Taylor Ho Bynum

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Wadada Leo Smith: No Fear

I recently picked up some extremely interesting freelance work, conducting interviews for the Oral History of American Music project at Yale. OHAM is dedicated to archiving primary source material on the major musical figures of our time, capturing first person stories in the artists’ own voices. They’ve given me close to carte blanche to talk to the folks I consider the most important figures in creative music, and I’ve got a great list of people I hope to interview: Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Eddie Palmieri, Henry Threadgill, Sam Rivers, Muhal Richard Abrams, etc etc. They’ve also given me the permission to post excerpts from these interviews on my own blog, so hopefully over the next period, there will be a steady stream of words popping up here.

Over the summer, the first interview I conducted was with the great Wadada Leo Smith: trumpeter, composer, educator, and activist. This week, he’ll be celebrating his 70th birthday with an incredible pair of concerts at Roulette, featuring three different groups each night. (I’m excited to be joining his Silver Orchestra on Friday.) So in honor of his birthday and the accompanying musical celebration, I thought I’d put up some of his words.

Wadada is a fascinating talker, a philosopher and a storyteller. In a three and a half hours, we only got to the late 1970s, so we’re going to be conducting a follow-up interview soon to cover all the stuff he’s done in the past three decades. But we got the chance to talk about his early childhood in Mississippi, his stint in the Army band, his arrival in Chicago and his hook-up with Braxton, Jenkins, and the rest of the AACM, their Paris sojourn, and his years organizing the rich New Haven scene in the 70s. In the part of the interview I’ve excerpted here, he talks about first starting the trumpet as a child, and within a few weeks of that starting his compositional journey and professional gigging career.

Interview conducted July 14, 2011, in New Haven CT.

THB: Okay, so when did you begin playing the trumpet or begin being a musician at all?

WLS: I started playing the trumpet at twelve…three months before I was thirteen, actually. But, you know, the trumpet kind of fit very well, after I finally got to it. I was playing the mellophone at first…I wasn’t really attracted to the mellophone, and I had gotten it because by the time I got to the instrument room on the day that the instruments were given out, everything was gone except the mellophone. But eventually the band director changed me to the trumpet, and that was a good move because I liked the trumpet very well, and I learned to play it really very fast—I would say within two months I had a good feel for the trumpet, and at the third month I started playing in nightclubs…I found a band that I could play in, and basically it was a blues band with a lead guitar and bass guitar and drums, and trumpet. And that was when I was thirteen. So it didn’t take long to really start discovering that the trumpet was good instrument for me, but also finding out that I could use it in a way that kind of gave me inspiration to do other things.

I started composing at the same time. In fact, I started composing two weeks after playing trumpet…Essentially, I started composing with the notes that I knew on the trumpet, which was about four or five, and the rest of them, I just kind of put down. And I put them down because it felt like if there were other notes there to use, I could find a way to use them, so I put them down…[I wrote] a piece for four trumpets. I went and got three other trumpet players, and we started practicing it. And those notes that we didn’t know: we had a fingering book, with the fingering chart in it, so when we’d get to a note that we didn’t know, we’d grab the book, flip it open, find out how you finger it, and learn how to play it and then kept moving.

So I started out with both of these things right around three months before I turned thirteen, both composing and playing the trumpet.

THB: Was your initiative as far as immediately starting to compose and lead your own group and play with the group—was that unusual, or were there other kids that deeply involved in the music?

WLS: No, that was unusual. I was a different kind of kid…Because I started playing in these nightclubs when I’m thirteen. And I would play four nights a week, sometime five, and nearly every weekend I was either in Louisiana or—where did we go? Louisiana, Arkansas or Mississippi. Those were our three states that we would cover. I would participate in all the stuff at school, but I wasn’t the kind of guy that would hang out with other guys and do a lot of different things, because I was busy. I was working, you could say.

THB: Did you ever have any question about becoming a musician?

WLS: No, no, never, never. Not only just becoming a musician but the whole range, like composing, thinking about music, playing music, researching music. All that stuff, I did when I was a child. On the second week that I had been playing trumpet, I started composing. I went and read all the books that I could find with any information on composers. Essentially what they had was collections on mostly European composers, so I read about all those guys’ lives, and I looked through other books that had information about music. And eventually I came in contact with some names, and those names led to other names, like “Blind” Lemon Jefferson, William Grant Still, Hubert Blake, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington…W.C. Handy. I found little bits and pieces on all of them at the age of thirteen, so I already had a pantheon of people that were doing stuff that really was inspirational. And the truth is, I didn’t hear—I heard Duke Ellington’s music a little bit later, but their story and the fact that they were composers made a deep impression. Knowing that information, I decided instantly that I knew exactly what composers do: They compose music, and that’s all they did. So that was a big discovery.

THB: It’s interesting that you’re a practitioner and a conceptualist first because you didn’t have access to their recordings—you were performing before you were listening.

WLS: Oh, yes, yes. I started performing—I mean, like I say, after three months, I started performance, and the performance was that I was playing fixed lines. I was the only person in the band that had the horn, and nobody in the band could read except me. Nobody in the band knew anything about music other than the fact that they played those instruments and they played them well. Okay. And so all my lines that I played with the material that they were using, I made—those lines was all my lines. I made them up. And I had no model to make them up. In other words, I didn’t go and listen to somebody and see how you play the blues; I just made them up the way that I felt like they should be made up. And soloing and improvising? That was on the first time I played the trumpet with those guys. You start soloing. So these things happened not with me having a learning curve on it and then going, joining some band. I learned how to play while playing, which is kind of unique.

THB: Absolutely. Did the question of genre ever concern you at that point or any point?

WLS: No. No, not then, no, and now, because there ain’t no genres. I mean, there are, let’s say, commercial titles that people put on areas of art to make it easier so that when they go to the cash register, they can ring it up as a Picasso, okay? But that’s all that is. For me, art doesn’t have these kinds of boundaries, and it never will because humans didn’t make art. If they did, it would be a different thing. But they didn’t make it. I mean, art is something that people are able to share in that have special skills, and those special skills often don’t necessarily mean the ability to articulate a specific kind of instrument or kind of form on that instrument. It has something to do with having the kind of sensibility to relax our daily distortion and able to draw from there that zoning, which part existing, because it’s not on Earth…

Music don’t grow up like a tree and somebody model it, you see. No one’s ever seen what music looks like. Yes, we write notes and stuff down, but those are just—that’s an imaginary zone in which people have conformed to, to try to make sense out of stuff. But, in fact, it don’t even ever have to be written down, because if it’s ever played, it’s already sufficiently documented. So music is not modeled on the planet, and therefore people can’t really do much to it…

THB: What were the musical elements that you were most interested in exploring?

WLS: Sound, which is what I learned on the first time I played. My first really musical lesson in actuality other than school was when I went to join this band; that is, the lead guitar, the bass guitar, and the drummer. Essentially, they start off playing just like that. You know, kick it and start playing. I been playing music three months, and I’m thinking: “Okay, well, they didn’t say which key or nothing like that, so maybe I can find out from the guitar player,” and I asked him what key he was in. He said he’s in “guitar key.” I asked the bass player. He said the same thing: “I’m in bass key.” So what does that tell me? That I’m in trumpet key.

Now, that seemed like a not a really sophisticated notion about reasoning and logic, but it is. It’s just as logical as if some philosopher had thought of it, because if I’m playing trumpet key and he’s playing the guitar key and bass key, and we got to play together and I hear them playing together, they’re not playing in conflict with each other. That means whatever I play has to be in context with them, too. It can’t be confliction. And so I take a note, and whatever note I took, I was able to hear that note really clearly inside me when I played it, and every note after that, I heard clearly. And at some point in this note that moves from here to there, in the context of soloing, I discovered that certain notes have gravity and that some of the gravity works in a certain way, and the other one works in another way. And to me, this is practical tonality. I was able to figure out, in almost an instant, where I was, maybe not even knowing which key it was, but I knew where I was, you see?

So when you think about these kinds of things, you look to see what information it gives you. It gives you a lot of information. But most of all, it builds the greatest sense of confidence. You don’t ever in your life again have to worry about how to find where it’s at or what key it’s in. You never have to worry about that ever again. That’s pretty nice to realize at thirteen, you know.

I know guys that later in life still ask me: “What key you in?” Why do you need to do that?…Whichever note you play, it’s got a context. It’s got a tonal context, it’s got a textural context, it’s got a mobility context. Will that note allow you to move, or will it make you sustain? It’s got a context in terms of dynamics: how hard you’re going to play it or how soft you’re going to play it. And its notion of relationship with whatever else is there that’s in the musical field. Just one note has all those things in it, so it’s a good lesson to learn. And also it reduces stress and fear about which note you need to play. You never have to think about that again. You start playing, and even now, even now, to get to somewhere else in the music, I can lose the identity of the pitches that I’m dealing with. And if I do that, it loosens me up and pulls me into the actual sound of what’s going on, and I can slide right across anywhere I want to slide and find places that I’m not really familiar with. Because I know what it is, there’s no problem, no fear.

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