“ I told my father I wanted to be a drummer. So he got me drum teachers that would kick my ass in a way that he wouldn't. ”
Drummer, percussionist and composer Warren Smith has arguably had one of the most varied careers of any improvising drummer, working with artists as diverse as Sam Rivers, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Bill Cole and Harry Partch. Though originally trained in modern classical percussion, jazz and improvised music became paramount after moving to New York in the late '50s. With Max Roach, he started the important percussion ensemble M'Boom Re: Percussion and Smith also opened one of the first and longest-running performance lofts, Studio WIS, in 1967.
Warren Smith: I was born in Chicago, my father was born in North Carolina. I was born May 14, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois at Providence Hospital.
All About Jazz: You have a fairly musical family, too, right?
WS: Absolutely. My father's side of the family consisted of twelve siblings, and every one of them had musical training. There were two aunts on that side of the family that had a Master's Degree in music on the organ, and my father was a reed specialist, a repairman and a teacher. On my maternal side, one of my aunts was a classical pianist and an organist and my uncle played the violin. My father converted him to saxophone, and my mother was an organist who also played piano. All of my aunts and uncles on both sides [played] and I was really surrounded by live music my whole life.
AAJ: How did you actually begin playing percussion?
WS: Well, I was a smartass. I wound up being the only real drummer in the family; a couple of us, one of my cousins and my uncle would bullshit a little on the drums, but I started out playing the saxophone when I was about three. I was precocious, so by the time I was six I could play a little bit by ear (as much as I could think of) and I thought I knew everything so I told my father I wanted another instrument. My mother would take us to gigs, and if we got there early, my brother and I would go in and get an earful. I went to a nightclub called the Rum Boogie, and at the corner the drummer had lights in his bass drum. It fascinated me, and at that point I told my father I wanted to be a drummer. So he got me drum teachers that would kick my ass in a way that he wouldn't. They gave me enough discipline that by the time I went to grade school I could read music, and I had my first gigs with my family band at 14. I joined the musician's union in Chicago at 14, I got my driver's license at 14 and I guess that was a pretty big year for me. I had just started high school.
AAJ: What kind of music was your family band mostly playing?
WS: We played all the standard tunes - Ellington, Cole Porter, everything that was popular from Jelly Roll Morton to swing. My father and his siblings and my cousins, being from the south, did not like Dixieland music. They liked New Orleans music, but Dixieland meant something different to them. We played primarily swing music, and that's what I learned, the repertoire and the lyrics to all the songs. I knew standard arrangements and all this stuff in my memory before I went to college.
AAJ: When did you start striking out on your own musically?
WS: I would have to say when I went to college. I enrolled at the University of Illinois in Architecture and the reason that I enrolled in architecture, because my parents wanted me to go into music, was that I had a very strong sense of design and I also thought it could make more money than being a musician. My parents were mired in the post office during the daytime and music at night and on the weekends, and I thought I could be an architect and play music at night and on the weekends. I more or less flunked out of architecture school and the only A's I got were in music classes. So the next year I enrolled in the music department and became a music major, and then a music ed major, and got my degree. Then I got my Master's Degree at the Manhattan School of Music in percussion.
AAJ: So that was the impetus for moving to New York?
WS: That was the opportunity; my father and all my drum teachers and people of his generation urged me to get out of Chicago for New York because they knew there would be more opportunities here.
AAJ: So you weren't really that closely involved with the Chicago jazz scene of the 50s, then.
WS: I was in the sense of what you might call doing club dates. The legendary Captain Dyad - my father worked in his club date band, and I worked in the concert band during the summers when I was home visiting. They had a whole summer concert series in the park, and Captain Dyad would conduct, and I would go to the rehearsals and the concerts. I stayed in touch that way and kept my union membership intact until I moved to New York and then I transferred into the union here.
AAJ: You started engaging classical percussion technique fairly early on, I assume in Manhattan.