Wadada Leo Smith
CHAT WITH WADADA LEO SMITH
Sometimes I am proud to be a life-long resident (outside of my year in
Seattle and a year and a half in New York) of the City of Angels. When
the Oakland Raiders (once Los Angeles) are kicking ass in the first half
of this season (leading the AFC), I am beaming with pride. When the Los
Angeles Rams (I mean St. Louis Rams) are poised to break every scoring
(both scoring against and scored on) record in NFL history, the shit-eating
grin on my face is ear to ear. But when my alma mater (USC) is dead last
in the Pac Ten and completely out of any bowl bid and out of all the polls
(except maybe most disappointing season), I cringe and tell everyone I'm
from New York (at least you lucky bastards have two teams in the World
Series and the Messiah again). When OJ takes the entire city of Los Angeles
on the ride of his life, I am having an out of LA experience. Thankfully,
Los Angeles can claim Wadada Leo Smith. Leo Smith sure can play the trumpet
and his latest couple on John Zorn's Tzadik label are somethin' else.
So while I bury my head in the dirt again because the NBA season is about
to begin and afterall, LA does have the Clippers (Do they even qualify
as a professional team?), enjoy the Fireside Chat with Leo Smith, as it
is my honor to present him to you, our babies, unedited and in his own
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
WADADA LEO SMITH: It's a long, little, short story, Fred. I got started
by playing blues at the age of thirteen. My stepfather was a blues master
so eventually I ended up playing blues with him and other local bands.
Usually, there was a trumpet in the band, which was me and two guitars.
One would be electric bass and the other would be the lead guitar and
a drummer and singer. My stepfather's used to be more elaborate. They
would have piano and maybe two horns and maybe two guitars. I studied
the formal tradition that people have in high school and stuff like that.
I have to make it clear that I started playing the trumpet about four,
five months before I became thirteen. At the age of thirteen, I started
playing publicly with these blues bands. I learned how to play music as
I was playing it and this formal line of education, which was during high
school, proceeded along with it, but by the time it caught up with me,
I was long past it. There is a way of making music, where you take both
traditions along at the same time and that is what I am trying to express.
FJ: Were you improvising in these blues bands?
WADADA LEO SMITH: I always considered blues, even from the very beginning,
to be a forum for improvising. In fact, that is the context we used it
in. In Mississippi, which is where I grew up at, wherever there is a horn
in a band, no matter what kind of band it was, blues band, or marching
band, or dance band, or whatever kind of band, those instruments, their
main function and role was not just to play live, but they also had to
improvise. I would say that the blues is a very improvisatory form. I
would have to say that at the age of thirteen, I started the practice
of improvising and that has continued from there to now, which is like
forty some years later.
FJ: Is there ever a lull in the learning curve?
WADADA LEO SMITH: I don't know if I learn as much now, but the quality
of what I learn is better. The learning process continues always, but
there are certain breakthroughs that let you know how this foundation
is constructed and how to access it. People who have been very serious
in their development, they can access it.
FJ: What were the breakthroughs?
WADADA LEO SMITH: One of them was realizing that most of the musical situations
that I saw, after I left the South and began to scope the world, because
that is when is mankind grows, when they begin to travel and encounter
other ideas about living and stuff like that, and so once I began to travel,
I began to see that music was actually made a bit more complex than it
could be. That was one of the problems that I thought could be solved
pretty easy. I solved it by breaking down the components. For example,
my music consists of long and short sounds. Essentially, those are the
two moving forces, long and short. The long sound can be long or longer
if it can be extended and the short sound can be short or shorter, so
that eliminated a lot of problems. It allowed ensemble of creative musicians
to actually trust what they were going to add to it, but this trust became
part of the musical design. When it is broken down into the smallest components
in the sonic areas, in the horizontal areas, in the vertical areas. I
looked at rhythm and I thought that rhythm also suffered the same problems.
When I scoped the world and began to see what rhythm was, I found out
that there was only two kinds of rhythm. There is odd and even. Rather
than say that let's play in a 29/37/8, I don't have to do that. What I
do is make a rhythmic equation and out of that rhythmic equation, all
those possibilities could exist depending upon the skill and the level
in which the language is used by the person that is performing it.
FJ: You make it almost sound scientific.
WADADA LEO SMITH: Well, it is scientific in the sense that day and night
is scientific, but one cannot say that they are like mechanically evolving.
One can say that they happen as part of the same stream. It is a science,
Fred. Music is a science. A perfect octave sounds a certain way. Those
things are regulated by the turning and revolving of the axis of every
planet in our system, including mankind. It determines how those sounds
FJ: One could argue that consigning science into art defeats the doctrine
of art itself.
WADADA LEO SMITH: Well, one would lose that argument. You can never make
a perfect octave without having those measurements. If one can say that
this empirical notion of accuracy can be repeated over and over in music,
which means almost nothing, but in the context of an art that is looking
at itself and finding a way to get out of these kinds of "isms," as one
would say, tradition and frankly, laziness has allowed to crap into the
systems. If people like me and Anthony Braxton and majority of the AACM
artists and the older generation and some of the newer generation like
the M-Base guys, they are all looking at really very complex ways of making
music, which bounces outside of its normal, lazy route of music functioning.
FJ: Assess the impact that the AACM has had on the music.
WADADA LEO SMITH: Well, let's put it this way, Fred, if you look at the
later music of Miles Davis, the later music of Ornette Coleman, the later
music of almost anybody except the diehard acoustics, all of these people
expanded the notion of how you put music together. The AACM is responsible
for that. The AACM is a larger legacy than just the people there. For
example, what Sun Ra was doing in the Midwest was probably one of the
most profound foundations for the music that the AACM and later, all of
the expansion that was to be made. So it is a big picture that is routed
in the Midwest because all of the traditions up until now have come through
the Midwest. Scott Joplin and coming after that, Jelly Roll Morton, all
these people in the Midwest zone and Louis Armstrong later, so there is
a tradition for that kind of connection in the Midwest. But with Chicago,
the notion of having absolute no limits, I think, is the other great benefit.
Finding a way to master many different types of instruments, learning
the music traditions and many different kinds of society, and yet, finding
a way to digest all of this into a single notion or musical philosophy,
which is one of freedom. I believe that if the movement of human and civil
rights in this country had been correlated with the free music movement,
it would have been a different outcome.
FJ: Was free music a result of the anger within the black community?
WADADA LEO SMITH: I think that white power is much larger and stronger
and much more defined that people are willing to give it. When you have
a dissonant element in the society and the rest of the society is essentially
happy or docile towards its position, that particular dissonant group
has absolutely no chance of solving its problems. It has no chance of
solving its problems. So when the music was in there on its level, the
notion of connection was very slim. For example, the musician communities
in New York City and the Midwest had virtually no contact, even when they
came into town on engagements. There was virtually no contact. And secondly,
the older generation didn't even come around to this until after people
like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock began to change. Then everybody began
to see that there was something to free music and they did it differently.
They went electric. The AACM was essentially acoustic.
FJ: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington are recognized for
their contributions, why is the AACM forgotten in all of this back patting?
WADADA LEO SMITH: We were the first generation that was completely forced
out of town. All of us went to Europe, in fact to France. We saved our
money. We spent our money and did extra jobs in order to get there. We
invested in our future by going to Europe.
FJ: What prompted that decision?
WADADA LEO SMITH: Two reasons, we had two very important people in our
organization to die. Christopher Gaddy (pianist) was the first one to
pass on. He was in this famous ensemble of Joseph Jarman. Charles Clark
was a bassist. They were all incredible, young, Christopher was maybe
29 or 30 and Charles Clark was 26 or 25. They both passed on very early.
We seen that these guys were dropping out of the scene and we figured
that the only way for our music to really find its rightful space on the
planet was to get out there and see if we can take it to the people. Frankly,
some of us had the intention of going into Africa and Central America,
but we never made it. We got comfortable with the success in Europe.
FJ: Society is very cruel on dissonance and disorder.
WADADA LEO SMITH: I think that is the highest level of order, when you
have got dissonance happening because dissonance does not occur out of
the thin air. It occurs because something has created this moment of impact.
I think it is healthy for society. I think society should go through uproars
quite often in order to keep itself pure. By that, I do not mean violent
uproars because you can have intellectual and spiritual and just down
heart goodness uproars without confrontation, which we don't even talk
about. We only talk about the only kind of victory we can have is by destroying
something, but there are lots of other areas of victory.
FJ: You know I'm all about the revolution.
WADADA LEO SMITH: Well, it has to happen. It has to happen. My whole feeling
is this, Fred. Whoever works seriously and honestly at what they do, they
are already creating this dimension for change.
FJ: Let's touch on your association with Anthony Braxton.
WADADA LEO SMITH: First of all, he is prolific. That means this man has
produced so many records and CDs and products of this music that it is
virtually hard to count them. That is the first thing. Secondly, he is
one of the most sincere artists that anybody in any time zone on the planet
would ever meet. By sincere, I don't mean that he just wants to push his
name out there. He wants to make a dent at a level in this practice of
art that would take time and effort and care in order to reproduce, as
well as extend. That is the kind of seriousness we are talking about.
So he stands ahead of most of the people of his time. What advantage is
that? It is a good advantage because it means that there is someone that
cares about the future of music. He's has gotten any number of large commissions.
I think he has been very successful and awarded for it. Like the Guggenheim,
you have to win those things, often in a hostile climate.
FJ: A lot has been made of you conversion to Rastafarian, which has about
as many misconceptions as the music you play.
WADADA LEO SMITH: OK, I was a Rasta for some fifteen to twenty some years.
The thing that made Rasta was that you understood that the force of creation
came through Emperor Haile Selassie I, out of Ethiopia. That is what makes
a Rasta and that only. It is just like what makes a Christian is really
the belief that Christ is the Son of God. So Rasta works in the same way.
Take his name, Rastafari, which means head creator. The thing that makes
Rastafari a powerful mystical tradition, because it is not a religious
tradition. That is first error that most people make. It is not a religious
tradition. Even though it is a religion, most of the practices of the
Rastafarians are mystical in design. They are meant to awaken part of
the human being and in this awakening become alive. About four years ago
or five years ago, I converted to Islam. I have been practicing Islam
for the last five or six years. I went to Islam to enhance the ritual
and ceremonial aspect of worshiping. That is what happened in that case.
FJ: Let's talk about your new release on John Zorn's Tzadik label, Golden
WADADA LEO SMITH: Golden Quartet is the name of the CD. It has Anthony
Davis and Malachi Favors and Jack DeJohnette on there. It is a dream that
began to occur in the Sixties, just before going over to Europe in 1969.
Miles was playing in town and Jack DeJohnette was in town playing with
him. Muhal Richard Abrams, who is one of the greatest artists of our time,
invited me over to hang out with him and Jack because they were buddies.
I went to hang out with them that day and as always, you take your horn
and we played. We played a long, long time. We played some very explosive,
experimental, creative improvised music in the moment there. Out of that
impromptu session, I realized that one of my favorite drummers and the
drummer that brings out the best within me comes out when I am playing
with Jack. So I started this dream about playing some music with this
guy. It came out to be a perfect dream. There were several companies that
were interested in it. The first one was ECM and that fell through. Qwest,
Quincy Jones' label, some problems developed out of that and then John
Zorn wanted to know what was my next project and I gave him this idea
and he said to do that one. So it was quite easy to get it done.
FJ: And of course, the Yo, Miles! with guitarist Henry Kaiser.
WADADA LEO SMITH: That is a very popular band and we are just about to
record another two CDs in August. We have got two or three companies that
are interested. We are on the verge of making a deal with one of the three.
The band is co-led by Henry and I.
FJ: Your utilization of space is very chic. You don't play many frivolous
WADADA LEO SMITH: Sometimes I do, but I still always observe the fact
that there is room to allow for reflection and that is what happens when
you use space. It allows the material that you are actually unfolding
and unveiling to catch it up and expand it, both for the listener and
the player. The other thing it does is that it has a kind of day and night
relationship. I like to reveal both of these levels, the impact of vibrations,
which is noise and stuff that is really heavy and the silent impact, which
is also vibrations, but of a different level where things are much more
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is the subplot in the latest
issue of Spiderman. Comments? Email