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An Ensemble of One

Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos/Getty Images

Abdul Wadud performing at Washington Square Church during a concert hosted by the World Music Institute, New York City, 1990

“Tradition in African-American music is wide as all outdoors,” the saxophonist and flutist Julius Hemphill said. Abdul Wadud, a frequent collaborator of Hemphill’s, exemplified this openness. A classically trained cellist who started playing jazz at a young age, he worked with some of the most adventurous and demanding improvisers of the 1970s and 1980s, including the flutist James Newton, the saxophonist Arthur Blythe, and the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

When Wadud moved to New York in the late 1960s, the jazz avant-garde had become omnivorous, and he was soon highly valued for his ability to improvise in many musical languages using the full range of his instrument. “I feel like I could play anything, and he would respond,” Hemphill said. “He knows he could do the same.” Adept at walking basslines on bebop tunes, Wadud could also make his cello sound like a guitar by strumming chords on it—Newton described this facet of Wadud’s style as “Robert Johnson playing the cello,” while the critic Gary Giddins referred to Wadud’s “Delta cello.” In a trio with Newton and Anthony Davis, the pianist and opera composer, he invoked Romantic and modernist chamber music. (Their group was invited to play with the New York Philharmonic.) Similarly, his duets with the violinist LeRoy Jenkins bring to mind Bartók’s percussive, dissonant string quartets.

Born in Cleveland in 1947, Wadud was raised in a musical family with expansive tastes: his father, a member of their church choir, also played French horn and trumpet; his sister, an opera singer, was nearly hired by the Met; the R&B group the O’Jays tried to recruit his brother, a guitarist, but their mother wouldn’t let him drop out of high school to tour. While Wadud was studying cello with members of the Cleveland Orchestra as a teenager, he was exposed to the latest developments in free jazz through the work of the saxophonist Albert Ayler, a fellow Clevelander who often returned to his hometown to perform and find new musicians.

Wadud continued his classical studies at Youngstown State and Oberlin, with extracurricular gigs in local jazz groups. While at Oberlin he got involved in campus activism, pushing for the college to enroll more Black students and establish a Black studies department, and he converted to Islam, in large part because of the influence of his older bandmates in the Black Unity Trio. That group’s music channeled the racial politics and intellectual adventurousness of the late 1960s. It was especially indebted to Ayler and John Coltrane, who conveyed spiritual ardor through speed, volume, and nontraditional techniques, often setting their ecstatic improvisations against folksy or chantlike melodies. “I haven’t experienced a total situation like that since then,” Wadud said of the Black Unity Trio, “the combination of music and philosophy and life all in one.” Its sole recording, the thundering, incantatory Al-Fatihah—the title, Arabic for “the opening,” refers to the first sura of the Quran—was made in December 1968, at the end of a long year of assassinations and uprisings; released privately and largely inaccessible for decades, it was reissued in 2020 by Gotta Groove, a Cleveland label and record-pressing plant.

After graduating from Oberlin, Wadud declined an offer from Yale’s conservatory to attend SUNY Stony Brook, where he got a master’s under Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux-Arts Trio. Although he initially wanted to work in chamber ensembles, he held a succession of steady symphony jobs in the tristate area. The barriers between the jazz and classical worlds remained high, so Wadud—who used his birthname, Ron DeVaughn, when playing in orchestras—didn’t let his colleagues know that he moonlighted as an improviser at the forefront of the avant-garde. In a 2014 interview he recalled that a student once asked him, “Can you teach me how to play like that Abdul Wadud?” After Wadud convinced the student that he was that man, the student complained, “Why are you teaching me classical style, I want to learn how to do the other.” “Well,” Wadud replied, “you can do both.” In reality, few did.

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Wadud, who died last year at the age of seventy-five, appeared on dozens of albums but was the leader on only one: By Myself, recorded in 1977 and self-published in a run of a thousand copies. It was intended as the first of three solo records, but the follow-ups were never made, and it became an obscurity sought by collectors and younger improvising cellists.

By Myself was reissued this past spring by Gotta Groove, which attained Wadud’s permission three months before his death. Appropriately for an artist who believed that “ensemble playing is the essence of music,” By Myself, unlike many extended solo performances, avoids flashy displays of technical prowess in favor of a different sort of virtuosity: command of a variety of textures and tonalities. “The recording of a solo album has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the ‘Natural’ origin of the ‘Violoncello’ and other ‘String’ instruments,” he writes in the album’s liner notes, “and in doing so it leads me back to Mother Africa and the East…. I hear the ‘Cello’ as being percussive, chordal, linear…and capable of many effects.” Or, as he put it in a 1980 interview, “The cello can be anything that I want it to be.”

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The six tracks on By Myself back up these confident assertions. The stuttering plucked arpeggios of the opening song, “Oasis,” give way to gentle strumming reminiscent of a finger-picked guitar or kora, which in turn leads into funky, slinky basslines. “Kaleidoscope” begins with frenetic bow work that calls to mind the cellist Joel Freedman’s aggressive playing with Ayler’s noisy mid-Sixties bands; later in the song, bluesy double-stops alternate with fast pizzicato figures, and eventually these two styles bleed into and refract each other. “Camille,” named after Wadud’s wife, starts with legato phrases somehow equally evocative of a twangy country-and-western violin and Shostakovich’s plaintive chamber music, but then it becomes a love song—a sweet minor-key groove with a turnaround of strummed minor and dominant chords.

Abdul Wadud: “Happiness,” 1977

“In a Breeze” on the B side has a similar folk-like simplicity and muted warmth, with descending chords alternating with filigreed melodic lines. “Expansions” and “Happiness,” by contrast, are more freeform. “Happiness” in particular showcases Wadud’s mastery of the classical tradition, from lovely arco figures to screeching double-stop glissandi; these are followed by percussive tapping of his strings with his bow, then a bright tune that could be from a bluegrass song or one by a Delta blues guitarist like Mississippi John Hurt. The melody is soon undergirded by energetic strumming that cedes to an octave-jumping bassline, which gradually slows down and softens, ending the album with a sense of contented exhaustion. 

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“I had to create my own situation,” Wadud said of his improvisational style. “I didn’t have a lot of predecessors to fall back on.” Only a handful of cellists played in the jazz tradition before him, and a few bassists—including Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, and Ray Brown—sometimes doubled on cello, which they tuned in fourths, like a bass, rather than fifths, as is standard.1 Around the time By Myself was made, some cellists were pursuing many of the same goals as Wadud. Diedre Murray performed with a number of musicians who also worked with Wadud, and Eileen Folson played with him in the improvising string quartet Black Swan but recorded relatively seldom in improvisational settings. In the late 1970s the cellist David Eyges, who like Wadud was classically trained and was also an associate of Arthur Blythe’s, began developing a strummed style reminiscent of Wadud’s and likewise inspired by Delta blues. Eyges’s work with the saxophonist and flutist Byard Lancaster, though generally less abrasive than Hemphill and Wadud’s duets, has some similarities with them, especially a penchant for abstraction and atonality that are emotionally grounded in blues idiom.

Wikimedia Commons

Earl Cross and Abdul Wadud performing at Studio Rivbea, a jazz loft run by Sam and Beatrice Rivers, New York City, July 4, 1976; photograph by Tom Marcello

But none of these musicians did quite as much as well as Wadud. Tomeka Reid, a cellist who has helped raise Wadud’s profile in recent years, told The New York Times for its obituary of him that she considers By Myself comparable to Pablo Casals’s recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites because it established the technical standards for subsequent generations of improvising cellists—artists such as Erik Friedlander, Hank Roberts, and Reid herself.

As a solo album by an avant-garde cellist, By Myself is doubly unusual. It’s almost certainly the first such recording, though bassists in the jazz tradition started to record themselves unaccompanied in the late 1960s. Compared to the solo bass albums made in the decade before and after By Myself, Wadud’s effort stands out for being not a collection of études showing off technical achievements or experimentation, but rather a collection of songs. Barre Phillips’s Journal Violone (1968) features as great a range of techniques as By Myself does, but it has little of the later record’s warmth or tunefulness. A similar complaint can be made about Dave Holland’s solo records on bass and cello: the crisp virtuosity of his cello album, Life Cycles (1982), feels almost antiseptic in comparison to Wadud’s earthier, more wide-ranging approach. The lovely, moody compositions on December Poems (1979)—a partially solo record by Gary Peacock, who had been Ayler’s favorite bassist—recall Wadud’s almost pop-like grooves in “Camille” and “Oasis,” yet that album lacks the contrasts that make By Myself so engaging to listen to.2

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Wadud’s intelligence and stylistic flexibility, displayed to such great effect on By Myself, are the qualities that made him a treasured accompanist to so many leading creative musicians. He knew what each situation required and was able to deliver it. In the early 1990s he stopped playing cello, citing a combination of health issues and professional burnout, but it seems possible that his musical sensitivity led him to conclude that there was nothing more for him to say—that what was now called for was silence. Reid told the Times that for years before his death she tried to convince to him to pick up his instrument again, but he politely refused. In life as in music, she remembered, “he was just so humble.”


Abdul Wadud’s By Myself is available from Gotta Groove Records.

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