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Wadada Leo Smith: Sounding America’s Freedom

By Published: June 18, 2012
Furthermore, Smith explains: "The largest portion that goes into the music are issues of being creative. Meaning the classical players make creative choices in every piece that they play. They are making choices that could have been made differently by a different ensemble or if different individuals were brought into the ensemble. That's a creative process. With the Golden Quintet and Quartet, all of that music is written in the same way. There are critical choices of how to play the written music and also personal choices on how you select to play that material."

Smith makes no distinction between the material on the album composed for the chamber orchestra as opposed to the quintet/quartet. Both contain written material and improvisational material. Both ensembles are required to engage in creative improvisation and both must interact with each other (listen here). In this way, they are integrated at each level, another manifestation of the means by which Smith's compositional processes operate. Each element of the collection has been crafted to capture the whole of Smith's vision, conveying his message of reflection on the gains of the civil rights movements and inspiration for a call to continued action.

The Politics of Freedom

Underpinning that vision is Smith's honed political philosophy grounded in civil engagement and the importance of legal rights. A number of the pieces in Ten Freedom Summers refer to court decisions or laws, such as Brown v. Board of Education. "I place a strong emphasis on the legal content of freedom," states Smith, explaining that for years he carried a copy of the Constitution with him because, "The Constitution is the [fundamental] legal document we live under. Everyone has access to that document, but most people don't know anything about it other than it is an important piece of paper. The Constitution and the main amendments, I believe, should be reread at least once a year. There is no way to understand what your rights are unless you revitalize the notion of what they are. I have documents in my house that show all the committees and processes a bill goes through to become law. We need to know these things if we are to truly call ourselves Americans."

Smith's political perspective does not end there. Other touchstones he considers critical include Henry David Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience (1849) and Walden Pond (1854) he rereads regularly, as well as Frederick Douglas, whose belief that the struggle for civil rights requires constant agitation Smith avows. For Smith, progress is not a linear process whereby one gain forms the foundation of the next.

"To safeguard rights in any democracy, your role as citizens of those societies is to continuously advocate for justice and rights. The contract constantly has to be renovated in order to guarantee the rights of the people are upheld."

The reason this contract needs continuous revalidation is that there are inevitably forces at work committed to dismantling the gains. In short, there is a continuous pitched battle between those who would advance freedom and those would quash individual rights.

Smith does not see this struggle in abstract terms. He believes that the advancements Ten Freedom Summers celebrates are under imminent threat today, and that the country—and the globe—face a period during which the battle for rights must be rejoined. It is for this reason that Smith released Ten Freedom Summers this year, and for this reason that Smith emphasizes his work should not be seen only in historical terms, but also as a call to arms. Smith identifies an urgent need to examine the civil rights movement and to engage directly in a renewed, global effort to defend and expand human rights.

"As a people and a planet, not just as Americans but everywhere, we have lost our society. We have lost it primarily because we have allowed it to happen without any clear direct action. We have allowed corporations to have the same rights and the same power [as citizens]. They are involved in our political system, both the legal context and the illegal context, through Superpacs and things like that. Though they claim those things are legal, they are in fact illegal. They need to be challenged."

Smith draws a direct connection between the election of President Obama and the civil rights movement. That is why Smith selected the famous shot of the March on Washington for the cover of Ten Freedom Summers, which, Smith points out, Obama referenced in the staging of his inauguration. Smith is among the ranks of Americans who see Obama's election in part as a fulfillment of the promise of the civil rights movement. But Smith also believes that the current election cycle carries profound repercussions. "If, in fact, we deny a reelection of this president, I think that our country is in deep, deep trouble and everyone in this society is in trouble.

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