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Wadada Leo Smith: The Future of Ten Freedom Summers

The Life of the Music

At present, Three Collections of music constitute Wadada Leo Smith’s masterpiece, Ten Freedom Summers. The First Collection is called “Defining Moments in America;” the Second Collection, “What Is Democracy?” and the Third Collection, “Ten Freedom Summers.”  Each collection is comprised of various pieces, which he has composed for close to forty years and is still composing.

The East Coast premiere of the full three-night performance of Ten Freedom Summers occurs at Roulette in Brooklyn on May 1, 2, and 3 of 2013, for which The Fromm Foundation commissioned  Smith to add one work in the last collection, “The March on Washington, DC: August, 1963.” He plans to seek another commission to write one more piece. This one will be called “The Voting Rights Act of 2012;” he wants to bring attention to the voter suppression in 2012, followed by the Supreme Court’s questioning of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act as it was signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965.

The next steps in this “celebration,” as he calls it, of the Civil Rights Movement will be to compose a group of eight to ten pieces of music, two of which he wrote in 1985 with compositions about singer/songwriter Bob Marley and poet, vocalist, actor and activist, Paul Robeson

In 1977, when he wrote “Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey For Liberty and Justice” (in the Second Collection of Ten Freedom Summers), he set a course whose purpose was to translate into music the psychology of “brave men and women… who are and were activists.” Smith concedes that writing these works indicates a plan larger than writing only the Three Collections of Ten Freedom Summers.  Once he has finished a final group of pieces including one about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player, and President Barack Obama, the first African-American leader of the United States, Smith intends to record them as its Fourth Collection, but with "...a beautiful name” other than Ten Freedom Summers. In total, when he has stopped composing for the project, thirty or so pieces will constitute Ten Freedom Summers.

Photo by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson
The premiere of twenty-one pieces over three nights of Ten Freedom Summers occurred in Los Angeles, CA, in May, 2011 with the Golden Quartet (Susie Ibarra, drums; Anthony Davis, piano; and John Lindberg, bass) and the nine instrument ensemble, Southwest Chamber Music. Since then, Smith has performed all three nights of his composition only once, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but with the Golden Quartet (Pheeroan Aklaff, drums) and a small string and harp ensemble. 

After the Sao Paulo performance, Smith decided to create his own string quartet plus harp, which will travel with him when the necessity arises. This particular group adds to the four for which he is already the leader. The new string group, called Pacifica Red Coral, is comprised of two of artists who played the premiere: harp player, Alison Bjorkedal, and violinist, Shalini Vijayan. The remaining three string players are second violinist CalArts graduate Mona Tian; violist Andrew McIntosh, also a graduate from CalArts; and the cellist, Ashley Walters, a Doctoral Candidate at University of CA at San Diego. The fact that Smith has continual access to both the Golden Quartet (Aklaff, Davis, Lindberg) and Pacifica Red Coral has rendered the composer autonomous. He says: “This is the best of all possibilities.” The music, the players and the concept of his composition have become indivisible. 

Because the full performance of Ten Freedom Summers cannot occur every time, Smith has devised a means to pare down the larger work into smaller units or suites.  He fashions a sampling of pieces within each of the Three Collections and plays them with either both or one of his two quartets; for a one-night performance, six pieces can be played and for a two-night concert, twelve. In May, 2012, one night was performed at the Victoriaville Jazz Festival in Canada; in November, 2012, two nights were played in Ann Arbor, MI at Edgefest 16.

Background of New Work

His new work, “The March on Washington, DC: August, 1963,” will be inserted in the performance just before the closing of Collection Three, “Martin Luther King, Jr: Memphis, The Prophecy.” Whereas the latter is based on the overall power of King’s delivery in the speech identified generally as “I Have Been to The Mountaintop,” spoken on April 3, 1968, the day before King was brutally gunned down, the former is based on the vocal evolution within the delivery of the historic  “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of mixed race and socio-economic status, numbering 250,000[i].    
Photo by Lyn Horton

About the new composition, Smith describes that he had a vision in “a moment of reflection,” where “he mentally saw that that piece was finished and what it would contain…It’s difficult to balance what is going to happen…It follows the same kind of format as Martin Luther King’s speeches. All of them have the same kind of curve…He would start and build the speech and interject different kinds of information and, finally, when it reaches its climax, he immediately stops the speech and falls away. When he falls away, he has already been transformed... You see this happening in the March on Washington speech and in his last speech the day before he was assassinated. And what I am trying to capture in this piece [The March on Washington, DC: August, 1963], which is most unusual, is that whole arc that his speech demonstrates.”

Pondering Impact

Never referring to it as the pinnacle of his career [the interview that took place in preparation for this article occurred prior to the announcement that Smith is a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Finalist], Smith believes that Ten Freedom Summers marks “an achievement that I had hoped and dreamed would be possible to do. Now that it has happened both in major performance as well as a collective product, whenever I reflect on it, that reflection is usually about the historical aspects concerning the events inside of it, like Emmett Till.

“…I think about what would have happened if Emmett Till had never been assassinated in that way…And what comes up is pure speculation…But I think that if that had not happened, Mississippi would be worse than it was then.

Photo by Lyn Horton

“…I think about what would have happened with Fannie Lou Hamer, if, in fact, she was allowed to pursue her activist career and, at the same time, develop the Freedom Democratic Party…What would the political terrain be like now?  Nobody can answer those questions except in terms of speculation. If the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was part of the landscape today, Congress would look very different and so would the politics in Mississippi and, for that matter, of the South.

“...Or, for example, Brown vs. Board of Education…What would really and truly have been the state of America if, in fact, desegregation had been put immediately into action…What would America look like? I know one thing…it wouldn't be like it is now. I do believe such entities like the Tea Party and other kinds of social and hateful groups wouldn't exist on the same level. They may still be present, but they would not have the kind of power or the media attention which they get now.

“So those are the things I think about…

“…In terms of the music?  What do I think about? All those pieces are finished. I don’t have to re-compose them so I think about the next pieces I am writing [within the context of Ten Freedom Summers] and what kind of musical exploring I will go into…What kind of ideas would I attach to building those how to integrate various parts of the ensembles just as I did in the main collections of Ten Freedom Summers and I am working on that.

“For example, ‘The March on Washington: August, 1963,’ looks at and answers at least one aspect of those problems…of how the music can be different than it was before. By following the dynamic curve of Martin Luther King’s speeches, all kinds of problems are solved. There are problems of continuity; there are problems of diversity, the differences in material, and there are problems of balancing the composed portion with the improvised portion…How these two aspects can expand themselves dynamically, collectively, as I intended, based on those speeches.

“That’s my reflection, my contemplation…

“‘Ten Freedom Summers’ will be over. There is enough music there for people to reflect on for a long, long time. I will complete the music on artists and activists including the Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama pieces, and whomever else I need to look at, to create eight to ten pieces which will all fit on two CDs. And that project will be done.”

The Cycle Comes Round

At the performance in Los Angeles, two or three of the Freedom Riders, one person from the Little Rock Nine, and ten more people active in the Civil Rights Movement traveled to hear Smith’s composition: “Those people came up to me to talk about how it was and how excited they were that someone had decided to look at that movement and how it made them feel. Most of them expressed deep emotion about what they heard. Some people talked about crying during a particular piece…one of the Freedom Riders, in particular. There was a lady who lived in back of where I lived [Leland, Mississippi] when I was a kid…she was completely overwhelmed by the pieces. This shows me that the music was done at the right time and touched people who were actually involved in the movement as activists. It shows me that by giving people something with this kind of meaning in it, it may be possible that [that meaning] will find its true course. And I think this work is doing that.”

As for the recording, Smith says, “Everybody…everybody responds to the recording. It has impacted a lot of people. It’s hard to measure how it changes people. But to listen to four and a half hours of music in one sitting takes commitment. The choice to do that is already something powerful. [It is] how art can become what people are thinking about, rather than what they are thinking about normally.”

In an interview for a 2012 edition of Critical Studies in Improvisation, Smith said: “Ten Freedom Summers is a musical frame based on key people and the events of the struggle for the civil and human rights. It’s important that people understand this about what I've done in Ten Freedom Summers.” Given this statement, one only need to listen to the way in which he plays his trumpet alone or in collaboration with other instruments to know that he, himself, has participated heavily in that struggle both to free himself and to support those still struggling, embracing them with his compassion and his deep commitment to the design of the music which represents the epic story of the Civil Rights movement.

Going Forward

Smith’s music is so well-formed and so close to his heart that in no way can it fail to express what he wants to express. “I don’t leave it until I achieve that. I don’t move forward until I hit the ball…squarely and solidly. When composing my pieces, I walk through the music many times – it is spread out on the floor. If I see something out of balance, I place a blank page there and keep moving. And I’ll compose that page… that one that is missing. And if a page needs to be taken out, I’ll take that page out. So, actually, when it’s finished and presented and recorded, that music is written. I don’t need to rewrite it.”

Wadada Leo Smith has always been confident that his music will disturb and rejoin the universal energy. “Whatever a person does that is completely connected to them and serious, it’s going to make an impact, no matter on what level…whether it is large or small or in between. That impact happened because of that person’s dream of creating it or doing this ‘something.’ As in my own development, I have always been sure I was moving in the right direction, no matter whether or not people were buying my CDs or were interested in what I was doing. I knew I had a good idea because of what it meant to me and that it would mean something to someone else someday.”

And so, even though Smith will leave Ten Freedom Summers behind to pursue other “backburner projects,” as he portrays them, this genuinely well-founded, earnest and magnificent composition will resonate throughout time. That resonance will be its perpetual future.

Header Photo of Wadada Leo Smith by Arika

Copyright 2013 Lyn Horton


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