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The great tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter once said, “Jazz musicians take solos to demonstrate equality in a constant and not temporary way.” If there is one musician who has devoted his body of work trying to demonstrate equality through the music—through what he would call “creative music”—it’s trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians co-founder, who was named Artist of the Year and Composer of the Year in the most recent JazzTimes critics poll, is known for writing music that challenges aesthetic and socio-political norms with an ethos of extreme urgency paired with an almost brutal compassion; hearing him for the first time is a shock to the system. And the newest group of Beltway residents to be electrified in this experience will not be D.C.’s artistic insiders or cultural elites, but the students of Georgetown Day School.
Smith was selected as the keynote speaker and guest for the school’s annual “Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Teach-In Days.” Yesterday and today, Smith is spending time interacting with students and faculty at both the lower/middle school campus and the high school campus, culminating in a free public performance of selections from his magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers tonight. The gifted educator and local sax stalwart Brad Linde, who teaches at the Georgetown Day School, thought of pitching Smith to the administration after featuring a complete performance of Ten Freedom Summers at the Atlas in 2013.
“When I suggested this, I was just thinking about that piece particularly,” Linde says. “But then he released his newest CD [America’s National Parks] and there was a great article in The New York Times right before Christmas where he was quoted as saying ‘All art is political, including bubblegum songs.’ So I think he embodies all the greatest things about what we’re trying to teach; about how we’re trying to educate about living in a complicated world and trying to make it a better place.”
Linde also sees this as a natural outgrowth for the Georgetown Day School, which was founded in 1945 as one of the first integrated schools in D.C. “Each Friday we have assemblies that invite guest speakers in with some kind of impactful topic, some kind of enlightenment issue, or really across the board in many disciplines,” Linde explains. “It is not unusual for them to have someone like Wadada. But, I think the way he presents his views on this, it’s going to be very visceral with the music component and that he’s been advocating for this for decades and lived through it all.”
Living through it all—the midcentury civil rights movement and the failures in its aftermath—gives Smith a singular perspective on protest and activism: “To be active, to make a difference, and to connect on a very human level to the people with whom he interacts,” according to Linde’s observations.
But, in fact, connection is what Smith aims to accomplish during his residency. “[I] would like to be able to engage in a way that young people would be treated as if they are part of a forum,” Smith says, “where they had a voice as well. A voice to engage with me or each other to talk about what it is we’re trying to do there [with music, justice, politics, etc.].”
That is, after all, the nature of creative music—and gets back to Shorter’s point from earlier. “In a large community like Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, there was always a constant manipulation of ideas that was shared in that ensemble,” Smith says. “So that meant everybody was contributing to it; not just one aspect of it being done.”
This wider point of democracy is something at the heart of Smith’s talk and interactions, especially as it applies to his musical process. As a bandleader, he likes to talk about making “right choices” in the music; choices that weigh all of the directions the music can take and perspectives of the participating musicians together to make decisions that are for the total benefit of the community. It’s this philosophy and how it can apply to music, culture, economics, and politics—to all aspects of human life and co-existence—that Smith hopes to convey to the students and faculty of the Day School, and D.C.’s politicians.
“I hope it’s possible for them to realize that making the right decision is so important; artistically, but also as a citizen in a large, complex society of multiple racial dimensions,” Smith says. “Making the right decision is just so important. And it cannot be based off of fear, it cannot be based off of ignorance. It must be based off of love, kindness, and a deep level of intelligence.”
Wadada Leo Smith performs excerpts from ’10 Freedom Summers’ tonight at the Georgetown Day High School at 7 p.m. 4200 Davenport St. NW. Free.