Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has spent more than 40 years surprising listeners. Smith is known as a proponent of free jazz, but he has also played world music, done a tribute album to Miles Davis’s electric period, and was named this year as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Ten Freedom Summers, a sprawling, four-hour-plus piece inspired by the civil rights movement.
Smith began the project in 1977 at the behest of violinist and composer Leroy Jenkins, and he immediately took to the idea.
“Growing up in the South, you’re always looking for how you can do something,” says Smith. “So I decided that I would take something that’s very close to my heart and just write about it.”
The project expanded from there, and 35 years later, he's performing Ten Freedom Summers on three nights at Roulette. In an interview with Soundcheck host John Schaefer Smith discusses the project that he’s spent half of his life working on.
Wadada Leo Smith, on adapting the concept of the civil rights movement to music:
All of my pieces are short-frame moments because I’m looking for the psychological connection that I can make as a human being with that event or that particular person. [I] try to frame it so that it’s not too big, and that’s it small enough that I can clearly point to it and say, “This is what that [moment] is.” Every piece is constructed like that.
On “Emmett Till” capturing a notion of serenity:
It has captured this element of… being sad and joyous at the same time. I try to capture that photograph of him in the white hat, that youthful face peacefully looking out at everybody. I contrast it with this historical knowledge about how he was beaten to death…. Everyone felt it in the rehearsal. They said, “This piece is sad and happy.” That’s very unusual.
On his inspirations for the project:
The largest is, of course, [the Duke Ellington symphony], Black, Brown and Beige, which was about essentially the same thing. It was a composed piece. [Drummer] Max Roach, Freedom Now Suite. Believe it or not, [composer] Anthony Davis, Malcom X. There's a number of people, but the structure that it took came from [playwright] August Wilson, [Pittsburgh Cycle]. He looked at a century — ten decades — of African American experience in America…. I decided I would look at ten summers just like he looked at ten decades.