Wadada Leo Smith plays the trumpet with a brilliant, forceful sound and has been a major creative figure in jazz for over 50 years.

This century, his importance and prominence as a composer have grown. His beautiful and moving large-scale piece, “Ten Freedom Summers,” made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2013, and he’s continued his musical investigation of America with “The Great Lakes Suites” and “America’s National Parks.” This summer, his label Tum released a seven CD set of his 12 String Quartets, played by the RedKoral Quartet, joined on various pieces by additional musicians like Smith himself, harpist Alison Bjorkedal, pianist Anthony Davis, and baritone Thomas Buckner.

The immediate sound of Smith’s playing and the music he gives to others may seem far apart, but there is a long-line way of thinking that runs through all his music making: When it comes out of his trumpet it sounds like improvisation in a jazz idiom; when it comes from a string quartet, it sounds like post-World War II expressionism. But as he makes clear in a recent interview over Zoom, the common understandings of both improvisation and composition are things he left behind years ago.

VAN: I’m interested in exploring your thinking as a composer with your background as an improvising artist. Is your thinking different when you write music for others to play?

Wadada Leo Smith: The biggest part of it is that, over eight years ago, I declared that I wasn’t improvising: That was a field of activity that was important for people to do, but not for me. I started doing what I call “create.” And create is something that’s very close to the way in which things are made. Everything we find on the planet happened through some form of grid. And so I got out of [the improvisation] community.

I’m not saying this as a disclaimer, I’m just trying to get it so that you see what I’m thinking about and how. Every article that has been written on me, the words that consistently pop up are, “he’s an improviser.” And I made it clear that I’m not an improviser; that improvisation is over here, composition is over there. And “create” is over here.

When I started out as a young developing artist, my early involvement was centered around the blues. Most people think the blues is music with one, four and five [chord progression]. Although that can be in it, that’s not really what it is. It’s a musical poetry that has within it all kinds of ideas about life and death. [In “Me And The Devil Blues”] Robert Johnson said, “Can you play when I die / bury my old body beside the highway / so that when the Greyhound bus comes along / I can get up and take a ride.” That tells us Robert Johnson understood that there’s something that survives after death. So that would be a philosophical blues. John Lee Hooker, “Tupelo [Blues],” the Mississippi flood that flooded all of that area down to [the Delta]: That’s the historical blues. You can find all kinds of blues.

So when I started playing the trumpet in these contexts, I noticed that Little Milton, B.B. King, all these guys, they take on characters to express their artistic journey about something that’s important in human life. And the same with me: I started making music when I was 12 years old, and the reason is that I ran into a book which I bought just because it looked beautiful: Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. And as a 12-year-old kid, reading that stuff and pondering that along with the Biblical stuff my family was teaching me, and life experience, it began to match my thinking.

So that’s why I changed from “improvisation” to “create.” That’s why I never called my music jazz. All of that involved long, deep contemplation about me and my environment. So I called myself a composer at 12 and a trumpet player at 12. I sort of played in those blues bands. I turned 18. I went found myself a band. And the reason I found the band is because my stepfather—who’s a blues musician—he wouldn’t let me play with him.

I wanted to do a kind of preamble, so now we can proceed.

About your two most recent records, the string quartets and the set of duets with percussionists: When you create music for either one, do you work in the same manner, or do you approach them in different ways?

All of my music is written the same way for every player. Because what I write for is a cause. If it’s one of my ensembles, I write specifically for them. But that language I use, I use in all the other pieces. And any performer who has ever played with me, and has learned a little bit about my language, can play any of my music, they can play the string quartet [music]. I’m gonna talk about a drummer:  If they have a piano, they can play the string quartet, because they now understand the language that’s being used, and how to manipulate it from one end to the next.

Photo © Jimmy Katz

I want to explore that language.

It’s a unitarian approach. When I started, I didn’t want to write like the people that I admired, like Béla Bartók. But I wanted to extract that four-instrument unit Euro-historical perspective, and make it open enough so that it was anybody’s to hear. And I believe that [Ornette] Coleman did that, that was a big influence. He opened it up. He didn’t try to write like anybody else. That was an inspiration for me, that I could do that on a different level.

What are you putting down on paper? Are you putting down standard notation? Are you writing in a graphical manner? How do you document your language for other musicians?

OK, let’s start at the beginning, the moment I’m being inspired. That’s the beautiful moment. Because then I’m receiving inspiration. And that inspiration is pure. I’ve learned how to read it. Therefore, I don’t interrupt it. I allow it to progress and present itself. And I use my notebook, or notes in my iPhone, or I notate it on a scrap of paper, like an envelope or the head of a newspaper or something—whatever I can find to write on.

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

And something like that can be anything.

It could be shapes, could be drawings, could be pitches, it could be all of them. And once I get that, etched into my book in some form, I may be composing right away or the next day, or it may linger in my book for weeks, months. But when I do go back to it, I recreate the feeling that I had during that inspiration. I learned how to do that from Duke Ellington. I read a story about him once that told me he knew something about how inspiration works. He and Billy Strayhorn, after a performance, they would flip a coin to see who would write first, and then wake the other and write into the sunrise. Now in order to do that, you have to know how to trigger inspiration, you have to know how to set it into motion.

And I discovered the same thing about Bach. They say he wrote something like 1,000 pieces. You cannot sit down to be inspired 1,000 times; you have to know how to open that door. You can open it just like you open any other door. So that’s what I rely upon to get me started. And as I’m moving through the music, putting it onto paper or some form, I’m constantly being inspired: How to move forward? What’s the next step? Phase one is about creation, and the material property that’s used for it. And the second one tells you how to use it.

How do things begin, do they come out exactly when the other musicians play it? Or is there some kind of alteration and chance and back and forth process?

There is some of that, some material must sound exactly as it should, some of it is dependent upon how I have structured it, and where it falls in terms of the horizontal line from one end to the next, because I’m not dealing with metrical rhythm. Meaning that I’m not dealing with a count that’s 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2…. What I’m dealing with is proportional material, where long and short relationships are important, configuration, length. How many times something is reoccurring is important. So things will move and shift until I can never know the full application or the outcome of how that piece of music will sound, until it’s actually been rehearsed, put together, and performed.

The layers are complex and because it’s non-metrical music, everybody’s moving by sight.  And a person can be ahead of another person or behind, it doesn’t matter, because basically they can see where they’re at in relation to everybody else. Everybody’s seeing the full score. So as we move across, we’re constantly making adjustments based off the repeats, and long and short relationships.

This reminds me of Earle Brown, who said that he wanted his music to sound different in each piece, but to always be recognizable.

I know the available form that Earle Brown was working with, I’ve seen his pieces. It’s an entirely different thing. He followed this kind of early, atonal, Euro-American idea about musical form. He was of a different cultural setting, coming from a different zone. It had the same kind of criteria as the “jazz” tradition had coming out of New Orleans. And I think this other form happened during Change of the Century from Coleman. That really shifted from jazz to creating music. Earle was highly influenced by that elusive idea of what was happening in jazz.

Can I break it down to organizing events in time? You have the horizontal line, you have a strict sequence of events, you want things to specifically happen after other things?

Exactly. And it could end in connection with every other performance. That brings in the [possibilities from] the ensemble, because it’s not just some [group] with four people or five people, [it can be] 90 people standing on stage playing. [The ensemble] is another kind of kinetic energy.

You’ve mentioned Coleman, Ellington, and Bach. Are there other artists who have given you ideas?

I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but most specifically Miles Davis. He taught me how dramatization is powerful in music, meaning that you just don’t play a phrase but you dramatize the phrase, you make it happen, meaning and content, you make it have mystery. The notion of how to explore silence, all of these things come out of Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal, that bad, bad, famous piano player that did “Autumn Leaves.” John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, all of them, they played a big part of my life… going all the way back to Lester Young. That was one of the greatest master phrasers that we’ve ever had.

Music is based around time, we start in this one place, and we get to this final place, but it seems like you are working with a very different idea of time, which comes out of the blues: You circle around until you’ve finished. Is that a fair way to describe what you’re doing?

That’s a fair way, yes. Like Einstein said, time can be bent and space can be folded. And that tells us that time is flexible. It can also be done away with in quantum theories. Just take that idea about time. Make it unimportant. And from point zero, we’re moving to a lot of points. We may not never get to where we’re going. We don’t know where that is. We don’t know where it ends. And the same way, that same time could have a Miles Davis, or Charlie Parker, or John Coltrane solo. We don’t know where it will end. The voice stops, but that’s not the end. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.