Knocking Down Barriers: An Interview with Abdul Wadud, 1980

by David Lee

Julius Hemphill + Abdul Wadud;, 1978                                            © 2020 Michael Wilderman

Born Ronald Earsal DeVaughn on April 30, 1947, Abdul Khabir Wadud studied with several prominent cellists, including chamber music specialist Bernard Greenhouse. Greenhouse had come up in an era where the cello was “thought capable of little more than ooming and pahing at the bottom of an orchestra,” the New York Times noted on his passing. In improvised music, the instrument long remained confined to marginal use. When he relocated to study with Greenhouse, Wadud had already broken new ground with the cello. In the Black Unity Trio, formed with saxophonist Yusuf Mumin and drummer Hasan Shahid in Cleveland, Wadud demonstrated how the instrument could function on an equal footing in a collective improvisation context. The band’s sole surviving album, Al-Fatihah, was taped in December 1968, while Wadud was enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory. The album was recently remastered and reissued on Gotta Groove Records. Although Wadud was soon recognized as an innovator, he gave few interviews. Taped on July 28, 1980, the following conversation with bassist and cellist David Lee was originally published as the cover story for Coda issue 176 in December 1980. Except for the foundational importance of the Black Unity Trio, Wadud did not dwell on the details of his widely varied associations, encompassing work with composer and improvisers including Julius Hemphill, Arthur Blythe, and Anthony Davis, symphonic orchestras, Motown sessions, and Broadway shows. Instead, his focus was on intent, illuminating the process through which the role of string instruments continued to be redefined in the late 1960s and 1970s.

This interview is republished with permission from David Lee and Abdul Wadud, with an introduction and annotations by Pierre Crépon. Thanks to the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt and Mike Johnston.


David Lee: Are you from Cleveland originally?

Abdul Wadud: Yes, Cleveland’s my home, everyone thinks I’m from Chicago, or New Haven, or California, or Detroit, or Saint Louis, you name it.

Lee: Well, there are certain hip places to be from in this time, and I’m afraid Cleveland isn’t one of them.

Wadud: I was out at Kent State University [in Kent, Ohio], with Sam Rivers’ big band [in 1979], and I had an interview with a guy from a radio station there about that. A lot of creative people come from the Midwest; it’s produced so many great talents it’s incredible. But in reality, all these concepts of schools, the Chicago school, the Saint Louis school, the New York school, the California school, they’re very divisive and destructive in the music, as well as in life. Because it creates barriers between people. And essentially when I got into the music that was what it was about: breaking those barriers down. Breaking the barriers, not creating barriers. So that whole “school” thing kinds of turns me off. But I am from Cleveland!

There are some cultural things that are indigenous to certain areas, and undoubtedly they wear off on the individual, become part of the individual. But I don’t think there are limitations that can be imposed on someone from, say, Chicago, as opposed to someone from Cleveland, or Saint Louis, or California. The individual still has the potential to do whatever in his field, on his instrument. So the regional thing really is nothing of substance.

Lee: Was Cleveland a very stimulating place to become a musician in?

Wadud: It had its ins and outs. There were a couple of situations which provided opportunities for musicians to play. In the time I’m speaking about, the mid-sixties and into the early seventies, it was somewhat better than it is now. And also I think the direction of the music there now is not as creative as it was in that period.

Lee: Were Albert and Don Ayler visible on the scene in Cleveland when you were there?

Wadud: Oh yes, they inspired me considerably. And Bobby Few, Frank Wright. Yes, they were very influential and instrumental in terms of exposing me to certain things, certain directions, philosophical aspects of the music. But the Black Unity Trio was really the group that I worked with on a regular basis, to formulate my development in the area of so-called “new music.” That was a trio with myself and Haasan-Al-Hut [pseudonym of Hasan Shahid (1)] on percussion and Yusuf Mumin on reeds.

Lee: Was Norman Howard from Cleveland?

Wadud: Yes, in fact Yusuf Mumin, and Norman, and myself, and a percussionist named Oscar Hood used to do quite a bit of playing. I understand that [Osmosis label producer] George Coppens has just purchased a tape of Norman Howard, with a bassist named Walter Cliff, from Cleveland, and a couple of other fellows, I’m not sure who. (2) I worked with Norman, he was an interesting trumpet player and an interesting person. I don’t know if he’s still playing, I think that he’s not, but I haven’t been in touch with him for number of years.

Lee: The kind of approach that I hear string players taking in, say, Albert Ayler’s later bands, with Joel Freedman, and Michel Samson, and Lewis Worrell, and Henry Grimes brings to mind, in some ways, your style of playing.

Wadud: Well, I think it’s a basic concept, it’s the way you look at your instrument. Many string players approach their instrument strictly from a linear concept, depending upon their background. The differences even occur in a classical situation, where some players approach the instrument from an orchestral standpoint, others from a chamber music or from a solo standpoint. The chamber music and solo situations being more inclined towards legato and sustained playing, producing a big sound for that particular purpose, orchestral being more rhythmic, angular, even percussive sometimes, for participating in a section. And you find the same thing happening in improvisatory music, where people have different approaches and concepts of the instrument, which carry over into their technique. My approach, as I outlined in the liner notes of my solo album [By Myself], is to approach the instrument in its totality. I don’t believe in boundaries, I don’t believe in the cello being necessarily limited to being an accompanying instrument, or a rhythm instrument, or a so-called “lead” instrument. The cello can be anything that I want it to be. If I want it to be a drum, it can be a drum. There are times when I use it as such. When I want it to be a horn, it can be a horn. And out of this same philosophy evolved a concept of ensemble playing. As far as I’m concerned, ensemble playing is the essence of music. The whole philosophy from which I came and in which I began to develop the direction of my music came out of that, thinking in terms of ensemble playing. And I think you find that more prevalent among string players.

Lee: For example, in a quartet with two horn players and a drummer, do you find that a lot is demanded of you? For example, in getting a full sound, you have that whole bottom end of sound you can fill in when you play the cello.

Wadud: You’re absolutely right, and I really don’t think people realize the difficulty involved in doing that. Critics, or people in the audience, people who listen, even many musicians really don’t realize the difficulty of that type of situation. Even a bassist finds himself in that situation when there’s no piano. But it’s more pronounced with a cello, because the cello and the bass are different; the timbres are different, there’s a whole different technique involved. That’s something that the majority of people overlook also. The settings I work in often use instruments that are not involved in conventional playing situations, so the difficulty is immense. It’s a challenge every time I play.

I abstained from using pickups up until 1973 or ‘74. I did use mikes, but I didn’t use pickups. And to this day I really don’t like amplified sound, although I see the necessity of using it in certain situations. But even using the amplified sound to try to explain the things that we’ve been talking about, and the difficulty in filling that void, to engineers or to other musicians, has created a lot of problems; they really don’t understand that. So you have to constantly work with your sound. They figure you can set your sound, and that one sound is it for every situation, and that’s not true at all. If you’re playing with a tenor saxophone player, or an alto saxophone player, or a flute player, with each player you’re dealing with a different spectrum of sound, so if you’re trying to fill a void there, the cello’s function is not going to be the same. If you’re playing with a tenor or baritone sax, it has more depth, more body and a rounder sound and if you want to blend into the sound interchange and do things musically on a very high level, then you have to deal with that. If you’re dealing with a piano, that has a whole different presence, so you have to deal with that. So it’s not about locking into one little sound and making that applicable to different settings – especially when the music is changing at the rate that it is now.

Of course there are restrictions in terms of the instrument itself: in terms of range, in terms of the way that it’s tuned, there are certain limitations. But the approach to the instrument can be completely open: it’s there if the individual wants to deal with it. That essentially is what happened to the cello in improvisatory music. When you start talking about bebop, or certain other so-called “classifications” of music, you’ll find that there are certain limitations in terms of how the instrument may be tuned, in terms of the use of certain mechanical techniques involving the use of the bow and the left hand. So that you have to develop new techniques to handle them.

Lee: There were virtually no bebop cello players, were there?

Wadud: No – that is a real challenge. There are two fine cellists, Dave Baker and Muneer Abdul Fataah [now known as Muneer B. Fennell], who have both come close to doing a very good job in that particular area, but even so the instrument is very difficult to adapt to that particular period of music. Because of the tuning you are going to have to develop new fingerings, the use of the bow as opposed to the use of tongue and breathing, or keyboard situations, you simply don’t have the technical apparatus to deal with the demands of certain clichés and ways of phrasing from that period.

Lee: Do you feel that there are predecessors to what you’re doing in improvised music on the cello?

Wadud: Not to my knowledge. There have been people who have touched on different aspects of the approach that I use, and for sure the efforts of the forerunners such as Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Calo Scott, Joel Freedman, Sam Jones, and Fred Katz were educational and inspirational, but I don’t think anybody has brought those different elements together as I have; brought a chordal approach and a percussive approach and an ensemble approach to the instrument into one context, one setting. I really hate saying that, it sounds kind of conceited or whatever, but I really haven’t heard anyone doing it before. I wish there were. And I hope there will be more who take it further and do more things, because the instrument needs it. As it is, the people who are out there playing don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Lee: You began as a classical cellist?

Wadud: Well, yes ... I hate to say that I began as a “classical” cellist – but I began studying the cello with people who were involved in the “classics.” But my development has really been one of simultaneous growth. I started playing the cello at age nine. I’m thirty-three now, so that’s twenty-four years ago. I’ve been playing improvisatory music of this nature since 1963; seventeen years, so that’s half of my life, I was sixteen or seventeen when I got into it. And I’ve been around jazz, through my family, all my life. I used to play all the saxophones: tenor, baritone, bass sax. I had a quartet where I played alto. I was doing all this while I was playing cello, so my growth and involvement really was parallel – it wasn’t one of going from “classical to jazz” or “jazz to classical.”

I do have a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin Conservatory [in Oberlin, Ohio], and a master’s degree in music – both in performance – from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in Long Island. I went to Youngstown State [University] for two years [starting in the fall of 1965] before I went to Oberlin. And I’ve had some good teachers in the course of my studies. My first teacher was Martin Simon of the Cleveland Orchestra. I went on to Richard Kapuscinski at Oberlin and Bernard Greenhouse at Stony Brook. Between Oberlin and Stony Brook, I participated in [summer schools, the] Blossom Festivals [School of the Cleveland Orchestra and Kent State University] and studied with Leonard Rose [in 1969]; Shirley Trepel at the Chautauqua Music Festival [in 1964], so I’ve had some good teachers in the so-called “classical” area.

Lee: Do you think you could have made a career for yourself in that world if you had chosen to?

Wadud: Oh, I played in the New Jersey Symphony [Orchestra] for six years, until I resigned. I was the assistant personnel manager of the New Jersey Symphony, and acting personnel manager for a year.

If I did choose a particular area of music in that field I would like to deal with, it would be symphonic music and chamber music as opposed to a solo career. To be a soloist, you have to get involved in that at a very early age and make the contacts, as well as have a certain degree of technical facility on the instrument. Plus you have to have a lot of repertoire, and there’s not that much repertoire for solo cellists, as compared to violinists or pianists. There are maybe ten cats, if that many, who can make a living just from solo playing, and all those guys basically teach on the side. It may be that they want to teach also, but I would suppose that it may be necessary for them to do it from an economic standpoint. People such as Janos Starker, Leonard Rose, Rostropovich, all of them teach as well.

So I really prefer orchestral and ensemble playing. But basically my preference and love is improvisatory music – and always has been, without negating anything else. My philosophy is to take in everything and utilize it. When I got into the music, it had a philosophical aspect to it as well as a musical aspect, which involved knocking down barriers, which was basically a philosophy and outlook on life, so it was an outgrowth of what I wanted to do in my life. So the two were very much intertwined. I’m really not inclined to lean towards art for art’s sake, I believe that art and creativity are an extension of one’s self and one’s environment and one’s culture, and that being the case you definitely have to have a route, or a direction, and that’s what philosophy to me is all about. My baptism into the music involved an outlook on life and the music that was very vast and very broad, and negated very little. You can see it reflected in my music and my approach to the music over the years; the type of music I’ve been involved with over the years, the type of people I’ve been involved with; the type of people I have not been involved with. So that’s it in a more technical sense.

But anyway, I’m a cellist, and I deal with music, and I come from a school of thought which basically adheres to the same philosophy that people like Max Roach were talking about, the use of the word “jazz” and so forth, which was not what the music was about. It wasn’t about the word “jazz.” The musicians were creating music, performing, and they had music of all types happening in that period of time. It was an outgrowth of culture. The need for spirituals arose, the need for so-called “liturgical music” arose, the need for party music, dance music arose, and out of that grew all these labels: jazz, spirituals, gospel, and so forth. Of course, the term “gospel” had other connotations, but basically the word “jazz” and the other labels came about out of the sky, out of peoples’ imaginations. They were labeled and from that point on, in terms of people who created labels, took on that kind of a character. And they took it somewhere else. It was a figment of peoples’ imaginations. And when we start dealing with figments, we start dealing with fantasy, and when you start dealing with fantasy you’re doing a disservice to a creative art form. I think people need to become more conscious of what they say and what they do in that respect. It doesn’t take that much energy to clarify certain things. Especially when those things are going to leave a trail in history of negativeness; decades, and centuries, if not properly corrected.

Lee: When you started to become involved in improvisatory music forms, was it with other musicians who were just starting out as players, as you were, or was it with more experienced musicians who were being influenced by the work of people like, for example, Ornette Coleman.

Wadud: Some were just starting out, like myself, others had been involved, but basically the people were older than myself, and these people were musicians who were influenced by other musicians. Certainly Ornette and Cecil Taylor, as well as the “more traditional” players. So we didn’t negate anything, it was all part of our culture. It was there, where I grew up in Cleveland. So-called “jazz” was very popular, it was all around, you couldn’t hear anything but blues and jazz and so-called “R & B.” But essentially when you went out to the local area clubs and so forth it wasn’t about hearing R & B, it was about hearing some jazz. So I can remember vividly when I was nine, ten, eleven, at bars and clubs in the area; John Coltrane was playing down at Leo’s Casino on [East] 49th Street. I lived on 55th Street in the housing project, and Leo’s was right along the side of the project. All the cats used to come through; Wes Montgomery, Miles. So I used to go browse by there; since I was little I couldn’t get in, but that was a part of the culture that was in the neighborhood. All those influences were there, they were a part of our lives.

That’s one of the hang-ups, I think, about people in general and Americans in particular, and especially black Americans, which this whole tradition of music really sprung forth from: they don’t really have an opportunity to travel and see other parts of the world. To see what things are like elsewhere, to get a perspective on their own situation here. When that happens, people formulate a different respect for themselves, a different appreciation of their own culture and their own tradition.

Lee: Have you had any contact with Dave Baker in the course of your playing?

Wadud: I first met him when I was at Oberlin, in 1968 I guess. I was playing a little bass. I went to Youngstown State for a year and played in a group, on cello and on bass, with Harold Danko on piano and Mike Smith on drums. I also played with Gene Rush, a piano player who used to be in a trio, “ESP,” with Jimmy Hopps and Steve Novosel.

So at Oberlin I was playing bass in a quartet with a trumpet player, a percussionist, and a piano player. The trumpet player had the idea of entering the group in one of those competitions, at the University of Illinois. And Dave Baker was there. That’s where I met Stanley Cowell, too, and Cecil Bridgewater.

Dave and I have maintained contact since then, but not in the sense of playing, or in the sense of the cello; I’ve never sat down with him and worked on any problems. I would like to, in fact I have some things I would like to do with him and Muneer Abdul Fataah, and time willing, and our health willing, and God willing, we’ll hook it up. That would be interesting, and I think they would be open to it, and I would enjoy it. Dave’s a very interesting man. Extremely talented, and philosophically he really has his head together. Just very good people.

Lee: Do you feel the influence of any guitarists in your playing?

Wadud: I like the guitar, but I’ve never really consciously sat down and listened to any particular guitar player, in terms of influence. The chordal approach that I use on the cello is obviously somewhat related to the guitar. But I wouldn’t say that the guitar has influenced my musical direction; although I even have a brother, Harold, who is an excellent guitarist.

Lee: I think what brought that to mind is that your pizzicato work often, when you’re playing with Julius Hemphill at any rate, has a very sort of country blues guitar sound.

Wadud: It’s probably that Midwestern feel, and the blues. When I use the term “Midwestern feel” I’m speaking of something that’s much broader than those regional “schools” of playing we were discussing earlier; something that’s basically indigenous to all the people in that area, inclusive of musicians but not necessarily limited to musicians. It’s a feel, a lifestyle and a feel, and undoubtedly you would hear that life force in the music of people from that area. The musicians may not be limited to that feel, they can stretch beyond that into any categories of music they want to deal with, but essentially it is a feel that exists there that is somewhat unique. It’s the blues!

I had a refreshing conversation with Charlie Persip and George Lewis when I was over in Europe with Sam Rivers’ big band [in 1977]. Charlie expressed that his whole thing was ensemble playing. He was concerned about how he fitted within the unit; and it was right on in terms of the way I was thinking, because as I said before I’m not interested in solos particularly. If I want to do something solo I’ll make a solo album! You can really get hung up on that. I know a lot of cats who are really strung out into how they sound on their solo, and to hell with the rest of the group! And that’s the bottom as far as I’m concerned. Or about starring as a lead instrument.

Lee: That would take a lot of the joy out of ensemble playing too, that kind of attitude.

Wadud: Of course, that’s what this whole so-called “new music” is about, collective improvisation. And I believe that’s one of the great mistakes generally made by record producers, resulting from their lack of understanding about the music. And that is, that they try to put the trappings of bebop and so forth onto the new music. In terms of form and in terms of direction. In other words, if they make a recording of a so-called “new music” group, “avant-garde” group and they work the mechanics of the sound along the lines of a “lead instrument” and so forth, and completely destroy the ensemble; the whole interchange and play between the instruments is lost. And I find that totally disgusting. A lack of understanding – and a lack of real concern about the music.

Lee: It’s like putting a bebop thing onto the new music. But to me that kind of interplay was what bebop was all about, too.

Wadud: Sure, you had a contrapuntal approach, for lack of a better word. You had the interplay of the different instruments. But basically it was about solo on top of rhythm when it came to recordings.

Lee: Do you think that’s how the musicians perceived it though, even in bebop?

Wadud: I think probably a lot of the musicians perceived it that way for sure, as well as the producers and record makers. That is one of the things that, as I said before, the people that I was associated with when I got my baptism into the music, were concerned about doing away with, that mentality of upfront playing. It was about a cohesiveness, collective improvisation. The basic thrust was not to have the solo on top of a rhythm section. Or to have a rhythm section working all night, and out of a 45 or 50-minute set, have a lead instrument playing maybe ten or fifteen minutes while the rhythm section is there playing. So there was a whole different approach that accompanied the emergence of the new music. But in bebop it definitely was there, a cutthroat mentality of “trying to cut somebody on the bandstand,” or show them up or compete with one another in a destructive way.

Lee: Do you feel that other bags you could have played in would have put you in a more competitive situation within a group, like a blues band, a jazz band, a classical ensemble?

Wadud: Oh, for sure. The classical thing and the pop thing are very much into a competitive, cutthroat approach to music. I’m not into that, I’m into expression. Creativity. I understand the mechanics of running a business in this society, which thrives on competition, and there’s something to be said for competition in a proper perspective. I think we need some competition to stimulate us in life. But there are certain areas in our existence where we don’t need competition; when you bring it into music, it destroys a creative art form. And other creative art forms as well; art, drama, whatever. I don’t think it should be about competition in those areas, I think it should be about people producing and creating. And I think we need more government participation to allow people the basic necessities of life: shelter, food, clothing, and so forth, so they don’t have to become preoccupied with those basic necessities and begin to conjure up all these elements of competition and what have you to make money to provide themselves and their families with those basic necessities. I think the government should participate more in that and open up more channels to creative people – and to people in general.

But you’re talking about commercial work, right? Among jingle players and three-hour record date players, there’s competition. Among classical musicians and commercial record musicians in general there’s competition. Classical, symphonic musicians and so forth look down on people who opt to go out into the commercial record making business. And the record making people look down on the classical people for not making any money! The ones who do go into commercial record making generally are people who can play, who have played in the classical area and who can play.

So then you have the Broadway circuit, the people in symphonic work and people in the commercial record area look down on people on Broadway. So you have these little cliques and clubs forming, people who play so-called traditional jazz, and so-called bebop, so-called fusion, modern, and avant-garde, having all their little cliques and clashes and inside fighting and vying for power and press ... Who needs all that shit? That is a total waste of time. And for the most part, although it’s something in which musicians participate, basically it’s created by people outside of the music, those who are trying to deal with the music as a business, and who are trying to manipulate certain things to their advantage. And you have musicians who are trying to meet their basic needs in life, succumbing to that. So consequently you have this interchange of what I call negative behavior by both parties. And the end result is very destructive for creative people.

Lee: So, for example, the Black Unity Trio was trying to make points on several different fronts when you formed it and when you named it.

Wadud: On many levels: musically, culturally, socially ... The title came from the fact that we were all black. And we had something to say in a certain way and manner that was indicative of our culture and heritage. And we were unified in our ideas about how we wanted to express that. That’s what the name evolved from. Obviously the music itself was reflective of our culture and heritage, and of our time as well. We had some very difficult times in this country, and we are still having them. It was a time in this country, culturally speaking, when things were being challenged and changed and preferences were being made as to what we wanted to do in life, and how we wanted to go about conducting our lives, which was also reflected in our art form. All of that was part of what we were doing and saying at the time. At that time we just didn’t have the money and the exposure to get our thing out there, artistically speaking. Which I think was a real tragedy, because that group was really something special – we really communicated with one another. I just regret the fact that we were not able to really capture that on record, or on videotape, or in any form whatever.

We did make a tape in 1968, but the sound quality is not the best. Once again, we were in a studio and the engineers didn’t know what they were doing. This was in Cleveland, and the technical aspects of dealing with this music were totally alien to them. And I might add, out of deference to them, that to this day it’s still totally alien to a lot of engineers! ... Although now they have greater flexibility in dealing with certain things after they initially record it. But it’s a whole new ball game to them – the difference between acoustic and electric instruments, and the nature of the cello; trying to record that can be a trip.

I haven’t experienced a total situation like that since then – the combination of music and philosophy and life all in one. I’ve been coasting on that experience for fifteen years, so it was very powerful.

Lee: It seems to me that your playing with Julius Hemphill has the kind of unity that you’re talking about.

Wadud: It’s kind of hard not to have that after working with someone for over a decade. It’s true, Julius and I do have an affinity towards one another that is unusual, too. But it was a different situation with the Black Unity Trio, because it involved more of a total aspect in terms of the situation involving life and the events of the time and so forth, which were added to the music. Certainly I have a unique relationship with Julius in terms of playing. We haven’t had an opportunity to work as much as we’d like to, but even so it has been very rewarding.

Lee: Are there many opportunities to work in the States?

Wadud: It depends on the person. If you want to sit back and wait for someone to bring you the package, to have someone handle your business on their terms, an agent or whatever, then it can be difficult. But if you want to be creative and go out and do things on your own, produce things by yourself or in conjunction with someone else, produce records yourself, you can turn some things around and create your own opportunities. That’s one of the tragedies of the seventies as opposed to the sixties; that people are not thinking along the lines of self-employing and self-producing projects. They’re more inclined to think in terms of letting someone else handle it. Now I can understand, believe me, firsthand, not wanting to get involved with the headaches of doing it, because there are a lot, and it can be a drag trying to deal with it and think about your music at the same time. But at some point you have to be realistic, in that if you want to do certain things, you have to realize that the type of music that you’re involved with is only marketable to a certain type of people, or number of people. And if you want to say what you have to say when you want to say it and how you want to say it, then you have to do certain things, and if that means producing things yourself, putting on concerts yourself, promoting yourself, then it means that. There is work that can be created and doors that can be opened, and different approaches that can be used to generate and build audiences in this country. I’m going to be doing more of that myself this year ... And I would appreciate all the help I can get! With Julius, and with this other trio with Tony Davis and James Newton, and some solo stuff, and quartet and quintet stuff I may be getting together myself. The time is now, we have to start thinking in those terms. That was happening more in the fifties and in the sixties, with people like Max Roach and Sam Rivers, in terms of creating your own labels and putting on your own concerts.

Lee: So you find self-production a satisfactory way of getting your music out on record?

Wadud: Yes, and it’s a good way to get attuned to the business, so that when you do decide to something with someone else, you know exactly what’s happening. It can be a pain in the ass in certain instances; also it can be very rewarding in that you keep control of your product. Distribution is definitely a problem, but it’s not an insurmountable problem, you can deal with it. It’s a matter of identifying the market and knowing what and who you want to tap. It does you no good, basically, to advertise in The New York Times; although the Times is read by a broad spectrum of people, basically your money is better spent, say, advertising in Coda or some other more specialized publication. There are ways to pick and choose.

Lee: Do you still teach?

Wadud: I do teach, but I don’t like to teach improvisation. Because I’m still developing things myself, that I would like to digest and really think about, and perhaps I would be prepared to teach them at a later date. But not right now. I can teach fundamentals from now until doomsday, but when I do decide to really teach, I would want to convey a concept about the cello, and playing, but there are still some things I want to develop, that I’m working on now. And I’m not prepared to offer that to somebody incomplete.

Lee: Is that a good place to end the interview?

Wadud: Sure, other than saying that I’d like to see the cello out there more, and more cellists playing. Cellists come up to me at concerts; some want to take lessons and others want information about what kind of pickup I use, and strings, and method books, and all that. I’d like to see the cello emerge, and be used more in its totality; it can be approached in any number of ways. That applies to string instruments in general, and it can only be a plus for everybody involved. It’s my goal to explore the instrument to its fullest in all categories, so there are no limitations placed on it. And I’d appreciate more company!

The selected discography concluding the original publication of this interview includes mentions of upcoming releases: a Julius Hemphill quartet date with Olu Dara and Warren Smith eventually released as Flat-Out Jump Suite by Black Saint; a second Wadud solo album on his own Bisharra label; and a double album of duets with Hemphill to be issued by the musicians themselves. Those two titles remained unreleased but the latter, along with other sessions featuring Wadud, will be included in an upcoming 7-CD set of material from the Julius Hemphill Papers at New York University’s Fales Library, produced by Marty Ehrlich. (3)



  1. Shahid was a conscientious objector and used the Haasan-Al-Hut pseudonym in the credits of Al-Fatihah because of his wanted status. See Pierre Crépon, “The Blistering Cosmic Music of the Black Unity Trio,” The Wire, March 2020,
  1. This session was co-led by Norman Howard and Yusuf Mumin. In addition to bassist Walter Cliff, it also featured drummer Cornelius Milsap. George Coppens’ Osmosis label did not release the music, but it eventually circulated in incomplete and unmastered form as Signals (Homeboy Music, 1989) and Burn Baby Burn (Homeboy Music, 1993; ESP-Disk’, 2007). Yusuf Mumin confirms that no release was authorized or contracted with the musicians and places the recording possibly in 1967. See Yusuf Mumin, "Wire Playlist: Yusuf Mumin and The Black Unity Trio," The Wire, November 2020
  1. Julius Hemphill, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, New World Records 80825-2, forthcoming.

© David Lee

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