When Wadada Leo Smith arrived in New Orleans in January 2016 for a two-week residency through The New Quorum, a local nonprofit, the Christmas tree still stood in his temporary Esplanade Avenue home. Soon its branches became improvised music stands, dotted with sheet music that looked like paper ornaments during nightly workshops for local musicians.
As a trumpeter and composer, Smith’s 50 recordings through nearly a half-century establish him as a singular master of a style rooted in but not constrained by jazz tradition, which he calls simply “creative music.” In January, Smith described the basics of “Ankhrasmation,” his personalized system, for musicians including guitarist Jonathan Freilich, who had studied with him at the California Institute for the Arts, cellist Helen Gillet and trombonist Jeff Albert.
“It’s a method of scoring sound, rhythm and silence,” Smith explained, “meant to inspire form and improvisation without inhibitions.” At one point, the group worked through “Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and The Civil Rights Act of 1964,” a section of “Ten Freedom Summers,” the three-part masterwork Smith premiered in Los Angeles in 2011 and released in a four-CD set the following year, which also was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Smith will return to New Orleans on Saturday to perform Part Three of “Ten Freedom Summers” at Loyola University’s Roussel Hall. The complete work spills out Oct. 12-15, including concerts in Houston and Austin, Texas, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama — the first Southern presentations of this meditation on the civil rights movement. Smith’s work on “Ten Freedom Summers” began in 1977, with a composition dedicated to the slain activist Medgar Evers. “Just as our national transformation continues,” Smith said in an interview, “this music continues to evolve.” At Roussel Hall, he’ll premiere recently composed sections dedicated to the four girls who died in a 1963 Alabama church bombing and to activist Angela Davis.
“Ten Freedom Summers” focuses chiefly on a 10-year stretch, from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional to the “freedom summer” voter-registration drive and Civil Rights Act of 1964. If it’s a personal reflection from a musician who came of age as the civil rights movement took shape, it’s also a statement of artistic empowerment, blending elements of jazz and classical music in decidedly liberated ways. At Roussel Hall, Smith will perform with his Golden Quartet (pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, all longtime collaborators) as well as with The RedKoral String Quartet, which he assembled specifically for this work, and in front of archival footage and abstract images from video artist Jesse Gilbert.
Smith, 75, of New Haven, Connecticut, plays trumpet pretty much the way he did in the 1960s, when he first gained acclaim. His tone can be boldly declarative or soft to the point of breaking. His most emphatic moments during the 2011 premiere of “Ten Freedom Summers” were often his gentlest, which is not to say he lacked fire. Minutes later, the music turned fierce and defiant.
Born and raised in Leland, Mississippi, Smith began performing in blues bands led by his stepfather, Alex Wallace, a guitarist known as “Little Bill.” He wrote arrangements for his high school marching band and, after he enlisted, for military bands. He moved to Chicago in 1967 and quickly connected with multireedist Anthony Braxton and other founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, a collective whose aesthetic spanned the range of black expression, defying genres and disciplines, and that remains deeply influential. Yet Smith has always been his own man, gone his own way.
The New Orleans presentation of “Ten Freedom Summers” is produced by The New Quorum, a nonprofit founded by Gianna Chachere to bring musicians and writers from all corners to New Orleans for cultural exchange. The organization’s name honors the legacy of The Quorum, formed in the early 1960s — just as Smith’s aesthetic took shape — on Esplanade Avenue, not far from the house Chachere has established.
“The Quorum was a haven for creative artists and thinkers that opened its doors to all races when that was a controversial thing to do,” said Roxy Wright, who was among its founding members and has served as an officer with many leading New Orleans cultural organizations. Smith describes the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music's early days in similar terms. “When we played in Chicago, people would gain a clarity of purpose as citizens who could see through bigotry and politics.”
Smith’s 2016 January stay in New Orleans workshops had a liberating impact on others. “Wadada turns your concepts upside down,” said Helen Gillet, “forcing you to looking at music from a new perspective.” It also inspired the first movement of “America’s National Parks,” the six-movement suite Smith released last year. That movement, “declares that New Orleans was the first cultural center in America,” he said, “and therefore produced the first authentic American music.”
“Ten Freedom Summers” celebrates some indelible speeches, such Martin Luther King Jr.’s final address, yet it more so reflects Smith’s belief that “purely instrumental, wordless messages go straight to the heart.”
Smith has refined such communication. One night during his New Orleans workshop, while playing a section of the piece, he motioned to a drummer for something he wanted from a ride cymbal. He kept motioning. Finally, in a stage whisper, he instructed: "Let it ring!" He meant a particular sound produced by the proper strike of a drumstick. He also meant his composition’s theme — that feeling of freedom.
Wadada Leo Smith
7:30 p.m. Saturday
Roussel Hall, Loyola University
6363 St. Charles Ave.