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Wadada Leo Smith : The OFN Interview [part 2]

[part 1 / part 2]

In this second part of the OFN interview with Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpeter speaks candidly about his own musical contributions, the role of travel in his music, and the overarching political and social role of art and music in general. He also speaks out on issues related to critical approaches to African American art, the racial coding of critical analysis, and the current state of music journalism.

What about recording improvised music? Do you look at that as documenting, or do you look at that as an economic necessity, or how do you look at the recording processes?

It’s a way of documenting new discoveries. In the world we live in now, and the one that people lived in before, and the one that’s coming, economics will play a strong part in everything. Because the economy of how you develop wealth is also based off of the economy of life, how you live in a society and provide for yourself. So those issues don’t really come into play.

What really comes into play is how can one document this research that they have amassed and have other people experience it. Because the whole object of art is to make a better society. Not just for the person who’s doing or the person who’s looking, but at large, whether today or tomorrow or the future, to make a better society. And art objects live past the human tenure. That’s why we can appreciate a Louis Armstrong, or a Bach, or a Jimi Hendrix. These things live past you. And once they live past you they continue to enrich the world that they were a part of, and that we now are a part of, and even what’s coming in the future, for humanity, to make a better humanity or a humanity that makes decisions based off of intelligent research and based off of the strong resolve of the heart and not make decisions based off of conflict and war, or conflict and terror.

Because that’s where our world has gone wrong. We have a world society now that has built a new generation of ideas about solving conflict based off of war, or creating conflict to dominate other societies, based off of war and economics. And it has destroyed the human heart right now. And this repair—and there’s a lot to repair and it’s going to take a lot of sincere artists to do it—and right now I’m afraid that I don’t have much trust in what’s going to make the repair. And the reason I don’t have any trust in it is because art is like every other system right now, and it has become commercial, you see. Now there’s an underground, and there’s always an underground, but by and large the commercialization of art has taken away the value that art has in society. It has lost that value.

So how do you get back that value?

To get back to that value, that’s really a very hard question to answer. But the one thing that I do know is that if in fact those people that truly make art objects to really enhance and empower mankind, humankind, they are the ones that can make this return. And as you know, now, they are the ones that people tend not to listen to. You know, if you take, for example, my music as an example of a music that people kinda hold on the cusp, you see, but when I do Yo Miles! music, I mean there are thousands of reviews and hundreds of interviews, and this and that. And it’s true: they cannot kill Miles now, he’s already dead. They cannot stop him: he’s already made his legacy and achievements.

But they can appreciate something coming out of that something now, and when in fact the same music that I make with the Yo Miles! music is the same as I’ve made before. It’s my understanding of how to use the language and what kind of diction he used, depending upon what state and stage I’m presenting it at. But it’s the same thing. But the element of play for the other side of the coin, of which I have made quite a bit of contribution to, is held at a marginal level, you see. And that is not an accident, not just for me but other artists as well, whether it be in film or independent journalists who they also stop in the same kind of way, who see what’s happening in society but cannot get the words out to make an impact. They are effectively stopped.

It’s interesting that you mention that the earlier stuff is forgotten or is marginalized and the Yo Miles! has gotten a lot of press. Do you hope that the press will turn people back to the other stuff that you’re doing as well?

Oh it’s definitely already happened. The point that I was trying to make is that it comes in another kind of dimension of which people are willing to kind of take a look at, because they cannot point the finger of success or failure towards Miles Davis or some other element, you see. Whereas like these other musics, they look directly at us as being the points of focus. And also, the papers and music magazines have a hard time—they rarely review our work, you know. So that’s the point I’m trying to make. Not that Yo Miles! has not been helpful, and it will be helpful. That is definitely a fact. It has helped a tremendous lot already. I’m definitely aware of that. I’m not, how would you say, beating a horse that has drove me across the horizon.

I have two quick follow-up questions. One question is in relation to your travel. And I’m interested in this in particular because you were talking about music as being an expression of the opinion of the society in which you’re living [see part one of the interview]. Does that mean that the opinion and the music itself necessarily changes based upon where you’re at at the time—if you’re in Iceland, or if you’re in Paris, or if you’re in Chicago? Does that directly inform the music? How does place function in the music?

Well place functions like this: it does definitely give you a new canvas to paint on, but you still have the same heart and head and intelligence. And the same problems that you face on one side of the continent are also on the other side. And the people that you are trying to make art for, in any corner of the world, they suffer the same problems of hunger, of no national health care, of very little concern for community development, and bigness, too much bigness. Hospitals are now managed by administrators who have nothing to do with medicine, and art conglomerates are run by art administrators who know nothing about art. So it’s the same thing, you still have the same problems. So the issues of addressing the human equation or the human condition don’t change, you see.

And everybody on whatever part of the planet they live on, they still want to send their kids to school, they still want to see that equal rights are given to everybody including women, that women can hold positions that are equal to men and also get the same damn pay for it. It doesn’t happen at no university on the planet at the moment, you know. The same issues exist. I mean, they don’t pay women in Europe any more equal to men in universities, just like here in this country, they don’t do it either, or in Japan, or wherever we look in any affluent society. You’ll never find that this equation has matched up. And then the issue of health, particularly in countries like America where we live. I mean, like, come on, we don’t have a national health program and it’s been an issue for the last 100 years. So it’s the same issue.

And how does music solve the problem? It allows the person a moment to reflect minus the distraction of living and being involved in living. And that reflection allows them that little moment with themselves so that they can figure out the best way to maneuver through this maze of a society. That’s what art does for us, you see. And if a person that engages in experiencing art truly does drop the outside when they walk into an area to participate in art, they will be liberated. At just that very moment inside the theater or inside the performance space, they will be liberated. And they will have the same problems, but they have experienced a few moments of liberation to give them enough energy to carry on until the next challenge comes.

One of my favorite lines is from J.D. Salinger and he talks about we move our entire lives from one little piece of holy ground to the next. And that moment of time that you make sacred, if ever only briefly, but then it’s the extension of that. Looking for those moments and creating those moments...

I totally agree with him, and I actually see that too. Because that is the dimension in which we live in. And that’s also the same dimension for change, you see. If everyone is hungry and wants to get a job and then they vote for the wrong person to be in office, that don’t mean that they don’t have the potential for change. They do have it, but it means that they didn’t take the opportunity to use that energy that they have for change. They did allow the status quo to outweigh their own personal experience. You know like you take for example Florida and Ohio in our last national election and you see the same components at work, you see.

You were talking about violence before, and about people solving conflict through violence. What I’m constantly confused by when I read criticism of post-bop music is a description of it as violent, and an understanding of dissonance as somehow violent. And someone describing Coltrane’s as aggressive music, or Ayler, or musicians like that. And I’m wondering what your response would be to critics who have heard what I think a lot of us think as very spiritual statements but hear instead nothing but anger and violence?

Those people would not call Symphony No. 4 violent. No they would not. And it’s by Charles Ives, and it’s one of the most intense works an American has created. But at the same token they would call Ascension violent, which is a spiritual piece, and also Symphony No. 4 is also a spiritual piece. Charles Ives was a very spiritual human being. I think they use that in playing the racial card, if you want, to hear what the truth is. To them, that’s a code word, this notion of violence is a code word for race, and they buy into it by writing hip and getting in little denials of human rights through what they determine is criticism, but really is not criticism, you see. They’re not using a critical model to analyze the music. As you know, they’re actually writing about their opinions of a piece of music, and they take the status quo markings to reflect it.

It’s like hip hop. They say hip hop is violent. Before then they said that bebop is violent. And before then, I’m sure they called the jungle music violent, because the whole notion of jungle is kind of a threatening and violent kind of a thing. So if you look at the history of African American arts in general, from literature straight across to visual arts to sonic arts, their notion has often called it violent. The thing that they don’t understand about these arts is that these arts are completed with multiple, multiple centers of activity, you see, and they can’t get past that. They think that that’s violence. That’s a music that’s multi-dominant in form. An art form that is multi-dominant. That is, it has multiple themes or multiple elements in it that are competing for the same central admission and meaning in a work of art. But yet they still are not equipped to integrate that work of art into their generalized form as a single art element, you see. That happens to be one of the phenomena of African belief or part of the philosophical lookout on life. If anybody has ever studied the anthropological nature of African people, they’ll find that this multi-dominant theme is completed throughout the society, in every aspect of it.

George Lewis writes about that in an essay called “Too Many Notes”, where he talks about African American musicians being told that they are playing too much or that African American painters are using too much color...

Exactly, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. And let me go back to another great artist, a guy by the name of Addison Gayle. He wrote a book called The Black Aesthetic. That book is filled with valuable information for today as well, and particularly, you know, looking at how people look at African American art or African art in general.

So ultimately, what would be a good critic? Or are critics just sort of a necessary evil?

Well, a critic is not an evil. See, I don’t take it as an evil. A good critic would be one who actually looked at the work of art first of all for their own enlightenment. That would be the first criteria. Second criteria: if in fact they’re doing it for a paper or some periodical or some journal, than they should do it in the same way, you see--make it that I’m doing this for me first and also doing it for them. And then thirdly: the greatest notion of sincerity should be demonstrated at all times. And probably the final one would be that the deepest and most profound level of respect is exhibited for the art that they’re looking at.

And I find that absent most often, those four elements. Because you know like today, basically, most people have too many things to write about. There’re too many things to look at, meaning that if a guy has ten CDs and he’s got to review all ten of them in one week or two weeks, that’s too many. So the economy should be reflected in a way that allows the journalist the chance to live with the work as they write about it. And, of course, economically that should be part of it. But they don’t do that. The editor doesn’t do it because everybody’s dealing with deadlines and the need to make more capital. So that’s basically what’s wrong with journalism. Not that there’s something wrong with people who are writing who are journalists. And the form itself has a great place within our social spectrum.

You run through your life, and you hope that you can show something that enlightens somebody at some point in time. And if that happens, then that is really leading to a better humanity, a better society.

[part 1 / part 2]