Interview: Wadada Leo Smith.


Wadada Leo Smith is a conceptualist. He's a master trumpeter, composer and educator, yes, but his thinking is what makes him special. From his circa-1970 days with the Chicago avant-garde through his unusual stint at CalArts, he's always tried to foster new ways of understanding art and life. If you didn't know that, a minute of his music would be clue enough. There's a connection between Louis Armstrong and Michael Jackson, and it runs right through Smith's dreadlocked head.

On Saturday, April 3, Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet (with special additional pianist Motoko Honda) plays Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood 90027; 8pm; $25; buy tickets here or just show up.

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GREG BURK: You've been working with the current lineup of your Golden Quartet for five years now. The career of the pianist, Vijay Iyer, has taken off meanwhile. How did you first come in contact with him?

WADADA LEO SMITH: "I met him through George Lewis, in the Bay Area. And when [Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist] Malachi Favors passed, I didn't want to try to replace him in the band, because I thought it would be too difficult. That original band, with these old guys from the AACM and [renowned drummer] Jack DeJohnette, I didn't want to change it. And in the new band, I decided that I wanted to change everything, and see if I could make it work. You've got the best of the known guys -- you've got [pianist] Anthony Davis, [Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist] Malachi Favors, Jack DeJohnette, and you feel inside your heart that this is so perfect -- can I do anything after that? The first challenge was, I got that core of people -- [drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson], Vijay, [bassist] John Lindberg -- and we started rehearsing, and we did it. And then afterward I changed Vijay's slot to guitar, with Woody Aplanalp. But that didn't work, because the sound just wasn't there. The guitar has a beautiful sound, but it has nothing to compare with the way it makes the trumpet sound, the way the piano does when the piano's in the room. It resonates. The piano is a big resonator, and when that piano is open, you strike a trumpet note, it hits those strings, and it makes that trumpet sound as beautiful as it can possibly be. I love the sound of the piano. And the other sound that I have to have in an ensemble is the cymbals. The cymbals can be playing, and you can hit almost any high note you want to hit, because it doesn't require your strength anymore. You hear the overtones in that cymbal, and it's easy to pop out. Same way with the piano."

Pheeroan akLaff, who replaced Jackson, has a fantastic feel.

"And there's a level of communication between him and me, because I met him when he was 19, and he played in my bands for a number of years -- N'da Kulture and New Dalta Ahkri. When I got him, he had only played rock, but he made those transitions. He played with Oliver Lake, and the guy just blossomed completely out. He's been with the band now, this is the second year. Because I had [Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer] Don Moye, both the guys, and then I kind of split that and went with Pheeroan. He has a very clear head about the music.

"This band, as it stands now today, it challenges the original band. The performances we had last year surpassed anything the original band ever did. And the main reason is because the core of the band -- Vijay Iyer, John Lindberg and me -- we were the ones that started five years ago with Shannon, and we did a 10-concert tour that solidified that band, and then we worked a lot here and there. The band has been to Europe a number of times, and last year we had a bonus year, and this year we've got a bonus year. This year I'm playing in America more than I've ever played in my life!"

Where did that remarkable composition of yours, "South Central L.A. Kulture," come from?

"It was originally recorded on a CD that Thomas Mapfumo and I did, called 'Dreams and Secrets' -- which, by the way, I'm giving away copies of that at the Barnsdall concert. If we get 200 people, I'm going to give away 200. Because the record distributor went out of business, and he sent me three big boxes of CDs. So I want to make a gift to everybody that comes to that concert!

"So 'South Central' started out there. And then Golden Quartet started playing it, and we played it a couple of years without recording it. And we did record it the year before last at Vision Fest, which is on the 'Spiritual Dimensions' CD. But when I got Organic to play it, here are guys that don't have any connection with it, it was all fresh for them. And they played it in a very different way. There's a good live version of that, but that version on the CD is from the studio. Why did I put them back to back? I wanted people to see how musical thinking has evolved, and I wanted them to know how ensembles have the peculiarity of expressing the same thing in diffent ways. And I hoped that it would show something about my character as a leader of the ensembles, and also about how I think about a piece of music. It's not shaped, it's not fixed."

What inspired it?

"My sister lived in South-Central. And we used to go to her house every weekend, because next to her, my other sister, her name was Barbara -- she was dying of cancer at 50, she would be 51 before she died. My sister whose house we were going to, she also died of cancer at 50. So settin' on the porch there, listening to discs, smoking marijuana and being kind of rowdy in the environment, and the sound of the helicopters, because in that area helicopters are constantly circling over, and sireens are constantly going on -- I made the piece as a reflection of not those things, but a reflection of how people could think and look for other kinds of achievements. That's the philosophy of the piece."

Do you tell your musicians anything before a performance?

"I offer them this. From the last rehearsal, tonight I take my score to bed with me. And the last thing I do is, I go through every piece. Not playing it, but mentally. During the rehearsal I have taken notes -- I also read all those notes."

Your double careers as an educator and a musician have both thrived.

"In the last several years, I've had the greatest of blessings. I won't call it luck, because nothing is lucky. No one is lucky. Things happen because of something that they believe in, and that they apply. Or it happens because they don't apply anything, they don't do anything. So it's the courage to go forward in life and explore and experience whatever occurs, without difficulty or regrets or hatred."

You must have run into a few bumps in the road.

"A lot of bumps. I spent years, nobody would hire me. And God said, 'Get out of the East. Go west, young man.' I came west, and immediately I started working, and people started championing my music. Like Lucky Mosko, the conductor and composer who taught me for many years. He had a group up in San Francisco. And he also had two other ensembles throughout the country, one in Chicago, and somewhere else. The guy started playing my contemporary classical music. And we recorded a couple of those pieces. But then things started happening. John Zorn was at one of the rehearsals for one of those contemporary pieces, standing behind the curtain, he didn't want to be seen. And we finished it up, and this guy Willie, who's a percussionist up there, comes out and says, 'John certainly liked this piece, he wanted to know if you'd let him record it.' I said, 'Well, where is John?' He says, 'Well, he's back over there.' I said, 'Well, go get him! Tell him to come out here!' When John Zorn talks, he has this strong affirmational voice, but he's actually a shy guy."

How long have you been teaching at CalArts?

"Probably 18 years. I stopped counting, because I don't count good."

As a musician, all you have to do is count to maybe seven.

"If you start counting, you're gonna get confused. No counting! No bars, no measures, none!" [He whips out sheet music, which has no bar lines. It's on legal-size yellow pads, with some notes whited out and replaced.]

Didn't you used to write without any standard notation at all?

"I still do that. Like this is an element out of that, an approximation." [He points to the top of his piano, where there's a framed picture of colored horizontal bars.] "That's one of my scores. And this piece here is over 30 years old, it's 1970-something. It's in George Lewis' book, the book he has on the AACM, but the wrong date's on it. This was in the '70s, when this started."

What's the idea behind this music?

"This piece is so jammin' because I'm dealing with democracy, and I want to express the three branches that regulate and control human aspiration and endeavor in this country -- the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. Our system looks chaotic, and its function is chaotic, but it's the most perfect form of government that the world has known. Each branch at some point controls the flow. And the American people, their greatest asset is their ability to control all three of them -- if they want to do it. What keeps them from doing it is knowledge, real knowledge."

You say one branch usually dominates at any given time. Which one do you think is dominating now?

"Right now, the most powerful domination I believe is coming out of the executive branch. Because when you have a visionary person in there -- and particularly one that is not a conservative, nor is he a radical, a person that is very centric but smarter than most of the centrics that have ever been there -- that's my hope and that's my dream. He's smarter than most of them, because he doesn't tell you exactly what he wants. But he allows what he wants to be worked out and amended and augmented or diminished until it comes out. That's very different. it's almost like a performance that has no real hard guidelines."

Sounds like the definition of a good bandleader.

"People say, 'This man is a failure because he didn't say what he wanted with health care.' Well, no. He allowed the debate to work out. If people read his book, 'The Audacity of Hope,' they will see exactly his model. It's all in there! It's a fantatic book."

You're kind of an executive yourself at CalArts. What's your title now?

"I'm just the head of this African-American Improvisational Music Program. I want to call it Creative Music Department, but no one wants to do that."

Has your job changed over the years?

"No, it hasn't changed."

So you have students, you structure classes.

"For my program, there's a special series they have to study. For example, they can study Indonesian music, they can study African music, they can study Indian music, and still get credit under my program. They can study 20th-century music as a historical course, and still get credit in my program. They have two semesters of intense study with me in composition and improvisation studies, or both. The seminar in African-American Music happens every other semester. Improvisation and composition analysis in creative music happens every semester. Those are the staple programs, and then there are two ensembles. One is Systemic Music, learning this language, learning how to function, and how to use it to make performance, or to make a musical analysis. And then there is what I call the Creative Music Ensemble. And then I do individual lessons, which covers most of my kids, but also people in film and art. Because a lot of people want to know ideas, and that's what I do."

When you do African-American Music, that's a huge subject.

"This semester and next semester, I'm doing Michael Jackson. Because I think that he's one of the greatest artists who ever lived. And I know that his musical creativity is just astounding. And his quality as an artist, as a performing artist, is most amazing, most captivating, most dazzling. It kind of makes you, like, want to play the greatest solo that you could ever possibly play, knowing that once you do that, you're gonna have to go even higher."

He was a very disciplined artist.

"His program is laid out, but it's made sharp through months and months of rehearsal, where they've spent millions of dollars on just rehearsing. Imagine that, for a creative artist like, let's say, Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or Muhal Richard Abrams or Gerald Wilson. Imagine being able to spend millions of dollars to rehearse for one series of performances."

But the spirit of jazz has so much to do with improvisation, you'd think . . .

"It does, but the secret is to keep introducing music that they don't know. When I go on tour, if it's a two-day event, I always bring in one or two pieces that they've never seen, and I put it out in sound check. If it's for a longer time, I'll do it overnight, and I'll pull it out for sound check. And each program is constantly being fortified and challenged with something that they don't know. Because when people know stuff, a rut comes in.

"Except, I must say, when you watch those performances of Michael Jackson, everything is worked out, but they do it to a T, and it comes off powerfully. Now, there is room for improvisation in that music, like that performance at the [1995 MTV] Music Awards, where the guitar player [Slash] overwent the performance, and one of the handlers came on to put him offstage, and Michael comes over and pushes him away, and stands by Slash and lets him just go. And he just went, he went way over his time. But what happened as a result of that, the very next piece ["Billie Jean"], Michael goes up higher, because this guy challenged the space, and filled the space with this excitement. He bounced higher! And the same thing happens in creative music."

Do you have any daily rituals?

"I'm Muslim. I pray five times a day. But I go to the mosque every morning. Out of a month, I probably miss one or two mornings of going to the mosque. But I go every morning before sunrise. I wake up at 3:30 every day. I wash up, I set down, I do several prayers, and I read the Koran, before I even leave the house. I get there right at prayer, do the prayer, I finish, I go for a walk. Because I live near the Ventura Beach. I walk 35 to 45 minutes. At 68, the doctors tell me, 30 minutes a day is beautiful."

Does this affect your music?

"It has affected it, completely. Like that 'Tabligh' album that I did -- tabligh is this whole idea of going out into the path of Allah. And while you're out there, you study, usually something like 12 or 13 hours a day, with whoever the teacher is. And you make two journeys out, to call people to Islam. The longest I've been out has been 28 days. You go out with a bunch of Muslims -- men, mostly, because women go by themselves -- and you go from mosque to mosque. I've been up the coast of California all the way up to Sacramento and back. We stop maybe two or three days at each mosque. We live inside the mosque. We cook our own food. Sometimes people bring us food. We study. We go out and call people to Islam.

"Also, when I step on the stage, I'm already purified. It's just like when I do prayer. Before I go onstage, I wash the seven parts of the body like they're supposed to be washed. Nobody in the ensemble knows it. I go in the bathroom and do it. Nobody knows that when I step on the stage, I step with the right foot and say to myself, 'Bismallah.' Bismallah means 'in the name of God.' And whatever connection you can cook up with that, that's beautiful. That sets the feeling, that purifies everybody on the stage."

What landmarks have you encountered, where something has knocked your music into a new place?

"The strongest influence that really ignited me was seeing Louis Armstrong on television, playing often on the Ed Sullivan Show during the '50s. He was on there an awful lot. And my trumpet teacher hated Louis Armstrong, because he thought that he was clowning, and this and that. But he wasn't clowning. That's part of the African tradition, this kind of way that you create magic and mystery.

"Throughout life, I've met important musicians that give me a change of information. I met Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell in Paris in 1969, and Ed became my friend, primarily because I would come over and hang out with Ornette Coleman, but then I would go by his room and hang out with him, because I always liked the way he played drums. He became my friend, and over the years we played together twice, we played two concerts together. One of them is on tape. It's already mastered and mixed. One day I'm gonna put it out."

Will you be continuing the Creative Music Festivals at REDCAT?

"Oh no, it's gone. That one went out the window, primarily because I had to raise money every year, and that takes a lot of time. I hated to beg, but I felt that I wanted to try to shape culture in Southern California. And for nine years, I did, because I brought some of the most powerful guys here to play music. [In recent years the fests have included Muhal Richard Abrams, Butch Morris and Amina Claudine Myers.] And they never, ever got the pay they deserved. They did it because I was asking them."

Read my review of Wadada Leo Smith's recent "Spiritual Dimensions" here.

Read my LA Weekly story on Smith from the year 2000 here.