To pay tribute to a decades-long career as genre-defying composer, musician and artist with a commitment to breaking barriers, Wadada Leo Smith was presented with the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor.
“There’s an oft-quoted saying that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in remarks introducing Smith on Nov. 8. “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,” Block continued. “Smith is a category-defying artist, both working within and transcending genres such as blues, jazz, experimental and classical.”
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.
Throughout his five-decade career, during which he has released 55 albums, Smith has been creating art that fuses cultures, introduces new ideas and champions civil rights. He has studied American Indigenous music, Japanese Koto music and South Indian flute music and composed music that uses Western instruments alongside those from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Smith has written compositions inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Emmett Till and America’s national parks.
“My deepest dream concerning a performance is that the performers and the audience sharing that experience, will afterward, through their own reflections and actions, envision and work to establish a better world that truly respect the rule of law,” said Smith, who held a 10-day residency at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in the spring. “My desire is that we are passionate about the rights and liberties of the human being.
“Clearly a music performance does not create ideas or imply any type of changes,” he continued. “What music provides is a ritualized space for reflection and meditation.”
Smith has been honored 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.
Following the medal presentation ceremony, there was 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. Also, there was a performance of an excerpt from his Four Symphonies featuring Smith on trumpet, with UCLA professor Nina Eidsheim on vocals and California Institute of the Arts professor Vicki Ray on piano.