the scores of ishmael wadada leo smith, ten freedom summers, and the specter of race


Wadada Leo Smith – The Bell  (1967)

Over the course of the last week – as the fate of America, and specters of race, have occupied so many of our minds, my thoughts kept falling back toward Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s masterpiece Ten Freedom Summers. In my view, the work is among the most important compositions to emerge in the last 100 years. It should, and does, by that count, stand on its own as a triumph of organized sound – but it is also a work whose context should not (and arguably can not) be discounted. Wadada Leo Smith is unquestionably one of the most significant and singular composers working today – not to mention his towering accomplishments as a musician and improvisor. Ten Freedom Summers, which was begun in 1977 (loosely at the instigation of Leroy Jenkins) and completed in 2011, is his crown jewel (to date) – structured around themes and figures associated with the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the effect of that movement on the psychology of America as an entity.


Wadada Leo Smith – Rosa Parks And The Montgomery Bus Boycott: 381 Days from Ten Freedom Summers (2012)

There are two temporalities of Ten Freedom Summers. The period of its explicit subject – one of struggle and great social change, and the period during which it was composed – which saw the fire of activism extinguished by countless duplicitous assaults on African-American communities by the Right-Wing, the pervasive growth in apathy toward civil-rights across all social and economic groups in America, but ultimately culminated with election Barack Obama – the country’s first president of African descent. The era during which Smith composed the work was undeniably complex. When reflecting on the character of those decades, the historic event which marks their culmination almost seems inexplicable – particularly when viewed through our contemporary lens. For a moment, many of us dared to dream that the seeds planted during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement were finally beginning to flower. It quickly became clear that America as a society, and a political mechanism, was as defined by the vile sickness of racism as its ever been. If Obama’s years in office have taught us anything, it should be how great the future’s struggle for universal social equity (Democracy) actually is. We were led by a man who rightly refused to be defined by his race, while nearly every challenge levied upon him was a consequence of it. His efforts and his policies were sabotaged, blocked, and defiled at every turn, not for their character, but for the color of the hand that brought them to be. I am terrified by not only what is to come – by the next four years, but by what has transpired over the last eight – by the living body of history that I had hoped Obama’s election had signified as dead. In the face of this, Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s great reflection on the struggles of the past – Ten Freedom Summers, may offer a strategy for facing the dark days which lay ahead.


Wadada Leo Smith – Martin Luther King, Jr. from Ten Freedom Summers (2012)

Those who have read Smith’s seminal text Notes (8 Pieces) Source a New World Music: Creative Music, will be well aware of the composer’s political roots. His vocal belief in music as a social and political action stretches back to his earliest days in the public eye. For this reason, with its subject, it was hard for me to ignore the politic of Ten Freedom Summers. It’s emergence implied that while much of America had turned their back on the subject of race and the fight for social equity, Smith had looked to art and reflection to further the cause. The premier of the work during Obama’s first term was fitting, and seemed far from accidental. Our president’s election to that office – at least in those early moments, felt like the closing of a chapter in America’s long history of institutional racism, and thus the perfect moment for Smith’s decades long effort to find closure.


Wadada Leo Smith Discussing Ten Freedom Summers

I expect Smith saw the writing on the wall before I did, but it also seems plausible that he was caught up in the optimistic implications of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency – as many of us were. This is why the work has been on my mind during the last week – the dichotomy between the hope of that moment, and the darkness of our contemporary truth. As the days since the recent election have past, I’ve been pondering the two temporalities of Ten Freedom Summers – the years of struggle, and the years of apathy (and Right-Wing retribution), against the explicit character of our contemporary moment (and the last eight years). I have found myself in need of Smith’s guidance, in want of his thoughts, and longing for more sounds.

I recently encountered a piece of old Mexican wisdom – Conocer es Empezar a Amar (You Can’t Hate What You Know). In the video above, where Wadada Leo Smith discusses Ten Freedom Summers, he asserts that race is a fiction bound to fear -that it is something that no one wants to talk about, and for this reason we must. At the juncture of these ideas, we can expose the embedded potential of the words we choose. I loath the fact that we have to talk about race – that we have not grown and moved on – that we seem bound to it. I loath the fact that Smith, or anyone else must turn their attention to such a one dimensional idea – the color of one’s skin. It is shallow. It is empty. There is nothing to understand – to know. It is precisely it’s unknowable character that sustains it and allows it to survive and breed so many of the evils in our world. It is also where its undoing might be found. Though you cannot deny it – it has defined far too much of history, and is currently engaged with far too many people to be completely eradicated or go unrecognized, this does not mean that it can not be cast in another light – pushed back and placed along side so many of history’s other antiquated and outmoded ideas. If the concept of race is a fiction, a negative – a void, then we can fill it with something else – something that can be known. If knowing is the undoing of hate, as Mexican wisdom implies, it is where we shall find racism’s demise.

The last week has seen the appointment of white-nationalists and unapologetic racists to positions of astounding power in the U.S. government. It has been witness to a deplorable spike in hate crimes – often committed explicitly in the president-elect’s name. Countless news agencies have given voice to the message of most racist faction of something called the Alt-Right. If the challenges Obama faced because of the color of his skin were not enough, it should now be impossible to ignore the fact that we are entering a new phase in the struggle for civil rights – that the balance of power has shifted and is against us. I do not have the right to determine the character of our fight, where we begin – nor how race should be defined, but I refuse to sit idly – to avoid the subject or allow it to be seen as something that does not concern us all.

We find Left divided – shattered by the legacies of its errors – particularity those scars made by historic incidence of respectively white, male, or heteronormative assertions of entitlement over definition. We’ve been forced to cower under decades of Right-Wing assault. We are factionalized and distracted. We have lost our collective force (and perhaps our belief in the collective itself). We clamor for meaning, for unity, but think of ourselves first – policing our numbers toward hyper-segmented subjects – direct participation with which is almost always (safely) limited to only those who are understood to be directly concerned. We are as the Right wants us – divided, frozen, talking ourselves into knots.

We must begin again. We must recognize that any mechanism which seeks to oppress a single people, seeks to oppress all people. There is no us and them – no my concern and theirs. No one is exempt. This mechanism moves from one to the next, destroying everything in its wake. The great success of the Right-Wing’s multi-pronged assaults on social equity – on race, gender, religion, and sexuality, has been its ability to keep its true motive from view. We’ve been distracted in the details. Though it is undeniable that much of the world is run by bigoted fools – and always has been, the Conservative assault on our rights is rarely what it seems. I wonder how many actually believe what they preach. Theirs is a culture of lies – of subterfuge. Their motive is to divide our numbers and send us scrambling from one direction to the next (or worse, simply look out for ourselves). Hidden from view is a single and unified force – Capitalism. Like death, at its logical conclusion, we are all equal in its eyes. Our identities are meaningless – they are tools to divide. The simpler the better. The easier the job. There is nothing simpler – no better tool, than the color of one’s skin.

We must recognize that all movements which struggle for equality are the same struggle – we are all under attack by the same force. Value within Capitalism (in its current incarnation) is almost always determined by our ability to contribute toward the consolidation of wealth and power – until such a process concludes at its most extreme, narrow, and fixed point (authoritarian control). When we can no longer contribute to this mechanism – when our commodity is exhausted, we lose our rights within it, and with them our access to Democracy – we cease to be. It’s hard to notice the outcome of such a process when the victim’s humanity has been stripped (or relentlessly denied). The only logical way to sustain such a powerful and sinister force, is for a population (and its activists) to be divided and distracted – to carve one group of people after another from the whole. This is the function of bigotry. It is a knife applied to society – working toward mass consolidation of wealth. The American political reality which we are watching unfold, finds this mechanism embedded deep in its recent history. For decades, most of country watched idly (through the complicit lens of the corporate media) as the Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush administrations (in the service of Neoliberal Capitalism) unleashed a relentless assault on African-American communities – allowing themselves to believe (as they were told) that the ‘other’ should be feared, and that what was transpiring was inevitable, internal, and no concern of theirs. America, distracted by the static, failed to see it for what it was – the stripping of economy, assets, and power – part of the large arc of an economic process which would not stop there. Having now exhausted that ‘resource’, the same system has begun to devour (white) middle America. Nearly every social and economic problem which was formally limited to inner-cites, now engulfs the entire country from shore to shore. The angry backlash has given us the paradox of Donald Trump.

To conclude the above, I might pose a further thought. One of the central operations of Capitalism is the development of value. It commodifies everything in its path before consuming it for its own gain. This includes each and every one of us, and often things that have no innate value themselves. The psychology of Capitalism is persuasive. It leaches into our lives and warps everything toward its image. We’ve all heard romantic involvement (and friendship) translated into terms like investment, exchange, and returns – getting back what you put in. Are these ideas appropriate when talking about love? They belong to the language of economics – yet they’ve become part of the vernacular of our most basic emotion. The same might be seen to be true of the subject of race. In its own way, the Left has been persuaded to commodify it – to give it value. It is now an idea which can be owned, and increasingly owned by only those who it specifically describes. It is exclusive. It has been applied to a process of consolidation – of economy. Around it careers are sculpted, and access to conversations are granted. It has an inferred value, into which investment is made. It has been authenticated. If what Wadada Leo Smith says is true – that race is a fiction bound to fear, this thing around which so much value has been built, in fact has none at all. It is a fabrication – part of the same mechanism which seeks to use it to oppress – it is a component of Capitalism. It is like credit and debt. It is a fallacy which we sustain through our willingness to engage.

If we honestly examine the Left’s historic failure to achieve universal equality, we might find a Trojan Horses laying in our midst – the words we choose. We have dedicated substantial energy toward reclaiming and recasting concepts which were damned from the start. We attempted to claim the idea of race – to take away from away from those who used it as a tool for oppression, but failed to recognize the nature of its void. We slid down its slippery walls, trying to celebrate something that existed entirely for the fact that it means nothing at all. We’ve been distracted by semantics, failing to see the true poison in our midst – that the idea of race (like so many others) was always theirs, not ours. It is something that can never be known.

Like many others, I dream of a world which has moved beyond the intellectual vacuum of race – which has constructed and embraced ideas which cannot be appropriated and used for the gain of the sinister forces of the Right – but there is dreaming, and then there is doing. This is the conceptual triumph of Ten Freedom Summers. Its subject is not race. It is culture, history, and psychological effect. It replaces the unknown with the tangible. With its brilliance, it begins to fill the void – to build an idea – a culture, as much as a work of art. It is something which can be known. Smith’s work is conciseness. His music is a power stronger than itself.

In the light of what Smith proposes, I follow his lead. I do not have the right to determine the characters of definition applied to the concept of race – only to follow, join the fight, and bend my mind to the errors of the past – which others like me are responsible for. Despite my natural reticence in doing do so, I render some basic observations – what seem to be undeniable truths. Looking toward a darkening future, we must accept that the Left’s historic approach to the struggle for universal equality has failed. When facing the explicit character of the contemporary landscape, this cannot be ignored. We must examine the errors of our past, and recognize that a great many of our problems came from our willingness to engage with the Right’s terms, to become distracted in a struggle with them – to be divided by them, rather than turning our backs on them and building toward more persuasive truths – to construct and promote meaning which can be know. We must see race for what it is – a Right-Wing idea working toward the oppression of all people, in the service of an extreme realization of Capitalism, with its ultimate goal of complete authoritarian control. Though we must meet the fight on every front it comes – we cannot fail to defend those who the Right persecutes for the color of their skin, their religion, their culture, their sex, or sexual orientation – we cannot lose of focus on the whole. We cannot avoid the fact that each of these fights is part of the same mechanism, and that only together as a collective force can we win.

Of course we must talk about race. We must recognize it – but importantly in doing so, we must cast it for what it is – an empty concept which came from and serves the Right-Wing. It is theirs not ours, and this is what it has always been. We must seek to build and promote something which is stronger, more resilient – something of such towering beauty and power that it cannot be ignored and casts the antiquated idea of race in its shadow. It is here that Wadada Leo Smith’s actions and work illuminate the path. His body of work is a mechanism of mutual aid. It is not just art or organized sound. It is a model, a vessel, and a tool. It’s subjects and very make up are the materials from which we should build – beauty, culture, history, psychology, and humanity. These are not abstracts. They are are truths which can be known.

I began this piece without the intention of addressing race or Capitalism. I simply wanted to place some beauty into the world – to offer a small antidote to our dark moment, and share some of Wadada Leo Smith’s wonderful scores. To celebrate him, and thank him for all the joy he has brought into my life. Perhaps that would have been enough, but it seems the days of silence, of inaction, complacency, and complicity have come to pass. Perhaps, as it should in all of us, his work demanded that I give more.

Smith was among the earliest members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which was founded by Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, Steve McCall, and Phil Cohran in 1965, and which collectively represents one of the most important creative outputs of the 20th (and 21st) century. Though the AACM draws heavily on the practice of free-improvisation, Muhal Richard Abrams (who is the movement’s great figurehead) strongly advocates inclusiveness, collective support and education, as well as the importance of composing music in written form. In his view, it is through the act of writing that music’s legacy can be sustained, and be brought into participation with the greatest number of people. For this reason, nearly every notable member of AACM has dedicated a substantial amount of their efforts to the construction of scores. One of Abrams’ central hopes was to allow access to music for those who did not have formal training, and thus could not read standard notation. With all of the AACM’s members, he looked for ways to build collectivism, and bring more beauty into the world. Prior to the establishment of the AACM, Charles Stepney had introduced Abrams to ideas of Joseph Schillinger whose Schillinger System strategized ways to free composers and musicians, regardless of skill level or education, from tradition and exclusion. Crucially, the Schillinger System is among the first advocations for the use of graphic scores – a practice at the root of much of the AACM’s output, and specifically in this case, that of Wadada Leo Smith.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s Smith developed a system for composition which has defined most of his output since, which is called Ankhrasmation. What is important to understand is that it is not a system of notation, it is the construction of an entirely new language for the development of music. Rather than risking doing it a disservice, I recommend watching the video below where the composer explains his ideas.


Wadada Leo Smith – Decoding Ankhrasmation (2012)

What Smith seems to have recognized, before many others, is that the languages we inherit often carry embedded meanings and potentialities which we cannot control – many of which are negative. As we all should do, Smith constructed a new language of collectivism – one free of the methodologies of the past, and building toward a new construct of culture, identity, history, and tangible meaning.  His scores are not simply aggregators of remarkable sounds, they are a distillation of the power of human experience, and a model for building a future which belongs to all.

-Bradford Bailey



Wadada Leo Smith – Kosmic Music  (2008)



Wadada Leo Smith – Universal Music of the Spheres (2008)


Wadada Leo Smith – ?



Wadada Leo Smith – Tawhid



Wadada Leo Smith – Pacifica (2007)



Wadada Leo Smith – Jaya  (2010)



Wadada Leo Smith – Vision, from Kosmic Music


Wadada Leo Smith – Kashala (2011)



Wadada Leo Smith – Kosmic Music: Four Symphonies (2015)



Wadada Leo Smith – Kosmic Music (2012)



Wadada Leo Smith – Kosmic Music: Four Symphonies (2015)



Wadada Leo Smith – From Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (2002)




Wadada Leo Smith – From Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (2002)


Wadada Leo Smith – From Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (2002)



Wadada Leo Smith – From Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (2002)



Wadada Leo Smith – From Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (2002)



Wadada Leo Smith Scheme for a Rhythm Unit



Wadada Leo Smith – Seven Heavens (2005)



Wadada Leo Smith – ?


Wadada Leo Smith – Sarhanna (2011)



Wadada Leo Smith – ?






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