Wadada Leo Smith: Awakening Emmett Till (360˚ Video + Audio) | Jazz Night in America

28 Aug 2017 06:26 23
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Jazz Night in America recorded Wadada Leo Smith performing his original composition "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless" in tribute while canoeing under the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Miss. on April 25th, 2017.

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by JOSIE HOLTZMAN

Wadada Leo Smith bends over to lay his sheet music on the dry mud bank of the Little Tallahatchie River in Glendora, Miss. – population 139. The sun catches the bell of his trumpet as he runs through a few scales. A crop duster circles overhead.

"You have some kind of experience that you live through and have to make something out of," he says. "The good and the bad is all put into the music. It's me."

Then he steps into a canoe, trumpet in hand, and begins to play an improvised musical elegy for Emmett Till based on a passage from his own composition "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless" — while floating down the same river where Till's 14-year-old lifeless body was found.

His murder was the result of a racist hate crime not uncommon in the Jim Crow South. Till had allegedly cat-called a white woman (an accusation later proven false) and was subsequently tracked down, beaten, shot in the head and dumped into a nearby river. He was African-American; his murderers were white. When Till's body was recovered a few days later, his mother required that his casket remain open, an act that became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. But for Smith, this story is more personal.

Born on Dec. 18, 1941, Smith grew up in Leland, Miss.. He was 14, nearly the same age as Till. And as a young black man in the South, Smith remembers the event well. "Everyone was actually very fearful to go long distances alone," he recalled.

He walked most places then — to school, to church and to the nearby country club where he played trumpet in the local band. One night he was stopped by a group of white men on the way home from a gig. They got out of their car and approached him with menace, until someone in their party recognized him as the trumpeter who played at the country club. They got back in their car and left. Smith, recalling this story, says music saved his life that day. Not everyone was so fortunate.

Smith got into music first through his stepfather, a local Delta blues guitarist known as Lil' Bill Wallace. Wadada switched from blues to jazz after high school, and from jazz to "creative music" — a genre-less brand of free improvisation and free thinking that came out of the Chicago-based collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), of which Smith was an integral part in the 1970s.

His music has always been thoughtful, challenging and often political. He wrote "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless" in 2012 for his album Ten Freedom Summers, about key figures and moments in the civil rights movement. That album received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize — the first in a string of high-profile, late-career accolades for Smith. He is on the cover of the current DownBeat magazine, and was named 2017 Jazz Artist of the Year by the Jazz Journalist Association. The New York Times named his most recent album, America's National Parks, one of the year's best in 2016.

Read the full story here: https://n.pr/2vcqA1y

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Special Thanks to river guide Layne Logue

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