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Interviews

Warren Smith

By Published: November 30, 2004
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.


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