Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith: 'The black experience is American experience'

He invented his own form of notation, and spent decades composing a jazz history of the civil rights movement. Ben Beaumont-Thomas meets an extraordinary musical pioneer

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith bows his trumpet down into the mic as if in an act of prayer. Drummers clatter behind him, their music held on the edge of orbit and then, afterwards, he pleads with the audience at Cafe Oto in London, to "knit your hearts together", to fight sexism and racism. This is not your average free-jazz performance.

Born Leo Smith in 1941, this part-time teacher and ethnomusicolgist added the name Wadada when he became a Rastafarian in the early 1980s, and then preceded this with Ishmael after converting to Islam the following decade. Not only did he keep his former names, he kept the dreads, now salt-and-pepper flecked. Currently a faculty member at the Herb Alpert School of Music at the California Institute of the Arts, Smith has released scores of recordings over the years – but only now has he finished his life's major work, Ten Freedom Summers, which he began in 1977 and is now releasing as a four-CD box set.

Smith started out playing in school marching bands in Mississippi, before moving on to blues and R&B, styles he talks about with deep respect. "Robert Johnson's blues," he says when we meet, holding forth with the air of a mystic. "That's as heavy as Nietzsche talking about life and death."

He blossomed in the crucible of late 1960s Chicago to become a major figure in free jazz, surrounded by fellow sonic explorers including Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. "He found another way to organise music," Threadgill tells me. "The actual realisation of that [music] on an improvisational level is still something that the individual players have to deal with, but he's got a landscape and a way of negotiating through that landscape that he can put in front of you, and then it's up to you to navigate that. He always had his own way of doing things."

Smith joined the boundary-pushing jazz organisation, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and was "hazed" by the other members, who talked loudly through his first performance as a sort of initiation ritual. "I felt it was very mean-spirited and it pissed me off completely," he remembers. "And I played stronger, and I played stronger, and finally they all bust back on stage and joined me. And after that you kind of know you belong there. They've put you out in the water by yourself, you've swam across this vast ocean of whatever the expectation was, and you've conquered it."

Listen to Song: Martin Luther King, Jr. (excerpt) from Ten Freedom Summers

With Ten Freedom Summers, Smith originally set out to document a decade of civil rights activism, from the Brown v Board of Education trial of 1954, which ruled that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. But his span grew to encompass African-American slave Dred Scott's unsuccessful legal challenge against slavery in 1857 and the events of 9/11, taking in the Vietnam War, JFK's assassination, and what he calls "the myth of a free press" along the way. "I wanted to identify that the black experience is American experience," he says, keen for it not to be seen as "a kind of racial isolation".

Each piece uses a single event as its focus. The Freedom Riders Ride, for instance, tackles the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner at the hands of the police and the Ku Klux Klan, after they took part in interstate bus journeys that challenged segregation on public transport. "It's about that ride, the contemplation, anticipation and anxiety. I start with the point where they see the headlights and the police car stops. I don't try and make a pictorial image, I look for the psychological thread – what did they feel, in my imagination, and what do I feel, from their experience?"The pieces are performed by his Golden Quartet ensemble, improvising jazz musicians that Wadada has played with for decades, along with and the Southwest Chamber Music, a 10-person outfit; the score is a blend of standard notation, with space for free improvisation, and Ankhrasmation, a symbolic and pictographic method of scoring developed by Smith himself in the late 60s. To get the orchestral performers to improvise, he simply wrote music that was impossible to play. "My instruction to them was: while you're playing this and you cannot completely play it correctly, keep going forward. At some point, it's going to break down completely – and at that point you're improvising."

The result is extraordinarily moving – the freedom of the playing, and the democratic process of group improvisation, emulates the freedoms the civil rights movement was fighting for. So

Is America's hostility to Muslims a new challenge? "It's constantly creating new membership into Islam," he replies. "People say: why do they hate Muslims so much? And they get in there and see this teaching is different from how it's perceived from the outside."

And w, with a black man in the White House, have the battles sketched out in Ten Freedom Summers been won? "When Barack Obama was elected," says Smith, "it immediately brought out all the differences in society. He's been called a new Hitler, the devil in return, he's been called nigger. I relate this kind of stuff to growing pains: when a child has a tantrum, they're learning how to respect the rule of law." He cites "very bright" black politicians like Deval Patrick and Cory Booker as being part of a new generation: "They know the sky's the limit now."

Smith, who is now 70, recently recorded an album of duets with South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, put together as the pair toured from the Azores to Finland. "I've got that Beethoven energy, that Stravinsky energy," he grins. "And it's all a gift from the Creator."

• Ten Freedom Summers is out on Cuneiform. Ancestors, with Louis Moholo-Moholo, is out October 18 on TUM. Smith performs as part of the London jazz festival on 14 November . His Cafe Oto performance will be broadcast by Radio 3 on 5 November.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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