Warren Smith


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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.
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