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Wadada Leo Smith: Dreaming on the Outskirts

Wadada Leo Smith
The hands of Wadada Leo Smith

To reach the township of Piru, head east out of the megalopolis of Los Angeles. Turn left after the amusement park known as Magic Mountain (no relation to Thomas Mann). Head farther out. There you are, in close proximity to the urban magnet but

a world away, not unlike the artistic life of one of its celebrated residents, veteran trumpeter-composer-theorist Wadada Leo Smith.

This little hillside slip of a town is a fitting roosting place for Smith, who has lived here for several years and expressed his due admiration in song on last year’s impressive album The Year of the Elephant (Pi), by Smith’s Golden Quartet (with old friends Malachi Favors, Jack DeJohnette and pianist Anthony Davis, the youngster). “Piru” is an ethereal ballad, veering in and out of structural focus. Smith’s wife, poet Harumi Makino Smith, seconded the motion by supplying an elliptical poem printed on the CD’s tray card: “Piru/Love is the only feeling/That exists beyond time./Pure.”

There is a pragmatic reason that Smith lives in this town, being in easy driving distance of the CalArts, where he has taught, as recipient of the Dizzy Gillespie Chair, since 1993. But there is also a poetic rationale, as he pointed out in a long interview in his house, on a dirt road within earshot of farm animals. Hollywood is aware of the place, too, and movie productions frequently blow in and out of town when an easy access, postage-stamp-size small-town location is required.

“It’s a beautiful town,” Smith says with a grin, leaning slightly forward on his couch. He seems warmed by the thought. “You can walk from one end of town to the other in 30 minutes both ways. In the midst of it, you see goats and motorcycles on the hills spinning around. You see all kinds of horses, movie apparatus, and when the movies are in town, there are hundreds of cops. And the next week, it’s gone. It’s fantastic.

“It’s not a deal for me to stay in a city. When I’m in a city, I hear sirens and there are flashes of cops going by and profiling. There’s a considerable antagonistic citizenry. Out here, I could spend a week and would say hello to a couple of people and wave, and that’s about it. No distortion. Pure, open, revealing.”

Of late, Wadada Leo Smith has been finding compelling reasons to leave Piru. At 61, he is finally getting something akin to credit due for his thoughtful and patiently wrought musical ethos, a distinctive blend of improvisation, mysticism, revitalized blues and personalized theories that have crossed the line between jazz and contemporary classical music. He even ventures into electric voodoo jazz (consult, for instance, 1998’s Yo Miles!, his stellar tribute to Miles Davis in collaboration with avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser, replete with wahwah pedal on his trumpet and drippingly apt attitude).

Projects on his plate currently include a long-planned orchestra, heavy on string players, and a more gigging-friendly version of the Golden Quartet, with Ronald Shannon Jackson filling in on drums when DeJohnette’s schedule won’t permit.

Smith’s past and present are converging in interesting ways, partly thanks to the avid support of John Zorn, whose Tzadik label has been patching up holes in the Smith story. Because he has never been locked into commercial or even art trends, the trumpeter tends to have existed in the margins of the jazz world, and mostly happily so. Late last year, Tzadik released Luminous Axis, a collection of his electro-acoustic collaborations. Next up on Tzadik, in September, is a four-CD set of music released back in the ’70s on Smith’s own label, Kabell, with an additional 80 minutes of previously unreleased material from that era. And Boxholder just reissued Rastafari, Smith’s celebrated 1983 collaboration with the Bill Smith Ensemble for the Sackville label.

Going through his archives in preparing the Tzadik package proved illuminating for Smith, in terms of recognizing the long arc of his evolution. “It shows you how closely connected you were during those times. It also shows you how the person who is serious in the beginning is also serious in the end.

“Bob Marley said it well. To paraphrase, he spoke about looking at what you’ve done and realizing that you already were there, but your knowledge of it was inquisitive. You weren’t sure of everything, but when you look back, you’re absolutely sure. You see, just like a garden that has beautiful trees and flowers, they bring scent and aspects of beauty and shade, you can see other things in what you’ve done.

“At the age of 12, when I first started writing music, I had deep ideas about being serious, but I never thought that looking back on it, I would feel the same thing inside my chest as I felt then, this urge to bring something out and make it something that could be useful in the context of society.”

If the blues was Smith’s foundation decades ago, his current musical language still bears trace elements of that basis, however elaborated or absorbed into a more sophisticated whole. The earthy title track of The Year of the Elephant, for example, “takes the notion of tonality and treats it in a very vast way, the ideas of the blues. It’s not a blues progression but the symbolic or the philosophical idea of the blues, which is all about freedom.

“The blues is not really a harmonic progression, it’s not really a melody. It’s the most refined interchange between the tonic and the dominant. That’s really it. Those other parts have no meaning. I know that because the master John Lee Hooker showed me that, and my stepfather did, too. He was a blues master, Alex ‘Little Bill’ Wallace. He showed me that at 13. My first real musical studies came from him.”

Born in Leland, Miss., in 1941, Smith was inducted into music-or found his natural interest supported by-his stepfather, and took off from there. On this morning, he pulls out a CD from the ’90s by his mentor, saying “it’s not as good as when he was in his prime, but it’s pretty good for an old man.”

Smith remembers, “I actually saw Elmore James when I was about 14. My stepfather and I had been playing, and we stopped at this place, must have been 2 or 3 in the morning, at a juke joint. We go in, and there’s Elmore and a couple of guys playing. My stepfather says, ‘That’s Elmore James.’ Imagine that.

“I met all those guys, like B.B. King, when I was a young man because they all knew my stepfather, and my mother. They were friends of the family. They would come through town and stop by my house. My stepfather was a guitar player and singer, in the same tradition of the Delta bluesmen. He was a very authentic player.”

Almost simultaneously with his picking up the trumpet, Smith began composing. “I figured that if you played music, you should also compose music. I was playing marches, and I had also organized a jazz band in the school, with a few buddies. The band director, who was named Earl Jones, saw us rehearse and called me into the office and asked if he could join. Through him, I got to play my first Ellington music. He brought in Ellington arrangements that he did. It wasn’t an elaborate arrangement, just with melody and a little bit of horn work. ‘G Blues’ and all that stuff, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.'”

Smith’s background, as a musician first introduced to the blues who eventually ventured into an experimental niche in jazz, bears a striking similarity to the story of one of his heroes, Ornette Coleman. Coleman left his home of Fort Worth, Texas, formed a revolutionary quartet in Los Angeles and was greeted as a hero once he landed in New York City in the late ’50s.

“Yeah, same story,” Smith says, pointing to the root system underlying both of their increasingly complex musical evolutions. “I believe that the blues is the foundation of American music, whatever it is. I believe that that foundation can never change, because when the foundation changes, everything else changes.”

Music led Smith from Mississippi, playing in R&B groups, to a military stint in an Army band, and finally to his first substantial artistic home base, working with the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), in the late ’60s in Chicago. Through the decades, Smith’s bandography has included the Creative Construction Company, with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, in the ’60s, and the New Dalta Ahkri, whose ranks included such notable players as Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Davis, an admirer of Smith’s who is an anchor in the Golden Quartet. Like Smith, Davis has settled into Southern Californian academia, teaching at UC San Diego, along with trombonist George Lewis.

One of the more intriguing-and underappreciated-releases of 2002, The Year of the Elephant is the second recording by the Golden Quartet. For all of its abstract elements, something visceral makes the group appreciated in circles beyond just the fringe jazz realm. The quartet opened for Sonic Youth last summer in Manhattan’s Central Park, a decade after Sun Ra did the same.

“It’s a very likable band,” Smith says, citing this assemblage as a kind of dream combo of his. Deep personal histories play into this group. As Smith points out, “Everybody has had a stitch in Chicago except Davis. It’s got Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble, who people have heard all these years, but they may not know what he plays like.

“I first met Jack [DeJohnette] in Chicago, at the AACM. He was there playing with Miles Davis, and they were doing the Chicago Jazz Festival, in Soldier Field. Muhal Richard Abrams knew Jack very well, because he first came up as a pianist. Muhal called me and says, ‘Come over and hang out, because Jack DeJohnette is going to come by.’ I’m excited and my heart is beating into the top of my head. I came to the Southside and we actually played, as a trio. It was spectacular. No music. We just played.

“I saw, for the first time in my life, a person who played drums more musical than musical was, but the beautiful thing about it was that I didn’t have to count time or feel time. I didn’t have to worry about how to assimilate that information. It was all completely natural, with no problem flowing in and out of me. In that instant, I immediately said to myself, ‘I would like to make music with this man.'”

Davis entered Smith’s life as an eager, fledgling admirer after Smith had just moved to New Haven, Conn., 30 years ago. Ten years Smith’s younger, Davis repeatedly asked the somewhat reclusive trumpeter to play. He finally did, and, duly impressed, Smith recalls, “The next day, I called him and asked if he’d be a part of a band I was putting together, with me and Wes Brown. It was the first ensemble record I did on my Kabell label, Reflectativity.”

The Golden Quartet players, Smith says, “studied my system and a lot of what was happening. Along with Braxton, Jack DeJohnette, Anthony Davis and Malachi Favors-those are the four people I can play with in my way. I don’t have to search through anything. I don’t have to watch out for them. It’s almost a perfect venue. If you look at the history of this band, it had rehearsed only three days in its whole life, other than soundcheck. And there have only been three soundchecks. It is amazing.

“I know the dream is true, because so many people rejected it.”

That point touches more grandly on both Smith’s persistence of artistic vision, and the marginal status of innovators. “I have a document called ‘Music Dramas,’ which was rejected by eight companies 15 or 20 years ago. It’s going to be out one day. I do believe that Tzadik will always be my company. I will never leave them, because John [Zorn] was the only person who opened the doors and said, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll do it, however you want to do it.'”

Smith’s ongoing academic life has taken him from a life as a student, at Sherwood School of Music in Chicago and Wesleyan University, where he studied ethnomusicology and expanded his global musical consciousness which has fed into such projects as his searching 1995 solo album, Kulture Jazz (ECM).

Concurrent with his performance life, he has pursued his teaching career, at University of New Haven, the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, Bard College and now CalArts.

“I love teaching,” he says without pause, when the subject comes up. “I think anybody worth their worth as an artist, if they can, should invest in the future. I’ve enjoyed every year of teaching I’ve had. I’ve never felt slack about it.”

The teaching life also allows Smith to explore, and disseminate, his ideas about the role of music in contemporary culture, to right wrongs and illuminate perceived voids. “Music these days has gone into the nurseries,” Smith says by way of a sweeping observation. “They decided that the best way to make music was to be unmusical. As a result, most of the population has no way of discriminating about what is musical and what isn’t, because education doesn’t lead them to that. The education doesn’t lead them to anything that would make them realize the real structure of the social system in which they live.

“Creative music or jazz or African-American music or just American music has been around, in a real sense, since the last decade of the 1800s. I’ve yet to find a clear analysis, from experts or popular citizens, of the impact of Scott Joplin or Charles Ives. They both are centered in that last decade of the 1800s. But no one knows what that means. They don’t teach it in schools. I teach it.”

Self-reliance was king in the AACM manifesto, as the musicians put on concerts and created their own school. That self-determination philosophy continued for Smith, as he developed the highly personal system of musical notation and artistic philosophy, “Ankhrasmation.” He describes the system as being derived from various ancient and nonwestern sources, including hieroglyphics.

“It’s symbolic as opposed to being literal,” he explains. Smith describes the graphic notation as a system of “symbolic vehicles, quite akin to the space shuttle. It proposes that whoever learns the language can ride any one of those vehicles into any corner where inspiration is. It’s an exploratory adventure that’s not only heroic, but, if done properly, quite transforming.

“I’ve been doing these kinds of works for 30 years. They have nothing in common with what looks like a musical note. It’s divorced from the notion of music. There are not a lot of symbols involved. But if those symbols are actually learned, with the color codes and shapes to go along with it, there are no limits.”

As heard on the three-part piece “Miles Star,” on both The Year of the Elephant and the electrified Yo Miles, the link to Davis keeps coming up for Smith. (Geographical trivia note: Davis spent the last years of his life in west Malibu, another corner of the lazy sprawl that is Ventura County, home to Piru to the east).

In Smith’s playing, given its cool sense of space, keen textural awareness, and probity of phrasing, the affinity with Miles is never far off. “Look,” Smith figures, “our destiny is hooked up. The artist I most dream about, other than Duke Ellington, is Miles Davis. I’m telling you, because I was initiated as a Sufi some years ago; I know what dreams are. That’s communication. I have dreamed about talking to Miles. I talked to him only once.”

By now, Miles’ electric phase-particularly the ’70s-has, after early dismissals in certain circles, been accepted as an innovative bellwether in jazz history. “With Miles Davis,” Smith says, “all those people put him down-all those mainstream writers.” Smith feels that, in his ’70s electric work, Miles “showed the clearest relationship of how the West African drum ensemble works. And he utilized it in the same manner, just modern, American, electric, dynamic and heart-busting.

“That’s spectacular,” Smith beams. “That’s understanding your own self-sound. He understood clearly what he was doing. The other course was the experimental [approach]. That shot him over the fence, to being one of the biggest artists of the last century. As long as the world is a world, he will never be forgotten.”

A few weeks after the meeting in Piru, we spoke again. This time Smith was between very different journeys, to Mecca, and to the jazz mecca.

A Muslim, he had recently returned from his first brush with the rigorous Haj pilgrimage. “It’s a cleansing,” he says, “and it takes you down and away from your normal way that you’ve been living and forces you to deal with issues that you don’t normally have to deal with. Then, when you come out of that and do your last ritual, walking around the Kaaba and do your last ceremonies, it’s a kind of empowerment to come through it. It buffers your life force.”

By contrast, he found tranquility in Medina, the city of the prophet Muhammad, which he also paid tribute to on The Year of the Elephant, with the opening piece “Al-Madinah.” “I think I portrayed it properly on my new CD. It really is a city of peace.”

A few days later, Smith would be leaving for New York, where he was slated to play duet shows with Ikue Mori and his old comrade Anthony Braxton at Tonic. Duets with Braxton had occurred twice before, in Chicago in the ’60s and Montreal in the ’70s, and the gig was another pilgrimage of sorts, into Smith’s own lineage.

He recalled “those early days of thinking together and mapping out schemes for victory. It was just like little boys growing up, dreaming of doing this and that. With Braxton and Joseph Jarman, and one or two others, we had that kind of dreaming taking place. Not many people are doing that now. Most people are worrying about survival these days. I suppose everybody should be, but I don’t feel like worrying about that.

“The way I see it, you’re supposed to be successful anyway, no matter what the odds are against you. Those people who do prove themselves successful with all the odds against them, they are like models for people who may be just as strong, but weak in their determination. It is a kind of dreaming that refuses to stop. Like Harry Partch says, ‘The dream remains.'”

Listening Pleasures:

Billie Holiday Lady in Satin (Columbia/Legacy); Ultimate Billie Holiday (Polygram)

Anthony Braxton Six Compositions (Quartet) (Black Saint)


Smith plays a Yamaha custom Xeno II 1993 silver trumpet with a Monette mouthpiece. He also has a Flugelhorn and mouthpiece, built by Erhurt Todt in 1981, in what was then East Germany. Originally Published