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Interviews

Warren Smith

By Published: November 30, 2004
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?


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