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meets Genji in 'Heart Reflections'
Peter Serafin - The Japan Times, 8. 3. 93
Western world certain literary classics, such as the work of
Homer, Shakespeare and Greek mythology, provide bedrock touchstones
for the entire culture. Everyone studies them in school. They're
part of the body of knowledge that any educated person in the
society would have at least a passing familiarity with. Sometimes
modern stories are taken directly from those earlier classics
as "Romeo and Juliet" begat "West Side Story." In
Japan the Genji stories serve a similar function as literary
and cultural benchmarks.
Wadada Leo Smith is an American jazz musician (trumpet , flugelhorn,
bamboo flute, koto, percussion instruments) and musicologist
who is currently adapting a classic story of the Heike and Genji
people for a modern dramatic music composition. He was granted
a three month fellowship by the Asian Cultural Council and came
to Japan with the intention of finally writing this piece, one
he'd been considering for the past 20 years. He has been a professor
of music at several universities in the U.S. since 1975 and currently
teaches at Bard College in New York State. Beginning next fall
he will be joining the faculty of the Jazz and African American
Music Program at the California Institute of the Arts as the
first holder of the new Dizzy Gillespie Chair.
In addition, he has held lectureships and residencies at universities
and institutions throughout the world. He has performed at quite
a few international music festivals and concert venues (including
Tokyo's Casals Hall and New York's Carnegie Hall) and has composed
works for the stage, orchestra, solo performers and instrumental
ensembles. He also won the Downbeat Magazine 28th Annual Jazz
Critics Poll in the trumpet category in 1981.
He calls this new work "Heart Reflections,' a full - length
composition for trumpet, shamisen, koto, drums, voice and dance.
We had the opportunity to talk after a performance last week,in
a small Yokohama jazz club.
"I call it 'creative world jazz,' he said about his music. "It represents
a certain historical experience that Afro-Americans had in America, and as a
result of that it has influenced the entire world. "
Right now this work-in-progress has its roots in jazz, but strives
to incorporate that form into something more. The performance
that night featured Leo on trumpet and koto, Michiro Sato on
shamisen and Yoshizaburo Toyosumi on drums. In future versions
it will be augmented with two dancers, as well as singers and
poets who will sing and recite in a multitude of languages.
The entire performance that night was improvised, with the other
players taking their cues from Leo's trumpet, but in the final
piece .there will be a written score allowing for what he calls "symbological
improvisation," different from either "structured" or "free" improvisation.
He's also using nontraditional "free scales" to play
My first impression was that the players that night were creating
the soundtrack of some long-forgotten ritual. I was getting lost
in the esoteric musical, theory of it all, so Leo attempted to
clarify his ideas:
"I have been researching the great history of Noh and have found its tradition
to be a profound vehicle for delivering a spiritual message of significant weight
in that it offers, through the combining of dance, song, music and drama, a unique
form expressing the realms of the supernatural and spirituality."
I asked him what he hoped to accomplish with the composition. "The
purpose of music is to quiet man's soul so he self so he can
hear what the higher self inside is talking about. That's what
perfection is - it's not outside.
Leo hopes to complete the entire work by next month. It will
debut in Japan next March with the full compliment of musicians,
dancers, singers and poets for a full-length piece. He is currently
seeking a few additional performers: a native speaker of one
of the languages of the Indian subcontinent (he wants to juxtapose
the sounds of that language with the Japanese and English in
the piece), and a Zulu dancer to contrast those movements with
those of the Japanese dancer.
For those who would like to see this work as it progresses, the
performance schedule is: Tonight at Club Jamaica in Sapporo (a
solo performance by Leo Smith (tel.-Oll-251-8412); Aug. 21 in
Hiroshima and Aug. 22 in Shikoku (0462-32-2394); Aug. 31 at Yurakucho
Asahi Hall in Tokyo and Sept. 3 at Shin Yokohama Station (03-3472-4679).
by Bob Ness
Downbeat Magazine 10 . 7. 76
At 35. Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer who has been at the
fore front of the New Creative music since 1967 when he joined
forces with the influential and historically important AACM in
Chicago. Early associations there with Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy
Jenkins,and Anthony Braxton have produced a number of recordings
as well as those under his own leadership with his New Delta Ahkri
ensemble. Currently, he is part of the new Anthony Braxton quartet,
along with Dave Holland and Philip Wilson.
is also the author of a small but dense book/pamphlet
pointing towards a further comprehension of the
music he and his colleagues create entitled Notes
(8 Pieces) Source A New World Music: Creative
Music. Published in 1973. and dedicated to "the
pioneers of creative music in America ... [who
liberated the performer to a creativity of direct
deliverance of a creative
The book's contents, Smith emphasizes, "are very important
to me in terms of my concepts and ambitions." In it he equates
creative music with improvisation, meaning "that the Music
is created at the moment it is performed, whether it is developing
a given theme or is improvisation on a given rhythm or sound
(Structures) or, in the purest form. when the improviser creates
without any of these conditions, but creates at that moment.
through his or her wit and imagination, an arrangement of silence
and sound and rhythm that has never before been heard and will
never again be heard."
kind of meandering and closely argued thought
is also found in Smith's conversation and it's
delivered in a soft-spoken, almost down-home
voice which always sounds very calm - almost
sleepy. He lives in West Haven. Conn., an easy
drive to the Eastern Music centers. but he grew
up in a small country town called Leland. Miss.
His stepfather was a blues man who played guitar.
piano, drums, and sang throughout the Midwest
and deep south. He can remember men like Little
Milton, Elmore James. B. B. King and many other
blues men of the Mississippi Delta region coming
over to visit and to play in his family's living
There was also the radio. "In Leland. I
used to listen to the radio and hear ail kinds
of music - Harry James, Benny Goodman.
and some fantastic pieces by Louis Armstrong who was always Spoken
of as the greatest trumpet player in the world. I imagine that
subconsciously played a strong part in my attraction towards
the trumpet, but essentially I'm attracted to Music. It doesn't
matter that much whether I play the trumpet or whatever, although
I do love the sound of the trumpet and I know thoroughly the
whole trumpet dynasty.
attracted to music and to being able to create
ideas to use to influence physical. spiritual,
and psychic changes, as well as materialistic
changes in the lives of those I know and those
I may never see. I want to be able to channel
music back towards the tradition of the musician
(which is what John Coltrane. Albert Ayler, the
AACM, and others were about) as somebody who
didn't just play an instrument and send out notes
in a relationship called art. I want to get back
to the first tradition of the creative musician.
which was to be able to perform, heal, be a spokesman
and leader in the community and to be able to
channel ideas of influence over great distances
and not be so centered on 'himself' and 'success'.
junior high school Smith moved from mellophone
to French horn to trumpet and he played in marching
bands ("One of the strongest things I remember
of the marching bands in the south is that they
would play the marches as written and then improvise
on them."), concert stage bands, and an
8-1 0 piece creative orchestra which played dance
tunes, some original material, and a lot of Ellington
pieces such as Mood Indigo, Take The A Train,
and Jeep's Blues.
high school. Smith traveled for about a year
with groups playing blues, r&b, and soul
music. He then went into the army for five years
(he took a short discharge in order to get to
Europe) and played in post bands in the south
and in Italy and France, and was exposed to musicians
from different backgrounds. He feels that the
army experience was worth it ("even though
I couldn't wait to get out from the first day
I was in") because it gave him a chance
to play every day and. "you had the time
to sit and work on things, which is very important."
before he g of out of the army in 1966 a Sax
player gave him Anthony Braxton's phone number
in Chicago. Smith called him as soon as he got
there in January. 1967 and eventually became
part of the AACM, which is now in its 11th year
and what Smith calls its third period.
"The AACM is one of the most thorough organizations in the world. I feet
that it will be looked upon as one of the cornerstones of its type by future
generations. So many people came together with so many different ideas and didn't
feel threatened or inhibited, or felt they would be robbed of their ideas. It
also operated at a very high learning level. The AACM, for us, was like an open
forum and it gave everyone a chance to work in the solo a form, ensemble form,
and orchestral form, and to develop these areas simultaneously. A very wide spectrum
of creative energy was happening there.We had painting exhibits,theater, dance,
poetry, plays, critical interpretations of the music, and
historical surveys of certain periods within the music.'
Smith first came into the AACM, he Put together
a trio with Braxton and Leroy Jenkins which was
the basis for an ensemble that existed from late
1967 until early 1970. The association culminated
in New York with Muse recordings under the
group name, Creative Construction Company, and
included Muhal Richard Abrams, Richard Davis,
and Steve McCall. Their music was not always
easily accepted and Smith remembers the big Belgian Festival
during the summer of 1969 when the people "booed and threw
chunks of mud and pop bottles on us. And our very last live performance
as the CCC in Paris in January of 1970 was a riot. It began during
the first set and during the intermission the intensity increased
so that when we came out to play the second set they cut us off
and wouldn't let us play."
the breakup of the CCC, Smith formed a group
called Integral (with Henry Threadgill, Thurman
Barker, and Lester Lashley) that lasted about
six months and then he moved to Connecticut. "In
late l970, I organized a group called the New
Dalta Ahkri ('Ahkri' is a word representing a
perfect union) and the idea behind it was to
create music of totally different orders and
to have these centers of activity fluctuate in
terms of involvement, intensity, and contribution"
group has gone through a few personnel changes
and now includes Anthony Davis on piano, Wes
Brown on bass and flute,their album Reflectivity
is on Kabell), and in March of l975 saxophonist
Oliver Lake became part of the group when he's
not with his own ensemble. Percussionist Paul
Maddox recently joined them to make it a quintet.'Every
member of the group contributes in an entirely
different way from each other, and this is true
to an extreme.
Smith has mixed feelings about New York and living on the east
coast. "New York actually refers not just to New York city
but to the whole north-eastern circle.In a place of such commerciality
there is a.lot of creative players and great musicianship, but
I sometimes feel that they expose themselves in a mastership
of craft rather than creatively. I think it's a good place to
play and almost all of the great ideas occurred there, but the
players, with a few exceptions, were not born there. The beautiful
thing about living in the east is that you get credit for what
you do and you get paid. In the Midwest and west you can play
a lot but you're considered 'local.' That puts a vibration on
the listener, the public, and they don't feel responsible to
come out and hear. you.'
the subject of critics and criticism Smith has
definite views: I feel that any form of criticism
is not positive.' 'Criticism' means: 'correction'-
and that's impossible. I never have a 'bad night'
because I don't accept the understanding of playing.
I consider whatever I play at whatever.time to be my absolute
all. Most of the people writing in the jazz magazines are what
I would call buffs. Instead of writing record reviews, creative
journalists might better devote time to studying the various
periods of the music and prepare expert analyses of the form,
structure, and aesthetics of the music.
of going to a concert and criticizing this player
or that, write a poem or a novel section on that
experience like James Baldwin and Richard Wright
have done. Although I like Martin Williams' book,
The Jazz Tradition I don't think one white man
should head an exploration into black music such
as he is doing at the Smithsonian Institute.
Instead. I think there should be a federation
or panel of, say, seven people with three being
black. one white person from America, one Japanese,
one Englishman, and one from,somewhere else.".
likes to think of the music and particularly
of the players, historically, in terms of dynasties
and of the different instruments, as royal families
with clearly traceable lineages.
love all trumpet players and I love the way they
play. I know the characteristics of the archetypal
players and how the different lines came along..Trumpet
playing came from Joseph Oliver. Louis Armstrong's
early solos are identical in rhythmic shape and
conceptualization to Oliver's. In Oliver's ballads,
the trumpet player began to take dominance in
the different lines that were hooked together
to make the ensembles. Very shortly the ensemble
begins to break down as the essential deliverer
of the music. Armstrong is an innovator because
he saw where this kind of playing could go and
he did it, beginning with early pieces like Hot
Potato, Weather Bird, and West End Blues."
own playing reflects this close scrutiny and
historical awareness of what has gone on before
him. And the deeper the listener's awareness,
the more of these musical references he hears
in Smith - to Miles, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro,
Don Cherry, and to all the great players of the
music, not just the trumpet players.
look at the music," Smith says,-"in
the sense of a mission and I look upon traveling
to other cities like the astronauts traveling
in space, or in earlier times, like explorers
traveling to other continents to discover what
new places had to offer and also to spread
their essential wisdom." db
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© 1997-2011 Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith