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Warren Smith: My Musical Life In New York City

AAJ Staff By

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It would be truly wonderful for someone to be able to resurrect M'Boom with the support needed to present this group in a first class concert tour. This was truly the crowning experience of my musical career.
Submitted on behalf of Warren Smith

After two or three brief visits, I came to New York City to stay in the fall of 1957. I had been born into a fabulous era on Chicago's South Side about five years after the great Depression. Things were not yet back to normal. We shared a lot: living spaces, food, entertainment, transportation, money and any other necessities. But there was a feeling that the President (FDR) cared and was trying sincerely to do something for the people.

My parents and my relatives on both sides were into music seriously. So when I showed an early interest, I was treated like a little Prince. I was privileged to see the inside of Club DeLisa, the Grand Terrace, Rhumboogie, Tony's, and other fabled nightspots, holding my mothers' coattails, because my Pops, Uncles and Cousins were in the Band. The Regal Theater, Savoy Ballroom, Bacons' Casino and the theaters downtown gave us kids legitimate exposure to Duke, Basie, Hamp, Pops and all the up and coming young beboppers.

As teenagers our social lives were framed by live music. I remember being at a dance where Charlie Parker was in the band. Our parents were there also both as functionaries and socially. This was security and supervision organically. No one is going to act a fool in front of their family and the neighbors. So even though the South Side had a reputation, there was no real danger under normal circumstances. I don't mean to say that violence and corruption was completely absent. It just didn't seem to be as in your face as it seems to be now.

Before I left Chicago, I had seen live Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Max and Clifford, Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley and Doug Watkins, older masters like Tatum and Ben Webster and locals like Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin.

However, very early the seed had been planted in my mind to leave Chitown and go to the "Apple" where opportunity, especially for a talented black musician, was far greater. As it worked out there were negative aspects to this advice. There was a tradition of excellent Chicago musicians who left to come here and that trend has continued to the present. The deceptive aspect was that I didn't leave racism and bigotry back in Chicago. It was here waiting for me. But for the network of big brothers and new friends I fell into, I may not have survived. They were there for me however, from my first day at Manhattan School of Music.

The New York scene then, perhaps even now, was extremely cliqueish and difficult to crack. As I had back home and in undergrad school, I accepted any opportunity to perform that came forth. My first gigs were playing tympani at school or Church or with amateur orchestras or accompanying dancers. I did a lot of original works by contemporary composers. I fell into associations with people involved with free improvisation in the Village and the Lower East Side. Very quickly the years passed. Birdland (the original location) and all of 52nd street was lost to gentrification. The clubs relocated or went under with only a few survivors. New places for live music opened up and the whole scene shifted around but something was still happening.

There comes a time of life when one begins to look back. All you have to do is stay around and be somewhat healthy long enough. Before that everything is a blur of activity. When I first started doing performances at "Studio WIS", my loft in Chelsea, when we printed up flyers to announce the events we put the date and neglected to include the year. When we tried to sort it all out after the first 15 years or so, it was a quagmire. As it turned out, this was about halfway through the lifespan of that studio and towards the end of the "Loft Jazz" era. No one could remember accurately what event fitted into what year. So in the '80s we started being more meticulous with our documentation.

The first studio I had was shared with Jack Jeffers and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, still my lifelong friends and musical conspirators after more than 40 years. The place was a five-floor walkup with a shared bathroom just west of 10th avenue. We took over the lease from a violinist friend, Marie Hence. The rent $44 per month was a scuffle for us in 1961. I started doing Broadway shows again about this time so I could afford to take over the whole nut but just barely. I had four daughters and a house note! It worked out so well that we stayed there until 1967 when gentrification and the expansion of Roosevelt hospital and the John Jay college of Criminal Justice caused the building to be torn down. I miraculously found another location, a loft at 151 West 21st street and moved in almost seamlessly. This time I took over the lease from Peter Berry, another friend and a percussionist. The rent was a whooping $95 a month! I moved in and survived until the end of 1996. During that time the phenomenon of single instrument family ensembles began to take shape. Probably the first of these was Howard Johnson's Substructure, a group of virtuoso tuba players (now known as Gravity) who possess extraordinary improvisational skills. Then came the Baritone Sax Retinue led by Hamiet Bluiett, Charles Davis and Mario Rivera; Brass Proud, an ensemble of trumpeters, and Bill Lee's Bass Violin Choir, and of course M'Boom RePercussion, Max Roach's marvelous Percussion Ensemble.

Studio WIS became overwhelmed with rehearsal activity eventually. Fortunately others were also opening up loft studios during this time period. This activity led to the formation of a collective effort to produce the New York Musicians Jazz Festival in 1972 and 1973. Any of the surviving participants will testify that this was a golden age for creative musicians and the whole movement of contemporary music. It opened up opportunities to perform in major concert halls in and around New York City. It even inspired the initiative to install Jazz at Lincoln Center in that institution.

In 1961 I was recommended to one Kenneth Arthur Makanda McIntyre because I could read music fluently. I became a member of his quartet immediately. We were both teaching school and raising families. We worked together for the next 20 years until our schedules and directions separated somewhat musically. We taught together at SUNY Old Westbury until retirement. Makanda recommended me to Sam Rivers when Sam moved to New York about 1964. I became one of the drummers in the Rivbea Orchestra and performed with several of his smaller groups. With Sam we performed all over the U.S., Europe and Asia and recorded several albums throughout the next two decades.In the early '60s my old childhood buddy Kalaparusha Ara Difda came back to New York to live after a long hiatus back home in Chicago. He had been involved with the early development of the AACM during that time. He and I started playing almost daily at my studio. This experience changed my life and my playing. The experience influenced me particularly as far as energy input I had to invest in my approach to my instrument. To be more graphic, Difda lit a fire under my ass! In a way he prepared me for Makanda and Sam to enter my life. Gerald "Sonny" Brown, the longtime drummer with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, told me how to project energy without becoming fatigued, without running out of breath. Alan Dawson showed me how, with kinetic energy, to conserve effort, think and project the energy in a linear fashion. I took it upon myself to condition my body through strenuous exercise and controlled disciplined practice.

In the '70s and '80s I worked a lot with Gil Evans. Gil let me do some arrangements for him and also played and recorded some of my compositions. I also worked with George Russell's big band. These associations with two of my hero composers gave me an invaluable opportunity to study their concepts and absorb the music from inside the orchestra. No other circumstance could have afforded me this insight. I don't know how it has affected my own writing but I know it has.

During the spring of 1970 I got a call from Tony Williams. I'd seen him the first time perhaps ten years earlier. I was on the road as Nat "King" Cole's percussionist. We were near Boston so a group of us came in to see Alan Dawson play with Herb Pomeroy's small group. To my dismay there was a 14-year-old kid subbing for Alan! This kid scared the shit out of me! Sent my arrogant ass back to the woodshed for three years! I realized I had a lot of work to do. So when Tony called me for the recording Ego, I jumped at the chance. We went into the studio and rehearsed one day and recorded the material that afternoon and evening. We did the same thing the next day. Most of the material was composed by Tony but we improvised a couple of percussion pieces that ended up on the final recording. I thought the recording was great but it was just the tip of the iceberg. We went into a couple of clubs for a week or two, did a few more gigs here and there and then we went on tour in Europe. The music took off! Tony would get on stage and start without a word. He didn't have to say anything; change tunes in the middle of the last composition, solo or group improvisation. It was tight with no obvious sign of conducting or leading, like one huge graceful beautiful animal! And within this I had the chance to sit behind or beside Tony and absorb what he was doing and how. That changed my own playing forever. He just willed his way right through the most impossible shit imaginable. Too fast? Too complicated? I'll make you hear it! And he always did.

Now how can one top an experience like that? Well you can't. But overlapping the two years I spent with Tony was Max Roach and M'Boom. I was exposed to Bebop when I was 8 or 9 years old. Billy Eckstine was in Chicago when he formed that famous bebop big band left over from when Earl "Fatha" Hines disbanded. That's the band that Dizzy Gillespie took over when Eckstine gave him the charts and his best wishes. The rest is history. I knew most of the musicians as friends of my father and uncles. My brother, cousins and our neighbors upstairs which included Melvin Van Peebles and his brother and Maurice McIntyre would memorize the records and solos and pantomime the entire track Karaoke style. But this was in the '40s!

So I knew about Max Roach. I saw him live with different groups over the years and eventually with the classic Clifford Brown quintet. In 1956 I received a scholarship to attend Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer camp and music school. For six weeks in the Berkshire mountains I studied and performed classical music of various types. Across the road from Tanglewood there was an Inn called Avalock. Randy Weston was playing solo piano there all summer and a few of us would go over regularly to sit in with him or just hang out. One night Max was there after playing a concert in Lenox, Mass. along with Donald Byrd and Sonny Rollins. Clifford had recently died and Max was still feeling the effects of it. We talked extensively that night and I confided my intention to move to New York. He gave me encouragement. Now in 1969 I received word through the grapevine the Max was looking for me. When I called he told me he wanted to start a different concept for percussion ensemble. He called Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Freddie Waits and me. I had a studio in Chelsea with tympani, a marimba, a vibraphone and a set of gongs.

We all collaborated to assemble the equipment we needed and began rehearsing once a week. Each of us contributed original compositions and arrangements of music within the African and African American tradition. The creative ideas of these individuals opened up a whole repertoire of Percussion Orchestra music that we recorded performed and toured internationally for the next 29 years. We added Ray Mantilla and Fred King to the original group.

This provided us with a wider spectrum of skills and a more colorful palate of orchestration. Max obtained an endorsement deal with the Ludwig company that provided us a set of five tympani, two concert grand marimbas and a full complement of Drums and mallet percussion. At various times, moving and setting up all this stuff proved to be somewhat nightmarish. But the musical and visual result enhanced the groups mystical effect upon its audience. I think the lack of resources and adequate support wore us all down. We never had adequate management that could relieve Max from the business responsibility and allow him to concentrate only on artistic matters. Max Roach in my opinion should never have been saddled with problems like accommodations, booking, scheduling and petty cash dispersal. It would be truly wonderful for someone to be able to resurrect M'Boom with the support needed to present this group in a first class concert tour. This was truly the crowning experience of my musical career.

View Warren Smith's video tip on drum stick grip.

Photo Credit
Frank Rubolino

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