Jazz News: Thoughts on Wadada Leo Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers” — Pulitzer Finalist in Composition

By Michael Ullman

The Pulitzer Prize committee named trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith’s monumental Ten Freedom Summers, which was recorded on four discs by Cuneiform, as one of three finalists for the 2013 prize for composition. (See Fuse review)

The committee described the piece as “an expansive jazz work that memorializes 10 key moments in the history of civil rights in America, fusing composed and improvised passages into powerful, eloquent music.” The other nominees included Caroline Shaw, who was awarded the prize, and Aaron Jay Kernis. Smith responded, “Composing Ten Freedoms Summers was one of the highlights of my life. Being recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist takes it even higher. I’ve worked on these pieces over the course of 34 years and this is one of my life’s defining works. In the name of all who have worked so tirelessly in the civil rights movement, I am truly honored.”

Ten Freedom Summers is a turbulent, five-hour work that combines improvisations by a quintet led by Smith with nimbly written music for both the quintet and the Southwest Chamber Orchestra. It begins with a royal sounding fanfare by Smith that suggests the civil right movement’s brave defiance and pride.

Smith is one of the few jazz-oriented composers to be so honored and Ten Freedom Summers one of the few compositions that contain significant improvisations to be recognized by the committee. The composition prize was not among Joseph Pulitzer’s original prize categories—it was created in 1943. The prize first became significant (and controversial) to the jazz community in 1965 when no prize was awarded, even though Duke Ellington had been commended. Ellington’s response was memorable. He said that he wasn’t meant to be “too famous too young.” Since then the prize committee has steadily expanded the criteria for the award, which was primarily conceived to recognize notable European-based works: previous honorees has been Charles Ives for his Third Symphony, Aaron Copland for Appalachian Spring, and twice Elliot Carter for string quartets.

The criteria were changed in 1996 to “attract the best of a wider range of American music.” In 1997, the committee violated its own rule, that the work must have its premiere performance or recording in the previous year, in order to award the prize to Wynton Marsalis for his oratorio Blood on the Fields, which had been recorded two years before. Since then, Ornette Coleman has been awarded the prize, and others, including Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, and Thelonious Monk, have been cited posthumously.

Ten Freedom Summers should generate no controversy. A masterful, supple series of compositions, it has the gravitas of a major work while at times, as in the movement “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education,” it swings dramatically. It has been announced that Smith will present Ten Freedom Summers in its entirety in New York City on three consecutive nights, May 1–3, in performances designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

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