Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith (born December 18, 1941) is an American trumpeter and composer, working primarily in the fields of avant-garde jazz and free improvisation. He was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Ten Freedom Summers, released on May 22, 2012.
Smith was born in Leland, Mississippi. He started out playing drums, mellophone, and French horn before he settled on the trumpet. He played in various R&B groups and by 1967 became a member of the AACM and co-founded the Creative Construction Company, a trio with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton. In 1971, Smith formed his own label, Kabell. He also formed another band, the New Dalta Ahkri, with members including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis and Oliver Lake.
In the 1970s, Smith studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. He played again with Anthony Braxton as well as recording with Derek Bailey's Company. In the mid-1980s, Smith became Rastafarian and began using the name Wadada. In 1993, he began teaching at Cal Arts, a position he held until 2014. In addition to trumpet and flugelhorn, Smith plays several world music instruments, including the koto, kalimba, and atenteben (Ghanaian bamboo flute). He has also taught courses in instrument making. His compositions often use a graphic notation system he calls "Ankhrasmation", which he developed in 1970.
In 1998, Smith and guitarist Henry Kaiser released Yo, Miles!, a tribute to Miles Davis's lesser-known 1970s electric period. On this album, Smith, Kaiser and a large cast of musicians recorded cover versions and original compositions inspired by Miles's electric music. The follow-ups Sky Garden (released by Cuneiform in 2004) and Upriver (released in 2005) were recorded with a different cast of musicians. Both line-ups featured Michael Manring on bass.
Smith's Golden Quartet (with which he has released several albums) originally featured Jack DeJohnette on drums, Anthony Davis on keyboards, and Malachi Favors on bass. After several iterations, the Golden Quartet now features Pheeroan akLaff on drums, John Lindberg on bass, and Davis on piano.
With Muhal Richard Abrams
With Marion Brown
With Anthony Braxton
With Henry Kaiser
With Frank Lowe
With Matthew Shipp
With Spring Heel Jack
With John Zorn