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Wadada Leo Smith: 2018 Religions and the Arts Awardee

The AAR Religion and the Arts Award Jury is pleased to announce the recipient of its 2018 award: composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.

Wadada Leo Smith photo by Michael Jackson

Born in Mississippi in 1941, composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has a musical background as diverse as his output. Whether playing in blues bands or avant-garde ensembles, Smith has always understood music to be not only an aesthetic practice but a vehicle for historical, political, and religious investigation.

Since joining the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1967, Smith has consistently practiced such investigation. As he himself evolved religiously—his influences include his Christian upbringing as well as Rosicrucianism, Rastafarianism, and Islam—Smith has steadily documented his music, which collectively has produced a huge body of work that changes our understanding of what “music” is, and how new musical ideas can promote justice, solidarity, and reflectiveness among humans.

In the mid-sixties, Smith began to research a new language for scoring the musical properties of sound, rhythm, and silence, and his first breakthrough came in 1967 in Chicago. His Ankhrasmation Symbolic Language is constituted of symbols and graphemes indicating "rhythm units" through which players could "calibrate the relationship between sound and silence." For Smith, these are fundamental, generative properties of the "divine life force," which act transformatively on players and listeners.

Smith began subsequently to link these ideas with his own investigations of philosophy, theology, and mystical writings. He contends that since music “affects your life whether you like it or not,” the best music should contribute to human betterment and spiritual development. Beginning with Songs of Humanity’s exploration of Japanese Buddhist aesthetics, Smith’s compositions have used his Ankhrasmation language—which includes traditional notation and graphic scores – to facilitate these contributions.

Many of Smith’s projects are more overt in their socio-political implications. Cosmic Music focuses on “the issues of borders, refugees, and immigrants.” Tabligh “deals with the issue of the way people look at Islamic ideas and people in Islam.” Smith believes that his music can establish new ethical worlds for audiences, focusing on “creative images that cause people to think in a provocative way” about these and other issues.

The openness and engagement demanded by Ankhrasmation music represent Smith’s understanding of radical democratic politics (and the necessity of spirituality therein). This is at the heart of his five-hour suite Ten Freedom Summers, a chronicle of the Civil Rights Movement that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Smith’s reckoning with this period in American history was also fueled by a sense of urgency and concern about what he regards as the “spiritual violence” visible in contemporary America.

This decades-long contribution to American arts is framed consistently and creatively by Smith’s distinctive practice of and reflections on religion.

 

Wadada Leo Smith photo by Kimmy Katz

Career Bio and Accolades:

Trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Wadada Leo Smith is one of the most boldly original and influential artists of his time. Transcending the bounds of genre or idiom, he distinctly defines his music, tirelessly inventive in both sound and approach, as "Creative Music."

Throughout his career, Smith has been recognized for his groundbreaking work.  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. In addition, he received the Hammer Museum's 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement "honoring brilliance and resilience."

In 2017 Smith topped three categories in DownBeat Magazine’s 65th Annual Critics Poll: Best Jazz Artist, Trumpeter of the Year and Jazz Album of the Year and was featured as the subject of a cover story in August 2017. He also earned Musician of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year in the El Intruso Critics Poll, and the Jazz Journalists Association also honored Smith as their 2017 Musician of the Year as well as the 2017 Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer.  The JJA named him their 2016 Trumpeter of the Year, 2015 Composer of the Year, and 2013 Musician of the Year, and he earned top billing in two categories in the JazzTimes 2016 Critics Poll: Artist of the Year and Composer of the Year.

In October 2015, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presented the first comprehensive exhibition of Smith's Ankhrasmation scores which use non-standard visual directions making them works of art in themselves as well as igniting creative sparks in the musicians who perform them. In 2016, these scores were also featured in the Hammer Museum's Made in L.A. exhibition, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and Kadist in San Francisco, among others.

Born December 18, 1941, in Leland, Mississippi, Smith's early musical life began at age thirteen when he became involved with the Delta blues and jazz traditions performing with his stepfather, bluesman Alex Wallace. He received his formal musical education from the U.S. Military band program (1963), the Sherwood School of Music (1967–69), and Wesleyan University (1975–76).

Smith has released more than 50 albums as a leader on labels including ECM, Moers, Black Saint, Tzadik, Pi Recordings, TUM, Leo and Cuneiform. His diverse discography reveals a recorded history centered on important issues that have impacted his world, exploring the social, natural and political environment of his times with passion and fierce intelligence. His 2016 recording, America’s National Parks, a six-movement suite inspired by the scenic splendor, historic legacy, and political controversies of the country’s public landscapes, earned a place on numerous best of the year lists including the New York Times, NPR Music and many others. Smith’s landmark 2012 civil rights opus Ten Freedom Summers was called “A staggering achievement [that] merits comparison to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach.”

 

Photo credits: 

Image 1 - Michael Jackson

Image 2 - Jimmy Katz