Leo Smith's notes about Freedom Summers: The Defining Moments in the History of the United States of America.