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Golden Age
Wadada Leo Smith on  how far AACM
- and society - have come.

By Shaun Brady
Philidelphia City Paper

Dec. 1, 2005

When the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians formed 40 years ago, it was conceived around notions of freedom that extended beyond the justly celebrated improvisational ideas expressed through its music. "We wanted to change ourselves" says Wadada Leo Smith. "And then we wanted to change our society."

Smith was a, part of the organization virtually from the beginning, joining in 1967 at the behest of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. The trumpeter moved to Chicago, the AACM's headquarters, after a stint in the Army, not wanting to return to Mississippi or any where in the South.

Musically, Smith had already been progressing along similar lines, his ears having been opened by Ornette Coleman's early albums. But he cites Miles Davis' Kind of Blue as the precursor to the AACM's experiments. Miles, according to Smith, "reduced all of the crap that bebop had put into the music, and made it so that you could actually articulate ideas as opposed to technique. Listen to any bebop player, Charlie Parker straight on across, you'll find that they have more of an exhibitionist approach to ideas."

But while the AACM clearly has been successful in advancing its antecedents' musical ideas, Smith faults the group for failing to achieve its larger social goals.., He sees many of the problems they faced at the - group's inception still extant, noting that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the media was full of "smart, intelligent, bright newsmen and women calling African-Americans fucking refugees. So I think you can see from that line, from slavery to Reconstruction straight on through, you still have a social structure that does not admit acceptance for this large segment of the population in America. We're not accepted, we're never going to be accepted in this particular structure. After 40O years, who's kidding themselves about that?"

The main problem, in Smith's opinion, is that the AACM has never found a consistent way to develop wealth. While it is technically still an active organization, its members are scattered geographically and, outside of the occasional concert appearance, do not maintain much communication.

"What would help the AACM is if somebody like Barry Bonds or Shaquille O'Neal or Tiger Woods would drop about $40 million into the goddamn bucket and build an AACM institution for the Arts. Because that's what it takes. Checkout the Spielbergs and people like that. They don't just build businesses, sneaker shops and restaurants and movies. They build institutions. Institutions are places where you develop knowledge, where you develop wealth, where you invent stuff, where you treat illness through research."

To that end, albeit on a much smaller scale, Smith refers to any ensemble he leads as a "common research team." (His current team is the second version of his Golden Quartet, featuring pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.) Like several of the AACM composers - most notably Anthony Braxton, with whom he co-founded the Creative Construction Company trio in the late 1960s - Smith's compositions are system- or language-based, providing a complex structure for improvisation. But, he insists, an audience need not understand the system to appreciate the music. "Baseball is a very complex sport, a really intellectual sport, and it has lots of planes that no one really understands except those guys out there playing baseball. But we appreciate the hell out of baseball."

According to Smith, an audience sufficiently open to reflection can be changed by a musical event. He points to the actual physical effects of music on an environment as effecting a tangible transformation. Writ large, this effect can create the desired cultural change.

'The social sphere is waiting there to be changed" or bad, by whoever takes the initiative. The AACM is a positive thing, and so is art. If we didn't have art, our society would've collapsed a long time ago. And if there was not worldwide art, then I think we would have some other species talking about when Earth was."


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