They're both in their 70s now, seasoned men of jazz who are entitled to kick back, relax and enjoy the admiration they command around the world.
But Wadada Leo Smith and Ramsey Lewis seem to be turning up the dial, and the premieres they'll present this week in the Chicago area underscore the point. New sounds, new ideas, new risks – those are the priorities of both musicians, even if each represents an entirely different approach to jazz composition and improvisation.
Smith, 71, earlier this year emerged as a finalist for the most prestigious honor in American music, the Pulitzer Prize (I served on the jury). His epic work, "Ten Freedom Summers," addresses the struggle for civil rights in America, but the Pulitzer board ultimately chose to give the award to Caroline Shaw for her suite "Partita for 8 Voices."
"The truth is, even though I was not selected as the final person to receive the prize, I actually received (the benefits of) the prize," says Smith, an early member of the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM), which was founded in Chicago in 1965.
"I've had more written (about 'Freedom') and have been more interviewed than ever in my life, and people have actually responded to this work. That's why I have 10 performances (of 'Freedom') ahead of me."
Smith designed the sprawling collection of 22 pieces to be performed over three nights, and many venues around the world have presented this music in full. The Chicago Jazz Festival, however, with its famously limited resources, will present merely a one-hour excerpt of an opus that now stretches to more than seven, meaning Chicago listeners will hear only a hint of the first composition by an AACM composer to have gotten this far in the Pulitzers.
One hopes that a more ambitious presenter enables Smith to perform the piece in its entirety in the city where the AACM was born. Until then, however, Chicagoans can look forward to hearing selections from "Ten Freedom Summers," which Smith says will include "The March on Washington, D.C. – August, 1963" (Smith's final addition to a long-evolving work); "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless"; "Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education: A Dream of Equal Education, 1954"; "Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada"; and "John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and the Space Age, 1960."
To Smith, the magnum opus articulates his thoughts on race in America and has given him a platform he long yearned for.
" 'Ten Freedom Summers' means to me that although it's a decade of summers, it's almost a lifetime for me," he says. "It definitely allowed me to look at something I've been thinking about nearly all my life.
"It means I can participate on the same level and in the same way in which activist artists like (author) James Baldwin and (singer) Harry Belafonte and a lot of other people. When you have the opportunity as an artist to say something about your society ... and people take a look at it, that's very meaningful.
"A lot of people can go into the woods and scream bloody murder. But screaming in the woods doesn't mean anything," adds Smith.
"There's an African proverb: 'You don't take the trumpet and go into the forest and get down into a hole and blow it.'
"The same thing when you make a point of trying to show something about the society, you don't do it just in your house or some isolated place. You do it so people can actually bounce against it and criticize it and do everything else."
The wide demand for "Ten Freedom Summers" certainly suggests that Smith's music has entered the national conversation, but he's just warming up. He's now working on an opus he's tentatively titling "The Suppression of Voters Rights," because he "was stunned by the U.S. Supreme Court wiping out the oversight of voters' rights protections." He refers to the court's recent decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And he plans to pen a composition responding "directly" to a jury's controversial decision finding George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Smith believes that music can move mountains – or at least people.
"Once you get into a performance, as a listener," he says, "your whole life can be changed, if you allow (the experience) to continue with you after the performance."
Chicagoan Lewis, 78, also has dealt with the profound subject of race in America, most notably in his jazz-symphonic work "Proclamation of Hope," premiered in 2009 at the Ravinia Festival, which commissioned it to mark the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial. Lewis serves as artistic director of jazz at Ravinia, and his tenure there has been a creative boon for him, with festival president Welz Kauffman having engaged him to pen multiple works.
On Wednesday evening, Lewis will return to Ravinia's stage to unveil a still-untitled ballad and offer new arrangements of several older works, including jazz quartet versions of his Ravinia-commissioned pieces "Clouds in Reverie" (retitled "Clouds") and "Quiet Moments" and the vintage "Tequila Mockingbird" (originally performed with members of Earth, Wind and Fire), among other compositions.
In effect, Ravinia has given Lewis an unexpected late chapter in his career, in which an already successful pianist has asserted himself as composer.
"When I first sat down to do it, thank God for (wife) Jan, she heard me in there struggling," says Lewis. "She'd say, 'That sounds like Tchaikovsky, that sounds like Rachmaninoff, that sounds like Duke Ellington. Come on – I've seen you sit at the piano and improvise. Let your hair down and let it all hang out. Turn on the tape recorder and play.'"
Lewis did just that and soon came to realize he didn't need the tape recorder: He could post himself at the keys and pen scores as large as the eight-movement "Proclamation of Hope" or as intimate as the solo piano musings of "Clouds in Reverie."
Now composition stands as a central part of Lewis' daily musical regimen, the pianist having filled three volumes of notebooks with works he hadn't envisioned writing just a few years ago.
"Composing has become part of my being," says Lewis, which whets at least one listener's appetite for the music yet to come.
Wadada Leo Smith performs excerpts of "Ten Freedom Summers" during the Chicago Jazz Festival at 7:40 p.m. Friday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; free; 312-744-3316 or chicagojazzfestival.us.
Ramsey Lewis plays new music and fresh arrangements of vintage original songs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Ravinia Festival, near Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park; $55-$65 reserved; $22 lawn; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.