Iconic composer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is one of nineteen new members and four honorary members who will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters during its annual Ceremonial on May 24, 2023. During the ceremony, the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, who is being inducted into Foreign Honorary membership, will deliver the keynote address.
“I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share this space, experience, work and the responsibility of carrying on the tradition of sustaining the arts with the members of the Academy,” says Smith. “Being selected as a member, along with the esteemed list of men and women who have impacted and improved the world they were born into, is the highest honor for me.”
The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Early members include William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Julia Ward Howe, Henry James, Edward MacDowell, Theodore Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. The Academy’s 300 members are elected for life and pay no dues.
The Academy’s American Honorary membership, which began in 1983, recognizes up to twenty Americans of extraordinary artistic achievement whose work falls outside of or transcends the fields of architecture, art, literature, and music composition. Foreign Honorary membership, which was established in 1929, celebrates up to seventy-five distinguished architects, artists, writers, and composers from other countries whose work the Academy’s membership greatly admires.
In addition to electing new members as vacancies occur, the Academy seeks to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts by administering over 70 awards and prizes totaling more than $1 million, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country, and presenting talks and concerts.
Wadada Leo Smith
Composer, trumpeter and author Wadada Leo Smith is one of the creative music world’s most heralded artists. Born December 18, 1941 in Leland, MS, he grew up steeped in the musical traditions of the South performing in Delta Blues and other traditional bands, eventually moving to Chicago where he joined the legendary AACM collective. Smith defines his music as “Creative Music,” and his diverse discography reveals a recorded history of music centered in the idea of spiritual harmony and the unification of social and cultural issues of his world. Among his major recordings are Ten Freedom Summers, America’s National Parks and String Quartets Nos. 1-12.
A finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Ten Freedom Summers, Smith has received numerous other awards and honors including a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Hammer Museum’s 2016 Mohn Award for Career Achievement “honoring brilliance and resilience,” the UCLA Medal, the University’s highest honor, and the 2022 Vision Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among many others. He was selected as a 2021 United States Artists’ USA Fellow and has also been named a 2022 Mellon Arts & Practitioner Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration. In 2023 he was selected for induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Smith has earned the #1 spot in DownBeat Magazine’s International Critics Poll as Composer of the Year, Jazz Artist and Trumpeter of the Year, and the Jazz Journalists Association has honored Smith as their Musician of the Year, Composer of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year, as well as Duo of the Year for his work with Vijay Iyer.
Smith is the creator of Ankhrasmation, a symbolic image-based language for performers or musicians which has played a significant role in his development as an artist, ensemble leader and educator. His Ankhrasmation language scores have been exhibited in major American museums including The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, the Hammer Museum and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. His compositions have been performed by contemporary music ensembles worldwide. For over two decades he has has been creating music for multiple ensembles, including works that take several days to perform.
An esteemed educator, from 1994–2013 Smith was on the faculty at The Herb Alpert School of Music at California Institute of the Arts, where he served as director of the African-American Improvisational Music program. He continues to give workshops and masterclasses worldwide.