By Myself: An Interview with Abdul Wadud
by Joel Wanek and Tomeka Reid
Originally published by Point of Departure, vol. 57
I had been searching for Abdul Wadud for two years before meeting him for this interview in November 2014. Earlier that year (and at least one instance a few years prior) there had been rumors of his death circulating throughout the internet from prominent musicians and free jazz aficionados. But, no obituary could be found and no one could seem to find out if the rumors were true. Even some of his former musical collaborators couldn’t confirm whether he was alive or dead.
In an effort to track him down and figure out if there was truth to these rumors, I posted a couple of vintage photos of Abdul Wadud to social media and tagged his son, the R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn. I was surprised how quickly he responded to me. On two occasions we had lengthy exchanges about his father. He confirmed his dad was alive and well, and he offered to help put me in touch with Wadud. The latter never materialized but I was really happy to hear that he was still alive.
There were still so many mysteries we wanted to know about Wadud. Why had he stopped playing seemingly all of a sudden in the early to mid-90s? Why did his closest musical associates not have any idea where he was or how he was doing? But, most of all, we just really wanted to meet him and express our deep gratitude for his music.
It turned out that Raheem Devaughn re-posted the vintage photos of his father to his own Instagram account. Reading through the comments I found a few people referring to Wadud as “Uncle Ron.” I sent them direct messages and asked if there’s any way they could put me in touch with them. One eventually wrote me back and asked for my phone number, telling me that they’d make sure it got to Wadud. Weeks passed until one afternoon I got a call from a random North Carolina phone number. It was Abdul Wadud.
When we talked, he was in the process of moving from Charlotte, North Carolina back to his hometown of Cleveland. Once he got settled in Cleveland he would be more than happy to meet up and talk. So, Tomeka and I ventured to Cleveland together, to meet our musical hero. Wadud invited us to his downtown apartment where we talked at length over the course of two days in late November 2014.
Joel Wanek: We’re staying in Cleveland on East Boulevard, the historic street with the grand old apartment buildings. Our hosts, who grew up in Cleveland, were telling us how the Arts were such a huge part of their upbringing. Was that your experience growing up?
Abdul Wadud: The Public School system in Cleveland used to be dynamite for the Arts. We rivaled the suburbs. Coming up we had the all-city orchestra, various string programs throughout the city. I took part in them when I was in elementary school and that’s when I was introduced to the cello. I wanted to play the cello but the band director needed a saxophone player and he told me he didn’t have any cellos. So I got started on the sax and eventually he let me get started on the cello in the fourth grade. But I kept my interest in the sax as well because in elementary, junior high and senior high I played alto, tenor, baritone and soprano sax, as well as the cello.
The music program was dynamite, man. We had a ball coming up. The all-city orchestra, regional orchestra, state orchestra ... I participated in all of that coming up. I had my friends in the neighborhood I was in ... it wasn’t an affluent neighborhood, it was the projects, as a matter of fact. Like I said the schools were furnished with instruments. We had instruments galore and had a strings teacher and a winds teacher so it was a good program. Robert Reimer was responsible for that. He was the supervisor.
The Arts was well represented and you had your choice but I opted for music. So had I not been involved in music I would have went to school in my district. I wound up getting a music transfer to John Adams for high school. So I went out of my district ... in junior high as well. I went to schools that were emphasizing the Arts more.
Tomeka Reid: So did you play saxophone in a concert orchestra or in a jazz band?
Abdul: Concert orchestra, but we had a little jazz combo in junior high where I played alto. That’s where I got a lot of my exposure to jazz at an early age, including my brother Edward who is a lawyer. Not only Edward but my brother Walter played trombone, he played jazz, and he was in the Air Force. They both were in the Air Force. Ed was a Major and Walter was a Sergeant.
Music was prevalent in our family. Our father played trumpet and French horn in the Elks Band and he also sang. My older sister was a runner-up in trying out for the Metropolitan Opera. She almost made it but had a lot of family problems. She was helping to take care of us and also had a lot of stress on her and started drinking and developed cirrhosis of the liver and subsequently passed. My son Raheem got his voice from his grandfather and he’s singing now.
Tomeka: Was your mom a musician too?
Abdul: No she wasn’t but she appreciated music. She had her hands full trying to raise us I guess. I’m the youngest of twelve, six boys and six girls.
Tomeka: So did you get private lessons at school?
Abdul: Oh yeah I had private lessons but they weren’t at school. The Sutphen School of Music which was located on 46th and Cedar. My teacher Martin Simon of the Cleveland Orchestra taught there so I started taking private lessons when I was in the sixth grade ... sixth grade on.
Tomeka: Can I ask what years those were?
Abdul: Telling my age [laughter]. I graduated from high school in ‘65. I’m 67 now.
Joel: What part of Cleveland did you grow up?
Abdul: East 55th in between Central and Quincy, in the projects.
Joel: What kind of music was around your house, like playing in your house? What did you grow up around?
Abdul: Everything. My dad was a big opera fan and played jazz as well and sang in the church choir. I was exposed through my sister as well. She used to drag me to her concerts and rehearsals so I got exposed to everything ... R&B, jazz, classics at an early age and throughout my career. Down in the area that I lived in on 55th, right around the corner was Leo’s Casino and they used to bring in Miles and Trane. I used to go by there listening on the outside. I was too young to go in. We used to go by and you could hear the music coming out on the street and what have you, but we had clubs down there in the neighborhood. It was vibrant. You had everything. You had your cleaners, hotels, bars, markets.
Joel: Were there other musicians that you grew up with? I’m just curious who some of your peers were you grew up with that you were playing with a lot. Was there anyone that went on to be a professional musician?
Tomeka: Or any of your siblings?
Abdul: My brother Harold played guitar and the O’Jays tried to recruit him out of high school. My mom wouldn’t let him go on the road and drop out of school but he played guitar very well. He since has died of cancer. That was it professionally, and my sister sang. Albert Ayler came from Cleveland so he was a big influence on me. He used a cello also in his band. He was known around town but he was bigger in Europe. I got exposed to the New Music, the avant-garde, when I was about 14. I started playing it when I was about 16 and I made my first recording with the Black Unity Trio when I was 18.
Joel: As an 18 year old man, or young man, how did you come to get interested in that music?
Abdul: Yusuf (Munin), the saxophonist, was partially responsible for getting me interested in the avant-garde, plus he was a good friend of ours, brother Donnie. They were good friends. Donnie played trumpet.
Joel: Would you listen to the New Music together? Is that how you would?
Abdul: Yeah, he would come by the house and get me out of bed, I was a late sleeper on Sundays and Saturdays and we’d go by his loft and we would play.
Joel: At 18 years old.
Abdul: Actually, it was 16.
Joel: Were you also trying to learn bebop music? What else were you trying to do with the cello?
Abdul: Yeah, I was playing but it wasn’t bebop. At that time I was a big fan of Miles and Dizzy and Trane, of course. Trane was in and out, so we touched on some of that too. Mainly, we were interested in creating our own styles and situations and what have you because we couldn’t emulate the beboppers. They did so well. Trying to come behind that was kind of futile.
Joel: Yeah, they had advanced that so far.
Joel: I’m just trying to think at that time what else might have been going on here in Cleveland that was influencing you. Were all your peers, or a good amount of your peers, interested in this new sound?
Abdul: Not really. Some were and some weren’t. It wasn’t extremely popular. It was controversial. We had our ears tuned to people like Trane and Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor. So we were little rebels, you know? My brother Ed, he had an extensive jazz collection. He was really responsible for my record influence. I would go by his house and get my education on record.
Tomeka: What do you feel made it controversial?
Abdul: It was the sound of times. It was something different and people weren’t ... people have difficulty accepting new things. It just took a while for it to catch on but we hung in there and it followed me throughout my career.
Abdul: I became a Muslim when I was a junior at Oberlin College. I embraced Islam. Yusuf was Muslim and Haasan (al Hut), the drummer in the Black Unity Trio, he was Muslim as well. They introduced me to Islam. In my community, my neighborhood, a lot of my friends were embracing Islam but I didn’t do it until I was a junior in college over at Oberlin College.
Tomeka: Did you select that name or was that something that they gave?
Abdul: No, I chose it. In Islam you choose your attributes and you try to live up to those attributes. Those are the attributes of the creator. Kabir is my first name. Abdul Kabir Wadud. Kabir means well informed and Wadud means loving. Those are attributes of the creator, so I try to be well informed and loving in my life, so that’s why I chose that name.
Tomeka: Did you feel that you had to have these different names [Ronald DeVaughn and Abdul Wadud]? Did you feel like it might change the work you would get?
Abdul: There’s prejudice against the avant-garde and jazz. In the classical circles if you say you’re a jazz player or whatever ... they figured there were certain stigmas. They figured you couldn’t do certain things. I would just go out and do it. They wouldn’t have anything to say. I did that for many years. I played in the New Jersey Symphony for eight years. I did the Symphony of the World, Long Island Symphony, Youngstown Symphony when I was at Youngstown State for years. In Oberlin we used to commute to Youngstown. That’s how I made my money. I didn’t have a work study program. I was on scholarship. I didn’t have any money so I made my money by playing in the orchestras at Youngstown, Canton, and Akron Symphonies.
Joel: What prompted the switch from Youngstown to Oberlin?
Abdul: My teacher Martin Simon, who I was studying with privately from 6th grade on to high school to 12th grade. I had a connection with Youngstown. Theodore Barre was also my teacher at Youngstown. He was in the Cleveland Orchestra as well. When I graduated I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college or if I wanted to pursue music or what. I had an interest in law because my brother was a lawyer and he influenced me to think about that. I was really undecided so I didn’t make up my mind until the last minute and Youngstown offered me a scholarship so I went there and played in the orchestra as well, so that was enticing. The Youngstown Symphony was a professional orchestra outside of the school. It provided me with a little income as well so I chose Youngstown. While I was there I had a friend at Oberlin, Jimmy Meyers, who went from my high school John Adams to Oberlin directly. We stayed in touch and I just had an interest in Oberlin’s program. It was a little bit more advanced than Youngstown State.
Tomeka: Who was your cello teacher at Oberlin?
Abdul: Richard Kapuscinski. He was my man. He was a good man as well as a good teacher. He had me playing the “Tortelier,” using the Tortelier on the cello. It’s the bent end pin which allows you to play in the high register more easily, but it’s more difficult playing in a lower register. I tried that for about 3 or 4 years. Bernard Greenhouse got me to go back to the conventional cello end pin.
Joel: While at Youngstown and Oberlin were you still playing more adventurous jazz?
Abdul: We kind of created our own situations with Gene Rush. Gene went on from Youngstown to Illinois I think, where he was teaching. Harold [Danko] went on to New York and he played jazz around New York and what not. He had a name for himself. I don’t know what happened to Mike [Smith]. Mike was the drummer. We created our own little band and we’d go out and gig on the weekends and what have you as well as come back and do our classical thing during the day.
Tomeka: Was that band playing avant-garde?
Abdul: No, we were playing inside stuff. At that time I also kept in touch with Yusuf. I was doing that, with them, with Yusuf, as well as the inside stuff with Mike, as well as my classical stuff at school and with the symphony. While in college I had to perfect the economy of doing both, playing jazz and avant-garde and classical music. The classics also aided me in furthering my avant-garde ventures tremendously. That’s where I met Julius Hemphill, when I was a junior at Oberlin. He came down for a concert and we hooked up. From then on we started working together.
Joel: He came down to just hear a concert?
Abdul: No, to perform. We had a black history professor, Oliver Jackson. He made the hook up between me and Julius. Oliver was from St. Louis as well and he was familiar with the Black Artists Group – BAG. Me and Julius hooked up and we started playing together. I also had a professor at Oberlin. Ollie Wilson played bass. He was into electronic music and avant-garde. So I had some teachers as well as peers who were into that. We just hooked up and we used to perform all the time at Oberlin and around Ohio and what have you – Yusuf, Ollie, and myself. We would get college gigs and halls, small little theaters and whatever. Mainly college gigs.
Joel: What was the audience like?
Abdul: Young college kids. It was different. It wasn’t large crowds but we had a little following.
Joel: Was it white and black kids?
Abdul: Oh yeah, mixed. At Oberlin, now that you mentioned that, when I first went to Oberlin there was only 26 black people there out of the whole school. They had this reputation for being a liberal bastion. Where I graduated we got it up to about 200. Stanley Cowell, the pianist, went to Oberlin and he was there when they only had 20 something. He used to tease me, he say, “You guys got it together. You got the school together.” We were active about recruiting more Afro-Americans and getting more input into the school and the curriculum and starting a black studies program and different things of that nature. The colleges and things at that time in the ‘60s, ‘65 through ‘72, there was a lot of activism on the colleges and what have you about black studies programs and getting things going and increasing the amount of black kids at universities. The crowds were mixed.
Tomeka: Did you get a classical Masters?
Abdul: Masters in performance. State University of New York in Stony Brook. I was accepted at Yale for my graduate degree and I opted to go to Stony Brook, because I wanted to study with Bernard Greenhouse. He had the ensemble background. At that time I was thinking if I wanted to do something in classical it would be in an ensemble, an arranged quartet, piano trio or something of that nature.
Tomeka: Wow, you got into Yale but you opted for Stony Brook?
Abdul: Stony Brook. Plus they gave me a fellowship there.
Joel: Did you study with your goal just to get better or was it to be able to teach one day yourself?
Abdul: That was my thinking for going to Youngstown State, was to get an education degree, so I would have something to fall back on. I did two years of that then I decided to make it in performance at Oberlin. I transferred, got a full scholarship there and from there I went to Stony Brook. I got the fellowship there in performance and I got a master’s in performance from Stony Brook.
Joel: When you had your Masters were you like just in your mid-20s?
Abdul: 23. Take that back, 24, because of the two-year program. It’s best to go without a break because if I would have started gigging regularly, I wouldn’t have done it.
Joel: Then after you got out of grad school did you move to New York?
Abdul: No, I was in New York while – so Stony Brook is on Long Island, New York. I got married my second year and I moved to East Orange, New Jersey. I joined the New Jersey Symphony and I was there for 7 years. While I was there I was doing studio work and some Broadway and gigging. It was a 3 hour commute. I would go out 3 times a week, 3 hours one way.
Joel: On a train?
Abdul: On the train and public transportation. I didn’t have a car. At that time I was playing in the symphony, teaching, and playing around New York and Europe and different places and what have you.
Tomeka: Was that an integrated in symphony?
Abdul: Not really. It was 5 blacks: Myself, Randy Hicks was a percussionist. We went to Oberlin together. Dave Moore bassist, Al Patterson trombonist. Al did some improvisation stuff as well. I also was personnel manager and assistant personnel manager for the orchestra while I was there. I was responsible for hiring people, auditioning rates, setting up auditions and getting the repertoire together ... did some librarian work for the orchestra as well.
Joel: Did you see classical music as a more viable way to make a living? Is that why you stuck with it? Did you really enjoy it too?
Abdul: I enjoyed it. It definitely was a way to make a living. It was a little bit of both. You had to get the chops together. The classical stuff was very demanding so that took up a lot of my time but I was still gigging in New York with Julius and the New York scene, the loft scene.
Joel: Was that your primary way of supporting yourself was through creative music?
Abdul: Yeah, I did a little bit of both. I did Broadway during that time in the late ‘70s through the 80’s, Broadway shows and symphonic work, pickup work around New York as well. Brooklyn Philharmonic and Long Island Symphony and Symphony of the World. I did a lot of that. I was trying to make my living from all of it. Kind of a mixed bag.
Tomeka: Did you ever feel like there was a conflict there or people were trying to put you in a different place?
Abdul: Yeah. Some people didn’t even know that I was doing that. Even to the days where I was doing Broadway and studio recordings and R&B shows that came into New York and what have you. I was doing my avant-garde career simultaneously and people didn’t know that I was doing that. A couple of my peers would say ... Warren Smith, the percussionist, he came up and he said, “I keep hearing about this Abdul Wadud guy playing cello” – because I was using Ron DeVaughn during the classical stuff. He said, “Do you know this guy Abdul Wadud?” I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” He said, “Oh no man, that ain’t you.” I said, “Yeah it is.” It’s funny. I had a student when I was teaching and he said, “Can you teach me how to play like that Abdul Wadud?” I said, “I am Abdul Wadud.” He said, “No you’re not.” I said, “Yes I am.” I had to pull out these albums and what not and show him. He started laughing. He said, “Why are you teaching me classical style, I want to learn how to do the other.” I said, “Well, you can do both.”
Joel: Who were some others you were playing with at that time in the early ‘70s?
Abdul: It was Julius, Frank ... What’s Frank’s last name?
Joel: Frank Wright?
Abdul: Yeah, Frank Wright but there’s another Frank [Lowe]. I can’t think now. There was a lot of folks and the loft scene was taking off. I was doing a lot of bass work, taking the place of bass in groups and what have you, holding the foundation down for groups. There was a lot of that going on in the early ‘70s. There was more of a notion playing with different folks and trying to adapt to their different approaches and their tunes and different things. It was challenging.
Tomeka: Did you do a lot of extensive touring abroad?
Abdul: Oh yeah. Yeah. I was all through Europe and Japan and Canada. We never got to South America though or to Africa.
Tomeka: Who was that with mostly?
Abdul: Various people. Sam Rivers, Julius, Davis-Newton-Wadud Trio, Oliver Lake. There’s a lot of folks. I can’t think of all of them. Arthur Blythe. Different folks. Archie Shepp had a big band project I was supposed to do, but I don’t know, something came up. I couldn’t do it. I think Akua [Dixon] did it. Steve Lacy was living over there and his wife plays cello as well. He would always make a point to hook up with the cats when we would come over.
Tomeka: Did you collaborate with any European cellists?
Abdul: Didier Lockwood and a couple of other people. There was a string festival me and John Blake attended when we performed there and did some concerts and workshops.
Tomeka: What did you make of the European jazz scene and musicians? Was what they were doing interesting at all?
Abdul: They were imitating a lot of stuff that was coming out of the States and what have you and we had to be particular about things. When the Art Ensemble of Chicago went over for a tour, they ran into a group that was imitating them with the painted faces, names written like Famoudou, and what have you. They were trying to imitate their style and things that they were doing. They get credit for doing a lot of things which is really mimicking the culture. The culture is moving so fast in the States. We would record things and go through trends every 4 or 5 years or whatever and we would disregard some of that culture. They would take it up, nurture it, and shoot them back to us.
Tomeka: What was your longest stint abroad? A month? Weeks?
Abdul: I did two-month tours and we did one month long of one-nighters with Arthur [Blythe]. Different place every night, sometimes different country.
Tomeka: I wanted to ask what was it like working with Arthur Blythe?
Abdul: It was good. It was different. He had a different approach than Julius to the music, a more inside approach. I enjoyed working with both of them.
Joel: Seems like Arthur also had unique instrumentation and ...
Tomeka: The tuba ...
Abdul: Julius had some unique instrumentation himself. He never used a ... not never but he rarely uses a piano. He used John Hicks on some things. He was someone, his favorite pianist. Arthur also used piano in conventional quartet settings, but when he wasn’t using that he would use a guitar and cello and tuba and drums. That was unique. We did that all Monk album and we didn’t use a piano. I think it’s called Light Blue but I’m not sure.
Tomeka: Do you know why he didn’t use a piano? Did he feel like the piano locked him in or something?
Abdul: I don’t know if he felt it locked him in, but he was just hearing a different kind of sound. It was unique. Came out of the tradition, because in the ‘50s and ‘60s some of the conventional jazz musicians would not use piano as well. If not for an album, during certain times the piano would drop out. You would have the bass, drums and sax or trumpet or whatever playing. Miles did it. Dizzy did it. Monk. All of them stretched like that. McCoy Tyner. They just dropped out and then the bass and the drums and the horns have it.
Tomeka: You said [Julius] came during your junior year to a concert at Oberlin.
Abdul: At Oberlin, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tomeka: What group was he playing in? Was that BAG?
Abdul: He was with BAG at the time but he had, Philip Wilson, was the drummer; and myself, Philip and Julius, we had a trio at that time.
Tomeka: After the concert did you guys play a session that night or did you go the next day? Did he stay around?
Abdul: We rehearsed and they stayed the next day then he departed.
Joel: Was he like, “You got to come to St. Louis. Come to St. Louis and play with us.”?
Abdul: As a matter of fact I did fly down and out of that came Dogon A.D. We hooked up with Hamiet [Bluiett] and Baikida Carroll.
Joel: You were only 20, 21 at that time?
Abdul: I was 20 at the time.
Joel: What do you remember about recording that album?
Abdul: It was cold in the studio. We didn’t have optimum situations. We didn’t have the luxury of a very nice recording studio or a lot of rehearsal time and what have you. We did things on the run. [Oliver] Sain did the best that he could with that studio. He got a pretty decent sound out of that. We had a ball recording it.
Tomeka: Was it a 1 track? Isn’t it like 20 minutes? It’s a long track.
Abdul: “The Hard Blues?” Yeah, it’s about 19, 20 minutes.
Tomeka: Was that a one take thing, I mean?
Abdul: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, we didn’t believe in punching notes and stuff like a lot of artists did and still do. What you hear is what you get.
Joel: On that track though, “The Hard Blues,” that bass line that you play or that line that you play, was that written out for you by Julius?
Abdul: Oh yeah, it definitely was written out. A lot of folks have difficulty playing that. Drummers, because they’re locked in to 4/4 time, but we pulled it off.
Joel: Did you have a sense at that moment that that was a really special thing that you all were creating or was that realization to come later?
Abdul: It was special in the sea of recording it because we had enjoyed it. We knew that the chemistry was there, definitely.
Joel: Can you talk about Julius’s writing there? Do you remember what your thoughts were when you were hearing yourself play that for the first time, like what you were thinking about his music? Or maybe what your thoughts about his music, in general, were at that moment in your life as a young man in school encountering him. What your thoughts of him were?
Abdul: I thought it was impressive. It was in tune with what some of the things I was doing with other people as well and I had done. We just locked. Like I said, it clicked from day one. I just took a liking to it. It felt familiar and home and close.
Joel: That was an important collaborator for you through his whole career, and yours too.
Abdul: Oh yeah. Yeah it was special. Special bond.
Joel: What was he like as a person, because I feel he’s pretty criminally under-documented too.
Abdul: Julius was kind of soft-spoken. He was laid back, but very intense and very creative. He never got his just due in terms of recognition for creativity and what have you. He didn’t become bitter because of it. He took things as they came, and tried to make the best of whatever the situation was. His writings were challenging for the cello, because ... He didn’t write for the cello as being confined to a certain range or characteristics. I enjoyed that challenge. Some of his writings where we had the cello performing like a horn. I would find myself in a big, bad situation, larger on some of the situations, which was unusual, just having the cello with saxes and trumpets and trombones and percussion and what have you and being the only stringed instrument. No bass. He had a knack for writing using the cello as a bottom, as a bass as well as a lead instrument so I enjoyed that challenge.
Tomeka: Were you composing much at that time before Julius? Before your connection with him?
Abdul: No I wasn’t. I did a lot of my composing when I played. That’s how I got my creative energies off. I played with a lot of folks so I got a chance to get my creativity off that way. With Anthony Davis and James Newton and myself, I got to writing more.
Tomeka: Did they encourage you more to do that?
Abdul: Yeah. Yeah, they kind of pushed me towards it.
Tomeka: Would you say that that group, you guys co-wrote in that group?
Abdul: Yeah, it was a cooperative effort.
Tomeka: I know you have By Myself, but do you have any recordings where you were the leader in writing all the music?
Abdul: No I don’t. No, the majority of my time was as a side man or a co-leader.
Joel: Could you talk about what led you to your solo recording a little bit?
Abdul: At that time people were doing that. We were doing that. We branched off and people were expressing themselves that way [with solo recordings]. So, I wanted to do one for the cello as well. I originally planned to do three and I didn’t get around to it. One thing led to another and I had some problems and I never did get around to fulfilling that.
Joel: It seems like from what I remember on the back cover, it seems like you recorded and put that out yourself.
Abdul: Yeah that was definitely a self-produced situation. I had offers to do it with some labels, but I wanted to do it myself and have control of what I was doing.
Tomeka: Could I ask you a nerdy cello question? Can you talk about your instrument? Did you have the same instrument throughout your career?
Abdul: Pretty much. I didn’t own my own cello until I was a freshman in college. I used a school instrument or a real good cello. I didn’t have the funds coming up to buy my instrument. I guess we had a really good program where we were provided with instruments and teachers and situations in Cleveland. I bought my own cello after working at the post office my freshman year at Youngstown State. I’ve kept that cello throughout my career.
Tomeka: Did you play with a pickup or did you use an amp or just a mic?
Abdul: For many years I didn’t use an amp. There was no amp on this recording. I broke a lot of strings and got a lot of bows re-haired. I used the acoustic sound for many years. I was kind of opposed to the amp situation. It’s a different sound. I just liked the acoustic sound and I liked the energy of playing acoustic. Maybe with a mic, but sometimes I didn’t even use a mic. In my early days with Black Unity Trio I didn’t use a mic at all and we used to do it the acoustic way. It used to be really challenging playing with a drummer as strong as Haasan. It’s a different kind of energy.
Joel: Who were some players you looked to for inspiration of playing the cello in a more adventurous way?
Abdul: I like Muneer [Fennell]. We kind of came up together in New York. A young lady by the name of Eileen Folson, I don’t know if you know Eileen. She was a great talent. She was really gifted and we worked together in Black Swan Quartet. That was with Reggie Workman, Eileen, myself and [Akbar] Ali. He’s from Cleveland as well. I can’t remember where we were going with that before. I listened to a lot of people but I kind of had to create my own situations. I list Oscar Pettiford and Fred Katz with Chico Hamilton. At that time, Eldee Young with Ramsey Lewis. They all used, except for Fred, they used the cello tuned as a bass, where I used the classic cello tuning. I had to kind of create my own ... Oh, and Ron Carter of course. Ron used the conventional tuning of the cello. I had to create my own situation. I wanted to take it in a different direction. I didn’t have a lot of predecessors to fall back on.
Joel: Did you see that as an opportunity for yourself?
Abdul: Yeah it was an opportunity but it was difficult because it’s demanding. When you’re put in certain situations playing different folk’s music it’s more than meets the eye. I can recall one afternoon where I had a “Symphony of the New World” rehearsal and a rehearsal with Julius and some studio work. That’s 3 different genres. That was a demanding day. It was extremely challenging.
Tomeka: I think in my mind, I think of you as how Pablo Casals was with the Bach suites. To me it’s like Abdul Wadud is that important figure in this music. I don’t know if you know what I mean. There were other cellists before him of course but he definitely set the bar, especially in regards to Bach Suites. I feel like as far as creative music on the cello, to me you were that person.
Abdul: I think I said that in my liner notes on By Myself. I approached the cello not in the lyrical sense that it was known for. I had a percussive approach at times, chordal approach, as well as linear approach and tried to incorporate all of that depending on the situation and the demands of the music at that time.
Tomeka: Was there a period in your career that you felt was the most fruitful to you or a part that was really inspiring to you?
Abdul: I really don’t have a favorite because I enjoyed it all. I enjoyed my beginning, my roots, and I enjoyed the period when I was with Julius and with Arthur Blythe and Sam Rivers and David Murray, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, different folks. I enjoyed all of those periods and influences. I really don’t have a favorite period. I forgot Anthony Davis and James Newton. I can’t forget about them.
Joel: I remember when we first spoke to you, you talked about how you’re retired now, you don’t play anymore. What prompted that? Had you just felt like you’ve done enough with the instrument and with the music?
Abdul: At one point I did. I had thought about retiring earlier before I did and I had some health problems. It kind of completed things for me to make that decision.
Joel: When did you stop playing the cello or playing the music?
Abdul: It’s been about 20 years now.
Joel: Can you talk a little bit more about that decision? It sounds like you were weighing it for a little while maybe?
Abdul: I guess you could say I was kind of burnt out a little bit, when I entertained that thought, but I never did do it.
Joel: Were you burned out from ... What aspect of it was it?
Abdul: All of it. All of it.
Joel: Were you compensated fairly, do you feel like, when you were playing?
Abdul: I don’t think any of us felt that we were. Everybody could use more money. When you’re doing creative things and innovating and doing things, rarely do you get compensated for it. If you’re doing conventional things, traditional things, you get better compensation for it. Like I said, we didn’t have the optimal situations that a lot of people did. If we had the recording situation that the R&B people had or the rock people had, you probably could have seen a different creative output amongst a lot of folks. All the performance opportunities and certain venues and different things that other people had, the classical people and what have you. We kind of push for those things as well, taking the music out of the club and into the concert hall or into theaters. Different things. When going over to Europe and what have you and you end up performing at festivals and different things as opposed to playing in a loft situation here only ... Not only, but basically.
Tomeka: Did you feel like it was hard? Did you feel like at one point there was more of an audience and as you kept going it was harder to grow that audience?
Abdul: No, it was growing. Creatively it was catching on and the audiences were growing and getting bigger and were more appreciative. Personally I just needed a break.
Tomeka: There’s a lot you give when you do create your music.
Joel: Did you ever have any thoughts about getting back into playing again?
Abdul: Yeah, I was thinking about doing something with my son. He’s an R&B artist. He worked with Boney James recently. They got a nice little hit out. I wanted to do something with him. He’s been nominated for three Grammys.
Joel: Just looking back on all that you’ve done, like all your music, what do you think about it all now? Or, how do you think about your career?
Abdul: It’s been fruitful. I miss it. I’m sometimes wondering what would have happened if I continued a little longer.
Joel: Do you regret stopping playing when you did for that reason at all? Was there something you felt like you could have accomplished more?
Abdul: Yeah. I think there’s still some things I could have done, that I wish I could have done, but such is life.
Joel: Was it certain people to play with? What are those things?
Abdul: It’s a combination of things. I still would like to play with some different folks and what have you. I played with a lot of folks.
Joel: Was it ever a concern about feeling appreciated for your contributions to the music at all?
Abdul: No, I never had.
Joel: You were never really worried about that?
Joel: Do you have a sense of what people think of you now? People that are interested in this music at all?
Abdul: If people do their homework. It’s cool. I’m satisfied.
Joel: Do you still pick up the cello from time to time?
Abdul: Every now and then I’ll pull it out. Yeah, I’m so far away from where I’m used to being. It becomes discouraging. It’ll probably take me about a year of woodshedding to get back into it. I’ve been thinking about that with doing something with my son though.
Joel: Are you still in touch with a lot of the folks you used to collaborate with? Do they ever try to egg you on to get you back up there?
Abdul: No, a lot of the folks I’ve been associated with have died or retired. I was talking with Arthur, Bobby Battle had died and Arthur’s really sick. Lester Bowie is gone. A lot of folks have gone on. Julius is gone.
Tomeka: Would you ever consider getting back together with James Newton and Anthony Davis or that?
Abdul: Yeah, my boys. That’s a possibility.
Tomeka: That would be awesome. Yeah.