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In a career that spans seven decades, starting in 1967 when he moved to Chicago and met saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith has compiled a vertiginous tower of work:
Solo trumpet albums as emotive as they are virtuosic. Rigorously inventive small groups, some of which employ his unique “language scores” that replace staff notation with brilliantly evocative paintings. Dozens of collaborations with artists ranging from fellow Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) members to guitarist Henry Kaiser (in the electric big-band tribute band Yo Miles!). Larger works for larger ensembles that combine new-music creators and string sections, such as his acclaimed 2012 release Ten Freedom Summers, which compiled pieces inspired by the civil rights movement and was written over the course of 34 years. Compositions for symphony orchestra, such as the one he recently completed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, scheduled to premiere in March 2022.
Symphonies of a different nature make up one of the two albums that Wadada released in the second half of 2021. The four-CD set titled The Chicago Symphonies, released in November, features Wadada’s Great Lakes Quartet, with reedist Henry Threadgill and drummer Jack DeJohnette — both originally from Chicago — and bassist John Lindberg, who grew up in Detroit. Wadada assembled this group more than a decade ago to record The Great Lakes Suites, named for the actual Great Lakes (plus Lake St. Clair); the Symphonies, each of which takes up one disc, home in on Chicago musicians and, in the final work, two U.S. presidents from Illinois. (Wadada wrote the first three Symphonies in 2014 and recorded them in 2015; he recorded the fourth disc in 2018, with saxophonist Jonathan Haffner replacing Threadgill, who was unavailable for the date.)
A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday, a single disc recorded in 2016 and released last summer, brings together DeJohnette and pianist Vijay Iyer, whose use of electric piano, organ and electronics provides an expanded palette. Featuring compositions from all three musicians, A Love Sonnet revels in the array of each man’s approach to lyricism. It manages to be at once challenging and inviting.
These albums cap a dazzlingly (but typically) productive year in which Wadada also released two three-disc sets — Trumpet (Wadada unaccompanied) and Sacred Ceremonies, featuring bassist Bill Laswell and the late Milford Graves on drums — and the collaborative Sun Beans of Shimmering Light (and no, that’s not a typo) with reedist Douglas Ewart and drummer Mike Reed. His next two releases, due in mid-February, are the four-CD Emerald Duets — each disc featuring a different drummer — and a seven-CD set of string quartets composed between 1965 and 2018.
I spoke with Wadada, specifically about his latest releases, just two days after his 80th birthday in mid-December.
Each of the discs in The Chicago Symphonies is named for a gem or precious metal — Gold Symphony, Diamond Symphony, Pearl, Sapphire — but the movements themselves have more eclectic titles and descriptions.
It was a matter of finding the particular gem that I felt best expressed or would showcase the metaphor I was looking for. But the secondary descriptions in these titles give further explanation as to what I’m talking about, and who I’m looking to celebrate. These celebrations, they’re not “portraits” in the sense that a writer would write a biography portrait, or a painter would paint somebody. They are my psychological profile of these people and events. But if you read the titles in their proper context, you come up with what I truly mean by that music — because it’s poetry. It’s poetry that tries to make an explanation about the quality of what’s there. And when I use the word “quality,” I’m not talking about high and low, I’m talking about quality of information, the essence.
So how did you decide which of these portraits to include within each Symphony? For instance, Gold Symphony has titles that mention Louis and Lil Armstrong, Amina Claudine Myers, Earl Hines and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Did you decide on this grouping of portraits in advance of writing the compositions?
[caption id="attachment_43600" align="alignleft" width="800"] Photo of Wadada Leo Smith by Jimmy Katz[/caption]
No, what happens with the Symphonies is that I basically start working on the music first, and then as I’m moving along, I begin to add the components to it. For example, I knew that the Gold Symphony would represent the Art Ensemble; I knew that first. But these other characteristics of personality pop in as I’m working on the piece. I knew a few of the people that would be involved in these works before I got started, and the other people I added as I’m going across. So in that piece, it’s the Art Ensemble that’s the core — the beginning of the emphasis for that piece.
Let’s look at Pearl Symphony. This one has a movement named for Anthony Braxton; a movement named for Leroy Jenkins and “dance opera” [a reference to Jenkins’ “Mother of Three Sons,” with choreography by Bill T. Jones]; movements named for Sun Ra, Phil Cohran, poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki R. Madhubuti; and one for yourself, citing Ten Freedom Summers. So what’s the core of Pearl Symphony?
In that one, Braxton, Jenkins and Smith is the core. [The trio known by that name made the first recording of a Wadada composition with “The Bell,” which appeared on Braxton’s 1968 album 3 Compositions of New Jazz.]
I have one movement where the naming mentions Braxton’s For Alto, that double-LP set  — just phenomenal — and also his operas; those are my favorite works of his. And I got Leroy Jenkins’ dance poem [“Mother of Three Sons”] which he did with the choreographer Bill T. Jones, and was performed in New York , for I believe 400 or 500 people. And then I’m in there with Ten Freedom Summers. So that’s the connection for that piece.
But when you are doing a collection of Chicago, and because of the collective consciousness that’s there, each piece from this core generated all sorts of satellites to complete the picture. I met Madhubuti when I was in a city parks workshop with him and [pianist and AACM pioneer] Muhal Richard Abrams one summer. Madhubuti was the first poet that I heard recite poems that actually set me on fire. I heard him recite a poem about John Coltrane when there was probably 500 or 600 people in the audience, and it was just dynamite. And then Sun Ra, because he is the master of Chicago music after Louis Armstrong and those early guys that made their great contribution. I put him in there because often he’s not mentioned with the AACM, but he should be mentioned with the AACM, because he was the landmark in Chicago that lit the fire that everybody could see. That was the same fire.
So there’s an emphasis on a single ensemble or person that sparks the initial impulse for the piece. But if you look at Chicago, there’s a strong sense of collectives. When I was there, one of the most fascinating things about African-American culture was that on the south side of Chicago, near, far and deep, there was a consistent number of groups who represented some idea about culture, in theater, dance, writers and poets, music and musicians. So that was the thrust for having these collectives of people inside of a single piece.
And indeed, in the accompanying booklet to The Chicago Symphonies, you write that these works are “intended to illustrate and preserve the powerfully unique cultural contribution that the Midwesterners made in helping to shape the American society.” But this extends beyond music: The last disc, The Sapphire Symphony, is subtitled “The Presidents and Their Vision for America,” with portraits of each and movements that name-check the Gettysburg Address and Obama’s 2015 speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. What inspired Sapphire Symphony?
[caption id="attachment_43604" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Photo by Michael Jackson[/caption]
Lincoln and Obama are both from Illinois, of course. Lincoln was a very educated and well-read man; Obama was the same. Both of them gave speeches that represented the unification of a conflicted and divided America. Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was to try to reconcile the hatred and anger and great loss that occurred through the Civil War; and Obama in his speech at the bridge in Selma was really trying to focus on what America would be like, if, in fact, it included all these people as Americans.
The link between Obama and Lincoln — and LBJ, who I didn’t include — are vast notions about what it is to be a citizen in America if you are not white. Lincoln introduced the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that came out of his era. LBJ was just an ordinary brilliant Southern strategist that tried to keep the South where it was. But when you become the President, and you have a sense of moral character, you know that if you leave that office without a legacy, you become a nobody. So he adopted John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and called it the Great Society, and he signed into practice the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. And then we jump to Selma and John Lewis, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is in Congress now. They all have the same language as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
It tears my heart to pieces, because it tells me something about America that Congress passed those amendments 160 years ago and never intended to enforce them. Our society has been bushwhacked by the legislative and judicial departments ever since. That to me is the saddest thing on Earth, because it tells me that this country has a long way to go. Obama’s speech in Selma looks at what it could be if it was done.
Sapphire Symphony is the latest of your compositions that — like Ten Freedom Summers and America’s National Parks and your oratorio dedicated to Rosa Parks — encompasses a historical perspective. When did you first follow that path?
Well, if you start with the second composition of mine that was recorded, “Light on the Delta” — which I recorded with Braxton, Jenkins and [drummer] Steve McCall in Paris, in 1969 — every piece from then on has had this signature. So one could say that this journey began immediately, because the documents show that it has been part of my forte. And I learned that from Duke Ellington: Black, Brown and Beige  was one of the most political works of its time. It skipped most of the people, but that was a phenomenon for America — and it was overtly political.
Compared with the architecture of The Chicago Symphonies, how did you construct A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday? It comprises two pieces by you, including the title composition, but also one piece each from your collaborators Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnette, and finally one composition credited to all three.
Essentially this is what you would call a collaboration — but a collaboration that was controlled. For example, the concept of the record came to me, and the placement of Vijay’s and Jack’s pieces was constructed by me, in the context of how I thought the project should go. The last piece, where we collectively put it together, that’s the real core of collaboration. But the first piece, which is the title piece, sets the pace for everything that follows. The project began with the idea that this composition would be for Billie Holiday. Her music was important for me; I’ve written at least three pieces for her. I encountered her music when I was young; I ordered some music from one of those book clubs, and one of the records was a Billie Holiday LP. I ordered five records: a Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Michel Legrand.
Michel Legrand? How did you decide on this particular grouping of musicians?
Well, the instruments was the decision. I had of course already seen Louis Armstrong on television, because he and Nat King Cole were probably the only African-American artists — and maybe Lena Horne — that that you would see on television. I knew who the famous trumpeters were, and the other names were all associated with each other. And on the Legrand LP [1958’s Legrand Jazz] was Art Farmer and John Coltrane, and I believe Miles Davis as well, and maybe Paul Chambers — there was a bunch of artists on there that makes that selection actually quite normal. We didn’t have anything in the house to play music on, so I would go to a friend of mine’s house whose parents had a record player.
What led you to ask Iyer and DeJohnette to join you on A Love Sonnet?
Well, first of all, Vijay and Jack had never worked together; that was one of the key components. Actually, I introduced Jack to just about everybody that’s been on my records, from [composer and pianist] Anthony Davis to John Lindberg — none of them had worked with him before. So you kind of have this imagination about how well these kinds of mixtures will communicate. And the dream is that this mixture will actually produce something that’s unique and quite extraordinary. And I particularly liked the idea of piano, drum and trumpet; to tell you the truth, I have expanded it on my latest project to two pianos and drums and trumpet.
On the Love Sonnet album, you call it a “dream project to work on with Jack and Vijay where the idea of composition and instrumentation would play a vital role in how the music sounded.” But you don’t mention “improvisation” in that statement.
None of my scores at this stage of my life are geared towards “improvisation.” I abandoned “improvisation” just before 2013, and the reason was because it did not — and neither did that community — represent anything that I want to be associated with. What I now I call my work is “creative music,” and I refer to other musicians contributing to the performance in this space as “creators.” Why? Because the mark of authenticity for my performance has to do with inspiration. If the artist is inspired and contributes something, that portion that they contribute will enhance and magnify the authentic relationship of that performance with the others. That which is being captured — that stuff that is in flux inside of the human being, and causes them to deliver it in some kind of artistic form — that is inspiration.
In the process of improvising, there’s no requirement for inspiration: It can come, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come. There’s no mark of judgment regarding if it was good or bad. And the reason I know that is because I played with nearly every “improviser” around the planet, and none of them have had this critical atmosphere associated with what they do. They all come out and say they feel happy or they feel sad. Real creation comes from inspiration. Every spiritual text, like the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, Buddhism — all of them, when they refer to anything about the Creation, it has come to them through inspiration.
That’s what we’re striving for. When critics asked Charlie Parker, “What are you doing?” he would say, “I’m looking for the beautiful note.” What he meant was he was looking for his inspiration. Miles Davis said, “I start with something I know, then I move into something I don’t know.” That something you don’t know — that’s inspiration. Those are perfect examples of really high knowledge, stuff that only took four or five words to say, but one could write a thesaurus of all kinds of information off of just those few words.
I know that your artistic philosophy asks each musician to act as a self-contained unit, performing independently of the others sharing the creative space.
Yes, but yet dependently connected. Because in music, or in any particular activity, there’s that occasion where people rely on other people to push things forward, or sideways, or whatever. And when they do that, they offer something that I call “dependent reaction.” That’s not the high quality that I’m looking for in a performer. But when a player actually is aware of what’s happening on stage but not attached to it — and can still maintain their center of activity and move forward — then whatever is happening on stage is going to inform them as well. So that work of art is going to have a much higher rate of positivity. It’s going to cause a deeper effect on the audience. These people are going to be far more deeply connected with what happens if the artists are able to achieve that level of focus amongst a diversity of all this other stuff. So one way to explain it is to say that what happens in a performance is a field that’s dominated by multiple dominance.
A simplified version of this might be that you’re telling everybody to do their own thing, but with an awareness of everything else around them.
In that sense, it seems a bit like the earliest New Orleans jazz bands.
That is a close example, yes. But I don’t believe being creative is any different from one time to another, whether it was 5,000 years ago in East Africa or 6,000 years ago in northern China. It doesn’t make a difference.
[caption id="attachment_43605" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Photo by Michael Jackson[/caption]
Before you go, can you speak to your adoption of the name Wadada in the mid-’80s, when you embraced Rastafarianism? I know that it means “love” but I suspect there’s more to it than that.
Exactly. It comes from the Amharic language in Ethiopia. From my humble experience as a person on this planet, I know that love is the key to everything — and not just the human kind of sentimental love. The best way to explain it is the way Dr. Martin Luther King talked about it, because he practiced the idea of love being the biggest and the largest transformative element in human history. That’s why he forgave all those people that threw stones and rocks and things at him, and probably even the guy that killed him. The word that he used in his very first speech is agape, which is a Greek word that refers to this love that’s paramount and connected with God, and has nothing to do with the sentimentality of man and woman’s love. It’s the love between all of Creation and the Creator.