Wadada Leo Smith is a jazz trumpeter and composer who has been an innovator in free, experimental, and avant-garde jazz since the 1960s. His 2012 work, Ten Freedom Summers, an ambitious piece about broad themes in the African American experience, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music.
Smith was born on 18 December 1941 in the Delta town of Leland, where his mother was a cook and caterer (in one interview Smith called her “the best cook, probably, in the history of the South”) and his stepfather was a blues musician. Smith began writing music at age twelve, not long after he began to learn to play the trumpet. He grew up knowing and listening to blues musicians, was the leader of a blues band as a teenager, and played trumpet in his high school band, where “the band director would fix spaces for me to improvise on the football field and in the bleachers. I had arranged ‘Fever’ for me as a showcase, and the parts were put together communally. When we played those pieces, the whole damn stadium went crazy.” The young Smith played for cakewalks in the streets, played “Taps” at funerals, and “played out the ghosts” of former residents when people moved into newly rented homes.
As a young man Smith spent some time playing with blues bands, including Little Milton’s band, before joining the army in the mid-1960s. He played in an army band and encountered resistance when he and others improvised too freely. Released from the army in 1967 and newly married, he moved with his wife to Chicago.
There Smith contacted saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton and became part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), serving as the group’s vice president beginning in 1968. According to Smith, “We wanted to be self-sufficient on all levels. From organizing our own performances to recording our own music, interpreting what our music meant and presenting it in a context that was totally harmonious with the way we thought as a collective people.” As an all–African American organization at the height of black cultural nationalism, the AACM was about freedom in many forms. Musicians found encouragement to improvise widely and to experiment with multiple forms of music inside and outside any tradition.
Along with several other AACM musicians, Smith moved to Paris in 1969, following a path blazed by earlier jazz musicians who sought greater artistic and personal freedom in France. Playing in a group that included Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and drummer Steve McCall, Smith was amazed by the excitement and size of the crowds. Since 1972 Smith has appeared on numerous jazz recordings, primarily as the composer and group leader. Many, such as the 1982 recording Human Rights, relate directly to the relationship between artistic and political struggles. In 1998 Smith and Henry Kaiser released Yo, Miles!, a reworking of the electric music Miles Davis wrote and performed in the 1970s.
In the 1970s Smith attended Wesleyan University. He has taught at several colleges, including Bard College and the Herb Alpert School of Music at the California Institute of the Arts.
In 2012 he completed a long and ambitious cycle of compositions by recording Ten Freedom Summers, influenced by playwright August Wilson’s cycle of ten plays about ten decades in African American history. Written between the 1970s and the early 2000s, the nineteen songs have titles that refer to Dred Scott, Emmett Till, Thurgood Marshall, the Freedom Riders, the black church, the New Frontier and Great Society, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Malik Al Shabazz, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., and 11 September 2001. Smith continues to play and lecture throughout the United States and Europe, and in May 2016 he received a Doris Duke Artist Award.
- Daniel Fischlin, Critical Improv website, www.criticalimprov.com
- Thom Jurek, AllMusic.com website, www.allmusic.com
- George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008)
- Lloyd Peterson, Music and the Creative Spirit: Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Garde
- Wadada Leo Smith at the Library of Congress webcast, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRs_lIsUJco
- Wadada Leo Smith website, www.wadadaleosmith.com