Wadada Leo Smith: A Vital Life Force

Lyn Horton By

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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.

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