Abdul Wadud obituary | Jazz
Despite occasional valiant efforts, the cello was part of a group of European concert instruments – like the bassoon, oboe and French horn – that long struggled to make a name for themselves in jazz. The emergence in the 1970s of Abdul Wadud, who brought fine classical technique to the knowledge of the idiom’s latest developments and its deepest roots, gave the instrument a new, original and influential voice. .
Wadud, who died aged 75, first came to prominence with a series of remarkable small group recordings in which saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill drew inspiration from the sounds and rhythms of Africa , especially the Dogon people of Mali.
The sharp snap of Wadud’s pizzicato, the hiss of his arching lines and the springy energy of his improvisations added a defining flavor to the highly sophisticated yet blues-infused music.
Finding it useful to keep his musical identities separate, he was known by his birth name, Ron DeVaughn, in the classical world, but it was as Abdul Wadud that he appeared as a soloist in orchestral works by ‘Anthony Davis and George Lewis, two composers. who has crossed both worlds.
In 1976 he toured with Stevie Wonder, leading a 60-piece ensemble in the concert version of the singer’s extended work A Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.
Although Wadud has made a number of recordings, only one, an album of solo cello pieces, has been released under his own name. It was released in 1977, titled By Myself, apparently the only release on the Bishara label and now a collector’s item.
Born in Cleveland, raised in an HLM, he was the youngest of 12 children of Alberta Miller and Edward DeVaughn. Her father played trumpet and French horn, and music of all kinds was a constant presence in the family home. He took advantage of what was then a thriving music education system in local schools, playing the saxophone as well as the cello, on which he also took private lessons with members of the Cleveland Orchestra.
It was while studying at Oberlin College in Ohio, famous for its music program, that he became a Muslim. With two friends, saxophonist Yusuf Munin and drummer Haasan al Hut, he formed the Black Unity Trio, playing music inspired by their interest in the new avant-garde sounds of Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler.
At Stony Brook University on Long Island, Wadud earned a master’s degree in performance at the age of 24. There he joined the New Jersey Symphony for a seven-year stint, followed by stints with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Long Island Symphony Orchestra. and other ensembles, as well as jobs in Broadway pit orchestras.
It was through a black history professor that he first connected with Hemphill, co-founder of the Black Artists Group in St Louis, Missouri. In 1972 he was invited to St Louis, where he recorded with other members of the BAG, including saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and trumpeter Baikida EJ Carroll. The Dogon AD and Coon Bid’ness albums, initially released on small specialized labels, will gather admirers and success over the years.
In New York, he and his new colleagues were embraced by the burgeoning “loft jazz” scene. As his reputation grew, he toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan with numerous groups, including those of saxophonists Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake, and as a trio. with Davis and flautist James Newton.
His style was radically different from those of classically trained cellists who had appeared in jazz environments before him, such as Fred Katz with the popular Chico Hamilton Quintet, and famous jazz double bassists who had tried him, including Oscar Pettiford in the 1950s. and Sam Jones and Ron Carter in the 1960s, some of them easing the transition by tuning the strings in fourths, like their basses, rather than normal fifths.
“I didn’t approach the cello in the lyrical sense it was known for,” Wadud said. “I sometimes had a percussive touch, a chordal approach as well as a linear approach, and I tried to incorporate all of that, depending on the situation and the demands of the music.”
Other cellists were active in the avant-garde of jazz and improvised music, including Calo Scott, Irene Aebi, Dierdre Murray and David Baker, but Wadud’s approach was the most distinctive and influential. Among those who have benefited from her example is Tomeka Reid, whose work with Nicole Mitchell, Mary Halvorson, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Alexander Hawkins has made her the leading figure on her instrument among the current generation.
In 1992, Wadud decided to retire from the music scene altogether, disillusioned by a persistent lack of recognition and “exhausted”, as he described his state of mind at the time in an interview with Reid and filmmaker Joel Wanek, who followed him back to Cleveland in 2014.
Two years ago, his playing gained new attention with the inclusion of a standout 1989 duet concert with Hemphill in a much-loved box set of unreleased recordings by the saxophonist, who died in 1995.
Twice married and twice divorced, Wadud is survived by a daughter, Aisha, a son, Raheem, and five grandchildren.