Heralded as a pioneering figure in the field of music for more than five decades, composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s artistic vision knows no bounds. Throughout his prolific career—which boasts upwards of 50 albums—Smith has delved deep into the power of sound, language and even color, to discover what art can tell us about ourselves and our relationships with the world around us.
Smith is visiting Charlottesville for the first time, joined by his Golden Quintet, comprised of pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, cellist Ashley Walters and video artist Jesse Gilbert. The group will participate in workshops, public talks, a gallery exhibition and a performance at Old Cabell Hall as part of the Impulse Festival, where Smith’s acclaimed six movement suite, America’s National Parks (released in 2016), will be performed.
After watching Ken Burns’ 12-hour documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Smith began conducting his own research—and while his National Parks begins with Yellowstone and includes other sites like Yosemite—he goes further, fleshing out the concept of a national park by incorporating cultural figures and touchstones outside of the official landscapes.
“Ken Burns made his documentary around the idea of natural cathedrals and a natural religion and he kind of canonized all those early guys involved in discovery,” says Smith. “I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to make a national park that could be defined on the same ground as our national parks are defined, but I wanted to expand it. …I made Dr. Eileen Southern—who wrote a very comprehensive book on African-American music—I made her a national park, like a national literary park. So the idea of a national park becomes far greater than just the common geographical grounds that are allocated for common use.”
Smith also sanctioned the Mississippi River. “I was born 28 miles east of the Mississippi River in a town called Leland, Mississippi, and I crossed that bridge often,” says Smith. “Most of the most dramatic stories about the Mississippi came in relationship to conflict of race and rights and privileges. African-Americans were often dumped in that river because it [is] one of the longest rivers in the world. And so I saw it as a memorial river that concealed and revealed at the same time, because whatever is dumped…ends up popping up somewhere up coast and people are going to find out what’s in it.”
Smith’s focus on the importance of history and culture is what led to his inclusion of New Orleans.
“New Orleans…produced the first authentic American music,” he says. “So right there, that’s enough to claim it as such, but also it’s the birthplace of very important artists. [After] John Lennon and The Beatles, Louis Armstrong was the second most known person on Earth. That’s an important icon. You’ve got Joseph Oliver; a ton of people who actually cultivated music philosophy that eventually would spread throughout the United States. And as a way of understanding how the world works, it became the most known music on the planet.”
The music Smith is referring to is commonly known as jazz. But, he explains, the term jazz is a misnomer.
“[It] was erroneously named jazz. It should have been named like the participants named it; they called it creative music,” says Smith. “But because no one respects African-American views, it was misnamed by writers and music buffs and journalists and people like that and also the industry, you know, they had to classify it and so they accepted that name. But that early music that they called jazz should be called creative music. No one at that time during the formation of that music was calling it jazz.”
While America’s National Parks was named album of the year in NPR’s Jazz Critics Poll, and Smith was honored as artist of the year in the 2016 JazzTimes’ Critics Poll, he does not consider his music to be jazz. Like the early innovators, he prefers the term creative music.
“Creative music means that any artist that puts some of their own self, that is their own consciousness, their own ideas, into the performance—though they didn’t create the work—they simply supplied their ideas to it, they are co-creating that work as well,” Smith says. “And the other definition is that if that music has a 5 percent composition form and a 15 or 20 percent improvisational form—which, I don’t even use that word any more, but I’m using that word to describe it—then that piece of work is termed creative music.”
Charlottesville will experience the ever-changing beauty of creative music firsthand at Saturday’s performance.
“America’s National Parks has 30 pages of written material and it takes 90 minutes thereabouts to perform all six suites…and of course it’s going to be entirely different when the musicians respond to it in a live situation,” explains Smith. “They have the opportunity to experience the audience, to experience the resonance quality of the building that they’re playing in, and the excitement of recreating the National Parks—a new version of it that no one has ever heard.”