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Wadada Leo Smith: The Teacher

By Published: March 14, 2011

Civil Rights

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?

Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
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 Mississippi—in a segregated Mississippi—and 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 intimidation—which happened in the election of George W. Bush—and 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
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
sax, alto
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 Olivier 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 music—they 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 read—I was raised a Christian coming up—you 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 same—or 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.

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credit

Page 3: Cees van de Ven

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith

Read Wadada Leo Smith's notes about Freedom Summers: The Defining Moments in the History of the United States of America.

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