Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith

He // Him // His

[ID: Wadada, wearing a black shirt and slacks, is seated while holding a trumpet. In the background, just out of focus, a portrait of Louis Armstrong hangs on the wall.]

Creative Composer and Trumpeter
New Haven, CT
2021 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Wadada Leo Smith was born in Leland, MS, and began his musical life in high school concert and marching bands. At the age of thirteen, Smith became involved with Delta blues and other music traditions, receiving his formal musical education from his stepfather, composer and guitarist Alex “Little Bill” Wallace, a pioneer of electric guitar in Delta blues. He furthered his education with the US military band program at Fort Leonard Wood, MO (1963), at the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago (1967–69), and at Wesleyan University (1975–76). He has researched a variety of music cultures—African, Japanese, Indonesian, European, and American—and has been a member of the legendary AACM collective for five decades.

A trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser, he is one of the most acclaimed creative artists of his time, recognized for both his music and his writing. His diverse discography reveals a recorded history centered around important issues that have impacted his world. He distinctly defines his music as “Creative Music.”

He began research and design toward discovery of the abstract musical language Ankhrasmation in 1965. His first realization of this musical language was in 1967, as illustrated in the recording of “The Bell” for Anthony Braxton’s album 3 Compositions of New Jazz. Ankhrasmation has since played a significant role in his development as an artist, ensemble leader, and educator.

He has been a member of faculty at the University of New Haven (1975–76), the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY (1975–78), and Bard College (1987–93). From 1994 until his retirement in 2013, Smith was at the Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts, where he was director of the African American Improvisational Music program.

Portrait photo by Jimmy Katz.