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Wadada Leo Smith: The Teacher

Franz A. Matzner By

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Can instrumental music do that? Yes, it can. It can be a political expression. It can be a spiritual expression, or any activity that we place on it in a serious context.
Wadada Leo Smith's career as a creative musician spans more than forty years. The trumpeter/composer's myriad accomplishments have been well-documented, particularly recently, as his recoding and performance career have undergone a marked renaissance, the success of which has shown a spotlight not only on his recent undertakings, but also inspired a reexamination of his past works.

As an early contributor to the development of the free music revolution, Smith was an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), an integral force in the development of the free music movement. Since his early works where he helped redefine the contours of improvisational jazz, Smith has been exploring the outer and inner frontiers of improvisational music and composition via a numerous ensembles, projects, and theoretical writings. He has developed a unique musical notation system and has held formal teaching positions at the University of New Haven (1975-'76), the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY (1975-'78), and Bard College (1987-'93) and The Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts.

At age 70, Smith is as busy as he has ever been performing more regularly now than in his youth, composing, leading multiple ensembles, and releasing a regular stream of recordings—with more in the works, including plans to record an expansive work over a decade in the making dedicated to the American civil rights movement.

These biographical facts, however, only skate along the surface of Smith's artistic identity, the scope and depth of which can only be appreciated when experiencing directly the intensity of his musical expression or the profundity of his philosophical enterprise. For the two are deeply intertwined and both present a similar demand on the listener; it is necessary to listen closely and reflect carefully in order to grasp the greater whole that is being presented. As with all dedicated teachers, which at heart best describes Smith, the messages being conveyed are not delivered in one sharp burst, but laid out slowly over time, from various angles, and through repetition so that the listener/student is drawn forward into the process of discovery.

Chapter Index
  1. First Lessons
  2. Birth of Free Music
  3. Ensembles
  4. Civil Rights



First Lessons

All About Jazz: You were born in 1941 in Mississippi. When did you begin to know that music would be your path?

Wadada Leo Smith: Probably at the age of 12, which was the year that I started to play trumpet. I say that because I played the trumpet for approximately three months before...in school and that December I started to play in a local band that had two guitars, a bass guitar and a lead guitar and drums. And the lead guitar was a vocalist. So almost immediately I learned how to make music. I'm not talking about learning how to play the trumpet because those are two different things. I learned how to make the music actually in a living, live vibrant tradition. Meaning this: when I started I had a vague knowledge of key, a specific tonality, meaning in school we had gone over one or two relationships of how tonality was established. But not in real principals, only that this piece is in B-flat this piece is in D.

So, when I started playing with these guys, in the first rehearsal they just started playing. They didn't announce that it was in B-flat or F or whatever. They just started playing. And as they played I thought 'how am I going to figure out what they are doing?' So I asked one of the guys, the bassist, what key he was in. He said 'I'm in bass key.' Then I asked the other guy, the guitarist and he said he was in guitar key. So what I figured out from just those two inquires is that if they were in guitar key I must be in trumpet key! So I got started. I hit a few notes, and whatever those notes was I maneuvered myself around and away from those notes till I found the zone in which that music sounded in. And that zone in which that music sounded in, because it was blues from the blues tradition of the Delta, that lesson taught me something. It taught me that notes have gravity—meaning that they have a way of moving closer to the center of what the music is sounding at or away from where the music is sounding at. That is a very valuable lesson to learn because what it means is that in the long run I learned how to shape what I hear based off of what I was going to play without thinking about [the] concepts of tonality, major-minor relationship, stuff like that. Because those things are really very superficial. What is most important about a group of notes is the gravity. Which of those pitches have the strongest pull toward the center.

AAJ: You did then go on to pursue formal musical study as well, starting with your stepfather who was a blues musician.

WLS: Yes, yes yes. But he never taught me this is B-flat, A- flat or G. He taught me things like this: You express a phrase like this. You have meaning in the context of notes like this. You approach the music with the understanding that you will find your own identity in it. You don't want to be like everybody else.

Those are the kinds of lessons I was taught.

AAJ: Is the essence of that lesson what led to your participation in the development of the free music movement?

WLS: Exactly. Because since then I have really made it quite simple in terms of my notion of composition, improvisation, and Ankhrasmation (note, Smith's systemic music language). I've made it really simple. I break everything down to the smallest denominator, or the fewest kinds of things that you need to make music with. I think those early lessons with my stepfather was a view into that reality, or into that zone, of what to look for in my life. It made a big difference.

When I moved out of Mississippi I went to the Army. That is where my encounter with a vast array of different musicians from different places took place. They come from all over. That was my second close-up experience with what people call jazz. None of those guys at that time were involved in what we call free jazz. They were all involved with bebop. Music that had harmonic progression, you see? Almost all of them. And they all were striving to see if they could connect their musicality, the way that they made music, with the tradition that Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt had created.

And so what I get from this encounter in the military service is a vast array of people who had different ideas about music that has harmonic progression and in one of those instances I did meet a gentleman named Carl Adams—who is still alive. He is in his 80s now and lives in Houston Texas. And believe it or not about five years ago I played in Houston and he came. I had a chance to meet him again—this guy Carl Adams was an instructor at the school of music I went to in the Army and he's also African American. The only African American instructor in this school. To make a long story short, somehow I made a connection with him and befriended him in a way. [And] one day he pulled me aside and said "I'm gonna show you something." We went into one of the practice rooms and sat at the piano and he showed me how harmonic motion moves.

Basically harmonic motion is not a complex thing. People who play harmonic music make it complex. But it is not. Harmonic motion only moves in 5ths. There is no secret about it. No big supernova idea about it. It simply moves in 5ths. All music based on tonality moves in this same relationship of 5ths. And the second part of that is every motion in music is not a fundamental motion. A move from 1 to 5 or to the tonic that is a fundamental motion. But everything else is secondary or superficial. So between the bottom and the top of a scale you have all kinds of ideas about motion but none of them are significant. Most of them are just passing realities...they don't have any way of establishing anything powerful like a change of key or the like.

So learning that from this guy was the biggest lesson I learned at the school, even though it was I think four months [long].

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