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Occupations: Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers

Wadada Leo Smith speaking to the audience in Guelph after the performance of Ten Freedom Summers 
The citation accompanying the announcement that Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music stresses its monumentality: “An expansive jazz work that memorializes ten key moments in the history of civil rights in America, fusing composed and improvised passages into powerful, eloquent music.” He was also voted “Composer of the Year,” in Downbeat magazine’s critics’ poll, for this same work – as well as for his compositions for large ensemble, recordings with the Finnish orchestra TUMO issued as Occupy the World (TUM) earlier this summer. His comments on the Downbeat award, published in the August 2013 issue, stress more than history and canon, more than monument making, although Smith remains deeply conscious of his enmeshment in the continuum of African American musics. Smith points to community-building and change as key principles both in the historical self-awareness promoted by the AACM, through which his compositional and instrumental practices were first nurtured and supported, and in his own compositional practice, which stresses collaboration and mobility.
Those principles suggest, if not enact, a powerful cultural politics: a politics both invoked and put at issue in Ten Freedom Summers. His music, in many respects, offers aural analogues to grass-roots participatory democracy – mutual resonances that come together in practices of sounding and of sounding out.  As Franz A. Matzner’s liner notes for Occupy the World put it, “Smith has long inhabited the space where political and artistic movements converge.” Matthew Sumera’s notes for the Cuneiform 4-cd recording of Ten Freedom Summersargue that Smith’s work produces much more than programmatic musical echoes of real-world engagement: “[This] music was not simply about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. It was part of them.” He quotes Wadada Leo Smith’s assertion that the performances of the suite invite a proactive and imaginatively engaged audience: “They poetically suggest what can be done. . . . None of these pieces [is] meant to simply be listened to.” Sumera pushes this claim further: “Rather, they are meant to be lived.” Extending the reach of Smith’s music beyond the aesthetic (as merely music) into the political (as music that makes a difference, that matters) isn’t liner-note hyperbole, but gestures at the core impetus of his improvisational and compositional practice, of his fusion – as the Pulitzer citation puts it – of these two seemingly incommensurate conceptual frameworks.
In an interview with Daniel Fischlin published as an appendix to an article by Fischlin in Critical Studies in Improvisation, Smith still calls what he does a “model” for political engagement, retaining the idea of an aesthetic analogue: “I strongly feel that the most beautiful model that we have of the practice of democracy is in fact expressed through the workings of a musical ensemble when it is improvising. That experience is a microcosm of those same democratic principles.” But I also hear echoes of Walter Benjamin’s call, in the last of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, for a refusal to aestheticize the political – to convert engagement into spectacle or artful mimesis – and, more importantly, for a creative practice that politicizes the aesthetic, that makes art matter. And it seems to me it’s worth testing, at least a little, how Smith’s work delivers on its claims, how it refuses the dilution of its vital human energies and seeks to reanimate a commitment to positive social and cultural change.
         I’m already sounding like I’m on board with the broader project, and I have to admit that I am. But it’s important, I feel, still to retain a certain level of skepticism in order to assess the critical potential of this nascent utopianism, addressing what I feel is a persistent need for colliding artistic and political ideals, but doing so in as open-eyed and keen-eared a manner as I can manage. This exact idealism certainly coloured my expectations when I bought a ticket for a scaled-down performance on Saturday September 7, 2013, at the River Run Centre in Guelph by Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet (without accompanying chamber ensemble) – which included Anthony Davis on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Anthony Brown on percussion. I was jazzed. This concert had the potential to be transcendent, epochal, monumental. The suite contains creative music – I had been listening at some length to the recording – of the highest order, and I really wanted it to deliver on its implicit promises of raised and altered consciousness – a promise that, in my earphones and on my stereo, I felt as if it had already abundantly kept, in fact. It sounds as if I was setting myself up for a disappointment, but that wasn’t the case. The quartet’s music was eloquent, deep, and uplifting. However, in performance, the often stringent demands of Smith’s conception and of the score itself also become a bit more tellingly evident. (A review of the performance by Alayne McGregor can be found here.) The Golden Quartet arranges itself in a semi-circle, with Smith stage left, rather than in the horns-to-the-front configuration of the typical post-bop ensemble. (Smith has often in his recordings worked with the spatiality of sound; on the ECM record Divine Love, for instance, he uses proximity and distance from the microphone to reshape the texture of multiple improvising trumpets.) While at first this spatial configuration might suggest a quasi-democratic leveling, in performance it makes Smith more visible to the other members of the quartet, leaving him able to direct the music more cleanly and organically.

During the Guelph concert, their eyes moved only from score – much of the music looks like it has been through-composed, though its sounds highly spontaneous – to Smith, closely attentive to the demands of structure and direction. In this particular instance, the rhythm section (all of whom are masterful composers, improvisers and bandleaders in their own right) appeared at times a little anxiously bound to the page, which gave the music at a very few points a brittleness, a slight strain that was out of keeping with the committed attack that the composition demands: it needs the instrumentalists to be on, fully inhabiting any given sound moment. While the musicians clearly share in the responsibility for carrying the larger design forward, Smith is still in charge; at several points in the Guelph set, when the collective energy seemed to lag, he strode to centre stage, pumping his right arm as if to impel the rhythm more vigorously forward. He frequently cued the quartet as to which of the nineteen movements they were playing next; rather than establishing a running order ahead of time, it appeared as if he were allowing the dictates of the moment to establish where the music would go next.
The larger design was always there, marked by definitively firm fragments of melody; I recognized (from my earlier listening to the recording) the In a Silent Way-like line from the second part of “America” (section 15) and the loping dirge of “September 11th, 2001” (section 16). (According to the review I’ve linked above, they didn’t play “America,” but I’m sure I heard it.) Jesse Gilbert’s video projections (of photographs of various civil rights activists, for example, marking several evocative moments in the suite) are also meant to suggest certain diegetic moments, when the music speaks its politics definitively. In the May 3, 2013, edition of The New York Times, Ben Ratliff reviewed the first of three nights of a complete performance of Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette in Manhattan, remarking on its simultaneously resonant and frustrating narrative aspirations:
This piece has stories to tell, or rather to refer to. It’s not meant to suggest a narrative but a series of images, evoked mostly through sound. It’s never obvious or literal, which is both very good and sometimes problematic.
A little of that frustration appeared to me to find its way into the urgency of Smith’s efforts to conduct the ensemble on stage in Guelph, visibly driving the music toward making it communicate, making it speak.
In the interview with Daniel Fischlin, Smith suggests that this tension is deliberate, and that speech – as democratically motivated debate and discussion – comes more as an after-effect of the listening experience, rather than as any expressive content of the music itself:
But the quartet still enacted a key aspect around the idea of productive debate, of musical performance as a thinking-through of the politics of voice and voicing. Smith still retained something like mastery over the set. His horn tone, for example, was magisterial, brassy, Armstrong-like, with a southern rawness to it: his own sound guided the ensemble fairly firmly. At the same time, Smith’s compositions aspire to what he calls multiple-dominance, a negotiation for aural space within the shifting dynamics of an ensemble:
I’m not sure I saw – although I may still have heard – a great deal of this sort of collaborative compromising during that set in Guelph; instead, it felt as if Smith were urging the other players toward a more definitive and confident co-participation in the music, but that the urgency and commitment still originated with him, with his instrumental voice.
In a very real sense, Smith wants the other performers in his groups to occupy his compositions. The liner notes for Occupy the World take an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience that speaks to a link between aesthetics and politics, a link that Mr Smith has pursued musically, improvisationally, for more than four decades: “Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?” The aesthetic dimension might not leap at first glance out of these lines, but if you look again closely at what Thoreau says, it does begin to locates itself in the crossover between a phenomenology of recognition and the craft of organization: how, we could ask, does Smith’s music activate and intensify participatory attention as it organizes and re-organizes itself?  The coincidence and dehiscence of individuated lines, the fluid rhythmic geometries of his conception, the resonant potentialities of diversely intersecting timbres are all for him avenues, in performance, for occupying music. There are, he has said, two crucial aspects to his “concept for composing,” which he calls (in the liner notes for Occupy the World) rhythmic and polylinear:
Firstly, my composition are non-metric designs in regards to their rhythmic and sonic construction. The horizontal flow of the rhythms and sonic elements of a composition [is] achieved through a proportional structuring of the music’s geometric forms that, in performance, is realized by the shape f the music’s properties and not by its metric count. [. . .] [Secondly,] when I compose, I do not change the tonality of the instruments being used. . . . I do not believe in reducing the sonic field to a singular tonal spectrum, where one could have a multiple sonic spectrum hat shares the same musical grid without losing the large world of possibilities inherent in the sound universe.
The sometimes clashing sometimes consonant textures of the given timbre and tonality of instruments enacts a dynamics of argument, of compromise and self-assertion that, for Smith, has the potential to achieve what he calls a “higher level of realization,” as both performers and listeners, audience members. I am not sure if this realization happened during the hour or so I witnessed The Golden Quartet perform Ten Freedom Summers: Smith has set the bar very high for his collaborators. The music, taken on its own terms, was wonderful, powerful, moving: playing of a very high order that I was privileged to hear live. In the Downbeat piece, Smith admits that his project remains necessarily utopian, a figuration of human potential. He evokes the Occupy movement in New York, and globally, as a vitally nascent politics in which his music, he hopes, might participate:
“That was a great re-imagining of the possibilities of our society and possibility for radical change of our society,” Smith said. “It has not achieved it as such, but nevertheless, the idea is still there and not going away.”

And that persistence suggests something of the feeling of monumentality, of significance, that Smith’s music evokes: its moment.

Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.