A conversation with the celebrated jazz composer, trumpeter and ethnomusicologist, who developed his own musical language.
Wadada Leo Smith is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and improviser whose studies of African, Japanese, European, American and Indonesian music, and invention of the systemic music language Ankhrasmation, have made him one of the most celebrated trumpeters living today. Starting out in marching bands and R&B groups as a teenager in his native Mississippi, he moved on to playing in the Delta blues and improvisational traditions, styles that he developed in the US military band program in the early 1960s. He studied ethnomusicology at the Sherwood School of Music and at Wesleyan University in the ’70s; a noted academic, he teaches at various universities and worked as the director of the African-American Improvisational Music program at CalArts, among other titles. Smith has spent decades developing his trumpet and flugelhorn techniques, and has studied instruments like the atenteben, the Ghanaian bamboo flute. As well as releasing over 40 albums as a band leader since the ‘70s, Smith’s multi-faceted approach to jazz has drawn collaborations with artists like Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Vijay Iyer and Henry Kaiser. A practicing Muslim, Smith draws on philosophy, spirituality and a worldly knowledge of music to create his art.
Here, Smith is referring to Chicago’s historic Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a non-profit devoted to nurturing various strains of jazz performers, composers and educators, specifically in the realm of experimental and improvisational jazz. Recently, longtime member and Wadada Leo Smith collaborator George Lewis published a comprehensive history of the association.
As a recently inaugurated member of the AACM, Smith performed on Anthony Braxton’s 1968 debut LP 3 Compositions of New Jazz with Leroy Jenkins and Muhal Richard Abrams, also debuting “The Bells,” a track composed by Smith that laid the foundations for Smith’s unique compositional techniques.
Smith’s complex strain of musical notation – termed “Ankhrasmation” – is based on the light spectrum, and touts disciples such as DNA drummer and composer Ikue Mori.
“To make a work of art it is not about destruction. It’s about celebrating and glorifying the idea of being alive.”