RAW TAPE: Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers
Wadada Leo Smith: My name is Wadada Leo Smith. My occupation is composer, performer, educator, thinker, and probably trickster. And… what I had for breakfast was… a…. what was that? It was like a…. what’s those round things? A bagel. And a piece of cheese. And fruit.
Josh Jackson: A bagel. “What’s those round things?” That’s how I know you’re from Mississippi.
WLS: [Laughs] Yeah.
JJ: They don’t make those down there.
WLS: No they don’t.
JJ: Wadada Leo Smith, thank you for joining us on the Checkout.
WLS: Well thank you.
JJ: Ten Freedom Summers. Wow. What an amazing work. I have to tell you, you know, this thing is like five hours of music, so it’s almost a disservice to try to listen to that all in one bite.
WLS: It is, it is. But as a composer I had to do it. And I’ve did it several times. But… my first listening I divided it into 2 CDs at a time. And that way I familiarized myself with it, then I did the other two and I familiarized myself. Then I listened to the whole thing, and that’s when I became completely amazed. I said “who is this guy? What does he mean?” You know… 4 CDs, hours of music. But I remembered that I was that guy, and that I had actually performed it live 5 and a half hours in the premier, and 6 hours in Sao Paolo Brazil. All 3 of them. 2 Hours per night.
JJ: Y’all must’ve been sweating.
WLS: We were sweating. Because the whole idea is that each time I perform it, I want to add a new piece to it. Because this collection is selected into 3 collections. There’s a fourth collection that I haven’t even started to assimilate. But it’s there already.
JJ: 34 years in the making?
WLS: Yes, yes.
JJ: What gave you the inclination to start this thing?
WLS: Well, Leroy Jenkins was the…. um…. protagonist that said “Look”, well… I’ll say it this way. Our connection was very strong all the time. All through his life. We did lots of things together, like go for walks. I come to New York, we go for walks. We have food, sat out in the park and talked, things like that. Threadgill would also be part of that mix, Alvin Singleton would also be part of that mix. So in 1977 when Leroy put together a new ensemble, he had Andrew Cyrille on drums, Anthony Davis on piano, and him on violin. No bass. And he said “Smith”, you know, he always called me Smith. “Smith, how ‘bout writing a piece for me? To introduce my group?” And I did. And Medgar Evers was that piece, Ok? So on the premier, they premiered it in Italy. I was part of that festival. So I got a chance to hear the premier. And then on the premier performance in L.A., in October of 2011, Anthony Davis played the premier part and recorded it in November.
JJ: Let’s talk about that piece, Medgar Evers.
WLS: Mmm… hmm….
JJ: A love voice of a thousand years’ journey for liberty and justice. Now, I should tell you that this segment that you and I are doing today in April is actually going to air the day before Juneteenth. And, uh, June 12th of 1963. So the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith. You’re from Leland Mississippi.
JJ: Must’ve been an interesting time growing up there.
WLS: It was interesting… uhh… Very beautiful. And also very scary at the same time.
JJ: This is the same thing I think. Cause I’m from Louisiana. And you know, I spend a lot of time… I’m from the south.
JJ: You know… and…. it’s ancient.
WLS: Mmm… hmm….
JJ: And it;s sacred… and….
WLS: Mmm… hmm…. It’s beautiful!
JJ: Yeah, and it’s…. but it’s… evil too.
WLS: It’s very scary too, yes. Like any journey at night inside the town or in your neighborhood, when I was growing up there, you always had to be watchful. And people that knew you, they would watch you move through the streets. Sometimes if you went to their street and you couldn’t make it to the next street, if you were really lucky and somebody was awake, you could see them peeping through the curtain to see you. You know? To see that you got past that street. So it was scary at the same time, you know. But the fear was one of what would happen. But the joy of living was also, let’s say… celebrated across that kind of bumpy road.
JJ: Yeah, well you were right down the road from Indianola, which is where B.B. King basically grew up.
JJ: He was from Itta Bena, but… I mean, your stepfather was a blues musician.
WLS: And I met B.B. King, Little Milton, Albert King, all those buys. I met them over and over. You know… they were like my heroes, you know. What I wanted to be like.
Well, because in Mississippi, music is part of the culture. It’s not something that you attend and happen to go out for an occasion. It’s really part of the culture. For example, when I was um… 12 years old I used to play…. 12, 13, 14…. I used to play guys into the ground. Ok. Meaning that these are soldiers or city important people. They would call me to come and play something on the trumpet over their grave. Ok. People moving into a new house, they would call me to play, what they called the ghosts, out of their old house so that they could move in. So I would start on the porch, walking up the step playing the trumpet, move through each room playing the trumpet, and walk out the back door. So… cakewalked… You could see that in the middle of towns. You see, so music is kind of completely connected with the… uh… way in which people move and interact with each other through life. You know.
JJ: Medgar Evers was honorably discharged from the service.
WLS: Yes. Yeah.
JJ: Buried in Arlington.
WLS: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And the interesting thing about Medgar Evers and also about Ten Freedom Summers, umm…. He was killed a few minutes after John F. Kennedy made his famous… it was actually the first address to the nation about what they were calling Civil Rights then. But they’re human rights, ok. And in his last five minutes, he made a really emotional appeal to the American society to try to solve this problem, ok. Umm…. That part of the speech was improvised. That last five minutes, was all improvised! Ok? A few minutes, what 5, 10 minutes, 15 minutes after that speech, Medgar Evers pulls up to his home, steps out of the car, and was shot. Ok. Now, Medgar Evers, by whatever choice the creator puts inside of us, was the first piece completed for the Ten Freedom Summers. And the last piece completed was JFK, in this Ten Freedom Summers.
JJ: The Space Age.
WLS: The Space Age. Exactly, exactly.
JJ: Which is kind of an amazing piece for the ensemble that you have performing the string group. A nine piece group.
JJ: Wadada Leo Smith joins us on the checkout. We’re talking about Ten Freedom Summers, what I believe to be just a complete masterwork. Honestly.
WLS: Well… it’s…. It has for me been the most consuming and the most kind of reflection, meditative, contemplative zone that I’ve ever been in. In my life. And I didn’t know what to call it, the collection, until like two and a half years before I completed it, ok. I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t want to call it like a Civil Rights…. just that. But because of the playwright August Wilson, and what is it called, Pittsburgh Cycle, ok. He had took a whole decade, a whole century, ten centuries, and uh…. I had played in the first production of that. By tape, by audio tape, ok. Dwight Andrews who was in my ensemble at the time was selected to be the music director of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It was showcased at Yale/New Haven rap. I lived in New Haven, Dwight was going to Yale College. So they asked him to transcribe the music from records and re-record it with new musicians. I was the trumpet player on that. So I have a connection with August Wilson even though I never met him. But I saw that play, ok, and then it impressed me. So when I’m trying to figure up a name, I kind of felt like August Wilson has been a major influence on my thinking. That it’s not just history that we’re tracing this element through, but it’s cultural. Ok. And that’s the primary connection, is that he sought to make a play about culture that would demonstrate this historical presence of African Americans in this society over a hundred years. And it just popped into my head. “How about Ten Freedom Summers, Wadada?” And I said “Well, I like that. That’s pretty cool.” And I looked it up and wrote it down. I looked at it and it looked good. And, uhh… that’s what I started calling it.
JJ: It’s interesting to hear how you described… You said Civil Rights, then you stopped yourself and you said Human Rights.
WLS: Human rights, right.
JJ: And this reminds me, going back to Mississippi, about James Meredith.
JJ: The first person to integrate the University of Mississippi. Ole’ Miss. And he never wanted it to be associated with Civil Rights.
JJ: He believed it to be his human right.
WLS: Right. Right. And that’s correct.
JJ: I want to stay in Mississippi because….
WLS: Then stay there!
JJ: Because the soil is rich there.
WLS: Then stay there. And also the sunrise. You know, it comes up out of the ground. Because where I’m from, it’s all flat land. And when you walk out there, like we would walk out to do farm work. You know, like cotton and corn and watermelons. The whole kind of work that you do in that region. And you get up before the sunrise. And you look out across the field, and you see this thin area of the disc coming out of the ground, and it’s at the bottom of your feet. You really feel very magnificent. You feel kind of like celebrating. Then it comes up and reaches the mid-part of your chest. And you can see the rays popping out. And then it reaches up to your forehead and you can see the rays encircling you, and it also blinds you. And, the next thing you see is that it’s atop of you. And the day is….. it’s on. You know.
JJ: But it warms you up too.
WLS: It warms you up, and it keeps you alive, including everything on the planet. \
JJ: There’s a piece in Ten Freedom Summers, and it’s called Emmett Till.
WLS: Oh yes.
JJ: Defiant. Fearless. It doesn’t escape me that you and Emmett Till are the same age.
WLS: We’re the same age. Born less than 20 miles from my home. You know, we heard about it the next day. That this quote “wolf whistle” occurred. Everybody was afraid to go out of the house, and stuff like that, because they knew that there was some heavy stuff going down, you know. But fearless because A statement I read regarding some of the people that were the ones that did the murdering, but were never prosecuted about it, ok. That they didn’t intend to kill him. They only intended to teach him a lesson. But every time they beat him harder and harder he showed no fear. That’s where that title came from, you see. Another unusual event about that Emmett Till part of it is, that when you look into his eyes, you don’t see any fear. You see a young man that’s very beautiful, that looks straight out from under that white hat he had on. He looks straight out into you.
JJ: Oh, this is the Christmas photo.
WLS: Oh yes.
JJ: That his mother took.
WLS: You see, and when I was composing that particular piece, a number of particular pieces had similar reactions, but that one still I feel it sometimes in me. Ok. Some kind of transformation, and if you listen to it and compare it with all the other pieces it has this kind of deep sadness in it. But you would have to slash it and this deep kind of celebratorial quality to it. You see, and then it has this adventureness in it which is that part where everything just goes, berserk, you know. Which is actually a symbolic representation of the killing. But I make his transformation in the composition before the killing. In otherwords, there’s a notion “Where death is, life is not”.
JJ: Where death is, life is not.
WLS: Where death is, life is not. You see. So I wanted to make his transition coming out of the cello solo into that kind of really eerie zone. That eerie zone is taken from, it’s a direct quote from Black Church.
JJ: Another composition in Ten Freedom Summers.
WLS: Yes, yes. And because the Black Church has this powerful institution, both from Reconstruction times straight on through to now, I wanted to make that connection. But also the spiritual context of the connection, where he makes his ascension before they actually kill him, you see. That’s a mystical idea about it. But then after the beating occurs, you see.
JJ: Not just the beating, but I mean, they beat him senselessly.
WLS: Right, right.
JJ: They took barbed wire and tied a cotton gin fan to him. And they threw him in the Tallahatchie River.
WLS: Yes, yes.
JJ: How did you feel about that? That kid was your age. He could have been you!
WLS: It could have easily been me, or anybody else I knew or didn’t know in that time zone and that space. You see. It could’ve been anybody. Every kid that grows up in that environment has had an experience that comes close to that. Ok. I can give you one about my life. When I was 14 maybe or 15, I’m not sure which age. Right around the same time….
JJ: Right around the same time.
WLS: I was playing in a band since the age of 13. Ok. Various bands but they’re blues bands, ok. And I used to play every Saturday night, sometimes Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at this country club that’s less than 8 miles form my home. Ok. And only whites could go to that country club. When the band would come in, they would bring us in the kitchen, through the back door, make us wait till time to play. The manager, the owner of the place, would line us up, and say “Don’t look to the left or the right. Look directly at my back and follow me to the stage.” Ok. Well, I used to do that every week, ok. In this band, ok. And then one night I walked my girlfriend home who lives in a different section of town than I do. And I’m walking back, and I walk through town cause I don’t want to walk the back route that I would normally walk because it’s dark and things can happen. So I’m walking downtown where there’s lots of light. I’m walking through the town and all of a sudden a car comes around the curve very fast. Pulls upside of the sidewalk where I’m walking, screeches on the breaks. 6 or 7 big, nice, healthy white men jumped out. And they came towards me to beat me, ok. I hadn’t provoked them. One of the guys said “Hey. That’s Leo. He plays at the cotton club.” Umm… country club. They all jumped back in the car and left.
JJ: It distinguished you at the time from being called “the N-word”.
WLS: It… also… what it did was, it showed that that guy had been attending that club and I was one of the guys he didn’t need to have beaten up. You see.
JJ: How could you walk into that country club, not look left, not look right, just look at the owner’s back and then get out of there and play and then try to transmit joy to that audience?
WLS: Well, it was a challenge. But we did it. And we did it on a higher level. And things happened. Many things happened. Sometimes women would come on stage, because the manager now he stands right on the side of the state with his arms folded the whole time we’re playing. Sometimes women would come on stage, jump on stage, and immediately, that night, the band was finished. The moment they stepped on stage, the guy walks over, music is finished, took us out. Boom. It’s over. Yeah. Lots of things happened like that, ok. My stepfather now, who was a blues master, we go into town where we’re supposed to play that night. And what do we do? We are met at the entrance of town by the chief of police with his car across the road. And he says “You guys those musicians that are supposed to be playing here tonight?” It’s a Sunday night. My stepfather says “Yes sir,” he says “Well you can turn around and go back. Because there’s not gonna be any music tonight. People gotta go to work on Monday.” We got back in the car and turned around and went back.
JJ: I mean, I think what younger audiences might not fully grasp is the level at which the police, the society there… I mean, you had what’s called… what was the guy’s name? Patterson from Indianola started the white citizen’s council. I mean, and this is the guy who murdered Medgar Evers was a part of this. But they were police, and I mean, you know. One of the amazing things about the Emmett Till trial to me other than the fact that it was a total farce, was there was a moment. And there’s a photograph of it, Where Mose Wright, the old man, points out who did it. And you know, that’s an amazing moment to imagine that in those circumstances, a black man would stand up in court and do that.
WLS: Could to that, yeah, exactly. Right right. And one of the things about the Emmett Till element and the history of it. One of the guys that was accused of killing him sold insurance in black neighborhoods, including mine. That’s what he did after that. People saw him every week, runnin’ through the neighborhood. Now, I think that that was a severe punishment for him. You know. Cause he’s gotta come to these people who he actually dislikes, and every week collect these pennies for insurance. Which really was a rip-off anyway. But nevertheless, that’s one of the things that he ended up doing. And everybody knew who he was, and hated him and despised him.
JJ: Wadada Leo Smith Joins us on the Checkout. We’re talking about Ten Freedom Summers, five hours of music over four CDs. And it features Mr. Smith with the Golden Quartet and also members of the Southwest Chamber Music ensemble. Those members of the band include Pheeroan AkLaff, Susie Ibarra, Anthony Davis, and John Lindberg. Let’s talk about the Freedom Riders’ ride.
WLS: Yes. Yeah. That’s the interesting one too. All these things got stories behind them. Ok.
JJ: Oh, yes.
WLS: But there;s an ensemble story behind this one. The first performance that the Golden Quartet was selected to play in American was at the University of Georgia.
JJ: My alma mater.
WLS: University of Georgia.
WLS: And there’s Anthony Davis, Malachi Favors, Jack DeJohnette, and Wadada, ok. They offered me and Jack a special something. They offered Jack a workshop and they offered me a commission. They said “We would like for you to compose a piece of music for this event so it’ll be special. And we’re gonna raise the money for you, for the commission. And it got started, I started on the music. Eventually it was realized that they could not raise the money for that. But I wrote the piece anyway. I didn’t finish until after the performance. But I wrote the piece anyway because when I thought about the Freedom Riders’ ride, the bus that whole event that was going on, I wanted to see if I could make a celebration about what that was. Because the murder of Chaney and those guys took place during that extended run.
JJ: You’re talking about James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
WLS: Exactly, exactly.
JJ: Most of the members of what was called C.O.R.E., the congress of racial equality.
WLS: Right, right. Well that’s really what that piece is, ok. Normally it celebrates small narrow moments, all of my pieces do. About the event, so that I can portray the psychological element as opposed to just the historical or some other context of it. But if you notice that piece is kind of like a journey piece. It doesn’t ever really seriously stop and it’s kind of like when you sit on a bus, or in a car, or in a plane or train. And you get acclimated to the journey. It could literally go on forever. Because of the way you have actually settled into it. That piece is supposed to have something about that: how do you get to that level in it? What’s the other journey? That night those three activists ridin’ on this dark Mississippi road, journeying to the end of their life. They don’t know it. But it is. That’s their journey. And it becomes a mystery after that.
JJ: Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam for 44 days.
WLS: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
JJ: James Chaney was whipped with a chain before they were all shot.
WLS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
JJ: This is Mississippi.
WLS: Yeah. Yeah. And, but, this is one of the prices or the price that one pay to try to condition society into the right zone for human liberty. It’s one of the prices because nothing is free. Measured in life or death. It’s just…. that’s just not free. If you look at the Arab Spring that erupted around the place, or you look at the occupy movement that erupted, there’s somehow, you have to pay some of the ultimate prices in order to make the journey come out right.
WLS: Yes, blood. And that’s what’s happened in this journey towards… not freedom. Because freedom sometimes is not enough to express what it is that this journey is about. It’s a journey towards this magnificent notion about being alive and functioning at your highest peak. And showing the grace of concept and practice of loving and caring and connecting and communicating.
JJ: Wadada Leo Smith, are you happy with the results of that blood debt? Today?
WLS: No… not… no. Because the thing that the great activist Douglass… the thing Douglass…
JJ: Frederick Douglass?
WLS: …Frederick Douglass stated was that this is never over. You have to continuously be active and agitated. The thing that Bob Marley said is that “It never ends.” You have to always continually do this. So that means that one of the qualities of life is affecting change constantly.
JJ: And you must live with the thought that there’ll always be blood.
WLS: There will. There will. There will. Because all of the social systems on the planet are a disadvantage for the majority of the people. Not just for special ethnic groups of people, but for the majority of the people. All of the systems on the planet are at a disadvantage for us. And how can we change that? We never can do it in a few lifetimes, maybe not even a few centuries. You know. It takes a long time to make this thing come out right.
JJ: Wadada Leo Smith joins us on the Checkout. Ten Freedom Summers, the recording on Cuneiform Records. Let’s talk about Brown vs. The Board of Education. Another small step.
WLS: Yes, yes. And what a fantastic journey that’s been. That’s been one of the things that distinguished the latter movement for social change in America, as opposed to this first part, was this notion about the law. Justice under the law. And that it was probably, in their thinking, that that would be the real thing that would really motivate the real society to come out. But we find that that’s not really true. you see. Even if we look at the context of the 1964 Voter’s Rights Act, we find in 2012 that voter suppression was as great as ever. So this whole journey of the Supreme Court… and I must say here, I must add like an addendum or whatever I would call it, an appendix or something. It’s that we have allowed the Supreme Court, in the process of our socializing, to become the most powerful branch of government. And it’s not even an elected part of government. It’s an appointed part.
JJ: Now prior to Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, there were…
WLS: Many other cases.
JJ: Homer Plessy vs. Ferguson. Separate but equal is constitutional, and that set the mandate for society to Jim Crow and all of these things.
WLS: Exactly. Exactly. Well there’s this guy, Richard Roundtree, I believe is his name. He’s a very famous writer of social activism and stuff like that. He goes back and looks at that, after so many years, Brown vs. Board of Education, or that whole notion that’s inherent in all of these court cases. And he found that the thing that made it very difficult for change to actually be persuasive, was one clause. Deliver speed, or whatever that connection was… delivered speed. He goes back and traces that word historically, a hundred and something years. And it meant the same thing it does now, in the context of relationship of people. It really didn’t mean anything about change. It meant that you could actually do what they actually did. You can create all these other roadblocks through this delivered motion of someday applying change to this something. But in my Brown vs. Board of Education, I wanted to institute the notion of how blues was the real true aesthetics of freedom.
JJ: What do you mean?
WLS: Ok, well I mean this. Often we think that a blues is a 1, 4, and 5, that has 12 bars on it. Or it’s a 12 bars with a bridge between it, or 8 bars with a bridge between it. It’s not…. none of those things. It’s an alternation between a 1 and a 5, which is not a progression at all, ok. And the alternation between the 1 and the 5 if you follow the philosophy of John Lee Hooker, could be any time you want to, or even not at all.
WLS: But in the context of listening to that Mr. Hooker play that music, you’re not disturbed by the fact that he may stay on the four till the end of the piece. You’re not disturbed at all because he makes it have an interesting journey for you. That satisfies your aesthetic and your needs… you know. So when something alternates between the 1 and the 5, which by the way is the root or bases for all tonal music. Classical, indigenous, or otherwise. The tonic and the dominant is the root for all tonal music. If there’s gonna be tone, it has something to do with that, even if the 5 is not used. It’s implied. So what does that mean? it means these things alternate between something that creates tension and something that releases tension. And that 1, that 4, that 1, that 5. If 1 and 5 is the only stuff that should change… the other ones are all superficial.
JJ: Sometimes the implication is stronger than the execution.
WLS: Exactly, exactly. Because the range of how you communicate that and the listener’s ability to absolve that takes it somewhere else. In fact, that somewhere else is explorable. Because its unmeasurable, as Sun Ra would say.
JJ: So you said blues is the ultimate freedom.
JJ: and since were on the subject of that composition about Brown vs. The Board of Education, I want to read something by a fellow Mississippian. This gentleman wrote an essay called “On Fear”. And he did it for Harper’s magazine. And it was talking about the South “in labor”. Right around this time.
“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it. Our freedom must be buttressed by a homogeny. Equality and unchallengably free, no matter what color they are. So all the inimical forces everywhere, systems political or religious, or racial, or national, will not just respect us because we practice freedom. They will fear us because we do.” – William Faulkner.
WLS: Well look, Mr. Faulkner was a profound thinker. You don’t come up with a notion about reality like that without being a thinker. I remember reading Faulkner in school, you know, The Sound of the Fury, novels like that. And at the time you just think about it as what it is you’re doing. But in his quotation here, it really makes you feel connected to what was in those novels. That’s pretty powerful.
JJ: What is freedom for you?
WLS: Freedom for me is a spiritual and moral uprising.
WLS: Within the center of my heart, and the levels of my consciousness. It tells me that it’s definition or meaning must continuously change as I change every day, every year. And that it could never quite be fixed by one set of definitions. That it has to be something that a growing, ongoing, ever evolving notion about who I am, what my prints on this planet mean. That’s kind of what it means. Or what it means to me.
JJ: Do you re-assess your freedom every day?
WLS: I have to.
WLS: Because every time I walk out the door, I’m either challenged by beauty or other things. And I have to keep making that adjustment to be able to tolerate all of this without being damaged. I tell my daughters it’s self-defense.
WLS: Not allowing yourself to be crushed by overwhelming events that you have no control over. Not allowing your own expectations to push you so far that reality cannot be matched. It’s self-defense.
JJ: Is your trumpet your shield?
WLS: My trumpet is the image of my shield, but my shield really is my heart. That’s where I can, I say, conceal myself, and lock the door. And smile and be in the midst of all kinds of activities. And locked in there. And nothing hurts, and nothing disturbs. But I must mention that you don’t stay inside your heart, just like you don’t stay inside your house. Life is about this interaction. It’s making choices. This feeling of whatever it is that you can’t overcome, but this eternal effort to be all that you can possibly make your journey about.
JJ: What were you doing in 1964? Freedom summer, Fannie Lou Hamer.
WLS: 1964…. I got outta school ’61… 1964… I probably was traveling around with some blues band on some back country road. But Fannie Lou Hamer and her family lived not far from me. I could walk from my house. It’d be 3 miles. Maybe 4 miles to where they lived, you know. I saw her on television.
JJ: At the Democratic Convention?
WLS: Yes, yes.
WLS: And I saw her when she rebuked Hubert Humphrey. And she told him the truth. She told him that, “Look Hubert. I would rather for you to know yourself -” I’m paraphrasing of course. “I would prefer for you to know yourself as standing up with us, than being president.” And the Democratic party had put a paid informer inside that Freedom Democratic Party from Mississippi. And he was there to try to steal them away from what they were doing. But she was astute enough to know that that guy was a plant. And what she did, because she didn’t have access to the press, each day she would come out and the press would come to her and she would hold a press conference. That’s pretty clever. For a woman who did not finish lower school. For a woman who went to vote and was told by the guy on her plantation that unless they go down right now and take their names off of that record, leave his place, and they walked out with nothing. No clothes, nothing. They left. How much would i give to have that kind of courage. That’s powerful. And then to take up the job of liberation? It’s even more powerful. She’s never gonna have enough to eat, enough clothes, maybe not enough to be steadily in a house or shelter. But she take up this job.
JJ: She sang too.
WLS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. All those early activists could do all those things. They could sing, they could deliver speeches that would turn your heart upside down and your head over. They have to give because they were the front liners. They were the first people to actually conceive that this can be changed. but not in their lifetime. Not in your lifetime. But it can be changed.
JJ: Do you feel like you’re able to see the future?
WLS: Future is hard to see. But let’s say it this way. When you play golf, you have to play the first stroke as if you see all of the holes. Because if you play hole by hole you’re not gonna get to the end. So life is kind of like that for me. I look out and I see a large dimension, a large field. And I try to feel like what it is that’s in those various portions of that field that I see ahead of me. And sometimes maybe I feel arrogant enough to think that I may know. But I don’t really know because when I start trying to make stuff, I realize that I’m just right here in the present. I realize that yes, I can speculate about that, but my future, actually, is not a future. Only the present is it. I don’t have a past. I don’t have a future. I’m logged into this thing called the present that moves ever so slowly. Either forward, or ahead, or keep going.
JJ: Andrew Cyrille told me something about- we were just talking backstage one night and I was talking to him about shows I had seen. He had come down to New Orleans to play with Kidd Jordan, and just kind of commenting on the fact that I’m under 40 and he’s lived this life. And he said “There is no age in the now.”
WLS: Right. He’s right.
JJ: It’s amazing when you talk about that field, it reminds me of how we started this interview. Talkin’ about Mississippi and the sun coming up. it reminds me of a Sidney Bechet quote: “You gotta be in the sun to feel it.”
WLS: Right [laughs]. That is powerful too. And he’s right. You know…. it is there. It’s there. We can get it in other ways, but to feel it you gotta be in it. Like a banana for example carries the sun all across the world. And then you eat it. And you ingest a little piece of the sun. A peanut underneath the ground. It carries a piece of the sun with it. And you crack it open and you eat it. Raw, baked, or otherwise.
WLS: Yes! Exactly. And it’s got a little piece of the sun in it, because everything on this planet, everything that exists has a little piece of sun. That chair, this computer, all of it! It’s got a little piece of sun in it.
JJ: We’re stardust.
WLS: We are, yeah.
JJ: What does it mean to live with music, Wadada Leo Smith?
WLS: It means a lot of times you’re gonna be misunderstood. It means that often you’re gonna feel like working when somebody in the family or not in the family needs help, and you’re gonna have to stop to do it. It means that when I lay out a composition or a piece of music on the floor and walk through it for days, I’m actually somewhere else. but I’m the guy that’s walking the floor. I’m not mistaken that I’m somewhere else, but when I get into that piece and walk it through, because of the way that I’m thinking and what I’m trying to find out about it, is what it needs more for me. I lose myself for the instance in that music. It’s being a composer, performer, improvisor, artist. It means that I’m documenting a path that can actually be read. And I don’t just mean by musicians. It can be read simply by sight identification of what my presence on the planet has been. It can go through all of them and you see that ultimately there’s a giant huge book that tells you something about me even if you can’t read music. Because communication’s not trapped in reading. It’s trapped in perception, comprehension and stuff like that.
JJ: Thank you for joining us on the Checkout.
WLS: Josh, thank you so much man.
JJ: Ten Freedom Summers on Cuneiform Records. 4 CDs, five hours of music. Take it a little piece at a time. And read that book.
JJ: I want to do one quick additional thing, because you’ve made two records that I love recently. Although it’s not recent. I just want you to tell me, Wadada Leo Smith, an Ed Blackwell story. Because I listened to the Blue Mountain Sun Drummer, which as it turns out was a performance from 1986. And might I say recorded by radio, which makes me feel good.
WLS: It was at Brandeis University. I had not played with Ed at that time. I had only been his friend, and when I lived in Paris because I used to run over every day to see Ornette Coleman. Because they had a hotel that they were living in. Ornette had had a little house in the back of this hotel where he had all this stuff and I would go by daily because I could walk there from my apartment just to be around him. And he would show me his compositions and stuff like that, and talk to me and be friendly with me. And Ed on the first day I met him was at the hotel. He comes down to see Ornette, and we get to talking. He tells me he’s from New Orleans and blah blah blah blah. Then we go out to eat, okay. And because he comes from New Orleans, he spoke French! So he ordered me food and I was so impressed.
WLS: I said wow! Look at this guy here from New Orleans, and he speaks French and he can order food! I was impressed because this is my first time in Europe as an artist. I had been there as a musician and army bands and stuff like that. So, we talked and we talked, and all through the time he lived in Connecticut, I would from time to time go up and see him. Because I enjoyed being around him. And then when I got this call to do this thing from the guy at the radio there, at Brandeis, he said, you know, he would like for me to come up and do something. And who would I bring? I said I would like to bring Ed Blackwell, but let me check. And I went up and talked to Ed and he said “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And so we drove up together. I’m driving the car and he’s in the car. We drove up together. I picked up him and his drums. We drive all the way up there, get there, set up, it’s in a foyer, the radio is here, you know the stuff. And right here is a little kind of mezzanine foyer. Not very big, maybe twice this size or a little bit bigger. And we set up, and then we touched the compositional structure of each piece, like once. Like I played [sings]. And he starts [sings]. And then we go to the next piece. Than the next piece. So we touched about 3 or 4 pieces. I think if you look on that record there’s no more than 3 or 4 pieces on there
WLS: That music was done without rehearsal, it was done straight out. And I heard from a couple friends, musicians that new him, that he liked that performance. And I eventually got the tapes on that, and I listened to it and I was gonna put it out. And I just never put it out. Then I had it mastered, and I didn’t like the master but I thought maybe one day I’ll re-do the master and put it out. And this went on for years. Then finally one day I went to Brooklyn to a musician, I forget his name…
JJ: Liberty Ellman.
WLS: Liberty Ellman. Went to Liberty and said “Look, I got this music, It’s been mastered once before. I don’t like it. Is there something you can do with it to make me like it?” And he says “Come on Wadada, let’s check it.” And he started working with it and we mixed it right there. Now, when I put it out, I had no idea that it would create such a storm It did! You know? In Drummer’s Magazine, you know! People was talking about it!
JJ: Well I love, you know, the duos he did with Dewey.
WLS: Yeah, and Don Cherry.
JJ: Those records from Willisau are kind of amazing to me. And then when I heard this it was like another revelation. I was like “I just wanna hear Blackwell with one other musician”.
WLS: And that’d come. And actually it has for Cabell, it’s my biggest seller. At one time on Amazon.com for about I guess almost a month and a half or 8 weeks, it was selling 10-15 to 16 copies a day. So I sold a good batch of those. And I got the rights from Blackwell’s widow to do it. I had a guy who knew them really well to function as a go-between, and they did it all legally and it was beautiful. And of course that record has paid itself off and that’s profit for me.
JJ: That’s a beautiful thing in this music.
WLS: It is, really.
JJ: What did you hear….?
WLS: In Blackwell?
WLS: I heard in Blackwell something that was so unique that I never heard anybody play quite like he used his cymbal and those little stokes that he used in his left hand. Never heard anybody do that. I never heard anybody that can make the bass drum feel like it was part of your heartbeat. Cause it was right in you. And I guess the other thing that was so clever about him, was he kind of looked after me as I was one of his sons. You know? He was kind of like that close to me. And when he was ill I would always go up and spend some time in the hospital with him, talking to him and stuff like that. And he would really be happy to see me. You know. One of the greatest moments that I can tell you about feeling about Ed was when Anthony Davis went and got him and started playing with him. And taking him round in New York places and playing with him. That was good for Ed. Ed felt very happy, you know. Getting back out to play again. And then when he passed, I was in Europe. I didn’t know he has passed. And I’m talking to the guy at ECM, because at the time I was just about to do my solo culture jazz record. And Lake, Steve Lake was the producer on that from ECM. We were sitting in Willisau, or wherever we were in Germany. I was thinking well maybe you’ll be able to do something for me and Ed. And he says “You don’t know?” I said no, what? He said “He passed.” That’s pretty heavy.
JJ: Oh to be a fly on the interior of that car on the drive up to Brandeis.
WLS: No no, it was a beautiful drive. And you know, we played a second concert. But I picked the wrong people to bring him to Massachusetts, to Boston. I had selected a person that I thought was trustworthy, and I asked him to rent a car because at the time I lived in New York City. I flew up there. And the car ride from Connecticut to Massachusetts would’ve been an easy shot. I asked him to rent a car and drive him up there, but he outsourced the job to one of his friends. To use her car and they both driving up there with Ed, the car broke down. And the concert’s supposed to have started like an hour ago, and still no Ed and none of them. Finally, these people call us. They wasn’t dealing with cell phones yet. That crew wasn’t. So finally they call and one of the patrons of the concert had a car service to go and pick him up. When he got there, because he was on the road for so long, he hadn’t had his blood cleaned. He was sick. So we played 2 or 3 pieces, and said let’s just call it off. He was too sick.
JJ: Thanks for those stories. Alright, I’m gonna let you off the hook now.