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Interviews

Warren Smith

By Published: November 30, 2004

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.

WS: Right from the first year at the University of Illinois; my teacher was Paul Price, and I got involved in percussion music which led me to contemporary composers like John Cage and Harry Partch and just about anybody else you could imagine in that period. I had a reputation for being that kind of percussion, and that's a very specialized field, even rarer perhaps than 'jazz.' I also majored in classical music, primarily in performance. Between that and the percussion ensemble, I played a little bit of jazz, mostly when I came home to Chicago in the summertime.

AAJ: How did classical percussion inform your approach to a standard jazz trapset?

WS: Well, I was collecting all of these varied ideas and styles and concepts of what music was, and I had this very early internalization of jazz. I don't really like the term, but we'll call it that for convenience. I heard it every day of my life; this was the music my parents played, and every time we had a family occasion, the family provided the entertainment. We often had visitors like Art Tatum coming to the house and playing piano all night. My father fixed Sonny Stitt's horn and Charlie Parker's horn, and Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin were just a few years older than us, and they came to my father for saxophone lessons. We didn't realize the importance of this at the time, but there was this legendary saxophone scene, and I really absorbed more of that than drum concepts. I just had a fascination with drums that grew into being an incessant tapper. I never put on earphones while I'm walking or jogging, and I hear an internal stimulus all the time.

AAJ: As far as the communicative aspects of reed instruments and the saxophone, in improvised music, people talk about the "cry" of the saxophone, but yet percussion in traditional cultures is almost a more profound form of communication. How do you feel that the communicative roles in improvised music are reversed or differ?

WS: First of all, I hear all of it as an imitation of the human voice or human sound. Screaming, shouting, crying, whispering, whatever it is. I have a lot of frustration with the drum being this amorphous rhythmic sound in jazz, and it was frustrating because the first instrument had been a melodic instrument, the saxophone, and I knew that I could do things with the saxophone. What I had to do was assemble a 'multiple percussion instrument' (to use Max Roach's term) that would accommodate my need to express some sort of melodic or emotional content within the percussion instrument. Listening to somebody like Roland Kirk, I have my voice in all the whistles and things that I can play while exercising my four appendages. So this gave me an expansion and an ability to express these things in a more graphic way - it is a combination of things.

AAJ: That is interesting, because Milford Graves has said that every instrument is a drum, the saxophone is a drum, you know - so how you're approaching it is a reverse of that.

WS: In a way it's a reverse, but I still have a saxophone, and I express that melodic content through tympani, marimba and vibraphone. I realize this is something not every drummer does, but it also affects the way I play and touch a drum. For instance, studying with Paul Price at the University of Illinois and playing all this percussion ensemble music, I found that the wedding of a gong and a bass drum has that much more impact than each one singularly. It took a long time for my teachers to convince me to play the bass drum with a cymbal for that same reason. There is also a marriage between the bass drum and the acoustic bass violin; these things amplify each other and give each other definition and a uniqueness of sound. So I manage to use all of these combinations of things, and you may hear me for a year and not hear any one particular thing, but those few cases where I get to play with my own band and I bring out my tympani and marimba and gongs and bass drums, as well as the drum set, that's when I can most graphically express what I am about musically.

AAJ: How about M'Boom and your work with Max Roach and the multiple percussion ensemble? One question I have is how it came about. Also, conceptually, I have discussed this idea with other drummers who were not so keen on it because of an innate competitiveness on the part of some percussionists.

WS: First of all, I had a relationship with Max Roach. I had gone to study at Tanglewood in 1956, and had seen him in 1955 at the Beehive in Chicago. I didn't meet him then, but he came up to the Institute of Jazz at Lenox, Massachusetts, which was right across the road [from Tanglewood] and we wound up hanging out in the only club in town, which was called Avalon. Randy Weston was playing solo piano there, and I had gone up there on a scholarship to study tympani with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I was going to be a classical percussionist at the time, and hanging out I ran into Max, Donald Byrd, and Clifford [Brown] had just died, so we talked a long time. In 1957 I came to New York, and I had a friend at the Manhattan School of Music named Coleridge Perkinson, and he was doing work with Max as a choral conductor and arranger for things he did with choirs and Abbey Lincoln.

AAJ: Right, those Impulse records.

WS: Yeah, and I had an entr'e to go to those sessions and see the recordings going on, and I had a chance to talk with Max a little bit. He knew I was working on my Master's Degree at Manhattan, and he saw me do a couple of Broadway shows and things. He had this vision of starting an African American percussion ensemble playing traditional African American music where each member of the ensemble well-versed in percussion was still an excellent multiple percussion instrumentalist, which means a good drummer. He got Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Freddie Waits and myself, and a few years later we needed a hand percussionist because none of us were really expert African or Conga drummers. So, we had Richard Pablo Landrum, and there was very quickly a personality conflict between him and Max, and he left and Ray Mantilla came in. Then we thought we needed another primary tympanist other than myself, so I could be freed up to do some other things, and we also needed another mallet voice. Fred King had been teaching and playing with the Pablo Casals orchestra in Puerto Rico and returned to New York, and he joined us as the eighth original member.

Now you're talking about personalities and things, so let me get back to that and M'Boom. Here we all collect in my studio, and here are these six and then eight drummers who have all been bandleaders, who are all used to being right, all the damn time. We're in one room and the only thing that kept us interested in each other was our reverence of Max Roach. He took over and provided an overall discipline to the extent that if one of us brought in a composition, he would make us assert ourselves to an extent that we wouldn't normally do it. He would criticize us so severely that all these great jazz stylists had to submerge our egos and listen to each other. We got to be such sensitive and excellent musicians in that personal sense that it worked and all these compositions, Max wouldn't want us to bring a piece of music on stage. He didn't want anything obstructing the audience's view, so we had to memorize everything.

AAJ: So obviously there was a strong visual element in the live performances too.

WS: Yes, and it may have given the impression to some viewers that we couldn't read music, or that we were improvising everything and didn't know the techniques that we used to play these instruments. Three of us had Master's Degrees in percussion - Omar Clay, Fred King and myself, and King in fact had a doctorate. Freddie Waits was a flutist as well as a percussionist, and Chambers is an excellent pianist. All of us are multifaceted and all of us are very original composers, so all of this material worked.

AAJ: As far as informing your identity as a solo percussionist and bandleader, do you feel that there was a distinct change in your approach with M'Boom?

WS: I taught for twenty-five years at the State University of New York in old Westbury. This was a program that was started by Makanda Ken McIntyre, and he brought me out with him, and in a few years Richard Harper joined. The three of us created a whole program of performing arts; we added very shortly dance teachers, first Betty Barney, then Denise Braithwaite. A few other notable dance and theatre teachers came, but this was really Ken's creation. In all of this, we would periodically do faculty concerts, and I wanted to bring my ensemble. He said, 'no, man, we can't afford to do that' and we did have limited resources. He said, 'what you need to do is a solo percussion concert,' and I got pissed off. He was probably one of the few people who knew the extent of my percussion capabilities, through all these things that I did, so he made me out of anger prepare a whole program. I played tympani, vibraphone, drum set, I sang and recited poetry, and all of this was out of this inspiration that McIntyre put on me. So I give him credit for that first stimulus.

For thirty years I had a studio down in Chelsea called Chelsea Performing Arts Studio WIS. It was really a percussion studio. At some point in time, myself and my partner Anton Reed produced a series of percussion concerts. I have some of them on videotape, maybe seven or eight performances over the years. Most of them were original material or original arrangements of material that I adapted from composers I like, but a lot of it is my original compositions, and it's something that grew and grew. There's one recording I have out there called Cats are Stealing my Shit (Mapleshade, 1998), and a lot of that is some of this material. That's a very minute part of the library; at this time, with all of my ensemble works, solo percussion works, and various combinations of things, I've got over 300 compositions and I'm still looking for opportunities to present and perform my music.

AAJ: Did Studio WIS entertain similar aims to Studio Rivbea and Studio We, or was it completely different?

WS: It was one of the first, and probably the last one to exist. We lasted up until the end of 1996, and then we moved in with another conglomerate over on Franklin Street between Broadway and Lafayette, and we stayed there until that conglomerate lost their lease. Overall, that was from 1967 to 2001, and we had Studio WIS and were presenting and performing. I am actually in the process of obtaining another studio and by my next solo performance at the Cornelia Street Caf', I will have an announcement to make in that regard.

AAJ: I myself, not having been alive or in New York during most of what they called the heyday of the loft period, you mentioned your space as also being an educational center. Was that unique among some of the loft organizations?

WS: It was not unique. The process and the program was unique, but almost every one of those lofts - Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea, [trumpeter] James DuBois' Studio We, and [saxophonist] Claude Lawrence's studio down on lower Broadway, Rashied Ali's Ali's Alley - we all presented educational programs, and we reached out. I had a children's percussion workshop that lasted over a period of years, serving kids from the age of two to the age of about 7. I have that on videotape, the whole process. I've done Master's classes with Charli Persip for professionals and college performers. Everybody had to achieve at least a proficiency in reading music and being able to perform on at least one of the percussion instruments. We did this over a series of lectures that has been videotaped. I have over 2,000 performance videos here in my home that I am trying to convert into more accessible documents.

AAJ: I'd like to jump back a bit to some of your performance contexts. How did you get involved with some of the rock and folk groups of the 60s, like Pearls Before Swine and Van Morrison?

WS: The Van Morrison thing came about as a result of me having the reputation as a studio percussionist and I was called because they knew I had a jazz background, along with Richard Davis and Connie Kay and Jay Berliner. We all had similar backgrounds in terms of having a lot of recording experience, as well as a jazz background which led to the recording of Astral Weeks (Warner Bros., 1968), which was a pretty important album. We were just called, or it was through a recommendation, and I wound up with that group of people.

The work I did with Aretha Franklin, I was part of a team who was working with a few rock and roll writers like Horace Ott and Sy Oliver and a couple of other people. In that group were people like Eric Gale and Chuck Rainey and Cornell Dupree and all of these people who turned out to be kind of historic.

AAJ: As far as your approach to the kit in those contexts, it is still very jazz-based, and especially with some of those psychedelic folk sessions, I guess that sort of openness is what they were looking for.

WS: That may have been partly it, but also I was around Mississippi and Chicago blues all my life, and I knew all these things. I always could play them, though I didn't always respect them as much as I should have until I got away from them and realized how much I missed being around that, and my respect grew in proportion. There was a group called Earth Opera that I wound up doing, and the Fugs, and I wound up doing some writing with them as well as performing.

AAJ: I could imagine the poetic aspect of working with Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg.

WS: Yeah, and we were on the same page politically speaking. Every time we were standing around relaxing, smoking and drinking or whatever we were doing, if politics came up we realized that we were very similar in our feelings about that stuff.

AAJ: Do you feel that there is as much community now [among musicians] as there was during that period?

WS: No, there's too much singularity. You see, the community is with gatherings of my generation and above, and maybe twenty years below who gather with each passing figure and embrace each other, conscious and aware of each other's well being and whereabouts. I think the younger guys, although I came out of a Depression-era situation, we grew up sharing living spaces, clothing, food, and everything else. I have a lot of things on my mind - I was married and had five daughters and other women, and jobs after jobs and all kinds of things running through my mind, and maybe I didn't do as good a job as I could have in some instances, but the most important thing still was family and helping that situation to survive. I got all my kids raised and educated; now, at this point, I can do some of the things I want to do and that I enjoy doing and not feel any sense of guilt.

AAJ: As far as your own work, what do you feel would be an ideal next setting?

WS: I would like to have my own studio in order to present not just myself, but other people who have not had an adequate opportunity to express themselves, in particular with my affinity for percussion, I would certainly try to resurrect the multiple percussion group. I have a vision of something I would call the WIS Percussion Theater, which on a periodic basis I would produce a percussionist-composer and whatever his or her desire was to express their ideas. To give them that resource, with the percussion instruments and space that I would have available, you know, and I could get grants to do this. So that's one of my ambitions, and I am actively trying to do this, rather than just wishing to do it.

AAJ: That was my next question, actually, whether the multiple percussion ensemble idea could be retained and expanded upon.

WS: Oh it is definitely something that could be expanded upon, as long as I have the strength and the mental capacity to carry it out - it's certainly been my first love for a long time, and I don't see any changing of that direction.

I would certainly mention the political climate that I see, as opposed to 'if I were king.' If I had my desires, I am very disturbed about the direction this country seems to be heading, especially under the direction of our present administration. My intent is to survive to the extent that if I see this goddamn thing teetering on the brink and I am hobbling on two crutches and you need just the strength of one finger to tip it to the shoulder of the cliff, I want to be that person. I can never say the person that I desire to be president was elected; I have always been too radical in my thinking for the candidate that I have chosen to be the one, but there have been some. I grew up with President Roosevelt, and Truman after that, I was at Eisenhower's inauguration in the marching band of the University of Illinois, and I followed Kennedy and Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Reagan and Bush and everything. I have never been this upset; I have never seen anybody that I thought was so ridiculous. This is really taking the cake.

I have traveled back and forth to Europe since 1969, Japan, everywhere, and I have never failed to find a group of people who felt and thought politically as I did, no matter what the culture was. My feeling for this man is negative and also universal among my friends.

AAJ: As far as what you're doing for your part, are you doing much in the way of setting up concerts or performances that are geared politically, or is it inherent in your work?

WS: I did a concert with Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble this past week, and we did a piece called "Teddy Said," which was an orchestration and a vocal rendition of a speech that Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts had stated that certain things [that the administration said] were not the case, and each time they made a statement that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he said they did not. And each time they said something, it was in the negative, so I orchestrated it as a calypso song. It worked, you know, so I hope to get it out on record shortly.

Recommended Listening:

' Warren Smith Ensemble - Composers Workshop Ensemble (Strata East, 1972)

' Sam Rivers - Crystals (Impulse!-Universal, 1974)

' Max Roach - M'Boom (Columbia-Legacy, 1979)

' Julius Hemphill/Warren Smith - Chile New York: Sound Environment (Black Saint, 1980)

' M'Boom - Live at S.O.B.'s New York (Max Roach-Blue Moon, 1992)

' Warren Smith - Cats Are Stealing My $hit (Mapleshade, 1995)

Photo Credit
Peter Gannushkin



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