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Arts & Culture

New Haven Musician Wadada Leo Smith Named 2021 United States Artists Fellow

Michael Jackson
Wadada Leo Smith

Avant-garde jazz trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has been named a 2021 United States Artists Fellow. United States Artists is a national arts funding organization based in Chicago.

Like all performers, Smith’s touring schedule came to an abrupt halt last March. He says that disruption has resulted in one of the most fruitful periods of his creative life.

“Since then, just a casual count, I did at least 25 Ankhrasmation scores, some as big as 40 inches by 32 inches, some are 30 inches by 20 inches. I’ve also written a suite for a new ensemble, which has yet to perform,” said Smith.

Ankhrasmation is a musical language invented by Smith, where performers improvise based on a score of colorful symbols and images.

The 79-year-old poet and artist has always searched out new horizons in his music, from his interest in ethnomusicology while studying at Wesleyan University in the 1970s to his latest work -- a jazz cantata inspired by the pandemic.

“I wrote the text. It’s a series of five poems, the cantata consists of nine sections, actually eight major sections with a coda at the end,” explained Smith. “The coda at the end is all percussion. The reason why its percussion is I want to recreate the atmosphere when people all over America, including my granddaughters and daughters, would go out on their porch or veranda each evening and bang on cans to celebrate first responders. It’s a psychological reading of my reflection on how the first responders responded and how they felt.”

Credit Wadada Leo Smith
The Ankhrasmation for Wadada Leo Smith's Symphony No.1

If you Google Wadada Leo Smith, you’re sure to see terms like “avant-garde jazz,” or “free-form jazz.” Smith abandoned those terms years ago, especially the word “improvisation,” preferring instead to call his style “creative music.”

“I went to ‘create’ because every single time I’d get onstage with a bunch of musicians for the first time, everybody jumps into the music as if they are fighting for crumbs under a table,” said Smith. “It doesn’t stop. And when it’s supposed to stop, it keeps going. What ends up happening is it just stops. And stopping is not an ending. There is no ending and no beginning unless there is some kind of authentic feeling that you want to make art. That determines where the beginning, middle and the end is. The Almighty’s creation was a big one. Our creations are micro creations. Now who’s a creator? Anybody who plays music that adds a little bit of themselves to it. Because they are building this odd object that we call a piece of music.”

Wadada Leo Smith is among 60 artists named a 2021 United States Artists Fellow, which comes with a $50,000 cash award.

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