Wadada Leo Smith does not play jazz. In fact, if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t know how. It’s an apparent paradox that plagues many—perhaps you, reading this article now, asking yourself, “Then why the heck I am reading this in JazzTimes?”—and especially those who aspired to join Smith’s “African-American Improvisational Music” program at the California Institute for the Arts. “After a while, when they see where I’m at, they’ll look at me really confused,” Smith recalled recently on Zoom from his home in Connecticut. “They’ll say, ‘Mr. Smith, I just want to learn how to play jazz.’ And I would say to them, ‘Well listen, you’re in the wrong place!’”
Smith, the revered trumpeter, composer, and polymath who turns 80 this December, also fully discarded the term “improvisation” more recently: “Words like ‘improvised music’ and things like that, I don’t really recognize them anymore.” According to pianist Vijay Iyer, a frequent collaborator who calls Smith his “hero” and “teacher,” such terms are “fraught” around him. Over another recent Zoom, Iyer remembered an exchange that Smith had with the composer Samuel Adams (son of composer John Adams) at an event with the Chicago Symphony in 2017. “We did a pre-concert Q&A and Sam asked us, ‘What percentage of what you do is improvised?’ and Wadada turns to me and goes, ‘Watch my back.’ Then he leans over into the mic and goes, ‘Not so long ago, I took that word “improvisation” out into my back yard and I beat it to death. Until there was nothing left but dust.’”
And yet, although he sees his music as existing outside of “jazz”—in the sense of the formalized, academicized structures associated with its style and practice—Smith is among the most praised artists of the last decade in that field. Since 2011, he’s been recognized with the Artist of the Year award in this publication’s 2016 Critics’ Poll; Artist, Trumpeter, and Album of the Year awards in DownBeat’s 2017 Annual Critics Poll (and Composer of the Year in 2013); 2017 Musician of the Year, 2016 Trumpeter of the Year, 2015 Composer of the Year, and 2013 Musician of the Year (plus 2017 Duo of the Year with Iyer) by the Jazz Journalists Association; and the honor of being a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Smith received such accolades for composing and performing works of substantial artistic complexity and intellectual provocation. These works cut at the heart of what it means to be an American and consider the entire messy history of this country. They include his 2012 masterwork Ten Freedom Summers, about the psychological impact of the civil rights movement on America then and now; The Great Lakes Suites (2012) and America’s National Parks (2016); A Cosmic Rhythm with Every Stroke (with Iyer), dedicated to the works of visionary Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi (2016); Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (2017); Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs (2019); and many others. He calls it “creative music,” but it’s praised as “jazz” because it exists in the same modernist continuum started by Louis Armstrong in the early 20th century. Truly, though, his musical roots and lineage go further back than Armstrong, back to the wellspring of Black American Music itself: the blues.