Passionate About Jazz
Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter on a mission ...
. . . to share his deep love for art and creativity
By Andrew Dansby
Nov. 4, 2006
KAREN WARREN: CHRONICLE
CREATING ART: Wadada Leo Smith says, "Making art is like making a big bang kind of creation every day."
Wadada Leo Smith sometimes strokes his long, graying beard while he talks about jazz and his long career making music. But when the 65-year-old trumpeter really wants to drive home a point about art and creativity, he leans in close, tilts his head a little to the side and stares deeply. He punctuates each point with a pause and a knowing smile.
He's a believer in art and he talks like it. Several times in a conversation he references "creating art," and he says it with conviction. "Making art is like making a big bang kind of creation every day," he says. "It's like the start of a little world. Sure, it's on a smaller scale, but it's just as profound. It's more satisfying than anything else one can achieve. It's something you do for the people around you and the people you care about. It's for the community."
Smith is an anomaly among jazz's avant-garde. Although he was a pioneering member of Chicago's storied Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s - an organization committed to innovative music that included the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Maurice McIntyre and others. Smith has thrived outside of New York and Chicago, jazz's two hubs. Conventional wisdom suggests that any jazz player, particularly one without mainstream leanings, must reside in one of the two cities for the simple reason that is where the gigs are.
Instead, Smith teaches. For more than a decade he's lived on the West Coast and taught at the California Institute for the Arts, including one particularly interesting two-part course about composition and improvisation, two seemingly disparate approaches to music that he's spent decades fusing.
Smith has been in Houston this week doing both of his jobs. He's been working with jazz students, instructing, conducting and recording. And tonight, he'll perform at the Bamevelder Movement/Arts Complex as part of the Nameless Sound music series.
MUSIC: Career has never been about fame, riches
His style is particularly inviting among free-jazz players, possibly in part because of its deep roots in the blues, a form that some listeners find more familiar than jazz. He was born in Leland, Miss., and says he couldn't help but pick up the bluesy influence of that place. "It's a powerful culture," he says. "Blues was my first language, and it never went away."
By 1967, though, Smith was in Chicago, where he applied those blues roots to the exciting jazz sounds that were bubbling up at the time. He worked with most of the city's notable jazz eccentrics such as Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton.
He says his teachers almost always handed down lessons for free, and that is part of what drove him to teach. Although he's outside the range for quick gigs in New York, he's still a prolific recording artist, having performed some great material with musicians on Matthew Shipp's Blue Series label and also leading his marvelous percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, guitarist Woody Aplanalp and bassist John Lindberg.
Smith admits his path never would have made him rich, especially with jazz's failure to maintain a large financial and production infrastructure.
But he hints that his life. and work possess purity. He likens his artistic process to that of Thoreau's. "He's a beautiful model," Smith says. "When he wrote Walden, he didn't need paper money or anything like it. He instead beautifully documented insects and sunbeams and whatever else he saw."
Smith smiles. "When he died, he wasn't sad. He was still full of life.
"All the important teachers of the world - Adam, Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha - they had very little when they passed away. They're my inspiration. They're my model."
"To teach and create and not expect or demand anything in return."
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