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Interviews

Warren Smith

By Published: November 30, 2004
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.


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