UCLA Medal Presentation to Wadada Leo Smith


Hello everyone. Thank you all for joining us for the awarding of the UCLA Medal to Wadada Leo Smith.

There’s an oft-quoted saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If that’s true, then giving a speech about Wadada Leo Smith is like swimming about astronomy. When your work has been described as a “cosmology” and a “spiritual meditation about creation in the grand intergalactic sense,” then the simple words “musician” and “composer” somehow seem far too limiting!

Smith is a category-defying artist, both working within and transcending genres such as blues, jazz, experimental and classical.

He has studied American Indigenous music, Japanese Koto music and South Indian flute music alike; he has written music for soloists as well as ensembles, using Western instruments alongside those from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He is also the author of the classic book Eight Notes, which details his philosophy of music.

For more than 65 years, he has been exploring the connections and relationships between disparate musical styles, immersing himself in a diversity of musical forms that have fueled his career.

Smith began playing trumpet and composing at the age of 12. He was quickly drawn, at that young age, to the Delta Blues and improvisational music. His early performances were at high school concerts and in the school marching band, where he played drums, the mellophone and the French horn. He finally settled on the trumpet.

In 1963, when he was 21, Smith left his hometown of Leland, Mississippi to serve in the U.S. Army. He served in Italy and France, playing in and composing for the U.S. Army band. During that time, he met musicians from all backgrounds, further broadening his understanding of what music could be.

After the Army, Smith moved to Chicago, where he became a key member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music formed in 1965. With a nod to the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People, this Chicago-based music collective undertook a number of strategies, including insisting on the broad term “Creative Music” as opposed to “Jazz.”

Just as he challenged narrow classifications, Smith challenged practices in the music industry that discriminated against African-American artists. That activist spirit has helped define a body of work that includes important compositions about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmet Till.

In an astonishingly productive and inventive career, Smith has released more than 50 albums.

As powerful as any writer of literature seeking to understand his homeland with words and images, Smith has created emotionally piercing music filled with urgency.

Smith’s landmark 2012 civil rights opus “Ten Freedom Summers” was praised as: “A staggering achievement [that] merits comparison to Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in sobriety and reach.”

In 2017, the New York Review of Books added “for all the minimalism of his sound, Smith has turned out to be a maximalist in his ambitions, evolving into one of our most powerful storytellers.” The publication All About Jazz struck a similar chord, declaring Smith “one of America’s artistic geniuses, in league with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington [and] Miles Davis.”

Smith has stretched not just how we hear music, but how we see it. He has developed an original music compositional system that combines elements of European tradition, African-American blues, improvisation and ritual music. His system uses color, lines and shapes to represent musical notation. These written scores are works of art in themselves, which have been exhibited at museums around the world — including UCLA’s own Hammer Museum.

Despite his achievements, Smith has not sought to be a removed or revered figure. Whether in a composition classroom or workshop, or as the guest of honor at a crowded reception, he is known for his warmth and accessibility — a reputation that was furthered by his 10-day UCLA residency last spring.

His long service as an educator has included Bard College, Wesleyan University and the California Institute of the Arts. There, he founded and chaired the African-American Improvisational Music program and held the first endowed chair created at that institution, named for Jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie. That chair was also funded by our Music School’s namesake, Herb Alpert.

Having worked with artists from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, Smith sees the artistic process as a metaphor for life: The act of creating, he has said, allows us to collaborate with people from different backgrounds, enabling us to hear one another fully and respond to each other deeply.

He explains, quote: “The most compelling thing to me about what I call ‘creative improvisation’ is that it has the potential to actually change the world…. Not…just music but everything, from theater to dance to writing to thinking…. Heads of state and legislative bodies could learn a lot from this practice…. These things we know from creative music could resolve the kind of mean-spirited society that we are developing today worldwide.” End quote.

That is as powerful a testament to the deep value of the arts and performance as I can imagine.

Therefore, in recognition of his superb achievements in composition and performance; his critical efforts to articulate African-American experiences and champion African-American freedom; and his tireless mentorship of students and colleagues, I am honored to present the UCLA Medal to Mr. Wadada Leo Smith.

Before I ask him to come up, I will read the citation that accompanies the medal:


You are an artistic visionary who has pioneered fresh ways of composing, hearing and experiencing American music. You have defied simple categorization as you pursue bold artistic expression rooted in deep reflection and honest feeling. Your music vividly expresses American character, aspirations, frustrations, beauty and struggles. For more than half a century, you have blended technical mastery with searching intelligence, social awareness and emotional sensitivity. Your breakthrough system of musical notation has helped stimulate the creativity of other musicians and has been recognized as a visual art form in its own right. You have brought together artistic traditions of Europeans and African Americans as you have explored themes ranging from the Great Migration to America’s national parks to the Civil Rights Movement. Your career has been especially important to all those who value respecting and protecting the rights of African-American artists. As a musician, thinker, creator and teacher, you have inspired artists seeking to enrich established genres with their own original vision and personal integrity. Your combination of creativity, principle, exploration and innovation embody values central to UCLA. For these reasons, we are proud to bestow upon you the UCLA Medal. Given on this eighth day of November, two thousand and nineteen.