Wadada Leo Smith: ‘What’s Behind The Door?’

March 20, 2017

Wadada Leo Smith is a true American treasure – a performer and composer whose philosophy and style transcend the everyday and embrace the sublime. A trumpet player since he was 12, Smith’s aural journeys have ferried him across numerous musical forms and collaborations with names like John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, and Vijay Iyer. He has been recording since 1968 and up until four years ago was a professor who logged in 37 years teaching at institutions including the University of New Haven, the Creative Music Studio, Bard College, and finally at The Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts. Retired from educating since 2013, he is still actively performing and recording, mainly for the Cuneiform and TUM labels, with his recent epic work America’s National Parks drawing a lot of acclaim.

The 75 year-old musician’s career has spanned free jazz and classical, and his playing style is unique and uneasy to pigeonhole. In assessing Smith’s work for Scotland’s Sunday Herald in 2004, David Kennan wrote: “Wadada Leo Smith is best known as a trumpeter with a huge reach, a singular sound thinker whose interrogating approach to the instrument – blowing into the bell, playing with just the mouthpiece, building in the sound of the valves – has pushed the instrument into whole new areas.”

When speaking with JAZZed, Smith espouses a worldview different from other artists we have come across. His approach to music runs opposite to what a majority of people think about art. Yet he is not being contrarian; he is consistent in his convictions. Personal expression and authenticity are paramount in his world. He does not believe in prefab labels on music including his own. He believes in liberating young minds by not rigidly formalizing their education and by allowing them to make discoveries that will open new doors for them. He does not believe in improvisation and prefers his own musical language called Ankhrasmation, which he explains in our interview. Some of the scores written in that language were on display at UCLA’s Hammer Museum last year.

After you read our interview, re-read it again a little later. Smith has a lot to say, and it makes a lot of sense for those seeking what truly amounts to a higher education.

You’re a musician who plays in a wide range of styles, and a lot of it seems more ambient than a lot of traditional jazz.

I guess the biggest problem is that it’s not jazz, it’s creative music. Therefore it spans a different set of principles and language, and most people don’t understand it because it’s just too easy to lump a person’s career into prefixed categories. Because of the political possibility of having some sense of authority by naming things, people take the politics of it and just claim it, and I object completely to that. Those people who don’t accept my definition of what I’m talking about – in terms of the names, languages, and categories of my art – they’re in trouble. In trouble meaning that they will probably not understand it and therefore they have actually wasted time with those perceptions [instead of] acknowledging what things are.

It seems that most people, once they hit their 20s, develop these fixed tastes. They like what they like. A wider range of music offers so much, though, because there are just so many different possibilities out there.

One of the things about society is that people are informed by art, and art itself is not limited to, let’s say, certain kinds of musical styles. Art is limited to the person who perceives it only, and that person has the great responsibility of collecting a certain kind of awareness that may aid them in actually understanding their society, which is what art is primarily concerned with. Helping to define the best human being to serve the greatest need of that social sphere or spectrum. So art is important, and I think Bessie Smith is an artist on the same level as a Bach or a Stravinsky or a John Coltrane because she made great art and that great art liberated people, and that to me is so important. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s actually for that social system of spheres that it is engaged in.

You’ve done a lot of teaching over the years.

I did 37 years of teaching, and to be frank I’m glad I’m out of it. Education is very difficult. Even from the moments when I started it was difficult because essentially education is taught by formulas, and those formulas are generated because education is part of the GDP. There’s almost no difference between that and a corporation like IBM or Apple. I found it difficult all the way across my career as a teacher, although my fifth year at Cal Arts I was able to present my own musical program, and that made it easier for me to continue for a while.

It seems they have a different kind of program for artists at Cal Arts.

It’s an art school. Walt Disney [and associates] created Cal Arts essentially to supply the machine of the film industry and the way that it was running. I think it’s a great idea. When I first went to Cal Arts there was a letter that was on the wall between the president’s office and the open gallery where people come for information, and that letter said that all people in Cal Arts needed was their resume and portfolio and that was basically it. But when I came there the administrators had changed things and they needed more than that. It kept growing and growing and growing. I came there when there were 900 students; now there are probably more than 2000 students. So the educational machine became full of expansion and restriction, and even there at Cal Arts and most of the modern art schools in America they all suffer from the same problem: the innovation that’s possible is generally controlled by the deans and the people who run the everyday business of the schools. There is this kind of stalemate.

Herb Alpert funded a music school at Cal Arts.

He gave a lot of money to Cal Arts and they changed the name of the school to the Herb Alpert School of Music. He also did it at UCLA and other schools. I consider Herb Alpert to be a really great human being. I’ve met him several times. He is also an important guy that looks for ways to improve stuff, therefore he’s given a lot of schools money to actually improve their music schools, and it would be interesting to go through those schools to see if those improvements have actually happened. I would wager my trumpet and flugelhorn that has not happened. I would wager that on the outside it looks like that has happened, but not within the education that is presented there and the way in which it’s presented.

Your own education is interesting because you learned from your stepfather Alex Wallace, and it sounds like he taught you more about the emotional side of the music, not just the technical aspects.

Basically he was a performer, and I performed with him on those early occasions when I was developing. You would have to say that it wasn’t limited just to emotions because he also taught me to be critical of musical property and what other people were doing, and he did it not within 18 weeks or 26 weeks in a semester. He did it in one sentence. I asked my stepfather why he didn’t hire my cousin who was a great singer. My stepfather said, “Because he sounds like everybody else and not himself.” That was a key to understanding what my stepfather thought about the aesthetics of music and how to look at one’s authenticity as an artist.

He was very important to me, and also my music teachers, Henderson Howard and Earl Jones, who were the two primary teachers in my early stages during high school. Those people were important because they saw something in music that was a little bit different than regular educators, and they saw something in me that was worthy of actually investing overtime. I never paid for lessons. I never paid for instruction from anybody coming up. Everybody did it because of what they had to contribute and pass on, and they felt that I was a young kid that could actually take that and do something with it, which I have.

That’s great. It’s important to have mentors.

Yeah, it is.

A lot of people get an education but don’t necessarily have somebody guiding them.

That is true, and normally that guidance is probably the responsibility of the person that’s seeking [it]. All teachers have the same kind of position, so the person who wants to learn and needs to learn has to first find that teacher or those teachers that can do that. To do that, it takes a considerable amount of love and respect and dedication, and I mean dedication to putting into practice what they have actually been exposed to. You expose a student to many, many things, and unless they have that supreme love and respect they will not investigate it any further than when you spoke to them in your office or in your classroom, and therefore the one who makes the request selects the teacher. The teacher determines whether that person is authentic or not, and a lot of them have problems with this idea of love and respect. It is kind of what has happened in modern society where people feel empowered to get information, and once you give them information they simply don’t investigate to see if it’s the proper information or if it’s useful. They either accept it with blind faith or they just simply adopt it. That’s not being educated, you know. In education, there’s a critical bond between who’s being taught and who’s teaching. Both of them have to be critical of each other.

You also learned through the U.S. military band program. I imagine that music was much more regimented than the music you’ve become known for?

If you’re thinking in terms of the tradition of music, yes. Basically those schools teach the same things that are taught out here in civilian society except that it’s all done within seven or eight months where you get enough information to cover a Bachelor’s degree. You’re doing music during your waking hours. You’re doing music the whole time. It includes everything that is taught in conservatories and in schools – how to listen to intervals, how to learn how to make a harmonic motion, how to think about form and structure, how to think about musical content, and what that means and how to use it. It’s a well-rounded program that doesn’t just consist of playing marches and stuff like that. It includes a complete social integration where you have soldiers from all over the country and from various social backgrounds. Therefore you’re exposed to a lot of different things that are in-house [and] close upon you around the clock [more] than you would if you were in a university or a conservatory because you would actually go home from there. In a military situation you’re not doing that. This close encounter continues until you go to bed. These people all come together and bring the culture from which they inherited, and that culture is bounced throughout the school continuously. It’s a very complex, intense environment that actually enhances one’s ability to obtain the information and put it into practice right away.

You went to the Sherwood School of Music as well.

That was a good experience.

Did you study anything specifically there?

It’s a private conservatory. I got a full-time scholarship to there. Everything was normal. Most of the stuff that was taught in the classrooms I had already learned in the Army, so there was no difficulty. I met this guy – I believe William Babcock was his name, the trumpet instructor there – and his primary job was teaching at Sherwood but he also played sessions. We would engage in lessons, which would basically consist of critiquing what I played and how I played it, and then we would dialogue about music because at that time I was already recording and he was also recording and playing studio performances. It was a very good connection and was probably the most valuable part of the school for me.

You studied Indonesian music and other music at Wesleyan University, correct?

I studied Indonesian gamelan music, African flute music, Indian flute music, Japanese koto music, and anthropological studies with a guy named [David Park] McAllester. He was a professor of Native American music. I didn’t go there for any other reasons. I didn’t go there to get a degree. I didn’t go there to tack onto my resume. I went there because I was investigating musical cultures at the turn of the ‘70s. It was important for me to look at a few masters that were in my area at Wesleyan University, and there were a number of masters there that I respected.

Did you discover similarities between the different styles of music?

Of course those languages have similarities, but their process and their meaning for making them are all very different. African flute music, for example, is very different than Indian flute music or the shakuhachi tradition [from Japan]. I don’t just mean the instruments, I mean the notion of how that music is conceived and how it’s displayed as a performance practice.

Just intonation and alternate tuning systems exist that Westerners might not know about or comprehend. Some people don’t think you can’t work with any more than 12 notes, and you’ve got people constructing scales with many more notes than that.

Look, Harry Partch had 56 intervals of his scale, and other people had much larger intervals of their scales. A tuning system that is passed over from generation to generation may be interesting, but I’m not interested in that. You know why? Because I want to break the links between generations and generations of information. Your teacher tells that you go this way on your musical line and go that way. I taught my students to formalize no position whatsoever as to what I’m trying to teach you, but I’ll show you the way in which to discover for yourself something that you can never lose. That discovery is like a liberation. It allows the student to have a personality and a quest that’s done in a way that’s like being on a research team and not this dictatorial practice that often goes down between professor and student. I’m not interested in specific schools or ideas of thought, but I’m interested in discovery. Discovery is far greater than what my father or my forefathers passed down to me. Discovery is going to make a new dent in the musical sphere of thought as opposed to renovating this old idea about this interval of a 59th or a 120th. That exists. That discovery is there, and whoever is out there discovered it and it takes you somewhere else. It takes you out of the mainstream.

If you look at George Russell’s 9-tone scale in the Lydian Chromatic Concept, it completely displaces the notion of the fifth. The reason why he’s able to do that is because the blues scale itself was designated as a 7-tone scale with two variants in it. There are no variants in the musical scale, so it means that the blues scale is also a 9-tone scale and therefore the fifth becomes the sixth and not the fifth. But because of tradition they won’t call it a 9-tone scale. They’ll call it a 7-tone scale with two variants in it, and that’s a traditional way of thinking. That’s an in-house way of blocking new information because if that kid understands that that’s a 9-tone scale and not a 7-tone scale, something unique is happening now. What about an 11-tone scale? What about a 25-tone scale? It opens up the door for the possibility of discovery when it’s not limited by this fixed parameter of what can be learned and understood.

You developed your own Ankhrasmation music system.

Yes, Ankhrasmation. That’s called a symbolic language. It used to be called a system in the very beginning, but it’s grown over the last 50 years to being something that’s a language now. It’s a symbolic language for creative artists, whether they are making music or other kinds of ways of cultural expression.

It is something that you are able to teach over the years?

In most of the places I taught my language, my program. At Cal Arts, I did it for 22 years. At Bard College, I did it for five years. At Creative Music Studio in upstate New York, I did it for seven years. I’ve always taught what I know and passed on things like this information of Ankhrasmation. By symbolic, it means that the language is not a fixed number like a note or a pitch, but it has symbolic implications for all of that, particularly when color and shape come into the fact of it.

You have a philosophy that when people are playing together, each person in the ensemble is their own center and that they meet on common ground. It makes me think of a Venn Diagram where multiple circles representing different classes or sets come together in the center to represent a common ground of those different things.

Basically in my mind, each individual has the possibility of shaping the work even though I construct it. That’s not what ordinarily what happens in ensembles, but in Ankhrasmation, because there are three people there or five people there, I have to have that number totally represented, which means that they cannot depend upon relating to the other people as a way of being dependent. They have to be independent yet intricately connected with everybody in the ensemble. But beyond the scope of dependence, music that has a single center and a single goal normally creates a type of dependence upon each person to co-opt and share the same space. I don’t want the players that play Ankhrasmation to be caught in any of the players’ other spaces. I want them to create a space that’s totally unique that if they were absent in that space, that that space would not be there. That’s the unique part about it because if that space is absence of presence it does something unique for the ensemble. It has the shape of either being present or being absent. So Ankhrasmation is a very complex language made for creative artists who want to step past this zone that people identify as improvisation. I left that zone. I’m not improvising anymore. I’m creating, and the Ankhrasmation language allows one to make creations as opposed to making improvisations.

What’s the difference? The difference is clear. Improvisation has become such common property of such a wild field of differences or areas of inquiry, that it has lost all of its truths and its secrets. That’s why I moved from it. That’s why I moved to creation. I moved to those zones as identifying that moment that’s made in the present. Those moments made in the present are constructed with the intention of making art and not this social practice of being engaged with each other and trying to find a way from beginning to end. That’s what improvisation presents. All of it – harmonic improvisation, structured improvisation, any kind of notion of improvisation all imply the same kind of limitations and this fighting for dominance. In Ankhrasmation, there is no one center of dominance. There are multiple dominants that are taking place, and these multiple dominants are not based on size or amount, they’re based off of the language and how that language is explored.

You’ve been teaching in the classroom. Have you done master classes and private lessons as well?

Over the years, but I don’t really do private lessons anymore. I retired from Cal Arts in 2013, and as of now my teaching days are over. The only people that I share some information with are those young people that come to me and ask for something special, and I give them whatever they ask for. I do it without charging because I’m not into the economics of teaching anymore, and I do it to give them some courage along the way so that they can make art.

Do you prefer doing a one-on-one lesson rather than teaching in the classroom?

It doesn’t matter. What really matters is what those students need because I don’t have a fixed formula for all of them. I would have to inquire with them as to what they need either as a collective group or as an individual, and then I would see if I could supply some direction as to how to discover those points that they’re looking for.

Did you find a lot of students over the years receptive to Ankhrasmation and your style of teaching?

Some of them were. That’s the risk of teaching in the educational system. You have people who are interested by a lot of things, and they end up being engaged for a few moments over here and a few moments over there and a few moments over there. I have found a few students that have actually engaged quite thoroughly, and they’ve all gone on to make some kind of impact in their world of art. The ones that were truly engaged.

You have said that the student-teacher relationship goes both ways.

You learn and you teach, and you teach and you learn. Nobody knows everything. That’s the real truth.

You’ve worked with Vijay Iyer. When he was being interviewed about your collaboration together, he said that he wasn’t prepared for you when he first heard you. He meant that in a positive way. Your approach to music was something very different from what he had learned.

We worked together for five years and built a quartet [Golden Quartet]. Vijay is a great artist, and he understands how to make music that is actually important, which is one of the requirements. Everybody who opens the door has to be prepared for what’s behind the door. Some people open the door and say, “Oh, excuse me,” and close the door and go away. Some people open the door and ask questions. Some people open the door and step right in and close the door behind them. That’s where the jewels or the pearls are enriched. That individual has the potential of being enriched to the maximum of their ability, the one that steps into the door and closes it behind them, because they step in with firm conviction and absolute courage. That’s what’s needed for today.

Beyond your teachers, who were your biggest musical influences?

I could tell you people like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, but influences are very well overplayed. They are overplayed because influences have never, ever made a great artist. What has made a great artist is their ability to discover and take that discovery and put it into something that could be understood by everyone, if they care to. A work of art should not be something that nobody can understand and have to sit on a shelf and wait for somebody to understand it. That’s a legend that has no real proof in society at all. Every artist has the responsibility for themselves, their family, and their community to be understood. Every artist does. How will they be understood? Anything that’s clear and authentically yours can be understood because there’s no confusion in that.

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