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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."

To understand Smith's treatment of the civil rights movement, it is necessary to recognize that Smith does not attempt to present programmatic music or literal depictions of the aspects and moments of the civil rights movement that he references. Smith has described his process as an effort to translate from the historical, to the psychological, to the musicological. In his words: "When I think about the civil rights movement or any other political issue in our society I look at the psychological impact of those issues and ideas. In my music that is what I am trying to translate: the psychological impact of it, or the psychological reality of it. Not the actual event itself, but the psychological impact that event has on society."

Smith also cautions that Ten Freedom Summers should not be seen as a single suite, but rather as a collection. "A suite generally speaking should have a consistent use of the same thematic material but disguised or expressed in a different kind of way. In my case, I have not used the same thematic material." Instead, Smith has crafted each piece as an individual referent to the character or event he examines, each complete in itself. Smith acknowledges, however, that there is overlapping musical material throughout the work. As an example, Smith points to where he employs a quote from the piece "Emmet Till" as a transition to "Black Church" in order to signify the psychological transition "from Emmett Till the character to Emmett Till the person who is now in a spiritual state that is being ritualized in the church (listen here)." This example offers an additional window into the overall structure of Ten Freedom Summers. Because the collection operates as an examination of the psychological development of the civil rights struggle, the repetition of musical elements depicts the ongoing impact of earlier events or persons on later developments, as represented in the other pieces that make up the body of work.

Smith goes on to emphasize that just as it is not technically a suite, the album also should not be thought of as a "jazz" work. Smith rejects that designation, preferring the term "creative music." This distinction is important because, although Ten Freedom Summers clearly contains aesthetics from the jazz, classical, and blues traditions, the collection belongs to none of these genres. Pointing out that the collection exceeds four hours in length, Smith unpacks this distinction:

"[W]hen you use large forms, you have to incorporate [many] elements. This form that I am using is akin to the dramatic form that we call opera or the symphonic form. It's looking at how you make an interesting progression of musical material that must also show some transformation of the notion of style, of form, and how you move content. You move it by using these particular referents like jazz and blues and traditional classical music and you find that that mobilizes the material that you are trying to present (listen here)."

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."
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