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Wadada Leo Smith: ‘Never Teach from the Book’

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesCurrent IssueOctober 2021Spotlight • October 26, 2021

Photo:Jimmy Katz

On the eve of his 80th birthday (December 18), celebrated trumpeter, composer, and educator Wadada Leo Smith sat down with JAZZed to discuss his life in music, approaches to teaching and learning, spirituality, philosophy, and hopes for the future. Smith has been a member of the AACM; co-founded the Creative Construction Company; was one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013; and has worked with the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, Henry Kaiser, and Oliver Lake among many, many others.

Read on to learn more about a uniquely insightful, positive, and creative artistic force that has helped to shape jazz culture – whether he endorses the term without reservation or not – for decades.

 

How has the pandemic and periodic lockdowns, protocols, capacity restrictions, and the like impacted your approach and understanding of playing, of teaching, of performing?

All right. Well, that’s a good question. First of all, I’d like to say that it’s always unfortunate when a pandemic hits a society. It did so 100 years ago in the ’20s, and it was poorly handled. A lot of people died from it. I find the fact that we’ve had two major ones in the last hundred years, and we were never even prepared for this one, disappointing. We should have been exceptionally prepared for it. That’s the first part of it. The second part is, whatever the reason for pandemics, this one that just happened during the first six months or the first eight months of it, the planet actually had a very beautiful recovery. Smog and pollution, oceans and lakes and creeks and rivers all began to clean themselves up. They began to sight birds and all kinds of creatures that had been missing for a long, long time. And one of the results of it was that they forced human beings to be not outside, but caged like animals for five to six months. Okay? And that was the best thing that happened to the planet.

 

Some of the images of previously polluted or smoggy areas brought back to nearly pristine state – within a short stretch of time – were shocking, frankly.

I don’t understand why everybody didn’t understand that because the majority of the people have not observed that change that occurred. All they think about is their own personal selfish wishes and their own pride of doing whatever they want to do.

So that’s the second part of it. The third part is, for me, it was a magnificent moment. I’ve created more works, both manuscript compositions, as well as Ankhrasmation arts force than I’ve ever created in my life during this single pandemic time. And when I say a lot, I really mean a lot – like about 20 or 25 Ankhrasmation scores. I’ve written string quartet number 13, 14, 15, and taking notes on number 16.

 

Wow.

Okay? And I’ve composed a cantata for six estimated voices, which is an hour-long work, an hour and 10 minutes long work. I’ve composed a suite. I’ve had a bump of creativity. And why? Because I have not had to travel and deal with all those kinds of strange kinds of schisms and connections and stuff like that. And I’ve rather enjoyed it. Educationally, in the first year, I did two residencies, the second year, two residencies, and a number of just one-on-one Zoom lecture visit talks to students around the planet from the New School to the University of California, San Diego, Michigan, all across the United States. So it’s been a great time for me.

 

Whether they’re pros, picking up an instrument first time, or returning to an instrument that they played years ago that they let fall by the wayside, a lot of people have turned to music.

Yeah. I totally agree. I would interject one little thing, though. I wish that governments around the world would understand the environment in which they govern. And I say that to mean this: we should automatically, like, just as we take a vacation every summer, we should actually spend two weeks indoors worldwide, planetwide, every year in order to give the environment a chance to breathe.

 

Seriously. Since you brought it up a minute ago, for people who are unfamiliar, can you describe what Ankhrasmation is?

Let’s say it this way: comprehension is a notion about how well a person can dream and understand the dream that they’re having. Okay. That’s how it started. And secondly, I would say Ankhrasmation is symbolic language, and it’s for creative artists, creative musicians, dancers – any kinds of performing context where there’s a beginning and ending, and one is constructing or building an art piece.

When I use the word, “create,” I want readers to understand that I’m not talking about improvisation. I don’t do improvisation. I have abandoned improvisation for over seven years.

 

Really?

And probably nobody knows it. Even though I’ve been talking about it for the last seven years, nobody pays any attention, nobody thinks that I’m telling them the truth. And the fact is, that believability is their responsibility, but my truth is also my responsibility.

 

Now, why did you abandon improv?

Well, there it is right there: “improv,” you know? That little twist of the word, improvisation, to improv – it sets it off in this zone where it has lost all of its vitality. If you look at and analyze and have a keen sense of structure and form and content, and then look at the way in which that music evolved, it ends up becoming something that’s actually more of a gameplay, and not actually something that has something to do with inspiration of creativity. I know people are gonna be kind of wondering, “Why is that?” but I didn’t make it. I’m just an observer.

 

People are going to be fascinated to hear that because that’s sort of the language of jazz, you know?

That’s exactly what they say. And I’m here to tell them that that ain’t even true. Because first of all, almost none of the people that engage in this “improvisation,” none of them, no matter where they come from – Europe, Asia, Africa, the U.S., Central and South America, North America – they’ve never looked at where it come from. And why? Because they’re lazy. I have looked at where it comes from. Improvisation popped up on the scene in the latter part of the 300s in ancient Rome. And it was only used for theaters – theatrical performance. And then later in the eighth and ninth century respectfully, the Russians and the French began to theorize about improvisation. And all of those theorization was done by theater people, directors, and constructors of theater, you see? And so when that music happened in America, in the Southern Cradle, that is New Orleans, Mississippi, across that whole Southern Cradle, what happened then? These writers co-opted that word, “improvisation,” and dumped it into it, dumped it on all that music that was being done, you see? And it was done based off of power and not off of what was right or wrong. It was done off of power.

 

Interesting.

And so if you’re gonna use something and you don’t bet your life on it, and you’re gonna spend your life talking about it in these vague terms, understand where it come from.

 

A lot of people feel that the whole notion of improv is synonymous with freedom.

But it’s not, though. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, that that’s a contradiction. The most common thing that you find in improvisation is that the moment it starts, every single individual within that context fight to take the lead. Okay? Fight to take the lead. That’s the thing about power and ego expression right there. And let me make another analysis. If you look at a swarm of birds, when the birds are in a swarm and they’re leading, they’re taking many, many different kinds of turns and directions, no one fights to take the lead. The lead is already established. You see? And not only that particular notion about stuff, you can also look at any other kind of construction that’s organic and natural and you’ll see the same thing. You see? Branches don’t try to become the trunk of the tree. They are limbs. They’re part of the limbs. The limb branches out into leaves, and et cetera. And those are natural constructions.

There’s nothing on the planet that doesn’t have some kind of notion about leadership or direction. That’s all a myth, you see? And that’s just one context of observation that you can observe when you look at this idea of improvisation, free or otherwise. The other part that’s really damaging to it as a forum, is that when there’s a group of improvisers playing, they do the same thing about the ending. None of them accept each other’s endings so that what ends up happening is, the music runs out and stops and breaks down, and they call that an ending. That’s not an ending.

An ending is conceived with the first note, and by the middle of that music, which is unknown, the ending begins to take place. And then the ending must resolve at the appropriate point, so that the proportion of what is performed, and the form in which it’s constructed inside of should resolve naturally. Now, those are two damaging causes of improvisation. And there are other ones, but I cite those because these are things that anybody can observe if they ever pay attention to these performances.

 

That’s certainly a take that will raise some eyebrows amongst our readers. I guess a follow-up question would be: how would you define jazz? If improv isn’t freedom, what to you is jazz? What to you is creative music?

Okay. Now, you’ve used jazz and creative music kind of simultaneously, and that’s okay. I personally reject the word “jazz,” as well. And the reason I do that is simply because that music was never named by any of the early practitioners of this music. And you can read any of the documents, any of the early documents that talk about this music don’t use the word jazz. But jazz itself, as a commodity, began to take shape during the ’20s and ’30s. And as a commodity term, it has value for corporations until they lost their interest and went somewhere else, you see? Or they had ways of modifying it like smooth jazz, and relaxing jazz, or meditative jazz, and all these other kinds of new markets. It’s just the same as when McDonald’s comes out with 15 new different products per decade, and they’re all of the same thing. They just got different names. Or maybe one adds a sesame seed on the top of it. Maybe the other one is made from sour dough, but it’s the same stuff, you know?

And that’s the same thing that’s happened with the word, “jazz.” Now, I don’t object to people using it because everybody… To me, that’s what freedom is. Everybody has their freedom of choice of how they express themselves and what they consider what they’re doing. I just don’t consider it for myself. And when I talk about it, I try to explain it in the context that I just explained.

Creative music for me is a more descriptive term of what those early artists in the Southern Cradle, and the Eastern and Midwestern Cradles did, meaning Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and all those people in the Eastern part. And then you got all the Western part of the Southern Cradle. But the west part of the Southern Cradle, you got the Count Basie, the Kansas City, these masters, to Charlie Parker. And in the South, you got Jelly Roll Morton, you got Joseph Oliver, you got Freddie Keppard. You got a ton of people that are powerful. And then you come back into the Eastern Cradle, you got Billie Holiday, and all these people. These people were making creative music. They were creating. They made whatever they had, that they brought on stage as a piece of music. Each time they performed it, they recreated it. They recomposed it. They remade it. And that process is called creative.

I will point to the fact that the almighty, whether you believe in the almighty or not, we do have a creation, and everybody acknowledges that. Well, there’s no creation without a creator, you see? And people can be confused about that. I don’t mind that. But what I’d like to say is this: the notion of creation didn’t just pop up. It came through inspiration. In the Bible, in the Quran, in the Torah, and all those other books, they use the word “inspiration” when they talk about what became into creation. Now mankind or humankind, we are a miniature example of creation. Okay? For example, our blood vessels in our veins can circuit a complete planet. Nobody knew that, but it’s true. Biologists have figured it out. And the planet itself, earth, is made out of water. Our bodies are mostly water. So what I’m saying is that we are a microcosmic of the larger creation, which includes clues to known and the unknown, just like our bodies, we have known and unknown elements in it. And therefore, how did that come out? We can use our creation to make small models of creation like musical objects, or dance objects, or painting the art objects and things like that, to reflect principles and ideas that are connected with creation. And therefore, it is only, and can only be authenticated through inspiration, and not made up.

 

What’s your general approach and preferred methodology of imparting musical wisdom?

Well, first of all, I don’t really care what the format is. One-on-one works really well for me. master classes work really well. Room full of people, let’s say 20 or 30, works really well, or auditorium with 1,000 or 2,000, or 3,000, works pretty well. So the format is not a problem. What I teach, and what I’ve taught all my life over the 28 years or 26 years that I’ve taught in education systems from the Bard College up in Annandale-On-Hudson to the University of New Haven here in Connecticut, to Cal Arts out in California where I spent the largest time, 22 years, is that in order to make art, what’s required is to begin to understand who you are and what you are.

That’s the first primary principle. And from that, everything else can be scrutinized in certain kinds of ways. For example, I don’t teach people how to double tongue on the trumpet, or how to play a high note on the trumpet, or this or that. What I teach is ideas, how to incorporate through themselves by what and who they are, how to approach being inspired, how to understand when inspiration is at work, how to use that inspiration. Meaning, how do you articulate it and allow it not to be, let’s say, contaminated by false and unusual kinds of moments of indecisiveness and not being able to articulate it? Other things like technique and things like that, those things have become standardized in schools, but that’s a mistake. A technique is anything that a person can do with clarity over and over and over and have the capability of expanding that particular tool, that it doesn’t remain static.

Another component is sincerity. Sincerity is based around respect and love and care. And if that’s not in play as well, the student – no matter whether they be whomever, you know, like a beginner or professional – they don’t learn nothing.

 

Got you. No, that makes sense.

And that’s the core of what I teach.

 

Let’s flip the script a little bit. You just outlined, and very well, your views on teaching, on imparting wisdom. As a student, as a scholar, when you were younger, or even now, because we never stop learning, who were or are some figures who were most instrumental or most impactful in your development as a musician?

A fellow by the name of Henderson Howard. He was a trumpet player, also a teacher who taught English in my high school. He was my first powerful influence on the trumpet. He was an excellent player. He also taught me how to perform, meaning not how to play, but what the performance context is about. For example, he would enter me in contests every week – around the city, and around the state every single week. And I would play…

 

Did you want to be entered or did he just do that without even asking you?

Well, he was my teacher. I didn’t have no idea about contradicting or saying nothing to him about what he… If he is my teacher, I’m supposed to follow him with sincerity, honesty, and in the most correct way I possibly can. And that’s what I did. But he would enter me in all these contests. And most of the contests, I would be the only instrumentalist in the contest. Most of them were singers, dancers, and, et cetera.  Often I would come in third or fourth because they don’t care about instrumental music. But the idea was not that. The idea was he was teaching me what the mission of the stage and performance was about. And he started that when I was 12 years old. That means that by the time I got out of high school, I understood what the stage was about, completely. You see?

 

Yeah. I got you.

I understood the phenomena of performance and I understood the socialization of that stage, and also the kinds of things that come with it, that there are people that will love you for what you do, and there are people who will not love you for what you do, because they have, in fact, some other hidden motive. Usually it is acquainting with somebody else, or my father knows his father or whatever. I learned that there was a power on the stage that was not always based around the art itself, but it was based around this social component of connection. And so all these things were beginning to play out for me and to show me something through Henderson Howard. They were my upbringing in high school.

And my second great teacher was my stepfather, Alex Wallace. His stage’s name was Lil Bill Wallace. He was a guitarist, a blues guitarist, singer, played the guitar and the drums, and sometime piano, but his mostly instrument was the guitar and voice. He showed me what it was to play in places like what they call gyp joints and clubs and halls where they have gambling and all kinds of things in it where I would be there in that context as an artist or a performer, but not be part of that environment. You see? And that takes a lot of skill. My stepfather showed me those things. And he also showed me what it took to be a band leader because he was a band leader.

 

That’s hugely influential then.

Yes. And those are the moments that shaped me. Of course, along the lines, there’s a major range or major arc of people that are important to me, from Miles Davis to Duke Ellington, to Billie Holiday, to Minnie Ripperton, to you know, Gladys Knight, anybody that’s out there that has the quality to create, then I share part of their vision also. And I might add that it’s across borders. Okay?

 

By that, what do you mean?

It includes Béla Bartók or Johann Sebastian Bach. It includes a Charles Ives. It includes a William Grant Still. It’s across borders. Chavez from Mexico. It includes across borders, because being honest, you don’t have no home. Your home is in your head and your heart. And wherever you are, you are at home. And you’ll never have to look for your home because every place on the planet is your home. I was told that by Bob Marley.

 

By Bob Marley?

Yes.

 

That’s fantastic. I wanted to be sure to ask you about the Great Lakes Quartet, AACM, and your involvement?

Well, when I came out of the army in 1967, I already had read a little bit of a lyric or two here about the AACM in Chicago. And I had decided to go to Chicago because my wife’s family lived there. And that was the main choice of going to Chicago. But going there, I had looked at the terrain to see what was there. And I had been at the AACM, but when I got there, an army friend of mine had given me the address or the telephone number for Anthony Braxton, because he was in Korea with Anthony Braxton. And when I got there, I met Anthony. We played some duets together in his mother’s home. And later during that same 10 or 12-day period in the summer of 1967, I met Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Christopher Gaddy, Thurman Barker – all in the same day on a Saturday in the neighborhood that I lived in on the near north side where they were playing in a coffee house.Joseph Jarman’s quartet was playing. That’s Thurman Barker, Christopher Gaddy, and Charles Clark. But Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell had came there to witness the performance, and I met all of them on the same day. And that was a joy because Roscoe was the one that introduced me to the AACM. And coming into that, it was how do you say? Open skies ahead.

 

Excellent. To wrap things up: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for other jazz educators out there?

Yes, I do.

 

Let’s hear it.

Never teach from the book – and I mean never teach by a prescribed guideline. Every student is different. Therefore, find out from the student how you can help them. And if you can help them, help them. And if you cannot help them, help them find somebody that can help them. Okay? Always insist that your students show respect, and ask them to learn how to be sincere with all their connection with you, specifically, and your lesson plan. And make your lesson plan… I always made my lesson plan on the morning that I was going to teach.

 

Really! You don’t work on that months or weeks in advance?

No. You’re making it on the morning you’re gonna teach because you never know, or at least I think you shouldn’t know, what you’re gonna impart that day until that day comes around. You see? Reflecting is a good quality for both teacher and student, but the biggest principle is always teach like you are teaching and always learn from your student.

 

How do you mean, specifically: learn from your student?

Okay. In Islam, they have a concept that’s called teaching and learning. The chapters in the Quran which are called Surahs, these have what’s known ayahs. These are short phrases or sentences. Okay? And when a person teaches one ayah to another person, that person is supposed to teach it to another person. But in the context of teaching that ayah and the interaction with the teacher and the student, both of them are supposed to learn something. It ain’t supposed to be one kind of passing of information. It’s supposed to be a reciprocal context that’s actually being employed – so teaching and learning, learning while you teach, and learning from who you’re teaching.

 

 

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