Composer, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith to receive UCLA Medal

4 min read
Wadada Leo Smith Credit Phil Penman
Wadada Leo Smith Credit Phil Penman

American trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music, will receive the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor, on Nov. 8 during a ceremony and concert at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

“Wadada Leo Smith is a category-defying composer whose achievements have profoundly shaped American music,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, who will present the award. “His work exemplifies a diversity of original thought that has enriched the lives of others, demonstrating UCLA’s highest academic and professional values.”

The UCLA Medal Ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, in the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center Ensemble Room at UCLA. It will be followed immediately by a concert highlighted by Smith’s String Quartet No. 9, movement 3 Angela Davis, and one movement from his String Quartet No. 11, movement 5, UCLA Music Library with the RedKoral Quartet. In addition, an excerpt from his Four Symphonies will feature Smith on trumpet, with UCLA professor Nina Sun Eidsheim on vocals and California Institute of the Arts professor Vicki Ray on piano. The ceremony and performance are free and open to the public, but reservations are required.

Smith is one of the most original and influential artists of his time. Transcending the bounds of genre or idiom, he distinctly defines his music, tirelessly inventive in both sound and approach, as “Creative Music.”

For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Music collective, pivotal in its wide-open perspectives on music and art in general. He has carried those all-embracing concepts into his own work, expanding upon them in myriad ways.

Throughout his career, Smith has been recognized for his groundbreaking body of work. He received the 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and earned an honorary doctorate from CalArts, where he was also celebrated as Faculty Emeritus. In addition, he received the 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement from the Hammer Museum at UCLA “honoring brilliance and resilience.” In 2018 he received the Religion and The Arts Award from the American Academy of Religion.

“Wadada Leo Smith’s life and work exemplifies the fertile intersection of theory and creativity that we encourage our students to explore,” said Eileen Strempel, dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “We are delighted to honor him at UCLA for his brilliance, his genuine care for others, and the scholarly significance of his work.”

Established in 1979, the UCLA Medal is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by UCLA. It is awarded to those who have earned academic and professional acclaim, and whose work demonstrates the highest ideals of UCLA. Past recipients include music luminaries Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert and Quincy Jones, as well as writer Toni Morrison, President Bill Clinton, architect I.M. Pei, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and UCLA alumna and astronaut Anna Lee Fisher.

Born Dec. 18, 1941, in Leland, Mississippi, Smith’s musical life began at age 13 when he became involved with the Delta blues and jazz traditions performing with his stepfather, bluesman Alex Wallace. He received his formal musical education from the U.S. Military band program (1963), the Sherwood School of Music (1967–69), and Wesleyan University (1975–76).

Smith regularly earns multiple spots on the DownBeat International Critics Poll. In 2017 he topped three categories: Best Jazz Artist, Trumpeter of the Year and Jazz Album of the Year, and was featured as the subject of a cover story in August 2017. The Jazz Journalists Association also honored Smith as their 2017 Musician of the Year as well as 2017 Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer. The Jazz Journalists Association named him their 2016 Trumpeter of the Year, 2015 Composer of the Year, and 2013 Musician of the Year, and he has earned top billing in two categories in the JazzTimes Critics Poll as Artist of the Year and Composer of the Year.

In October 2015, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presented the first comprehensive exhibition of Smith’s Ankhrasmation scores, which use non-standard visual directions, making them works of art in themselves as well as igniting creative sparks in the musicians who perform them. A neologism formed from ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life; ras, the Ethiopian word for leader; and ma, a universal term for mother, Ankhrasmation represents Smith’s systemic approach to writing music. This notational language favors symbolic compositions of color, line and shape as stimuli for music making, encouraging performers to research and construct their own meaning. In 2016, these scores were also featured in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and Kadist in San Francisco.

Smith has released more than 50 albums as a leader on labels including ECM, Moers, Black Saint, Tzadik, Pi Recordings, TUM, Leo and Cuneiform. His discography reveals a recorded history centered around important issues that have impacted his world, exploring the social, natural and political environment of his times with passion and intelligence.

His most recent recording is 2019’s “Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an Oratorio of Seven Songs.” His 2016 recording, “America’s National Parks” earned a place on numerous best of the year lists including the New York Times, NPR Music and many others. Smith’s landmark 2012 civil rights opus “Ten Freedom Summers” was called: “A staggering achievement [that] merits comparison to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in sobriety and reach.”

Writing about Smith’s 2017 album “Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk” in the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz notes: “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, an heir to American chroniclers like Charles Ives and Ornette Coleman.”

Reservations for this event will open the week of October 20. In addition to the UCLA Medal ceremony and concert program, Smith will be in residence at the school of music beginning Nov. 4, where he will be presenting a series of events on campus. Please visit the school of music website for more information.

This announcement was originally published on the UCLA Newsroom.