By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist
Eileen Strempel, dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music said, “Wadada Leo Smith’s life and work exemplifies the fertile intersection of theory and creativity that we encourage our students to explore. We are delighted to honor him at UCLA for his brilliance, his genuine care for others and the scholarly significance of his work.”
Internationally acclaimed Trumpeter, composer, arranger, Wadada Leo Smith, received the UCLA Medal in a ceremony and concert Friday night, November 8, 2019 at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Former recipients include iconic artists like trumpeter, philanthropist and record mogul, Herb Alpert; opera icon, Plácido Domingo; the mother of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and producer, arranger extraordinaire, Quincy Jones. The UCLA Medal was also awarded to civil rights activists like James M. Lawson Jr., and congressional leaders like Representative John Lewis; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. secretaries Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon. Two presidents have received this award; both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Obviously, Wadada Leo Smith shines in stellar company.
“Wadada Leo Smith is a category-defying composer whose achievements have profoundly shaped American music,” spoke Chancellor Gene Block who presented the award to the avant-garde jazz giant. “His work exemplifies a diversity of original thought that has enriched the lives of others, and demonstrated UCLA’s highest academic and professional values.”
So, you may wonder, who is this amazing jazz musician and educator? We know he is a prolific recording artist and serious composer. He regularly earns multiple spots on the DownBeat International Critics Poll. In 2017, he topped three categories including ‘Best Jazz Artist,’ ‘trumpeter of the Year’ and ‘Jazz Album of the year.’ Wadada Leo Smith is also the originator of the musical language he calls, Ankhrasmation. Professor Eddie Meadow’s featured a musical class where Wadada Leo Smith recently taught aspects of this musical language in a hands-on workshop at the Schoenberg Music building Additionally, Smith’s music scores are considered works of art and have been exhibited at numerous museums including UCLA’s own Hammer Museum, The Museum of Rhythm, Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland; The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, the Kalamazoo Institute Art Museum in Michigan and at Kadist in San Francisco, a gallery and educational center.
Smith was born on December 18, 1941 in Leland, Mississippi. As a young teen, he was introduced to the Delta blues and jazz traditions through his stepfather, Alex Wallace, who was a bluesman. In 1963, Wadada Leo Smith received a formal music education from the U.S. Military band program while serving in the army. He later attended the Sherwood School of Music and Wesleyan University. Around 1967, he found himself in Chicago, Illinois where he hooked up with the AACM and Anthony Braxton. Both he and Braxton were composing and seeking to stretch the boundaries of music. They both hoped to record and quickly became close friends. For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of this legendary AACM group. Wadada explained their art sensibilities ‘back-in-the-day’ during an interview with Phil Freeman that was published in the Wire.
“When I came to Chicago, I had already composed a pretty good body of work and already begun to understand music without metrical progression or modulation. I was never, ever working in a harmonic sphere where harmonic progression was important. And you look at Braxton, he’s working just the opposite. He was looking at how you make creative music with those connections. And I was not so much interested in that part of it as a way of making music. I always looked at how you make music without all those things everybody has inherited. The piece (I recorded) with the vocals on it and also ‘The Bell,’ those two have the most space. I would say that space was a very important component; still is. Most people have kind of crowded their musical contribution into narrow spaces, but space is still a very important component of my music and a lot of the AACM people. And by space, we don’t mean just horizontal space. We’re talking about vertical space and lateral space.
Wadada explained that vertical space is the relationship between low and high notes. Horizontal is going from section A to section B, or from one type of movement to another. But he feels the most important thing is not the direction, but what happens inside that direction. He believes in utilizing silence as part of musical expression and encourages playing solo. Music is a spiritual journey and he set up his own record label in the 1970’s so he could have complete creative control. Since then, he has released more than fifty albums as a leader. You can tell, by the titles of his work, this artist is constantly in search of a higher consciousness. With the New Dalta Akhri group, they recorded albums titled, “Reflectativity” and “Song of Humanity.” They also recorded “Spirit Catcher and “Divine Love.”
“That band, quite frankly, was the first band that began to introduce a clear idea about systemic music coming from my point of view. It was primarily involved in understanding how to use systems in making music, and it had a pretty good format. We rehearsed every week, looked at a lot of music. Some of it was performed, some was just rehearsed. One might say that New Dalta Akhri was the first laboratory for what I was looking at for musical languages,” Wadada Leo Smith explained to the Wire interviewer.
Always in search of expanding his knowledge of music, Wadada Leo Smith has worked with many ensembles and experimented with duo albums featuring himself on trumpet with just a drummer. This resulted in the album “America” with Jack DeJohnette and another duo album with Gunter “Baby” Sommer, (a German musician) and another with Adam Rudolph featuring hand-drumming and percussion. His most recent recording, released in 2019, is titled “Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an Oratorio of Seven Songs.” In 2016, he recorded “America’s National Parks” that earned a place on numerous Best of the Year Lists, including the New York Times and NPR music. His 2012 civil rights opus titled, “Ten Freedom Summers” was described as a staggering achievement and compared (by some) to the importance and beauty of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” In 2017, Wadada Leo Smith’s musical achievement of an album titled, “Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk” was written about by Adam Shatz.
Shatz wrote, “For all the minimalism of his sound, Smith has turned out to be a maximalist in his ambitions, evolving into one of our most powerful storytellers, an heir to American chroniclers like Charles Ives and Ornette Coleman.”
Perhaps Wadada Leo Smith clearly explained his “Ankhrasmation” music language during his NewMusicBox interview.
“Basically, my experiment is with instruments and people. … This experiment of using this specific language that I have, sometimes extracted from their history, sometimes using their history as well, tells me something about myself. Most things that artists do finds its course. … Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.
“…Take Lester Bowie, or Ted Daniels, or Don Cherry, or Miles Davis, everyone of them I guarantee you had four or five ‘C’s, and four or five D’s, or four or five ‘E’s they could play. … they could shade some of their attacks. So, the sound they played was still a C, or a D, but different. That’s because at some point you have to make the sound be different then it was before. … Only the soloists are allowed to have their own, individual sound. Not the ones sitting in the orchestra. They may have their own personality sound, but they can’t be too individualized. The conductor will say that chord is too out-of-tune. … But the soloist can have an individual sound. They can make that F sharp a little bit different. Who’s going to stop them? Nobody.
“… In my Ankhrasmation musical language, there are lots of commands. … There’s rule of thumb for success or failure. … There’s elements that have to be referenced. Like when there’s color involved, the colors have to be referenced. … There are velocity units. There are eight of them. Each velocity unit has a set of four. The left sphere is generally slow. The right sphere is generally fast. … There are six sets of rhythm units. Each set starts with a long and a short, and each set gets shorter as it moves. … I don’t mind the score evaporating, because it will create a new music object that is completely different. That’s ok. It will do it over and over and over. The only requirement is that the artists performing the music maintain a high level of sincerity.