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Jazzman Finds Harmony in Piru
By Josef Woodard
Special to The LA Times
Dec. 16, 2002

Wadada Leo Smith, who teaches at CalArts, says his destiny is 'hooked  up' with that of the late Miles Davis, who lived near Malibu.

Wadada Leo Smith, who teaches articulates, says his destiny is 'hooked  up' with that of the late Miles Davis, who lived near Malibu.

A little more than a decade ago, Ventura County could lay claim to the great Miles Davis, who spent his last few years just this side of the Ventura County line near Malibu.

But Davis isn't the only renowned jazzman to settle here, 'since 1993, Piru has been home to another trumpeter who's also internationally known – although in more esoteric circles.

Wadada Leo Smith, who turns 61 this week, lives with his wife, poet Harumi Makino Smith, in a house next door to percussionist and fellow California Institute of the Arts instructor John Bergamo. A small studio sits between them, awaiting musical activities.

Smith was delighted when informed of the Miles Davis connection. "Our destiny is hooked up," Smith said. "The artist I most dream about, other than Duke Ellington, is Miles Davis. Because I was initiated as a Sufi. .' some years ago, I know what dreams are. That's communication."

Smith has long been interested in the spiritual paths of Islam, Sufism and the Rastafarian life, hence the adopted name Wadada, meaning "love."

And Miles Davis' music and legacy have figured into Smith's musical life in the past several years.

Smith was the central figure in a well-received CD in 1998 called "Yo Miles!" a tribute to Davis' "electric" period of the '70s. This fall, Smith's Golden Quartet released' an album on the Pi label, "The Year of the Elephant," which includes a free spirited acoustic version of a suite called "Miles Star. in 3 Parts." Also on "The Year of the Elephant," Smith pays tribute to his adopted hometown with, the introspective ballad "Piru."

The Golden Quartet, with drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Malachi Favors and pianist Anthony Davis is Smith's "dream ensemble," although scheduling concerts is a challenge. Most recently, they played before an enthusiastic throng in New York's Central Park, opening for Sonic Youth. Their first recording; done in 2000, was one of an ongoing series of recordings for the Tzadic label.

Smith, a faculty member at CalArts in Valencia since being granted the Dizzy Gillespie chair in 1993, loves his new hometown. "It's a beautiful town," Smith said. "You can walk from one end of town to the other in 30 minutes, both ways."

"The other beautiful thing is that it's semi-rural. Next door, there are pigs and a bull used for studding. There are lots of trees. We hear birds and bats. I was born in a small town, a little bit bigger than this, but not much. I've always enjoyed living in small towns."

His journey began in his birthplace of Leland, Miss. He was lured into music by his stepfather, Alex "Little Bill" Wallace, a guitarist-singer "in the same tradition of the Delta bluesmen," Smith said. "He was a very authentic player."

Smith landed in Chicago in the '60s, in time to get involved in the legendary Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Music, led by pianist Richard Muhal Abrams. The organization's best-known group was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which featured bassist Favors, now in

Smith's Golden Quartet. Smith also met and performed with DeJohnette in his Chicago days, after the drummer had played a show there with Miles Davis.

"In that instant," Smith recalls of his first meeting with DeJohnette, "I immediately said to myself, 'I would like to make music with this, man." In addition to his performing and recording work, Smith found a parallel life in academia. After studying at the Sherwood Music School in Chicago and at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he began teaching - first at the University of New Haven, then the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y., then Bard College and now CalArts.

Jazz and classical may be Smith's current genres, but his inspiration began with the blues, he said. "I believe that the blues is the foundation of American music," he said. "I believe that that foundation can never change, because when the foundation changes, everything else changes."

For all of Smith's unstoppable creative momentum at the moment, he's growing frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of recognition for music outside the mainstream, such as his own. He also senses a distorted perspective on the music of African American artists, including a certain Santa Ynez Valley resident whose pictures have been in the news lately.

Look at Michael Jackson. Who has done more for American music than Michael Jackson? Not many. Before he came out everybody was singing everybody else's songs. They worked in song factories.

"But every time I see a mention of him on the tube, he's denigrated. If I see anybody who's black and doing anything important, they're belittled. It's a very strange planet right now."

Smith's own musical work touches on the avant-garde jazz scene as well as contemporary classical circles and occasional electric jazz groups. It's very much an artistic existence in progress, based out of beautiful Piru. And he sees his work - and that of all artists - as necessary.

"Artists nourish the society and give people the courage to not only keep believing," he said, "but to actually understand realities about their social system."


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