Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ten Freedom Summers: Wadada Leo Smith and Me

 


Anticipatory Moments
The First Interview
The Second Interview
Los Angeles
The Rehearsals
The Performances
Epilog
The Players
The Program for October 28, 29, and 30, 2011




Anticipatory Moments

Six months before the October, 2011, premiere of Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers, I spoke to Wadada on the phone. He told me that he had recently been awarded the largest grant ever by Chamber Music America, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, to a Jazz musician for the composition of music. He would direct the grant towards the funding the completion of Ten Freedom Summers. At that time, our discussions did not center on the creation of his masterful work at all, rather on life’s interesting situations and his ensuing concerts and recordings.  But at one point, I said, “Gee, I wish I could hear the music in Los Angeles…” to which Wadada replied, “Just go… Just go;” his voice was emphatic, instructive and endearing at the same time.

Los Angeles had been home for eight years of my life. First, when my Dad worked for Universal Studios before the studio laid off its people in the late fifties. I moved back to CA when I attended California Institute of the Arts, in the first year of its existence, 1970, finally receiving my MFA in 1974. Wadada has taught at the school for nineteen years. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would return. So the idea of going to Wadada’s concerts was simultaneously evanescent and concrete.

In June of 2011, Wadada’s Golden Quartet performed at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City. He explained that at that concert his group would play five of the parts of the large piece. I thought: OK, I am going to go to that and let the music talk to me. At the time, I had yet to do any research on Ten Freedom Summers. But after the concert, because I was writing about it for my blog, it was mandatory that I report accurately.

I went to the page on Wadada’s website set up specifically to deal with Ten Freedom Summers. Then, only a few paragraphs appeared, describing the informational and structural sources for his large work.  I wove this into the article and wrote about the quality of the music, still not completely certain of the context of what I was listening to and the impact it would have later.

In July, I made reservations to go to the West Coast. I would land on the 26th of October and leave on November 1st. On October 28-30, the piece was to be performed at Redcat, the CalArts operated performance space, around the block from Gehry’s compact, luxurious titanium bound Disney Theater; because I wanted to avoid renting a car, I arranged to stay at a hotel downtown within walking distance of my daily destination. This was working out perfectly. I told Wadada that I was coming early in hopes of being able to hear some rehearsals, which started on the 25th.  He said that this was not a problem and we’d talk in the future about specifics. In the meantime, I reminded him, we had to plan a time for an interview. He said that we would have the chance and would let me know.

I realized that I had to do some serious delving into the subject matter of Ten Freedom Summers before the interview so I went back to his website and found that the information dedicated to the piece had changed radically.

At the website, Three Collections of music were outlined; each had six or seven parts totaling twenty-one. Linked to Wikipedia, the titles of the parts provided an endless cascade of history.  The message that this sent carried inescapable seriousness: Wadada was presenting the background material for the music… background material that he had absorbed into his being throughout his life experience. I went to all the links; I printed out every page. I read every page—even the pages ancillary to the original ones. I looked up every subject on YouTube and spent hours watching video after video documenting most of the historical events that triggered Wadada’s music, especially the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

To read this material was to respond to the kind of directive Smith gives to his musicians in any of his groups. With the score as the key to intellectual and emotional research, the music is born. And so in the same fashion, I was preparing myself for the interview with Wadada, in which I would have specific questions but which would be altogether a conversation, where one subject would lead to another. And we would accompany each other outside of the Q &A box and arrive at a place which was completely unpredictable. Between the sushi and the red bean ice cream.

The First Interview

Sometime after Labor Day, Wadada called me from New Haven where he stays when he is on the East Coast. He wanted to tell me that he was on this coast, madly working on his music and copying parts, recording at Firehouse 12 other projects with which he was involved and visiting with his family. We were just about to close the conversation when I exclaimed: “But, Wadada! When are we going to get together for an interview? I will come to New Haven…” I said.

“OK, that’d be good,” Wadada agreed.

“We could meet for lunch at the Japanese restaurant near Firehouse 12…Miso…How about that?”

“OK, I know that restaurant. It’s great. Let’s do that.”

“How’s the 22nd?”

“That would work with my schedule. What time?”

“About noon…How’s that?”

“That’s great,” he said.

“I’ll see you then…”

On September 22nd, I walked into Miso, expecting to find Wadada at a table. The exact plan had been lost somehow through our communications. I asked for a table for two and sat down. I called him on my cell phone and left at message that I was waiting at the restaurant. He called me back and said that he would be right there. He was walking from his hotel.

About twenty minutes or so later, I looked up from my closed-eyed meditative state at the sound of his voice saying “Hello…How ya’ doin’?”

For the next two hours, our first interview took place. The noise in the restaurant rose and fell; a stereo speaker above our table spilled out popular music. Wadada placed the digital recorder I brought right next to him because he did not want one word he said to be missed.  I asked as many questions as I could. I had no papers reminding me what to say. That was the beauty of it all.

Speaking with his own inimitable verbal delivery, Wadada responded to a variety of questions triggered by the flow of the conversation. Referencing August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays which, themselves, deal with ten decades of the Black experience in America, Wadada described why he chose the particular ten year span from 1954 through 1964 as being significant for Ten Freedom Summers.  Two events in black history which he felt could represent his viewpoint was the Supreme Court’s May, 1954, decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education where the segregation of the student body of schools was in violation of the United States Constitution as outlined in the Fourteenth Amendment. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American to be appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court in 1967, argued the case before the Supreme Court and won. And 1964 was the year that Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act, which, by law, designated that no person based on race or color would be prevented from voting. For Wadada, both of these occurrences signified the defining of the rights of Americans, no matter what their background or ethnicity.

Yet, I said, you wrote music that addressed the Dred Scott case in 1857. How does that fit in?

“The Dred Scott Case opened up the first public debate in this country in the Supreme Court about race…Who was actually an American citizen. It showed that the legal system at that time was not prepared to be all-inclusive in terms of justice let alone in terms of position—where people or a person are considered to be property. The final ruling [that slaves would never become citizens of the country] made clear that there are no rights that a black man has that a white person ought to observe.

“Truman is also in there for his Executive Order [9981 of July, 1948] which integrated the Army…

“There are many more examples of people during this decade who are just as important as activists but I did not want a chronicle of events. I wanted to place a piece in a context I created to show my reflections as a result of my impressions, my ideas about the impact of certain issues and how they were dealt with in America.

“Seventy years later after my birth, I am facing the same issues daily…No matter who is concerned…President Barack Obama or Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall or anyone…If they are African-American, they [emphatically] are facing the same barrage of racial problems.”

But how is it that the laws against racial discrimination that were created and passed and signed, not implemented?

“If there were no laws legally banning actions [against racism], the situation would be worse than worse. Society defines itself based on two things: the cooperation of laws enabling the protection of its citizens and how well they are executed. For instance, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 [and signed], LBJ said that he never intended for a little black boy to sit next to a little white boy in school. And, in 1957, LBJ [when he was in Congress] blocked Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act that would have done the same thing as the one he signed in 1964.  LBJ got all the Southern Senators to vote against it!

“The irony is that all this stuff is kinda weird…Society has to address certain issues and when they address them, basically, they may be true because the legislation is pretty poor regarding carrying out something—health care to Social Security to Medicare…All those things passed years and years ago and it took twenty years before they had standards where they were even practical. Bad history of how legislation in this country gets passed…how it’s enacted…it usually takes a long time.

“The majority of this society does not believe in social justice at all…a majority.  I’ll give you an example: Twenty six percent of white eligible voters voted for Obama; the remaining seventy-four percent voted for McCain.  Another example: after the military was integrated, most of the jobs held by minorities and blacks are in the government. The mainstream of society does not hire them. That’s a pretty bad statistic, too. Another one, even worse…In this country in the history of litigation, there has never been a white man or a white woman convicted for killing a black person.

“It’s a real tough case when it comes to allowing your neighbor, your brothers and sisters, to become a part of the society; it just doesn’t work out and those are the actual facts.

“What I am writing about in my music is not those particular statistics. I am writing this music to look at what happens and tries to offer some kind of perspective on the spiritual and psychological reality of this thing—that is what I am trying to do. My hope is to transform people at any stage in their life—the beginning, the middle or the end—to see in some different way other than how the majority sees their American brothers.”

How do you think this transformation can occur and become an incentive for action? How will behavior change?

“Action will not be broad-based, but personal. You don’t have to join a picket line or throw a bomb through a window of a bank: what people need to do if, in fact, they understand the work of Ten Freedom Summers, is realize that all they have to do is change themselves, nobody else. That’s all they gotta do is change themselves, nobody else. And that change…I’m not asking for it to happen immediately…I’m asking that they use some kind of reflective consciousness all the rest of their lives and try to change.”

How did you make the transition from Mississippi to Chicago?

“I got to Chicago in a less direct way…I went into the Army. At about the age of twenty or twenty-one…two years out of high school. When I was in the Army, I was in the Midwest, the Southwest, the Southeast, in France and Italy.

Did you have any troubles in the Army?

“All black men and women have trouble in the Army…all those who aren’t white have trouble. The same problem with society is in the Army: ones of domination.

“Truman integrated the Army because he knew there was no reason not to.

“Racial difficulties were everywhere—New York, Chicago, New York, California—There’s not a place that didn’t escape it. And right now, it is the same. There’s not a place in the country that doesn’t escape that problem. The issue of human rights and the issue of women’s rights: they are the major problems that have retarded society so far and they will continue to retard society ‘til it stops. There’s not been a metropolis in the world that has solved their society’s difficulties. There have been temporary moments throughout history, but not many, and they don’t last long.”

Where did that happen?

“The Sun City in 18th Dynasty Egypt.  Pharoah Akhenaten started it. Everybody believed the same way… respected each other. Akhenaten transformed the whole society, but only a few moved to the city of Aten—that was a place for all the believers and people who were human towards each other. When Akhenaten died fairly young-- his wife was Nefertiti—when he died, the city was almost in complete ruin. The whole spiritual philosophy had been eclipsed.

“More successful than Akhenaten was the movement the Prophet Muhammad led, in the early 600 ‘s, to the city of Medina. Medina is still a light for human interaction that is very well received. And during the time of the Prophet, they had the most balanced society ever.  And it was all based on the revelations revealed to him [by the angel of God] and of the practice, that is, the way he practiced those revelations as the messenger of God.”

(According to Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, page 230: “Exercising superb statecraft, he [Muhammad] welded the five heterogeneous and conflicting tribes of the city, three of which were Jewish, into an orderly confederation.... His reputation spread and people began to flock from every part of Arabia to see the man who had wrought this 'miracle.'”)

Tell me about Malcolm X.  Was he an extremist?

“No, he wasn’t. Elijah Muhammad was asking for equal rights for black people and they [the Nation of Islam] were defined as extremists but they weren’t.


“When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, he also met up with a lot of problems. He saw a lot of things that weren’t cool…That’s why when he came back and created  his own organization, he asked people to leave their religion at home, because what happens is we can argue about religion forever but the politics can be changed based on consensus. By voting, the social system can be changed.

“The Nation of Islam was a personal religious system. It didn’t really follow Islam except that it took the name of Islam. The people did go on Hajj. Elijah Muhammad…most of his speeches were centered around the Bible. They all owned Korans, but they didn’t read them. They only read the Bible. It was an Islamic-Christian movement when you really get down to it.


“Malcolm X preached the same philosophy that Elijah Muhammed preached. And why does Elijah Muhammad want people to secede from the country? For a very good reason.  They have been illy, poorly treated, illy educated, have been horribly unprotected by the police and other forces and what he proposed was that black people would take three or four of the southern states and that they would serve their own government and would create a much better society than they live in here. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a fair proposal that has existed in the history of the country. Other men have proposed the same thing. So it is not as radical and as hard to take as the propaganda of what Malcolm X said and how he said it.


“Malcolm X condemned the white men for what they had done for all those years. Who wouldn’t? It’s a bad extremely exploitive and violent history. Malcolm X, after he changed to Sunni Muslim practice, preached a 'self-reliance' philosophy with a new spiritual doctrine that was in line with Islamic practice throughout the world.

“After World War II, twenty-six-hundred men [This number is larger if considering the dates between 1882 and 1968. According the Ronald Davis, PhD, CalState, Northridge, the number totals four thousand.] were lynched the moment they came back home and they’d been at war! That’s an atrocious history. Most people in the South had no deep respect for these people. Uniformed blacks were disrespected. Whites were offended by black men wearing uniforms, decorated or not.

“So, yeah, I see the same thing. Those particular proposals have been around for years…Clearly, if something’s not done in another time zone, let’s say, you are going to find other proposals like that, because it is not much, much better.

“When you have the President of the United States attacked every day by nearly every news source in the country, and a Congressman jumping up in the middle of the State of the Union address saying mean-spirited stuff or have Boehner… and that other person, can’t think of his name now…when they go and meet the President and they interrupt him and talk mean in his presence…It’s the lowest that this society can drop. If the leader had been interrupted in any other society—totalitarian or a monarchy—that person would have been severely persecuted or killed. But the guy who interrupted Obama... he got re-elected!

“I believe in God and I believe that God did elevate this man [Obama] to expose this society completely and it’s being exposed. And the history that’s coming and will be written, not just by your American brothers but by everybody else. They are fluent in these things. They [those who are disrespectful] are going to be criticized in the most emphatic way.

“And those guys who aren’t dead…the Bill Clintons and the other two guys-- George and W—those guys—they are like devils—The reason I say that is that they have stayed in their offices. They should be out there every day trying to defend that man [Obama] and the office and they are not doing it. Do you know why? They want him to fail. Jimmy Carter is the only person who believes in Obama and Carter has been called a racist. The news people say: 'Oh, Jimmy Carter got it wrong today. He’s practicing reverse racism'…That’s bullshit. And sometimes you get tired of that…That is an example of our society today. You have a whole Congress of men and women who would rather see every bill that comes to them fail than be good for the nation of the people that elected them.

Ten Freedom Summers chronologically goes straight from 1954 beginning with Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, which addressed all civil rights, not just education. It was an attempt at opening education up to everybody in society…People think that it just meant to African-Americans …It didn’t…It means equal education all across the board. And, then, to the Civil Rights and Voting Act of 1964, which was supposed to have the same effect. [Wadada spoke with emphasis the following words; his voice had an evenness of tone and the longer he spoke the more emphatic his voice became.] Every citizen has a vote and that vote counts and that person as a citizen of the United States of America is protected by the Constitution.

“So Ten Freedom Summers looks at both legal action and congressional action."

An historian, from the University of Tennessee, I think, said that the change in civil rights cannot necessarily be traced to a single person like Martin Luther King but also has to include what all the young people did, after Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on the bus…People like The Freedom Riders…

“But, that’s what Martin Luther King did. There’s a misunderstanding there. That’s exactly what Martin Luther King did. He’s the one that started the movement of sitting in, protesting in a non-violent way.”

But from what I’ve seen, King did not get involved with the Freedom Riders…

“It’s the same thing though. They [the Freedom Riders] used the same principle he used. It was non-violent. They didn’t go down there [in 1961, from Washington, DC to Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi to end in Louisiana] and strike back when people hit them. They didn’t go down and start pulling out guns shooting. No, they didn’t. They rode on buses to go down and register voters...to register American citizens. That’s what they did. And that’s the same thing that he [Martin Luther King] was doing… I just think some historians get lost sometimes and they would like to find a new way at looking…and sometimes that [process] de-thrones the information. It’s inappropriate to say the Freedom Riders were not following the principles of non-violence…”

What you’re saying is, what you’re saying is and this is extremely powerful… (as I began to weep) …is that it’s the principle that is important…

“Yes. Exactly.”

As opposed to the people who try to expose the principles…

“Right, right, principles always work like that…they survive assassinations…Principles survive.

“One of the things that Martin Luther King did that people cannot see yet is that he actively sought after coalitions. He did that. Before him, no one was actively doing that. Who took that principle to an entirely different level? I am asking a question…”

Emotionally flustered in the recognition that our conversation had reached a climax that pointed to a universal truth that continually is shunned, but, paradoxically, is officially outlined in every document that bears meaning in the creation of American Democracy, I asked Wadada to rephrase the question.

“I said… that Martin Luther King began to establish alliances with different groups of people…ministers, different races of people, different classes of people, different social structures…and he did that because he knew that a society can never be changed by one group of people. He knew that. I’m saying who carried that same principle to the next level?”

You have to tell me.

“A guy named Barack Obama. He did exactly the same thing [as Martin Luther King did]…Obama wanted everyone to work together…”

Human fulfillment comes out of working together…

“Exactly, exactly…The whole idea about working together…That’s a social phenomenon that should change the world. And that’s what changing the world is based around…We are the world…Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie…They wrote 'We Are The World' together sitting on the floor. That piece 'We Are The World,' Ornette Coleman’s concept of freedom, you know, all of that, is about the same thing we have been talking about… People’s lives were transformed through those artists…and they are still probably some of the same people who keep the fire going for change in their hearts…They don’t need to stand on street corners because that whole notion is obsolete. Redundancy wears out its usefulness…We have this act of demonstration after Gandhi throughout the whole world and now that’s not useful anymore.  But, still being able to organize at the grassroots level and get a person active… that’s still useful…You just don’t go into the streets anymore. You use your computer; you use your dollars or your credit card.”

We left the restaurant together. I transported him to the home of one of his daughters to babysit his grandchildren while his daughter was working.  We said good-bye in the car after chatting a bit. The next time we would see each other would be in Los Angeles a little over a month away.

The Second Interview

As I went over the first interview, I realized that several points needed clarification. With the phone beside me, I sat in my studio midst a bunch of papers, on which I had scrawled questions; they were laid out in front of me on my drawing table. I wanted to ask follow-up questions about the reasons for choosing specific subjects to express in the music. And then I moved to more the more general ones.

When Wadada answered the phone, I began with the pervasive: Can you hear me? because the phone was on speaker so my hands could be free.

My initial inquiry turned to “The D.C. Wall: A Memorial for All Times” listed on his website as being the end of the “First Collection: Defining Moments in America.”

“The reason I chose that is that it dealt with the Vietnamese/Southeast Asia War and I think that, essentially, because my father and my second wife and I walked that wall one day and I thought it was…Let’s say it this way…My reaction to it was very emotional. I felt very, very sad that all these people had lost their lives in a war that really should never had been. So the War Memorial for those fallen people, those soldiers, was my aim…to honor that.”

The next section I want to ask you about is “Democracy.” For Golden Quartet.

““Democracy” is in the First Collection but on the program, it is on a different day [at the time, he said it would be on the first day, but, in actuality, it was on the last day]…because the program is different from the collection. The collections are based on how they were selected to be in ‘effect’ but the program is how they will be performed.

“The piece itself actually illustrates how Congress is supposed to work, not how Democracy is supposed to work, how Congress [emphasis in his voice] is supposed to work. Congress is supposed to deliberate on issues, debate them out, hammer out proposals and amendments and then, after that, they’re supposed to come to a conclusion. And that conclusion is supposed to be based on the best interest of the country [he raised the inflection in his voice] and all of its citizens, not a portion, but all [hard emphasis] of them…

“The way I set the piece up… that is, the composition…I composed each line for each instrument independently. There’s no collective…There’s no score that has collectively all the lines in it. No one could look at ‘Democracy’ and see all of them put together. What you look at is the trumpet part or the bass part, the drum part or the piano part and each one is complete within itself.

“And one other thing about ‘Democracy’… It was constructed over a wide range of what people call modes, but you cannot find a single mode in it the way I have orchestrated it. And that is by design and intent. The mode simply was a generating vehicle that was not to be the final goal. The final goal was to have this interaction of things crossing over, things being diametrically opposed and also bumping and knocking against each other as the work of Congress should do. And the final end of the piece, it comes to a single line that is unified. A single melody where everybody’s playing the same melody. And that represents the resolution that’s supposed to come out of Congress. In fact, a bill goes through twenty-six…thirty-six committees and departments before it is sent to be signed as a sound bill.  So ‘Democracy’ represents all of that.”

What about the next section “Buzzsaw?”

“’Buzzsaw’ is one of the compositions and it’s about the free press, the myth of the free press. Unfortunately, the world does not have a free press anywhere…not in the Wall Street Journal, not in the New York Times, not anything. And by that I mean simply this: most of the news is conditioned by power as well.  A board of directors…decides what goes out there. My idea of the news is that it is a practice unbound by whatever is in society—that they [the news platforms] tell the story no matter whose shoes it falls on or who it hurts and we don’t have that today…”

A telephone call on his phone interrupted Wadada’s talking. The he came back to our conversation.

“About Buzzsaw…I think I cleared up about the idea of a free press. It does not exist.”


The next part I want to talk to you about is “September Eleventh.”

““September Eleventh 2001: A Memorial” is about all the victims of that event…The ones that are killed in this country and the ones that are killed throughout the world. It’s a memorial for people who lost their lives through whatever these kinds of cultural clashes present in terms of violence. But it’s more of a spiritual piece than anything else. It looks at the spiritual loss in this way.”

The last one I want to talk to you about is “Courage to Dissent” which is piece number nineteen, according to the listing on your website.

“Piece number nineteen was going to be originally for percussion but that piece is not going to be performed and also I decided not to record it because we’ve got so much music, I may not record it.”

Then what is the last piece on the program going to be?

“The last piece on the program is going to be Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.”

With that statement, I hesitated to go on because even though the music had not been played and I had not heard the music in the same way that Wadada knew the music as composer, the very words that he spoke had finality to them. This was the only way the Ten Freedom Summers could end, addressing the closing of an era in King’s death that he, himself, predicted.

Then I said: I want to go back…Are the scores in traditional notation or do you have any Ankhrasmation?

“There’s no Ankhrasmation in any of these pieces. And the pieces are written on five-line staffs…what’s normally associated with traditional writing…but the music, itself, is not traditional, meaning that there is no bar line…there is no idea about a central beat…there is no idea about rhythmic content being metered off in bars or beats. It’s a far cry from the idea of something that’s traditional. For example: all of the music is based around short notes and long notes with brackets over the top of them that determine how they are configured. So that’s completely different from anything that’s happened traditionally. Traditionally, people would not be able to play it unless they were first given some kind of test by me. So there’s no Ankhrasmation there and it’s not traditional either.”

I want to address some of the gaps that I have found in our interview when we went to lunch that day…What was the reason you went into the Army?

“Same reason that anybody goes into the Army [there was such a lingering sadness in his voice, like he was singing a song]: You go, you go into the Army as a young man to get out of the environment that you were in before.” [There was a long pause.]

I asked him again how old was he when he went into the Army. When he said “a year or two out of high school,” I remembered that I had already asked him this question in the first interview, but what interested me was his talking about graduating from high school and going to Sherwood Music School in Chicago and to a number of colleges, even while in the Army.

“Everybody uses graduating from high school as a marker moving from a youth to an adult…But when I think of education…No, I’ll say it this way… I don’t think of education…When I think of people able to be smart enough to understand the way life moves, they already have achieved something remarkable. People do have formal education…but, in art, you don’t even need that—what you need in art is a heart and a mind. That’s why you have so many people that do go to school… they get doctorates and masters in music and…gosh…they can hardly make music or hardly create music. I mean…Yes, they can produce a piece of music but producing a piece of music is not art. Art is something that touches somebody and changes their life and nobody can teach you that.”

Impacted by Wadada’s words, because I had been one of those persons who had gone to school and worked to obtain both a Bachelor and a Master of Fine Arts degrees, I had to find some strength to continue and not break down. So I replied, “OK,” as I did to most of his answers to my questions, unless I had an immediate follow-up, and went on to something else, which, after all, was merely a continuation of the stream of our conversation.

Do you or did you ever believe that African-Americans should have their own Nation State?

“I don’t think it is a question of belief. It’s a question that goes like this…Do I ever believe that African-Americans can live in this society on the same level… referring to economics and sociology and the whole realm…as Europeans in America? No. I don’t think that’ll ever happen. And why I think it won’t happen? Because, you see, when there’s a group of people that access all the power, that is…the economic power, the social power, and political power…it’s really difficult for them to change. Now there might be some other things that change, but it won’t be a natural change like things progress and move...unless...and this is the caveat…unless there is a generation of the people, who have absolute power, and their descendants decided not to accept the advantage that they have. That would change it and only that. I don’t think there’s anything else that could change it. No law could change it; no one spiritual person could change it—It has to be a collective move by people who have power to deny the power that’s transferred to them each generation by their fathers and mothers.

“That does not stop living… that does not stop living…and I can give you my own example of it. During the time of slavery, there were still people making art and they were making compositions, and they were making dance…even though they were in the most adverse social situation in their life where they had no freedom. So because these things are not resolved, you know, it doesn’t stop life.  And there are ways around the use of power to change the situation.

“Another example…that one man…our President Barack Obama showed another way. He formed a coalition where most people in it were not white. It was a coalition of Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, so on and so on and so on with twenty-six percent of the white vote going to him…So it doesn’t stop life is what I am trying to say. The proof is what I just said.”

I said to Wadada that he had been making a lot of honest and true statements while we had been talking, the meaning of which had evoked great emotion in me. I wanted to ask him if he felt that his music protected him from being attacked for how he thinks. Very softly, he replied…

“No, I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.”

Have you ever given lectures where you talk about these things?

“Yes…Yes. You can look at my whole history. Things I talk about now, I’ve talked about all my life.”

Now clarify for me what you meant when you were talking about Ornette Coleman’s concept of Freedom…

“What I was trying to say was this…That if, in fact, the Civil Rights movement had taken the music like that of Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, etc., that maybe we would be closer towards the notion of freedom even if it was self-contained... even if we made paradise out of what we have. Because the notion of freedom, in this instance, was mostly relegated, particularly in art towards the church and that’s one viable way of doing it but it’s also missing quite a lot that’s outside of the context of the church, which would be Ornette Coleman or Muhal Richard Abrams or Sun Ra or even other people like John Coltrane. Their principles of freedom in art are the same as the principles of freedom that work in life.”

Keep talking…That’s one of my questions…what does freedom mean to you?

“That’s kind of an unanswerable question because it’s not really what it means to you—it’s how you conceptualize your use of freedom. And my use of freedom is not inhibited by race and things like that because essentially what I believe as a free man is that I am absent of the fear of what other people would think about what I say or maybe whether they like or dislike what I say. I’m free of that fear and that goes all the way across every social angle… I exist knowing that already in my heart I’m a free man and I know that society itself cannot grant me freedom, ok? But I know for myself that I’m free. And what makes me free?  Lack of fear and [slowing down his cadence of speech] Knowing… my… rights. What are those rights? They are designed in the Constitution of the United States of America. I understand those.”

What has happened in this interview, what you have brought up for me has allowed me to see racism and culture from another perspective. If people can begin to see racism and equality from another perspective, specifically through conversation and art, will that heal the wounds of the past or do we just have to keep going and not pay attention to the past?

“No…Let me say it this way…Everybody’s wounded. The person that denies another person’s freedom is also wounded in that act, you see. So, in art, what the artist does is provide a ritualized space for people to come to a conclusion with themselves and the universe. That’s what the artist does. You cannot point to one second in the music and say this is about freedom or this is about racism or this is about love or this is about hatred. You can’t do that. What this is about is that art itself allows individuals that golden moment with themselves where they are able to figure out how important it is to live. And while figuring out at that moment how important it is to live, they reduce the fear in themselves of death. And that’s liberty.”

With that, a long silence ensued and I began to cry.  I was aghast with the force of his words. Nothing he said throughout either of the interviews was ever insignificant or non-germane to the subject at hand. Even though the way he presented his ideas was sometimes a challenge to interpret because he speaks in his own vernacular (as I have said before in my first encounter with Wadada to profile him), if I took the time to sort out the language, the words always were clear as a bell and made perfect sense.


The interviews had both unfolded like improvisations. Supported by vastly different life experiences and coming from different directions as interviewer and interviewee, both intending to make sense out of our conversations, Wadada and I had shaped a treatise of sorts, which, through transcription from recorded voices to the printed word, read as an essay that came to an extraordinary conclusion, with no constraints on time or subject. A conclusion reached through questions posed by a white woman, who grew up as a sheltered privileged youth to become an artist and writer trying to penetrate psychological boundaries, to a black man, whose boundless wisdom grew from his constant will to transcend perpetual, impenetrable barriers to his existence as a human being, who rose victorious as a musician and composer whose contributions to the world shall be forever accessible and meaningful.



Los Angeles


The view from the air of the Los Angeles sprawl overwhelmed me. I was sitting next to a woman whom I could tell was a woman of God. She identified with the power that this situation had for me. It was a power that overtook me only for a minute then its effect vanished. The times had changed; I came to the city that day for another purpose.

Walking from the hotel to the Redcat Theater, I chose a route that took me by City Hall. The lawn in front of the building was covered with tents; people were wandering around. Immediately, I knew that this was one location of the “Occupy” Movement…the 99% vs. the 1%. I heard drumming and one spokesperson preaching revolution through his megaphone. Very little disruption occurred. It was, perhaps the next day, that I heard the police, through their electronic megaphones, demanding that people get out of the street. It seemed fitting that the Occupy protests were multiplying across the country and, at this writing, in the world, during the performance of Wadada’s piece which focused on the civil rights of all individuals, everywhere.




The Rehearsals


Involving both Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music, and sometimes, each separate group, the rehearsals for Ten Freedom Summers began on Tuesday, October 25th.   I was able to witness them beginning on October 26th, 27th and on the afternoons of the performances for the rest of the week.

On the 26th, Wadada and I met in the lobby of the Redcat Theater, exchanged greetings and moved into the performance hall. The quartet of bassist John Lindberg, pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Susie Ibarra assembled on the stage in the dark. At Wadada’s instruction, they began to change the placement of chairs and music stands, moving them more off to the left so that the quartet could come closer to the center. By doing this, the actual center of the stage was empty, which evidenced itself when rehearsal began with both groups. Wadada and the first violinist of the chamber ensemble would be side to side. All the other musicians would be arranged in a fanlike shape around the pair by natural default. Wadada would not have cared if I had told him that I overheard one lady, after the first night’s performance, stating to her partner upon leaving the theater: there are definite staging problems here…

Not privy to the schedule of rehearsals for both groups throughout the year before the concerts, I could only guess that these rehearsals had the purpose of ironing out details with Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music musicians present in one space. There were also times when each group rehearsed separately. But the pianist, Anthony Davis, was the link between the two groups and needed to be around more than any other musician, except, of course, for Wadada.

The imperative of the rehearsals was to pay attention to the structures that Wadada had built into the score.  He listened intently, sitting in his chair, his glasses propped on the end of his nose, watching his score; his arms were crossed and occasionally he lifted his left hand to stroke his beard. For the most part, he was mute.

When Wadada did look up to address any one musician, his words were encouraging.  His pauses inserted moments of reflection on what the musicians were doing within the context of the music at hand. He never raised his voice.

With Golden Quartet, he would work out the improvisation in relation to the composed music. He played his trumpet when it was time. At other times, he would break the music and offer instructions. Wadada might say“Cue structurally...” “Let’s look at that for a feel for a second”…“Let’s go a little crazier on the improvisation”… “However you play the bars is fine with me—there are no routing numbers…” “Ok, one more time...Going to try a different ‘program’ with the drums...”

Rehearsing the quartet was a means to sort out where each instrument would come in, when it would go out and, most of all, how. The dynamic was discovered in the musicians’ playing and absorbing the character of the music; through conscious collaboration, each player knew what the other would do according to Wadada’s plan and also within their own parameters of improvisation.

When Southwest Chamber Music participated in rehearsal, and they were all seated, set to play, conductor Jeff von der Schmidt readied himself in front of the players and raised his arms to offer a downbeat, the language of the rehearsal changed.  Counting in terms of rests and beats became mandatory. The music was tightly wound.

The chamber group exuded a crushing, diligently rendered precision that Wadada took in with grace. For this was his music, and he wrote it to hear it this way...it was a sound so contrasting to that which could and would come from Golden Quartet.   On occasion Wadada would guide the group to loosen up and let the music flow; he offered an opportunity to the chamber players to relax and be free. Von der Schmidt lusted for definition. When I passed him leaving the auditorium on break, it seemed that his face paled with a worry no music would fall into the right places. Yet, somehow I felt that Wadada was confident that no matter what happened, the musicians had enough integrity that their unquestionable technical prowess and listening power would transcend any glitches and the world of his music would congeal.

As composer, Wadada filtered the rehearsals as they happened. He coached everyone to feel and simplify the approach to what they encountered in the music. He did not say that the music was not difficult.  To von der Schmidt in the rehearsal of one particular part, Wadada said: “The internal solutions that you are coming up with…That is the way to go on this.”


Wadada consulted with von der Schmidt and the members of the chamber group often at their request. Wadada counseled players of his own accord. He was quiet and his gesticulations were minimal. His will... to invite the best out of any player... radiated.

All the music and its performance could be analogized to a how living organism reveals its vitality energized by breathing, heartbeats, and pulsations of a set of natural circumstances.

“The music tells itself what to do."

In the meantime, a run-through of the visual components was taking place. I knew that the huge screen filled with black and white or sparsely colored images behind the players would not only add dimension to the performance, but would also embrace the performers in an essential atmosphere. The identifiable historical photographs, manufactured magnified abstractions and adjusted live-feed video did not have to speak a thousand words; already they completed an experiential space for living, not being, in the music.

In a dress rehearsal on October 29, the only time photographers were allowed to take pictures of the performers, von der Schmidt commented: “As I noticed last night [the first night of the performances], it comes together in the present moment.” As I heard him say this, I thought: my goodness, what a breakthrough. Such a statement warranted celebration. Wadada and the music had penetrated a thicket of formalism that closeted the fullest expression of the reason that Wadada had brought the groups together,  both in concept and in reality.



The Performances


The three nights of Ten Freedom Summers flew by.  The story that was being told had a logic that surmounted any historical gaps that might have existed. The positing of the story beautifully balanced and intertwined the sounds of musical instruments associated with divergent genres.

Golden Quartet played twelve of the parts; members of Southwest Chamber Music played five parts; and the two groups played together three times.

The texture of the music moved gracefully from the subtle to the overt and back again.

The cries of the horn pierced the space to evoke sorrow and pain. Shalini Vijayan squeezed cries out of her violin with continuous high pitch bowing and screeching, screaming glissandos.

The blues were more often than not captured in these sagas, unveiled by Wadada's muted and natural trumpet. Behind the ring of his phrasings, Ibarra brushed the drumskins, touched the cymbals and snagged rhythmic figures.  Davis rolled chords on the piano, pressed through endless arpeggios, rattled trills or gently tapped closing treble notes. Lindberg's mastery of the bass predisposed his capacity to hook into the larger body of the music with a sound that was more than sensitive to what the other players were doing and was more than providing a simple grounding mechanism. With constant strength and muscle, Lindberg circled and stroked the strings with his bow or leaned into his instrument to pluck out notes, whose deep tones penetrated the surrounding sound to send a message of gravity and substance.

The string quartet of the Chamber group played an inexorably reverent, elegant, awe-inspiring "Black Church," a space to breath between the calls for help that seemingly came out of "Emmett Till" and the transmission of the idea of commitment to claim human rights in "Freedom Summer."

Once the music started at any point, in a clear opening or disguised in a gradual change from one part to another, a cornucopia of sounds unleashed new textures, new phrases, new directions for the playing to take. “Medgar Evers” revealed a host of colors that came not only from different instruments but the way in which those instruments were played in contrast to one another:  a voice, as in song, from the viola peeled against cymbal to snare brush figures; the flute fluttered against the plucking of harp strings; a bow bounced on the viola strings against the non-resonance of Lynn Vartan's hands hitting the marimba bars. “September Eleventh” was exceedingly somber: the trumpet bled with emotion; the bass notes hung onto particles of air; the piano painted a portrait of shock, stillness, and sadness; repeated light touches of a drumstick to the edge of the cymbal closed the piece.


The persistent intensity of the music culminated every night in a stunning instrumental nexus.

On October 28, the last part of the first collection, “Defining Moments in America,” “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960” closed the night. The booming resonance of the tympani overlapped the repeated phrases that created the resonance at the onset. A range of tonalities was carved out in instrumental waves of glockenspiel to clarinet to harp to piano to flute to marimba to concert bass drum. The music progressed to pinpoint the trumpet and violin. Golden Quartet 'felt' its way through the music; the Chamber Ensemble seemed to 'work.' This was a 'feel and work' collaboration, where the Golden Quartet fit into the Chamber group more than the reverse. The collaboration typified the kind of interaction that Wadada strives for and with which he is always successful.

On October 29, “Lyndon B, Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964” ended the “What Is Democracy” collection. This piece began with the syncopation of the percussive elements and carried on through repetitions and parenthetical closures offered by the piano and harp. Successive harmonious notes coming from individual instruments, throughout the entire ensemble, transformed into a steadily mounting cacophony within specific instrumental groupings. This conversation surrounded the sound of the muted trumpet and the violin’s long-bowed high pitches, which countered each other as a means to beg the question ‘What is going to happen next?’ That wonder was dispelled as the looping of musical lines from different instruments subsided and then picked up again in pace and volume.  The lines constructed were jagged even though they were also synchronous. After a measurable swell, with the horn in the lead, the sound faded away.



October 30th was the final night of the performances. The last collection is called “Ten Freedom Summers.” It ends with “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy.” This last piece not only closed the third collection, but also the complete work. It was the nature of King’s influence through non-violence and collaboration that incited Wadada to focus on him. The music floated a bittersweet tunefulness over a turmoil elicited by the strings’ tremulous harmony in counterpoint with the bass clarinet’s reedy tones. By the end, Wadada’s trumpet song rose above the increased pace of the arpeggios on the piano which consistently landed in the treble, the expanding resonance from the drums, and the furious thumbing of the bass strings. Wadada beckoned for more sound from the members of his quartet.  He walked to the piano as he played his instrument and then toward the audience. The music dropped out. Wadada held up the index finger of his right hand and then dropped it. The voice of Martin Luther King bellowed from the loudspeakers the memorable canon of words, "...I've been to the mountaintop...," from his last speech in Memphis before he died. His speech is about his imminent death in the face of his ever-growing faith that, in his dream, everyone in the world will unite as brothers without discrimination, without violence, without treachery, leaving history behind.

After King’s voice disappeared, Wadada held his head still in a prayer of silence. He nodded his head signaling the finish of his work.

The audience stood and applauded with exuberance. The players bowed. All of them on the edge of the stage.

Then, Wadada looked up to the audience and said: “What do you say?”

There was no reply.

“I’m asking a question…What do you say?”

There was still no reply.

“You say: Freedom.”


Epilog


The Freedom Summer to which Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers refers lasted for ten weeks beginning in June of 1964. Its purpose was to secure the right of Black Americans to vote in the state of Mississippi, where Wadada was born.

Sometimes, the most significant statements take the longest time to formulate. And, sometimes, the creator of these statements cannot even detect that the process is taking place. Wadada has written Ten Freedom Summers during his entire life, subliminally through his life experience and literally through a series of recordings, grants and fellowships.

“Medgar Evers” was written in 1977 for violinist LeRoy Jenkins.

“The Freedom Riders Ride” in the “Defining America” collection was commissioned in 2001 for Golden Quartet by the University of Florida.

“Rosa Parks” was recorded for the first time with bassist John Lindberg on Tabligh.

Southwest Chamber Music recorded “Black Church” on an album that was released in 2000.

“America, Parts 1 and 2” were recorded by Smith and Jack de Johnette on Tzadik in 2008 in an album called America.

“Fannie Lou Hamer” and “The Mississippi Freedom Democracy Party” was written during a Djerassi Foundation residency in 2008.

“Emmett Till” and “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier” were commissioned by Southwest Chamber Music.

And “Dred Scott,” “Democracy,” “Buzzsaw: The Myth of the Free Press and Corporate Power,” “Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz and The People of the Shahadah,” and “September Eleventh, 2001: A Memorial” were all composed while Wadada was a Guggenheim Fellow.

At a certain point, everything clicked and Wadada knew he was going to assemble a piece of music that was not just another means to improvisation, not just another composition, but a serious exposition on how he feels about his country and his place in it.  When Wadada informed Southwest Chamber Music, who had just commissioned the piece “John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier,” that his intentions were to integrate all his pieces into one, the group decided to commission the last three pieces. Wadada could realize his vision.

Wadada knows that he has set a precedent with Ten Freedom Summers. This work oversteps any critical label of 'alternative.' This work does not conform to any other type of music as a conceptual whole or to any other music in specific structure. This piece of music is the first of its kind and the only one of its kind.






Text, except for direct quotations from Wadada Leo Smith, and Photos:
copyright 2011 Lyn Horton




The Players
Golden Quartet: Anthony Davis, piano; Susie Ibarra, drums; John Lindberg, bass; Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet.

Southwest Chamber Music: Alison Bjorkedal, harp; Jim Foschia, clarinet; Lorenz Gamma, violin; Peter Jacobson, cello; Larry Kaplan, flute; Jan Karlin, viola; Tom Peters, bass; Lynn Vartan, percussion; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Jeff von der Schmidt, conductor.

The Program for October 28, 29, and 30, 2011
Ten Freedom Summers 

First Collection: Defining Moments in America
Optics [Ismail Ali]
Dred Scott: 1857 [Golden Quartet];
Malik Al Shabazz and The People of the Shahada [Golden Quartet];
Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless [Golden Quartet and Southwest Chamber Music];
Black Church [Southwest Chamber Ensemble];
Freedom Summer: Voter Registration, Acts of Compassion and Empowerment, 1964 [Golden Quartet];
The D. C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times [Golden Quartet];
John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960 [Southwest Chamber Music].

Second Collection: What is Democracy
Butterfly: Silver [a film by Robert Fenz]
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days [Golden Quartet];
In the Diaspora, Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions – 1 [Southwest Chamber Music];
Fannie Lou Hamer and The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964 [Golden Quartet];
Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years Journey for Liberty and Justice [Southwest Chamber Music];
September Eleventh 2001: A Memorial [Golden Quartet];
Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press [Golden Quartet];
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Southwest Chamber Music, Shalini Vijayan & Wadada Leo Smith]

Third Collection: Ten Freedom Summers
Crossing [a film by Robert Fenz]
In the Diaspora, Earthquakes and Sunrise Missions – 2 [Southwest Chamber Music];
Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954 [Golden Quartet];
The Freedom Riders Ride [Golden Quartet];
The Little Rock Nine: A Force of Desegregation In Education, 1957 [Golden Quartet & Southwest Chamber Music];
America Parts 1 & 2 [Golden Quartet];
Democracy [Golden Quartet];
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, The Prophecy [Southwest Chamber Music & Golden Quartet].

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