Wadada Leo Smith: I'm A Dreamer

John Sharpe By

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As dreamers go trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith lies at the more serious end of the spectrum. Not for him dreams that fade with the daylight, as evidenced by the realization of his epic Civil Rights inspired Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). Smith actually composed the first piece of what developed into a 21 piece magnum opus back in 1977, which demonstrates prodigious staying power to see it through to completion in 2012. Once released, the work generated remarkable acclaim for its tremendous scope, consistency of achievement and weighty emotional impact. Widely nominated in best of year lists, it is likely to remain pertinent for many years to come. As Thom Jurek said "it belongs in jazz's canonical lexicon with Duke Ellington's Black Brown & Beige and Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite." By way of culmination to a fantastic year, Smith was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his work.

While Ten Freedom Summers might have made the headlines, behind it lies a significant body of work. Smith first came to prominence as one of a unique band of free thinkers brought together in Chicago's famous Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1968. After a sojourn in Paris, Smith settled in Connecticut where he gathered a group of adventurous young musicians around him in New Haven, co-founded a loose collective called the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum and also released a series of seminal albums on his own Kabell imprint. Since then he has, forged an iconoclastic path which has taken him around the world, including stints in Japan and Iceland, and amassed a discography of more than fifty albums as leader. In recent years he has become a frequent visitor to the UK, working with a diverse range of improvisers. But it's clear that he has no intention of resting on his laurels, and is still plotting the actualization of still more dreams. AllAboutJazz met Smith at his north London apartment during the European premiere of Ten Freedom Summers.

Chapter Index
Beginnings of Ten Freedom Summers
Inspirations behind the pieces
Capturing Ten Freedom Summers on record
Further Plans
The European Premiere
Working in the UK

Beginnings of Ten Freedom Summers

AllAboutJazz: I would like to talk to you about two particular areas: Ten Freedom Summers, and your interactions with British musicians. Since you were last interviewed for AllAboutJazz your 4CD album Ten Freedom Summers has been released to great acclaim, and now you are in London for the European premiere. Could you explain how that project came about and what it means to you?

Wadada Leo Smith: Well in the very beginning which was in 1977, the first piece that was composed was for Medgar Evers, and it was composed at the request of Leroy Jenkins who was a violinist. I've written a couple of other pieces for his ensembles and he liked the way I composed. He had this new ensemble with [pianist] Anthony Davis and [drummer] Andrew Cyrille, and he wanted a new piece from me to celebrate the beginning of that ensemble. So I had been thinking about the Civil Rights Movement and what it meant and how artists were able to participate in that activity, so I started with what was happening in my State. Medgar Evers had just been assassinated in Mississippi, so I started with him as the first person. That piece was written for a trio but after I started working on the large batch of Ten Freedom Summers, I expanded it to have a viola line, so it has harp, flute, percussion and viola. And our version here in London [with reduced instrumentation] will be violin playing the flute, piano playing the harp, viola, and drums and percussion. So that was the beginning.

AAJ: Did at that point you have the idea that it was going to become part of a larger work?

WLS: No. It was just one way of thinking about how you participate in this struggle for freedom and how hopefully at a later time in this journey, create a debate about the issues. That's basically what I was looking at at that time. And that became one of the main points of Ten Freedom Summers that it gave me a chance to look at those issues and hopefully afterwards people have a chance to think about this problem maybe in their own house or amongst their friends. Because it is not over. And not only is it not over, but it is not just the idea of race which is the biggest issue, but it has to do with sexism and economic captivity and all these things. NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] destroyed most of the economic centers of the planet and it did it in the same way in which these economic crises happened. Only a few people benefit from these things. So those issues are deeply tied up with civil rights and human rights and the social responsibility of people on the planet.

AAJ: At what point did you think you wanted to make a definitive statement about these issues?

WLS: The year two thousand. The reason was that I put together the Golden Quartet in 2000. It made its debut recording in 2000 [Golden Quartet (Tzadik, 2000)] with Jack DeJohnette, Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors. This is a quartet that looks traditional in terms of its instrumentation, but it was a means of looking at how you explore this music through a quartet, because I never did that type of quartet before. Our first performance was at the University of Georgia. They were trying to commission me for a piece, but the commission fell through. But I had just started taking a few notes on the Freedom Riders. So I did "The Freedom Riders Ride" even though I didn't get the commission for it, but I still did it. After that I started doing pieces regularly, not every month, but maybe one or two a year. Then perhaps six years ago I started asking for grants to complete it, and I got eight batches of money in a row to complete it. And I knew it was going to happen then.

AAJ: When you are looking at the individual pieces, what comes first? Is it the inspiration for the work, or is it a musical idea or some sort of interaction between the two?

WLS: Each of the pieces I have to do the research for them.

AAJ: Do you decide: Right I'm going to do a piece on say Lyndon Johnson?

WLS: Yes then I do the research. Exactly. But I don't have the music yet, I just have an idea it's going to be a piece not about, but with, Lyndon B. Johnson as the central part of it. And then I look at his career, and the most important thing that he did was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then I go and do the research, and I began to be very enlightened, because you know a lot about this stuff just from the tradition of reading stuff in newspapers, but you don't know any of the background. So I found out that in 1957, Dwight David Eisenhower, president at that time, put forward a Civil Rights Bill. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the Leader of the House. He got every southern guy to vote against it and most of the northern guys. He blocked it. Now what a piece of information. Here's a guy whose legacy is really the Voters Rights Act, because the Vietnamese War destroyed him. His Great Society was just a thing in name only if he didn't do the Civil Rights Act. He blocked it, then seven years later, he's President and he puts forward this Voters Rights Act, which really wasn't his, it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy's. He just changed the name from the New Frontier, which was Kennedy's idea of what he wanted to do. Johnson inherited all of that, he just put the name on it of the Great Society. It's the same program. How weird is that?

AAJ: There was an article earlier this week in the Guardian, suggesting that Kennedy's assassination was perhaps the best thing that could have happened in terms of Civil Rights, because Johnson came in and pushed it through, while if he had lived, Kennedy would not have been able to do that.

WLS: No he wouldn't have been able to do it, because Kennedy had so much opposition against him. When he finally did decide that American society had so many problems socially, he wanted to change it. Him and Bobby [his brother Robert F. Kennedy] was both converted. They came from the most powerful family in America and they also had an enormous amount of wealth. His father was into everything from Nazism to whatever. He came from a special family who had never witnessed any problems. And lo and behold they end up being the President and the Attorney General. Once they got there, they was actually not for any of this stuff. But eventually, every person that takes that office has to find something that's going to make them have a legacy, and they adopt whatever comes along. Now I believe that he changed, I sensed through Robert as well that both of them changed, because Kennedy was the first President to open up the debate about race in our society. He did it in his address to the nation about Civil Rights. The last five minutes or so of his speech was all improvised, it wasn't in the text. He made a strong appeal to the nation to open up our society as these rights were guaranteed by the Constitution. Five minutes after that speech was over, Medgar Evers was assassinated. So those two pieces are internally connected. Then six months later, he [Kennedy] was assassinated.

AAJ: So how does that research and understanding of the situation translate into music, as I know it is not programmatic or narrative.

WLS: It translates like this. My intention was to expose through the Ten Freedom Summers work the psychological effect that this movement had on America. So when I finally get the right balance of research and I'm beginning to be inspired, my effort then is to find one moment in that person's life or in that event and use that as a motivation to reflection and contemplation to decide how I'm going to make the piece. And that moment usually ends up being in the piece. Like with JFK, that piece is only about his body being taken from the Capitol to Arlington to the cemetery. It captures only that small frame. The piece on Medgar Evers is only about when he steps out of the car, and he's shot and he falls down, and the piece on Martin Luther King is about that Memphis Prophecy, the last speech that he gave where he says "I've been to the mountain top." You only normally see five to seven seconds of it, but it's seventeen minutes long—it's on You Tube—it's one of the most powerful speeches that he gave and it was all improvised. So it's about that. Then my March on Washington DC, I got commissioned during the fiftieth anniversary, I just gave the premier in DC three weeks ago, that piece is about the "I have a dream" speech.
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