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Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force


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"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.

Chapter Index

  1. An Average Day Plus
  2. The Essentials
  3. The Music. The Trumpet
  4. Rhythm Units
  5. The Sound
  6. The Scores
  7. The Pacifica Panel
  8. The Performance
  9. The Records
  10. And Lastly

An Average Day Plus

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.

The Essentials

The blues have molded the way in which Smith found his music. In Jacques Goldstein's 2005 film Eclipse, which features clips of Smith talking about aspects of music that help to define what he does, the trumpeter speaks generally about the blues: "The blues is like a state of mind, you know. It's at once sad and it is also at once the most joyous and optimistic feeling, simultaneously, so that a person can slide on either of those boundaries or emotions and still be correct and not lose their way by going from one area to the next, you see. It is the music that has great confidence in itself, meaning that when you truly play that sound from your heart, it's everything that you think about and will be at that moment—was it dead or alive—it's the ultimate how you feel, and that's the blues; that makes the blues for me."

The way in which Smith talks about the Delta Blues culture in which he was raised in Mississippi points to how his own music grew. In answer to the question, what is Delta Blues, he responds: "Delta Blues is country blues. It is a very personal music that people made sitting on the porch after working in the fields. Then that music changed from more personal to a communal kind. Artists like Robert Johnson are perfect models. The music had personal information in it, then he'd make songs that have narrative stories to them which he would portray like an actor would portray, but he would do it as a song." The instrument of Delta Blues was the guitar: "Most singers would play by themselves, [with] just the guitar. But later they formed bands. They played Delta blues and used harmonic sound in the music sometimes, but used violins, two guitars, a bassist and drummer." Smith cites Mississippi Delta bluesman Edward James "Son" House (1902-1988) as an example of a player who formed a group, whose instrumentation, Smith recalls, included "three guitars, violins and sometimes bass and drums."

Also a Mississippi native, John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) directly reflected the blues of the Deep South. Hooker had "a strong effect on how I think about music," proclaims Smith, particularly in relation to phrasing. "Phrasing is the rhythmic context of the notes; the connection of musical ideas. Phrasing shows style and feeling and sincerity." Smith describes sincerity in this way: "You can tell a story in many different ways, but personalizing it gives it shape and character. Anybody can play notes but what makes them more important is how you connect them together. That connection together is the most important vehicle to express that musical idea. There's not a lot to say about phrasing except this: it has that dynamic responsibility of actually communicating what you want to say. It makes what you want to say able to penetrate one's sensibility, because phrasing is a kind of psychological usage of notes and sound and rhythm and silence and space. If phrasing is not unique and peculiar to that player, then it just becomes some set of notes."

Phrasing and its emotional value are interlocked. The question of emotion is not something which Smith shirks. "The emotional part—believe it or not—everything I play comes directly out of what I feel like or directly out of what I know. When I am able to balance those two, then [my playing] reaches the emotional level I want it to reach." Emotion becomes a product of Smith merging with the listener. "You set up this kind of invisible wave that ties you into your audience. The connection is non- verbal and has all to do with a special tuning that takes place between the audience and the observer. Said in another way: when an artist makes a communication through an artistic expression [to an observer, it is as if] those two people were in a conversation and all of a sudden both of them realize exactly the content of their conversation. Said in another way: You know when you are talking to somebody and you are going back and forth, you can feel the connection of the communication because you know the idea they want to present and you have the courage to allow the idea to unfold and as it unfolds in you, coming out of the other person, you'll get that same sensation that the other person gets [who is] actually relating the idea. So the success of the idea becomes two-fold; it becomes part of the presenter and the receiver."

The powerful convergence of minds, no matter what the vehicle of communication is between artist and the recipient of the communication, becomes for Smith a means to unify spirits, to rekindle energy and life's vital force. Communication is a dynamic on all levels of existence. Smith is in touch with all those levels.

The Music. The Trumpet

Smith seriously turned to playing the trumpet when he was thirteen. Today, at the age of sixty-eight, he can give his instrument symbolic meaning. "The trumpet is like a flower; the seed is the air or breath that is projected through it. So a flower unfolds vertically and horizontally or open-like. So I consider the trumpet to be exactly the same symbol as a flower. And when the sound evolves in the mind, then it's pushed out by the air and the diaphragm, through the throat and through this little hole that's drilled into the mouthpiece, it begins from that point on to unfold like a flower, whether rotating horizontally and moving out or whether rotating vertically and horizontally and moving out.

"When it's first outside of the trumpet, it's just like a flower. It actually sends out this aroma or this sound in music and space and silence in all directions once it proceeds from the bell of the trumpet. The horizontal motion is moving outwards towards the opening of the trumpet to evolve on the whole plane of the earth and this other part of it is rotating on itself like an axle."

Smith's view allows him to approach his instrument with a delicacy that is inherent in the structure of natural entities. The trumpet is a source for his musical connection with the world; it is his means of communicating with the world in his own language as well.

Rhythm Units

From their inception in 1967, the concept of rhythm units continues to inform, change and expand Smith's music. They are merely one aspect of how he translates his musical ideas into reality. The intention behind his invention of rhythm units was simple. It was a means to discover rhythm without counting.

Rhythm units are based on the principle that "a single sound has a mate and that mate is a silent sound." The sound and the silence make the complete sound. Smith emphasizes that silence has just as much impact in its being unheard as sound does, being heard. Referencing Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), Smith further explains how to think about rhythm units: when an eagle takes flight over the beach, it makes a mark in the same way as someone walking on the sand would make a mark in a footprint, even though the mark of the eagle is invisible.

Scheme for a Rhythm Unit

"Thinking about rhythm units goes a lot of other ways as well. For example, when you breathe, you breathe out and you breathe in, that's one complete breath. And the same thing with sleeping. When you're asleep and awake, even though we have different intervals of sleeping and waking, the whole universal concept of sleep is based off of night and day. One is opening and revealing with the sunlight and daylight and clear view and the other one is dark and concealment and they both in some kind of perspective have this relationship to sound and silence or day and night or inner- breathing and out-breathing.

"Rhythm Units are non-metrical and therefore no counting is needed, but a keen sense of proportional measurement that is connected with the motion of the musical elements is a performance. The rhythm-unit concept is one that accepts a single sound or rhythm, a series of rhythm-sounds or a grouping of more than one series of rhythm-sounds as a complete piece of music. The correct understanding of each unit is that the value given to an audible unit is followed by the relative equivalence of silence."

The implication of a Rhythm Unit is vast. The concept affects how Smith delivers the sound out of his horn as an individual player: "feeling and knowing is what a Rhythmic Unit [RU] is." In order for other players with whom he works to understand the implementation of Rhythm Units, they must follow Smith's example at first, "but afterward, each performer must develop their own realization since my example is only my RU; they must create their own RU." Within Smith's compositions, Rhythm Units are incorporated "creatively, with one's heart and head." Rhythm Units are describable in notation form; but the notation itself only indicates how they can be. They are the indissoluble glue that integrates the Smith sound.

The Sound Smith wants to know "how sound resonates in space." Understanding "sonic properties" allow him the freedom to explore unknown territory with the confidence that he will be successful in creating new music. Examining sound property for Smith is logical and simple: "when you make a sound on a piano, you can understand how it resonates within the piano. If you listen very closely, there are some very important things that happen when you strike a string and release it and allow it to vibrate to the end. Do you hear the contact of the note? Do you hear the resonance of the note? Do you hear the decay of the note? And you hear all those fine properties which I call sonic properties and they begin to leave the field."

Smith continues to articulate the significance of sonic properties: "So there are a lot of things to think about when you release sound in space in a particular room and how to think about sound in general. [This] brings in this idea of reflecting on sound or reflecting on rhythm or reflecting on silence or reflecting on space that can be the difference between how the horizontal and the vertical come out in the way I construct music, when I write or construct manual scores. [It] comes out in the way in which I explain to my students how to think about and look at these things, and how it comes out in the playing, because it is all about revitalizing the information I have and trying to find the correct way to make it become more valuable in what I do."

The Scores

Smith has written a thousand pieces using traditional staff-line notation. But, beginning in the late '60s through to the early '70s, Smith created a method of music notation he called Ankhrasmation. This method became a full-fledged language rich in meaning, indicative of the components of life that can be observed and absorbed and understood. "Ankh" comes from the Egyptian word meaning vital life force, while "Ras" is the Amharic or Northern Ethiopian word for Father, and "Ma" simply corresponds to a conventional word for Mother. In the largest sense, one could say that when Father and Mother procreate, they embody a vital and seminal life force. The very name itself has an international connotation and its tendrils intimate the essence of Smith's passion for completeness.

Smith's scores are unconventional. They cannot be read like a traditional chart with measures, parts, bar lines, and notes. Rather they are read horizontally, vertically, and circularly. He prefers that his scores be described as symbolic rather than graphic. "I'll tell you the reason why. Symbols cannot be fixed in numbers nor can they be limited." Furthermore, the limitlessness of symbolism permits Smith's music to transcend time, for no score can be played the same way twice, even though it can be played multiple times. This means that the meanings of the symbols will change every time in accordance with the players' setting in their hearts and minds. The limitlessness is also defined by Smith's imagination and the symbols he creates for the scores, some of which he says have come to him while sleeping or taking walks.

Every score is made up of panels which Smith draws. The panels can be in color or in black and white. Each panel is on an 8-1/2" by 11" letter-size sheet of paper and consists of an original image. Sometimes Smith describes these images as forms. Within the images are the symbols that Smith chooses to indicate cycles of sounds, individual or groups of sounds. Whatever colors he has decided upon to illustrate the sonic units determine how each player, in a group setting, will play the music. "But no player knows what the other is doing." One panel is analogous to one bar in traditional score language. The dynamics of the music might be implied in gestural markings, such as ribbons, squiggles, arrows or single curved shapes or lines. But, on many levels, including notational, sonorous, and as related to how musicians interact with them, every panel represents a complete dynamic, for Smith has created them as ongoing discovery process.

Sonic units are intended to correspond to elements of nature or experience. It is up to each player of the music to research the characteristics of the sonic units; in other words, what these color indicators mean to the individual player. "Once the research is done, you can figure out how your part is expressed," explains Smith. The music can only be realized when the colors are assigned a reference. Yellow, for instance, can reference a banana, a sunflower, the sun. Each player constructs his own ideas about the references he has chosen in detail. Continuing with the example of yellow referenced as a sunflower: it has petals, seeds, leaves, and can have a large diameter. These details become a part of how the musician thinks about and shapes his part within the whole music.

The least number of panels Smith has used in a complete score is one, the most is sixteen. When a piece is constructed, the panels can be touching, overlapping, or have spaces between them or "could all be interlocked in a way." But the configuration of the shape in which the panels are laid out "is very important, because the shape shows the structure of how the panels connect in a music performance." Smith has drawn over one hundred individual panels.

When looking at a score, or panel for that matter, it is impossible to tell how the music derived from it will sound. "The score is only good for the actual performance of the music." Smith elucidates. "When I started putting this language together and had some of these pieces rehearsed, I'd go home and sit down to get the score and I couldn't find it and so I said [laughing]: 'Whoa, that's kinda weird,' and then I looked again and I couldn't find it, and so what I realized was that each time I used the score, it would be the same. [But] When I realized I couldn't find the relationship in the actual music, I realized that that to me was one of the most important parts about it."

The Pacifica Panel

The Pacifica panel shown in this article illustrates how Smith's panels appear. It was originally drawn in its inspirational moment in 2005. Between 2006 and 2007, Smith spent researching the detailed information he was to include in the final form of the panel. The panel seems to be divided into two parts, the upper and the lower, but the upper and lower parts are indivisible in regards to how they inform the musicians about the music: "the performers move from upper to lower or lower to upper when performing Pacifica."

The upper section specifies how the lower bracketed section is to be played in terms of cycles. The ornamented line or "sonic string," that flies off the upper section denotes "other material to be used in the creating the music. For example, there are eight known objects connected to the sonic string. Four are from Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Udjat-eye, the Human-eye, the Heart and boat that carry the soul to the next world. Two stars, the one in the sky and a Star Fish, the new Silver Moon and the Sun, plus the sonic string are used to create the music." In other words, how this symbolic information affects the players influences how they play the music.

The lower section consists of drawings symbolizing waves in a spectrum of colors, from red to black. To the right of the color of each wave image is written a measurement in meters from "0 M" to "200 M." These measurements, Smith says, describe "the depth that light penetrates into the ocean. It reaches down 200-plus meters, and below that depth is darkness. The water surface reflects about fifteen to twenty percent of the in-coming light. Those depths, colors and size of waves are what the musicians use in their exploration to create the music."

The piece, "Pacifica," can be heard on the first disc of Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009), in a performance by his Golden Quartet. This is the only recording of that score.

The Performance

When a piece is performed, Smith controls everything—in a solo situation, of course, but more notably with his groups. He creates the program; he sets up the rehearsals; he oversees the material that is discussed in rehearsal. Smith teaches each player to unlearn his own performance style so that the music begins from a clean slate and can be created afresh. Smith cares that the members of his groups function along democratic lines, so that each has an equal chance to contribute to the music for his own personal fulfillment, therefore producing sound of the highest quality. Smith balances composition and improvisation so that neither outweighs the other and most importantly, so that the mystery is maintained and human nature prevails.

"In spiritual terms," he says, "I lead the prayer."

Smith's job is to keep the ensemble as one. He holds "the key to everybody's part and how to make everybody's part the key to the main door." He guides the members of the group through gestures, eye contact or giving cues, "guiding them through the doors to the most powerful place that is not written or discussed." The inspiration that arises through playing "comes through like a tsunami, when the ensemble is in tune and connected with each other." The main door is the door that opens to the "other side." For Smith, alone, "the other side is space or an artistic dimension where I lose the sense of fear, caring, the need of anything. There, my music has a direct path to a creative completeness that does not require my ordinary efforts, but, a quality of music-making that could not have come forth unless I gave it a channel or presence. It has a psychology that is common to mystical experience, and the major difference is the results. That is, to create a music-object in the present-moment."

The Records

In one year, 2009, Smith released five albums. Two were rereleases for the first time on CD, on the Nessa label—Spirit Catcher, from 1979, and 1989's The Procession of the Great Ancestry. Three were first releases—America (Tzadik), Abbey Road Quartet (Treader), and Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform). As with every album Smith generates—whether as a soloist or with a group—each recording has a specific message. He may remain interested in a particular subject matter for his musical stories, but he wants to produce music that is always new, not a rehash of the past.

Smith's intention in Sprit Catcher was to reveal an idea of "spaced-ness or how sound and silence work in a large context." The music was written without counting as a component as a means to explore the concept of rhythm units. There is one quintet and one quartet featured; in each Smith is leader on trumpet.

Smith conceived The Procession of the Great Ancestry as a "super dedication," rather than a tribute to what he calls The Trumpet Dynasty—those trumpeters whom he believes shaped trumpet playing for creative music. This recording was "not to portray the psychological character" of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Booker Little or Roy Eldridge, but to convey "a personal realization of each artist." The record opens with a vocal, combined with instrumental, celebration of the blues, and continues with compositions whose spark is the abolishment of slavery and civil rights. Seven musicians are listed as members of the bands; not all play on every piece.

America is a duet with Smith on trumpet and, longtime colleague, Jack DeJohnette on drums. For Smith, this is a special recording. It is dedicated to his bluesman stepfather, and "first mentor," Alex Wallace. The music was written as "a gesture of trying to assert something that is unique about America." The stories told on this record revolve around slavery and civil rights; the last piece focuses on a lesson taught in the Sufi tradition about "passing away from the self into enlightenment," and was conceived on the day before the session when, while taking a walk, Smith derived a set of intervals from the birdsongs he heard. Smith and DeJohnette spent three-and-a-half hours at the recording session, playing straight through. "We got it right the first time. The music is pure."

Abbey Road Quartet was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London in 2008. Dedicating each piece to a well-known musician of both the past and present, Smith works with a band featuring John Coxon, of the English duo Spring Heel Jack. In this record, Smith navigates his trumpet through waves of electronic sound produced by electric guitar and synthesizer. The drums balance out the acoustic instrumentation. The music is collectively improvised, projects a dilated rhythmic organization, but is as much about silence as it is sound.

The double-CD Spiritual Dimensions features two of Smith's groups, The Golden Quartet and Organic. The Golden Quartet was recorded at the Vision Festival in 2008; Organic was recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT in 2009. In both cases, the common element is Smith: "the composer is me, the leader is me." Smith considers the Golden Quartet recording as "contemplative," because it is concerned with Sufism, Islam and spirituality; he assesses the Organic recording as "funky." The latter, he explains, shows another side of him. The compositional challenge he undertook was "how to harness an extra dimension of sound" using electric instruments and pedals. Smith is not interested in making noise; he is interested in "expanding the relationships between the sounds." Smith feels that he meets these challenges successfully, and is "very easy with the way the music evolves." Common to the performance of both groups is the composition "South Central L.A. Kulture"; the last track on the Golden Quartet disc and the first on the Organic set.

In all of these recordings, Smith's horn rises in and out of the music in an unforgettable brilliant single line, unhindered, uninhibited by the kind of music that surrounds him. His horn playing is so exquisitely integrated into the whole sound that it sings a song of glory, in a simple response to the music-making process.

Smith has four groups—The Golden Quartet, Organic, Silver Orchestra and Mbira. He handpicks each musician for the music that is going to be played for the reason that he feels that each "has the potential for understanding different kinds of musical language." He chooses musicians "who have a little bit of courage and don't mind exploring themselves along with me. My performers are like laboratories where they investigate themselves and kind of root out for themselves how they fit into the ensemble with the information they get from me and how they use the information they come up with on their own."

And Lastly

Since Ornette Coleman turned jazz around with his own harmolodic system of music organization, Smith says, jazz cannot be recreated. Jazz lies at the core of the music that followed it, but cannot be redone because the age has changed. Smith is a part of that age of change. He is a creative musician. He has realized yet another means to organize music that is about freedom, the same kind of freedom that accompanies the unrestricted improvisations that are the blues, which are so dear to and in his heart.

He rediscovers himself every day, both as a musician and as a human being, a part of nature, a part of the world. He practices a religious tradition where teaching and learning go hand in hand and are a part of one another. He is a conveyor of ideas with which he is exceedingly generous.

In the same way that silence and sound complete each other, so does the trumpet and writing music complete Wadada Leo Smith.

Selected Discography

Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform Records, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Abbey Road Quartet (Treader, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith/Jack DeJohnette, America (Tzadik, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Procession of the Great Ancestry (Nessa, 1989, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith, Spirit Catcher (Nessa, 1979, 2009)
Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Tabligh (Cuneiform Records, 2008)
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles!, Upriver (Cuneiform, 2005)

Wadada Leo Smith, Lake Biwa (Tzadik, 2004)
Wadada Leo Smith, Luminous Axis: The Caravans of Summer and Winter (Tzadik, 2002)
Wadada Leo Smith, Red Sulphur Sky (Tzadik, 2001)
Wadada Leo Smith, Human Rights (Kabell Records, 1986)
Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, Eclipse (DVD, La Huit, 2005)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith

Pages 2, 4: Frank Rubolino

Page 3, Rhythm Unit and Pacifica Panel: Courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith

Page 5: Cees van de Ven

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