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Warren Smith: Multi-Versed Communicator

Lyn Horton profiles the percussionist and bandleader

Warren Smith
Warren Smith
Warren Smith
Warren Smith

The Harlem apartment where Warren Smith has lived since 1998 is in a building that dates back to the days of the Harlem Renaissance in the neighborhood once called “Sugar Hill.” Wrought-iron grill work decorates the front double doors which open into a modest window-lit lobby with marble floors. Smith’s sparsely furnished living and working space itself is like a museum filled with photos, posters and art. His studio is crammed with tapes, records, slides, books, sheet music and related arcana. This is a testament to his experience rather than his housekeeping. For Smith has been in the music business his entire life really. After all, he says, “I was born into an orchestra.”

Early Days

Smith came from a family in which the sound of music ranging from “from pop to blues to jazz to symphony” continually permeated his environment. His mother was a classical harpist and his father repaired horns as well as played the saxophone. He had three aunts who had Masters Degrees in piano, one uncle who played violin and two other uncles who played saxophone. By age six, Smith was playing the saxophone, but he changed his mind one day when some flashing lights attached to a bass drum lured him to the instrument. There was no going back to the saxophone. In fact, with the synesthetic innocence of that childhood memory, he imagines replicating that experience for his own drum performances.

This musical family performed for “their own social functions…They never had to hire musicians with the exception of a bass player or sometimes a keyboardist.” Smith’s extraordinary ability to articulate verbally also stems from his family life. “I was allowed to express myself…” in the free-est sense because he lived around artists and musicians. His brother Frank is a visual artist. His paintings enhance the walls of Smith’s apartment. Smith has used some of his brother’s work for cover art on his records.

Born in Chicago in 1934, strangely enough, primarily interested in architecture as a vocation, he moved to New York at the urging of his father for music schooling and subsequently the job opportunities that would exist there. By that time, Smith was committed to playing the drums; he finally plugged into the Loft Scene in Soho by the early 70’s. Smith recalls that there were twelve to fifteen musicians renting old factory lofts which they used for working and rehearsing; they often rented them out for rehearsals as well. Saxophonist George Braith, a schoolmate of Smith’s at Manhattan School of Music, had one of the first established in the 60’s. Smith talks about some of the lofts that had names: his was called Studio WIS; Sam Rivers’ place was called Studio RivBea; The Lady’s Fort was kept by gospel singer, Joe Lee Wilson; reedman Mike Morgenstern’s was called Jazzmania; and trumpeter James DuBois’ was named Studio We. The rent for these spaces was next to nothing: Smith paid less than $100 per month. He describes how the lofts eventually became performance spaces. “We came up with the idea because their neighbors began to come listen to the music when they were playing…George Wein of the Newport Jazz Festival and other jazz promoters ignored us. So we put together ‘The New York Musicians Festival’ in 1972. The second year it took place, we attracted the European press, who also happened to go to Newport, and, the third year it [the festival] occurred, Wein got frightened. He got interested and offered us space in Newport.”

Studio WIS was located in Chelsea at 151 West 21st Street. Its official name was Chelsea Performing Arts. In 1996, Studio WIS lost its lease. In fact, “everyone lost their spaces within the span of two or three years in the late 90’s” with the omnipresent trend of gentrification. “We had no business plan to extend our influence other than artistically. We were too naïve to realize that [the gentry] used our cultural influence to raise the prices on the whole neighborhood…In the thirty-five years I have been in this city, this phenomenon has occurred in the Village, Soho, Williamsburg, …and Harlem.” His facial expression hints at his dislike of these circumstances.

During the Loft Scene’s heyday though, Max Roach, Sun Ra and Dollar Brand rehearsed in Studio WIS. Roach’s group included trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, sax player Billy Harper and bassist Reggie Workman. It was Workman who told Smith that Roach wanted to talk to him “about starting a percussion ensemble.” Roach contacted Smith because already he had marimba, tympani and vibes in his studio. By 1969, Roach had rounded up Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, Joe Chambers, Smith and Freddie Waits. M’Boom was born.

Taking Off With the Music

According to Smith, M’Boom rehearsed for six months before the group finally began to get gigs. The first was at Hempstead High School in Hempstead, NY on Long Island around 1970. From 1969 through 1971, Smith taught at Adelphi University, where he was Associate Professor and chaired the Black Studies department; he arranged for the second gig at the University. Then Roach secured some European tours. At one point, M’Boom played on “Drum Day” at the Newport Jazz Festival in the early 70’s. On that day, Smith remembers groups led by Gene Krupa, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones performing on the same bill. Papa Jo Jones also presented a solo on hi-hat.

Smith explains that Roach early on added an African drum component with Richard Pablo Landrum, which did not last long due to “his [Pablo Landrum’s] ego clashing with Max’s superego.” So Ray Mantilla was hired later to fill out a Latin sound. “The key to the success of M’Boom was Max Roach. All the drummers had an ego, defining where the beat was. Each drummer had a different beat. In order to avoid catastrophe, only someone like Max could define for us where the beat was.” Each drummer had so much respect for Roach that their minds lay open to learning from him and they, in turn, taught each other. “It’s kinda weird,” Smith says with a smile on his face, “but I guess that’s as organic as you can get…” M’Boom was active until 1996 or 1997; Roach died in 2004.

When asked what bandleaders have impacted his multi-directional career, Smith names not only Max Roach, but also several others. The first is trombonist Jack Jeffers who came to New York from Chicago in 1957. In the late 80’s, Jeffers formed his own band, after having commuted from Fort Dix in New Jersey to play in the National Training Orchestra at the City Center in New York. Smith became his drummer. Smith has stayed with the NY Classic Big Band since its inception. And when Smith formed his own Composers Workshop Ensemble in 1959, he chose Jeffers to play trombone.

In 1961, when Makanda Ken McIntyre came to New York from Boston and formed a band, he was searching for a drummer who could sight read. McIntyre knew Jeffers and Jeffers recommended Smith. McIntyre hired him. Smith wound up working in the band for 30 years. McInytre died in 2001. But McIntyre also had a teaching career and hired Smith to teach at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island where, having left Adelphi, he stayed for twenty-five years.

The last of the two bandleaders Smith mentions include James “Jabbo” Ware and Sam Rivers. Smith has worked with Ware’s big band for thirty years beginning in the mid-80’s; Smith was the second drummer Ware hired. Sam Rivers’ RivBea Orchestra, with whom Smith worked from the 60’s through the 80’s and with which he recorded ten different LPs, was the largest band with which Smith ever played: “It varied from eighteen to thirty-five people at its fullest: two basses, two drummers, two pianos, and eight or ten people in each section of saxes, trumpets and trombones.” Of Rivers, Smith says: “He is a great teacher and one of my favorite sax players.”

About working with large groups, in general, Smith speaks honestly: “…There are challenges sonically in terms of having people hear the definition of a beat together…you know…all sorts of little detailed things…the more people you have, the more entertaining that challenge becomes…” He smiles and chuckles. “Oh, the discipline is a bitch. I mean, you’ve got fifteen or twenty, between twenty-five and forty year old guys in the room, and it’s like a bunch o’ lil’ wise-ass boys running around! They’re all over the place because that’s the way artistic temperament is.”

“So I have long relationships…” Smith concludes. “Things just work out that way.” He still plays with Jeffers; Rivers has moved to Florida and is out of easy reach. Smith stresses that the time spent both teaching and working in bands was concurrent. He was and is a busy guy.

Smith’s Own Scene

Smith has been the drummer to contact seemingly forever. “I never had to call up and beg for a gig…” A member of the Musicians Union from the very beginning, Smith has had one opportunity after another to play. In addition to his multiple band jobs, other employment has ranged from Motown Records to Broadway pit bands, including that of West Side Story, to jazz club dates to recording jingles for commercials or recording movie scores. At the height of his career, forty weeks out of the year, he would make an average of two recordings a day; sometimes he would have to make five dates in one day. Much of what he has done was “purely mercenary…there was no emotional attachment… I had to be there on time and function…I did not have to enjoy myself…” After all he had a family to feed and there was little choice in the matter: “Ya’ had to take any damn job you could get.” This Master of Percussion from the Manhattan School of Music wanted at one time to be a symphonic percussionist, but race became a factor in the jobs available. “On the other hand, I was in the right place at the right time when people came looking for ‘a qualified black’ in certain positions in Broadway shows or studio gigs…Having a broad background also saved me from being without opportunity as I could always find work in another venue when a source dried up…I was lucky, but I had to work my ass off.”

When acquiring his degree, Smith worked at the Post Office and as a janitor for Montgomery Ward. He took numerous club dates. After receiving his degree, he started teaching, first, in the New York Public School system; then, at Adelphi University; then, at SUNY Old Westbury. The years teaching began in 1958 and lasted until 1996. “The way I look at it, teaching financed my music career.” He thinks about the gigs he turned down because he was teaching full time. “BUT,” he emphasizes, his five daughters went to college. They are all happy with families. His oldest daughter just had her fiftieth birthday. Smith receives retirement from teaching and a ‘modest’ pension from the Musicians Union. “I am as successful as a motherfucker,” he says proudly.

His solo career started way back at SUNY Old Westbury. “I was dragged into solo performance kicking and screaming…I wanted to bring my Composer’s Workshop Ensemble to perform at the school. Ken decided we couldn’t afford it. He suggested that I do a solo concert instead, which I saw as a putdown. But he was the boss so I did it and never looked back. I should have thanked him for pushing me in that direction but I never got around to it. It was Ken rather than Max Roach that inspired me to do solo percussion work. Max encouraged me to develop the art more by example than suggestion.”

Smith’s Composer’s Workshop Ensemble performs now days at the most four times a year, an example being an upcoming event on May 17, 2011 at the B’hai Center , one of regular spaces on the jazz scene, on the lower East Side in Manhattan. His group used to rehearse in the original Studio WIS. Then after that loft lease expired, Smith moved his rehearsal space to Franklin Street until 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks occurred; had they still used that studio, their instruments would have been destroyed. The group often had open rehearsals both in Soho and on Franklin Street. Since 2001, the group has been installed at the West-Beth building in West Greenwich Village in studios that Freddie Waits used to run, but which are now managed by his sons, visual artist Sharif and drummer Nasheet. Smith’s group has at least nine or ten players consistently. It “evolves,” Smith says, “depending on the availability of musicians. Rarely do the same people play for every performance…The disadvantages of being in New York is that everyone is always busy. The personnel changes when the compositions call for it. For instance, we might need an unusual voice like a particular sax or tuba, Oriental instruments or additional percussion.” The Composer’s Workshop Ensemble plays primarily in New York, Washington, DC and sometimes in Philadelphia. The ensemble has never been outside of the states. The band plays Smith’s music and his arrangements of tunes, for example, by Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, or Steve Wonder.

Smith’s Own Perspective

Having played the entire gamut of percussion instruments, including the trap set, Smith can say: “I have a wider palette. I think like a painter. I am trying to make you see what I am playing. I have tried to enlarge the scope of the drum set so that it is more like a full percussion instrument…but the drum set with that size bass drum does not give you the bottom of the orchestra which is the concert bass drum which you can hit lower in sound and which vibrates lower than anything else. And the gong gives you more colors than the cymbal. The cymbal gives you one splash, ting-a-ting…ting-a-ting…But the gong and the bass drum…when you put them together, you get this bottom and you get this huge explosion of lightning along with a rumble of thunder simultaneously…You get the bottom and the top of the orchestra coming out and then you can fill it with all those mallet instruments and things that come between those two levels of sound. My black can be like the color of earth in Illinois which is really, really black soil, rich and deep, and you don’t see any brown or grey…nothing but just black, ’til something green comes out of it, ya’ know? Now you don’t get that from grey and I consider the drum set bass drum grey…That’s just grey. That doesn’t reach the kind of depth or brightness you get from a flash of lightning. In a gong, it [the vibration] lasts longer than it will in a cymbal ’cause it’s bigger and makes me think more of that long lightning arm that can come out and you see it crack around and circle… I love exaggeration…I even like to speak in those terms and would much rather use colorful, provocative profanity…not just as vulgarity, but as an effect. I am always looking for ways to push…the limits…”

Of all the music he has encountered, been involved with, and performed, what reaches deep into Smith’s heart is surprisingly that of female vocalists. Not just any singer…the late Sara Vaughan and Aretha Franklin have reached his soul. He has played behind both of them. He tells the story of watching a woman come into a studio once with her head wrapped up, not looking glamorous at all, but when she stepped up to the microphone, her voice came out like a “healing force that sound can be…” That was Sara Vaughan. And once, when he was in Paris, he heard “a record blaring out of a window. It seemed like a note [message] from Aretha Franklin that she was still around.” But, generally speaking, Smith says “… What I love enough to have it be there with me all the time has just a good groove in terms of a jazz performance… where the rhythm is really popping and the horns are playing something interesting, not necessarily fast or volatile, but just moving along and touching me rather than playing one of those rag-tag, fast very athletic things… where everyone says ‘Wow, he can still do that!'”

In the book copyrighted in both 2000 and 2004, Jazz Zoom: Carrying It On, the photographer Desdemone Bardin (1928-2001) interviewed numerous jazz musicians, many of whom participated in the Loft Scene. Of Warren Smith, she asked: “How do you see the future of this music?” Smith replied: “The good thing is that people are reaching back and playing music which originated in the last century, and listeners appreciate that as much as what is to come. What you’re hearing now is not the final step: technology and people’s ability will stretch these concepts to newer dimensions which have yet to be discovered, even though the media may choose to ignore it or even attempt to suppress it…”

At 77 years old, Warren Smith is soft-spoken; he clearly enunciates his words and wears a perpetual twinkle in his eyes. His capacity to make music exceeds that of many modern masters in any part of the music world. He has played the complete spectrum of jazz from the traditional to creative improvised music. He stopped counting the recordings he has made when he reached three thousand. His compositions number in the hundreds. He writes poetry and songs. He hand-decorates plastic face forms which he uses in some performances “like Sun Ra might do.” He wakes up in the middle of the night with composition ideas and goes into his studio to write. “As long as my creative senses are working, I don’t want to mess with it and stop it.” Nor should he.

Originally Published