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Wadada Leo Smith: The Teacher

By Published: March 14, 2011

Birth of Free Music

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 you—and for AACM—as 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.

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