Tuesday, March 10, 2009
1980's Conversation with Wadada.
In February, 1985, I helped Professor Lewis Porter prepare a two day festival at Tufts University. Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith was among the many participants and I had a taped conversation with him in the studios of Tufts Radio station, WMFO.
Me: How are you... Sooo...It's good to hear from you.. It's been a while.
W. L. S.: Yeah, it has been.
Me: So, what are some of the most important beginnings for you, some of the most important people to you as you began to formulate your idea for making music.
W. L. S.: Well, quite frankly, I guess I'd have to say, the strongest, the two strongest influences in that early beginning would be Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. And the reason I say that is because I heard dem before I heard anybody else that was doin' things that I like to do. So after Ornette Coleman, I guess the strongest, endowment of experience would have been the AACM in Chicago, during the early, mid sixties I guess.
Me: Aah.. ha.
W. L. S.: And, that was like puttin' everything together, experiencing it from ensemble kinda possibilities, you see.
Me: What were some of your earliest performance opportunities?
W. L. S. Well like most kids in the South, as I grew up in the South, had lots of marching band experience and semi concert band experience. But I think the strongest development that I got was that I played with a lot of blues bands. In fact I started when I was thirteen. And we would play maybe a six hour performance all over the southern part of Mississippi and Arkansas and Louisiana. And that was kind of really a developin' period in the sense that I got a chance to play in blues bands and it's that real feelin' that jazz has as a consistent tradition. So the blues, I would say, was a strong developmental process in my growth as a music person.
Me: And you've been now living in the New England area, in Connecticut for at least seventeen years. Maybe describe some of the events that brought you to New England, the places you went before and things like that.
W. L. S.: Yes well really I've met Marion Brown up at U. Mass. He and Muhal Richard Abrams had a duet they were doin' up there so I came up and played with them. In Fact, Steve McCall was on that also and I'd met Marion. Then I came down to his house and, you know, we'd rap and talk about .. you know, things we liked to do. So when September rolled around, that was in 1970, I decided I would shoot out here and see what was happening. Nobody knew I was coming. My wife and I just took off and came out here and we met Marion and he gave us a place to stay for about six weeks to a month. And from that he and I put together a duet ensemble called the Creative Improvisers Ensemble and we did quite a bit of music. We played all around here. We did one European tour. And we made about an hour and a half full length documentary out of Munich Germany then in 1970, I guess it was, December 70. And the duet record Marion had one of the records then there had a lot of the music we did in that ensemble.
Me: Wow. When you go over to Europe, what areas have you tended to find your most sympathetic audiences? Would it be Germany? France?
W. L. S.: Well I think probably Italy. I've had great, great feelings and seemed as if people were able to feel what I'm doin', you know. I would say probably France would come in second and maybe Greece would be a third place. And I know Greece is a little bit off the main land of Europe. But nevertheless, I would explain these three places or describe these three places as being very committed and open to what I was doin'.
Me: Ah ha. Have you had opportunities to go to other continents around the world to bring music there and hear music there?
W. L. S.: Yes. Japan is a place I've been, twice. I was there last November and 1982 I was there and I've found tremendous reception there. In fact, to be truthful, Japan is probably the strongest nation or environment in the world for jazz music or music of this idiom. I think Tokyo alone has something like eight or nine thousand jazz clubs, you know. And it's on television there and people don't come up to you and say, 'well hey you play free jazz, you play free improvisation', these kinds of things. And you don't find too many musicians getting mad with you about what you play outa your own mind and it's quite different from Europe. In fact, Europe is quite disappointing in a lot of ways because most people, speakin' about the players, most of the players there, in this period, which is nineteen eighty somethin', eighty-seven, I believe it is, I don't know, they need a renaissance or somethin' in Europe at this moment, in terms of their music. They need to somehow open up. And I find this closedness has come about in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and probably a few other places I haven't been. But, nevertheless, there's this great undercurrent between the producers and the promoters and then the musicians and the club owners or the concert site owners. And they got this strange idea about, Europe has its own music today and therefor they don't need players from America. Canada did the same thing, by the way. All these countries, once they got, let's say three or four players that play the music in a decent mode, it began to come into this antagonist kind of a mood. You know what I mean?
Me: Uh huh.
W. L.S.: And most players won't talk about it but I'm not afraid of anything. I'll talk about whatever that's happening. And.. I find that to be, it's a isolationist move, which Canada did and many countries in Europe did. And I'm thinkin' they'll suffer from it now.
Me: Yeah, exactly cause this is a music of interaction. It's not a music of standing on ones self. It comes from great traditions of cooperation. And your self is a natural thing that occurs, so whenever you try to impose it artificially, you just end up with confusion.
W. L.S.: Yeah. That's what I find is happenin', quite frankly You see, like, for example myself, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole. All these people went through different changes in their musical development, you see. And, let's say, there's a cycle that runs somethin' like every seven to nine to eight years and I don't find that cycle has turned over in Europe at this time, at all. I find the same that was happening in the early seventies or late sixties and early seventies is still taking place. You know what I mean?
W. L.S.: And that has not occurred yet. The music in America has changed. What they call jazz has changed again. And the forefront of these people, I feel are people like, Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, Ronald Shannon Jackson and a buncha other people. You know what I mean?
W. L. S.: They're doin' stuff that defies definite characterization as bein' whose on the left, on the right, up or down, you see.
Me: Yeah, it's a whole new era of balance and a personal classicism that everyone's arrived at.
W. L. S.: Right, right, right.
Me: Yeah I've noticed that. Now do you think that one possible cause of this might just be the bad balance of economies now between the United States and Europe. There's an odd trade balance going on and a strong dollar. So that, in itself, influences club owners to not wanna have to pay an American scale. Which would then give rise to, you know. Why not create a rationale for why they don't need you? It seems there may be. Have you noticed that to any degree, just in general.
W. L.S.: I have. It's exactly true. Many places now have this whole economic strain that's been put on by the strong weight of the dollar.
W. L. S.: Um, But I tend to feel that most of these perceptions, how people perceive this thing to be today in terms of having Americans or people from America come to Europe and play is, almost based offa this, this, this strange idea that 'I don't need you anymore'. I don't need this branch of cats anymore, you know. And I have to keep sayin' that, that's a very strange idea. Because, what would the world be like today if Pythagoras and all those early Greek thinkers, had said 'Let's cut, let's cut Africa off or Egypt, you dig? I find that the world phenomenon has been in existence ever since there's been more than one nation.
And I find that world has been world cultural and it's not new. World music is not new. That whole phenomenon has been in existence ever since time has been goin' on. And it's a collective shared transformation of ideas that circulate throughout the culture of the world. And you can't get away from that. When you isolate that out and break it down, it's like sayin' well; 'I don't want Jews in this part of the community'. 'I don't want Africans in this part of the community'. 'I don't want Irish in this part of the community'. 'I don't want Italians in this part of the community'. And Man is only one man, human has only one. Me: Yeah.
W. L. S.: You see, and the whole dynamic of, of creation says that one family is the human kind and not Italians, Germans, Ghanaians or Nigerians or so forth and so on.
Me: One gets the sense that the whole idea of race is kind of breaking down as one of Europe's primitive ideas.
W. L.S.: It will break down completely, eventually.
Me: Yeah, cause it's more a sense of culture. People are culturally someone and this whole idea of melanin and skin tone is artificial, almost. It's been imposed by Europeans who get obsessed by these things.
W. L.S.: Well they had to do that to try to balance the psyche of holding people in bondage and exploitation. Every country in this world today has some degree of human rights. And that's a crucial issue. If it can get solved, the world, for the first time in any history thats ever been recorded, will be free of someone bein' down pressed by one regime or one segment of society.
That's a new world. We've never experienced that. And no writer, I don't care when that book was written, has ever experienced that. We have that choice today.