Wadada Leo Smith: Sounding America’s Freedom

Franz A. Matzner By

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When you look at the tradition that we call jazz in our society, it has always focused on the spiritual, social, and political nexuses.
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has been at the forefront of musical invention for 40 years and has recently entered a late-career renaissance. In May, 2012, this seminal musician released his greatest effort to date, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform), a 30-year in-the-making testament to the power of civil rights and the importance of artistic engagement in social activism. As the United States faces an election, at the heart of which lies race relations, Smith's message of liberty is intended to drive action and inspire passion.

Not unlike the densely interwoven novels of great authors such as Mann, Dostoevsky, or Joyce, Ten Freedom Summers is so inter-textually rich and philosophically actualized that its briefest moments seem to distill the entirety. It has many access points and, as a whole, makes a statement of significant cultural import.

Smith explains, "When you look at the tradition that we call jazz in our society, it has always focused on the spiritual, social, and political nexuses." A 19-piece collection the goal of which is to create a psychological portrait of the civil rights movement's past, present, and future, Ten Freedom Summers reflects Smith's perspective on the integrated character of spiritual, musical, and political expression.

For Smith, the Biblical figure David has always been a central model. David, as he explains, was an artist who made music, as well as a prophet and a governor. Smith also points to the Sufi tradition and the role of the Sufi master as a spiritual guide and social leader who employs music to reach ecstatic, inspirational states.

"Even to get into yourself to make a powerful musical statement, you have to practice that same art of meditation that takes place in Sufism. That attunement, that centering that takes place sitting in the meditation seat as well as sitting on stage are the same. Both are ritualized moments and both of them have to achieve essentially the same thing to be successful: a transformation from your daily, fully aware and functional realities to a kind of submerged, subjective spiritual evolution in order to get to the core of what you want to play on your instrument or present in performance."

To Smith, however, this moment of ecstatic clarity goes beyond achieving a musical moment on stage. It permeates human existence and leads to the unifying principle of Ten Freedom Summers: freedom—a human experience that implicitly encompasses freedom of expression, political freedom, and spiritual freedom. In turn, each of these hinges on the rights of the individual. As Smith puts it, "Freedom and liberty and justice are embedded in our [Constitution], which states that men are born with these rights. If these rights are denied, then our society must suffer."

Smith, of course, is not the first to explore the fertile territory documenting the connection between the civil rights movement and jazz. Jazz has always stood at the crossroads of American race relations. Its early artists, who birthed the art form, faced the stark realities of systematized, pervasive racism, the everyday brutality of which stood in the way of their financial progress and suppressed their artistic freedoms.

By the 1930s and '40s, jazz had reached its apogee as America's popular music, pushing the question of the racial inequities its musicians faced out into the open. With greater frequency, its artists and spokespersons—from Duke Ellington, to Benny Goodman, to promoters like Norman Granz— began to confront race issues directly, fueling a more overt politicization. During the 1960s, jazz's artistic visionaries became intimately linked with the civil rights movement, reinforcing both the thematic and musical cross-pollinations happening across folk, rock, and jazz. At a deeper level, musicians like saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman began exploring the outer bounds of music's creative limits and gave voice to the ultimate goal of the struggle for civil and human rights: equal rights to freedom of expression as an individual.

Recent scholarship, as well as various contemporary musicians, have revisited these themes. Not many, however, can claim Smith's personal connection to the development of creative music, and few have the breadth of historical and personal experience that he brings to composing, playing, and teaching.

Born in 1941 in a segregated Mississippi, Smith has lived a solid piece of contemporary music's and civil rights' history and this experience provides the inspiration for his demanding magnum opus: "When I was growing up in Mississippi—in a segregated Mississippi—and experiencing the transition from that segregated moment I felt in my heart that I would someday write about that time zone. Because of the[ir] development in the United States, civil liberties have been increased throughout the world."

Composed as a collection of 19 tracks with titles such as "Dred Scott: 1857," "Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964," and "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy (listen here)," Ten Freedom Summers documents the psychological trajectory of the civil rights movement and its impact on the American psyche through a series of compositions for quartet, quintet, and chamber orchestra. When asked about the specificity of these titles and his ultimate goal, Smith makes clear that the titles were chosen deliberately to provoke.

"I made them to be complete poetic statements. I made them to be absolute cultural referents. I wish to provoke a further attitude and logic towards research when thinking about this piece. I would like that [listeners] find [for] themselves a rational conclusion of how our society—and, in the larger context, our world—should and can solve the problem of racism and sexism, because those are the two largest problems embedded from the very earliest times of recorded history right up until today."

Smith further explains, "We are talking about a...period of time in which people made big sacrifices, and that runs straight through all of the pieces. We are talking about times in which there were great victories, and that runs through all the pieces. The psychological thread that runs through all of them is celebrating—or, rather, ritualizing—and having a ceremonial relationship to, the tragic events, and then moving forward to those that were victories."
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