The social and artistic revolutions in the mid-twentieth century created completely new spaces for individual and collective expression outside of mainstream American culture. One such center of creativity was the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Founded in Chicago in 1965 on artistic and social impulses, AACM had an avant-garde aesthetic that respected the past but looked toward the future. Musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell explored new ways of improvising and new relationships with musical scores, eschewing generic labels while drawing on multiple sources–Africa, the Mississippi Delta, the works of Duke Ellington, twentieth-century classical music.
One of the most prominent members of AACM was the trumpeter and composer Leo Smith. He became a Rastafarian and added Wadada to his name, eventually converting to Islam and calling himself Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.
Born and raised in segregated Mississippi, Smith moved to Chicago, and at age twenty-four, already an accomplished R&B and jazz musician, he joined the AACM. His earliest recordings, made with multi-instrumentalist Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins, reveal many seeds of his mature style: his immediately recognizable rich, slightly acerbic tone; a highly personal sense of space and time; his penchant for manipulating silence; and the use of call-and-response patterns that harkened back to the Delta blues. There is no rhythm section here, no steady rhythmic structure. Years later in his own writings, Smith explains that improvisers create their own individual way of responding to compositions without necessarily reacting to their surroundings and that rhythm should be conceived of not as pulse and time but as space.
Members of the AACM, most prominently Braxton, experimented with creating their own musical notation. Smith developed a highly individual graphic system that sometimes incorporates short pieces of standard musical score but relies mainly on complex shapes and colors as cues for improvisers. His scores are works of art that obliterate the distinctions between visual and auditory signals, color and sound, trumpet and pencil or brush.
All of this seems very abstract, but, true to the engaged ethos of AACM, Smith has always been involved with the politics of the times. The fullest manifestation of his deep concern for social and economic justice is his nineteen-piece set of suites, Ten Freedom Summers, that meditate on the history of the civil rights movement. He wrote it over thirty-four years and released it on a four-CD album in 2012. The composition was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Wadada Leo Smith will perform in a duo with the equally accomplished bassist John Lindberg on October 26 as part of Edgefest.