A potent force in creative music for more than 40 years, trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith stepped into the national spotlight in 2013. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Ten Freedom Summers,” a monumental work about the civil rights movement. Heads turned. Ears opened.
A Doris Duke Artist Award followed. Jazz critics’ polls named him artist, musician and composer of the year. A DownBeat cover story dubbed him a national treasure.
At 77, Smith has never been as popular and in demand as he is right now, or as prolific. The creator of “America’s National Parks,” an epic work he’ll bring to Walker Art Center on Saturday, is a geyser of original music. He has more than 1,500 new compositions he hasn’t yet played or recorded.
“I could record every day for the next five years, just about,” he said by phone from his home in New Haven, Conn. “I won’t be able to, but I could if there was a possibility.”
Since 2012, the year of “Ten Freedom Summers,” Smith has released 16 albums. His latest, “Rosa Parks: Pure Love,” is an oratorio for the civil rights hero “who made the right move of resistance at the right time,” Smith says. Recorded in January, and due for release this fall or next spring, “Appassionata” is a multi-movement work about Anita Hill, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Pablo Casals and the Falling Man (and Woman) of the Sept. 11 attacks.
An integral part of Chicago’s seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Music for 50 years, a professor of music for almost 40 years (he retired in 2013), a leader and member of numerous forward-thinking groups, Smith is a maker of what he calls “creative music,” eschewing “jazz.” He prefers “creation” to “improvisation.” Straddling what we think of as free jazz and chamber music, his compositions are spacious, inventive, pointed, haunted, and full of emotion and humanity.
Smith’s idea of a national park goes beyond the usual.
“He has an expanded view,” Walker curator Philip Bither said. “He celebrates places like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia. He also posits that we should make the entire city of New Orleans a national cultural park. And the Mississippi River, for its charged role in American history as a dumping ground for black bodies. And he thinks a national park should be made around writer Eileen Jackson Southern, an African-American ethnomusicologist.”
Born and raised in Leland, Miss., where his first music teacher was his stepfather, blues guitarist Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, Smith taught himself to play trumpet at 12 and started composing at 13. After five years in the Army, he moved to Chicago and has since lived in New York, California and Connecticut, though he never lost his Southern accent. He’s warm, generous and patient in conversation, firm in his convictions and refreshingly optimistic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve achieved great honor and recognition in your 70s. Would your life have been different if that had come sooner?
A: You never know, but I would say this: I’ve never changed my dreams, whether I had an empty pocket or whether I had a bank account that was full. For me, the journey has never been about whether I was acknowledged or rewarded for my achievements. The journey has always been that I have lived an artistic life, all my life.
I’ve never suffered, I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve never been without a place to live, and I’ve always lived with what I have. At an early age, I read “Walden Pond.” Anybody who reads that can understand that no matter how much or how little you have, you can always manage to live and do the things you want to do, without having the social or political pressure to conform to the way everybody else wants you to be.
Q: What made you want to start composing so early in life?
A: The idea that the same piece of music could influence more than one person in various and different ways. The kind of empowerment it gives the individual, to play an instrument or compose a note of music.
Q: You were thinking about that at 13?
A: I was thinking about all that at 13. I had also read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” at 13. My thoughts have always been serious thoughts.
Q: How do you manage to compose at such a furious pace?
A: I do it every day. I live alone. I have no extra distractions. I have few responsibilities. Most of them are to my granddaughters and grandsons and daughters, and I find time to put them into my close encounter every week. But I spend the majority of my time in my house alone. The only time I speak is when I do prayer or open up the telephone for a call.
Q: Do you look for ideas, or do they come to you?
A: They come to me. I’ve understood the stream of inspiration, and I know how to connect to it and tag it and get on it in a moment that I need to. And even when I’m not looking to jump onto the stream of inspiration, it’s a constant part of my reflections, because spiritual growth is based off of the same stream.
Q: Your projects are ambitious and thoughtful. You’re not just making another album.
A: No, never. That’s what they used to complain about me — the early promoters. They would say, “Well, he’s got this kind of project and that kind of project. It’s too many.” My whole career has all been projects, particularly on the recording side.
I look at making art the same way the almighty made creation, though on the level of human reality. For every piece I do, I have something that’s inside of me, and what helps it is reflection, meditation, contemplation and research. I don’t ever start a new project until I get the buzz inside of me, and once that happens it begins to explode, and it keeps going until it’s finished.
Q: You’ve said that the late playwright August Wilson was an inspiration for “Ten Freedom Summers.” In what way?
A: Everybody thinks that his Pittsburgh cycle of plays are concerned with history. They are not. What he says quite clearly in some of his own notes is that he was dealing with culture, and [the plays were] an explicit way of mapping out the experience of a people in an oppressive nation. From that, I was inspired to think about: How does music fit?
I decided to look at the psychological impact of struggling for liberty, justice and human dignity, and being rejected. “Ten Freedom Summers” is based on my reflections on the psychological experience of African-Americans in this society. Knowing about August Wilson — reading his plays, seeing productions of his plays — gave me the courage to think the way I want to think.
Q: You mentioned Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius. Who have been other guiding lights for you?
A: Dr. Martin Luther King. I have all of his books, which I’ve read, and collections of his speeches. His speeches, to me, are very close to spiritual studies, and I have always used him for moments when I need to be uplifted — moments when I read and see stuff that’s absolutely appalling. I take out his texts and start reading, and I immediately come back to the same thing he was trying to teach the world: that love is the most powerful factor.
Q: You’ve said that you’re an optimist. Even in a time when people are angry and divided.
A: I’m an optimist even when they say bad things about people I think are great human beings. I always believe the best will prevail, even if it comes from one human being on just one little tiny planet.
Q: Some people who come to the Walker to see you will have heard “America’s National Parks.” Some won’t. What would you like people to know?
A: Two things are important for me. The first is that the recorded document, the CD, is a historical thing. It will stay fixed until creation is gone. But in a live performance, I’m responsible to offer something in addition to what’s on that recording. So if the person has heard the CD, they will hear also a new configuration of those ideas and those dreams, a unique gift for just that moment only.