AU ex-prof musician takes the 'A' 'Trane'
Group fuses jazz, step performance
For William E. Smith, being a jazz musician is a lot like being a kung-fu master. The saxophonist, composer and former College of Arts and Sciences professor said he sees similarities in his approach to music and Bruce Lee's approach to martial arts.
"He created his own style by incorporating a lot of different styles, and it worked for him," Smith said. "That's what you do with jazz. You incorporate a lot of different styles to make your own expression."
Smith's latest composition, "Trane," premieres Thursday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in conjunction with the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. The piece combines a genre-bending score with the choreography of Step Afrika.
"The theme is taking the train during the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the north after slavery," he said. "It's chronicling that experience through music and choreography."
The piece's title is a play on words, referencing jazz grandmaster John Coltrane and a step used by the steppers of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity called the A-Train. The move is named for "Take the 'A' Train," a song performed by Duke Ellington, himself an Alpha.
"Step has roots in African dance and movement, and it has been a tradition of African American fraternities and sororities," Smith said. "They've used it for competitions and self-identity and expression. They get together and step in almost military style formation, with real hard, driving movements."
Smith is no stranger to stepping. He was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Beta chapter at Howard University, along with Step Afrika director Brian Williams.
"This piece is more of an artistic expression than the stepping I was doing when I was in the fraternity," Smith said. "That was more entertainment-driven, to get the crowd to scream."
Smith, a jazz studies major at Howard, said the jazz bug bit him early. At New York's Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, made famous by the film "Fame," a teacher turned Smith, a hip-hop emcee at the time, on to jazz.
"It was Duke Ellington's 'Satin Doll' that really switched the light on for me," Smith said. "When I heard that recording, I knew that this is what I wanted to do."
Smith has turned his love for jazz and roots in hip-hop into a concert-cum-workshop for students. He'll present the Hip-Hop and Jazz Project at the Lincoln Theatre, at 10:30 a.m. on Friday. The workshop will include a performance by his band, the W.E.S. Group, which blends jazz with spiritual music and hip-hop.
"One thing I want students to understand is that hip-hop is really just a manifestation of jazz," Smith said. "That's what emcees in hip-hop do. They incorporate different styles into their lyrical expression, and into their music with sampling."
Smith said he hopes the workshop will help students expand their definitions of jazz, a mission that he has devoted his career to.
"Jazz is really a living, breathing thing," he said. "It's not something in a museum, and it incorporates music and influences from all styles."
The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival opens on Wednesday at venues throughout the city, and runs through Oct. 7. You can hear Smith's piece during a free student concert at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, or at ticketed performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
You can reach this staff writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.