• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous supporter has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

A Struggle Composed, A Struggle Performed

Wadada Leo Smith is a trumpeter and composer. He has been writing and composing for over forty years, primarily in the avant garde jazz category. He was voted Composer of the Year in the 2013 DownBeat Critics poll. His mammoth work Ten Freedom Summers was voted the number two jazz album of the year in the same poll.

Ten Freedom Summers is, simply stated, a master work. Inspired by the history of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States, Wadada Leo Smith has created a musical testament to the people who devoted their lives to that struggle. Utilizing playwright August Wilson’s ten play cycle of dramas known alternately as the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle as a template, Smith has composed a nineteen song cycle representing the history of the aforementioned struggle and the post-Civil War United States. In this particular recording, two different groups are featured: Southwest Chamber Music ensemble and the Golden Quartet/Quintet. Smith recently completed a tour of this work that featured different musical groupings. Smith is on record stating that the musical inspiration for Ten Freedom Summers comes directly from Max Roach’s recordings of the 1960s and 1970s and Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. The titles of the Roach works that inspired Smith include Freedom Now and Lift Every Voice and Sing. These were overtly political works by Roach and should be included in any history of African-American freedom songs. They are also masterpieces of the jazz genre. Listening to the music of Ten Freedom Summers, one is also reminded of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Darius Milhaud and a multitude of others.tfs cover

While writing this review a violinist friend of mine whose musical knowledge I often defer to disagreed with me as to whether this composition was jazz. As a musician who has performed in numerous ensembles (and played literally hundreds of compositions) over the years including symphonies, chamber orchestras, musical theater and busking on the street, it was her position that Smith’s endeavor tended more towards modern music in the strain of Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messaien and the rest of Les Six, Stravinsky, or even Arnold Schoenberg. This led to a discussion of avant-garde jazz and its relation to those composers. After forty-five minutes or so of the discussion, the only real conclusion we were able to reach is that this work, while influenced by both jazz and modern “classical” composers, transcended (and borrowed from) both forms. As my friend summarized, Ten Freedom Summers is a postmodern composition, featuring elements that cannot always be defined by standard terms. Furthermore, one assumes it sounds different almost every time it is performed. This particular CD set is but one such instance.

Wadada Leo Smith composed every piece in this collection to be complete in and of itself. Although the compositions thematically address a singular history, each and every piece can also be performed and listened to individually. Despite this, I listened to the entire four-disc set in one sitting. Once I began, I couldn’t stop. As I listened I found myself inside what can only be described as a dreamscape contrived within Smith’s creation. The journey I found myself on; no, the place I found myself inside was one that placed me within the history of a people’s battle to break their bonds and live a future without the strictures of racism. I heard the cries of Emmett Till as he was beat by white men and I saw the smiles of the freedom marchers finally able to vote. I felt the fists and chains of angry racists beating whites and Blacks disembarking from a Greyhound in Mississippi and I heard the Texas drawl of LBJ after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The angry righteous truths spoken by Malcolm X echo in a hall in New York City and the words of a dream evoked by the hopeful words of another prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr. resound across the National Mall. The fear and chaos of the overseer’s whip and the policeman’s nightstick resounds and echoes in this soundscape. The music features an uneasy dissonance that is both disturbing and darkly beautiful.

The piece devoted to antiracist pioneer Rosa Parks features Wadada Leo Smith’s trumpet sounding eerily reminiscent of Miles Davis on his In a Silent Way sessions. This is followed by a masterful set of chamber orchestra playing in which the influence of the twentieth century composers whose works forever changed Western music in the academy dominate. I felt as if I were wrapped within a sonic cloud designed by Igor Stravinsky and Les Six. At turns disturbing, ominous, and contemplative, the chamber music in this entire set reflects the joy, contemplation and dignity of the work. Furthermore, the tension between the instruments echoes that experienced by every participant in those struggles. At other times, the spirit and sonic thrill that defines free jazz resounds.

August Wilson ended his cycle of plays with the 1990s. By then, some members of Black America were relatively assimilated into the mainstream culture and economy. This created not only a greater gulf between the haves and the have-nots in Black America, it also added to a deepening spiritual malaise as the trappings of consumerism replaced the more meaningful struggle for identity and recognition. Wilson’s last drama, Radio Golf, reflected this alienation. Smith ends his collection with a meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr., thereby avoiding the future in which we currently exist.

I was overwhelmed when the final note of the last composition sounded. Words cannot even come close as an appropriate expression of my response. This attempt to explain what I heard in this short review does not even come close to my experience. It reminded me of my first time hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, John Coltrane’s Ascension, Sun Ra’s The Magic City or Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. I can only imagine what a live performance of Ten Freedom Summers might be like.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
Anthony DiMaggio
Fake News in Trump’s America
Andrew Levine
Trump’s End Days
Jeffrey St. Clair
High Plains Grifter: the Life and Crimes of George W. Bush
Patrick Cockburn
Kurdish Fighters Always Feared Trump Would be a Treacherous Ally
Paul Street
On the TrumpenLeft and False Equivalence
Dave Lindorff
Sure Trump is ‘Betraying the Kurds!’ But What’s New about That?
Rob Urie
Democrats Impeach Joe Biden, Fiddle as the Planet Burns
Sam Pizzigati
Inequality is Literally Killing Us
Jill Richardson
What Life on the Margins Feels Like
Mitchell Zimmerman
IMPOTUS: Droit de seigneur at Mar-a-Lago
Robert Hunziker
Methane SOS
Lawrence Davidson
Donald Trump, the Christian Warrior
William Hartung – Mandy Smithburger
The Pentagon is Pledging to Reform Itself, Again. It Won’t.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail