Wadada Leo Smith

America’s National Parks

With America’s National Parks, visionary composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith offers his latest epic collection, a six-movement suite inspired by the scenic splendor, historic legacy, and political controversies of the country’s public landscapes. Writing for his newly expanded Golden Quintet, Smith crafts six extended works that explore, confront and question the preserved natural resources that are considered the most hallowed ground in the United States – and some that should be.

“The idea that Ken Burns explored in that documentary was that the grandeur of nature was like a religion or a cathedral,” Smith says. “My version of the national parks is as a natural phenomenon in creation, just like man and stars and light and water, is all one thing, just a diffusion of energy.  It’s a spiritual and psychological dimension of that idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.”

“You don’t really need to visit a park to write about a park,” Smith insists, “Debussy wrote ‘La Mer,’ which is about the sea, and he wasn’t a seafaring person. I would defend his right to do that, and I would contend that ‘La Mer’ is a masterpiece that clearly reflects his psychological connection with the idea of the sea.”

The idea of the parks, rather than their physical and geographical beauty, is central to Smith’s conception for this music. In its marrying of natural landmarks and political challenges it can be traced back to both of the composer’s most recent epic masterpieces, The Great Lakes and especially Ten Freedom Summers. “It became a political issue for me because the people that they set up to control and regulate the parks were politicians,” Smith says. “My feeling is that the parks should be independent of Congress and organized around an independent source who has no political need to be reelected. So it’s a spiritual/psychological investigation mixed with the political dynamics.”

Smith’s always open-minded view of the world leads him to find that same inspiration wherever he is. “Every concrete house is from nature,” he says. Every plastic airplane that flies 300 people across the ocean comes out of nature. Every air conditioner conditions a natural piece of air. I think that the human being is constantly enfolded in organic nature and constructed nature, so I’m constantly inspired, inside the house or outside the house.”

Wadada Leo Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi, and his musical life began in high school concert and marching bands. At the age of 13, he became involved with the Delta Blues and other music traditions.

Mr. Smith received his formal musical education from his stepfather Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, composer and guitarist, and one of the pioneers of electric guitar in Delta Blues. He was further educated through the U.S. Military band program at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (1963); Sherwood School of Music (1967-69); and Wesleyan University (1975-76). He has researched a variety of music cultures: African, Japanese, Indonesian, European and American.

Wadada Leo Smith, trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser is one of the most acclaimed creative artists of his times, both for his music and his writings. For the last five decades, Mr. Smith has been a member of the historical and legendary AACM collective. He distinctly defines his music as “Creative Music.” Mr. Smith’s diverse discography reveals a recorded history centered around important issues that have impacted his world.

Mr. Smith started his research and designs in search of Ankhrasmation in 1965. His first realization of this language was in 1967, which was illustrated in the recording of “The Bell” (Anthony Braxton: Three Compositions of New Jazz) and has played a significant role in his development as an artist, ensemble leader, and educator.

He has been on the faculty of the following institutions: the University of New Haven (1975-’76), The Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY (1975-’78), and Bard College (1987-’93). From 1994 he was on the faculty at the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts. There he was the director of the African-American Improvisational Music program. Mr. Smith retired from CalArts in 2013.

He is a member of these professional organizations: ASCAP, Chamber Music America, and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Mr. Smith’s awards and commissions include: DownBeat Magazine’s 65th Annual Critics Poll: Artist, Trumpet, and Album of the Year (America’s National Parks). Mr. Smith is featured on the cover of the August 2017 issue of DownBeat. And in the 2016 Jazz Times’ Critics Poll, he was honored the Artist of the Year.

His America’s National Parks earned wide praise as one of the best albums of 2016 from media like the New York Times, the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, The Wire, and many other publications.

A finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, he received the 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and earned an honorary doctorate from CalArts, where he was also celebrated as Faculty Emeritus.

Mr. Smith was also honored by the Jazz Journalists Association as their 2017 Musician of the Year as well as the 2017 Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer. The JJA also named him their 2016 Trumpeter of the Year, 2015 Composer of the Year, and 2013 Musician of the Year. Also, in 2013 he was also selected as DownBeat’s Composer of the Year and he graced the cover of that magazine in November 2016.

Wadada Leo Smith’s Ankhrasmation language scores have recently been exhibited in major American museums. In October 2015, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presented the first comprehensive exhibition of these language scores. In 2016, the scores were also featured in the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” exhibition; he also received the Hammer Museum’s 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement honoring brilliance and resilience.

His scores have also been shown at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Michigan, and Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco, California.

Ten Freedom Summers, (Defining Moments in the History of the United States of America) is a large work (four-CD box set) inspired by the civil rights movement. TFS has been awarded: MAP Fund Award (2011), Chamber Music America New Works Grant (2010), NEA Recording Grant (2010), commissioned by Southwest Chamber Music with support from the James Irvine Foundation and Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, and Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2009-2010).

He was awarded an Other Minds residency, that commissioned Taif, a string quartet (2008); simultaneously a Fellow of the Jurassic Foundation (2008); FONT (Festival of New Trumpet) Award of Recognition (2008); Islamic World Arts Initiative of Arts International (2004); Fellow of the Civitela Foundation (2003); Fellow at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (2001); “Third Culture Copenhagen” in Denmark presented a paper on Ankhrasmation (1996); Meet the Composer/Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program (1996); Asian Cultural Council Grantee to Japan (June-August 1993); Meet the Composer/Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program (1990); New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship in Music (1990); Numerous Meet the Composer Grants (since 1977); and National Endowment for the Arts Music Grants (1972, 1974, 1981).