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Pioneering Cellist Abdul Wadud Dies at 75

In collaboration with artists like Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill, and Anthony Davis, he brought the cello into avant-garde jazz

Abdul Wadud 1976
Abdul Wadud at Studio Rivbea, New York, July 1976 (photo: Tom Marcello)

Abdul Wadud, a cellist who pioneered the use of his instrument as a vehicle for jazz improvisation, died August 10 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was 75.

His death was announced on Instagram by his son, R&B singer/songwriter Raheem DeVaughn. Cause of death was unspecified.

Also a classical musician, Wadud was among the first jazz players to wield the cello as his primary instrument. He also applied it to avant-garde jazz for the first time, opening up a world of new sonic possibilities for the instrument. Among other innovations, Wadud adapted many of the hand and finger techniques of the double bass—pizzicato lines, double stops, and strummed chords—to the cello. And he made use of the instrument’s entire spectrum, expanding it from its traditional tenor voice so that it could serve any part in an orchestral arrangement.

Although Wadud was a distinctive and highly important voice, particularly in the experimental jazz of the 1970s and ’80s, he was primarily a collaborative force. While he made five albums as a co-leader (with Julius Hemphill, Leroy Jenkins, James Newton, and Anthony Davis), he recorded only once as the sole leader, on the 1977 solo cello album By Myself. Instead, Wadud was best known for his work with alto saxophonists Arthur Blythe and—especially—Hemphill, with whom he played from the classic 1972 debut Dogon A.D. until shortly before the saxophonist’s death in 1995.

Wadud led a double musical life of sorts: At the same time that he was playing on New York’s “downtown” avant-garde jazz scene, he held down a day job, so to speak, working in classical and Broadway orchestras. In the latter work, Wadud used his birth name—Ron DeVaughn—which meant that many of his colleagues in each world didn’t know about the other.

“Warren Smith, the percussionist, he came up and he said, ‘I keep hearing about this Abdul Wadud guy playing cello,’” he recalled in a 2014 interview with Joel Wanek and Tomeka Reid. “He said, ‘Do you know this guy Abdul Wadud?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ He said, ‘Oh no man, that ain’t you.’”

Ronald Earsal DeVaughn was born April 30, 1947, the youngest of Edward and Bertha DeVaughn’s 12 children. His father drove a garbage truck in Cleveland but was also a trumpeter, French hornist, and singer in the local Elks club band. Several of his children inherited his musical leanings: One daughter was a finalist in auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera; another son, Walter, was a jazz trombonist; and still another, Harold, was a guitarist whom the R&B band the O’Jays attempted to recruit while he was still in high school.

The youngest DeVaughn started his studies on saxophone. He wanted to play cello; his band teacher didn’t have any, but needed a saxophonist. Wadud began playing cello in the fourth grade (and took private lessons starting in the sixth), but also stuck with alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones all through his 1965 graduation from John Adams High School in Cleveland. His parents exposed him to jazz as well as classical music, and Wadud was particularly taken with his fellow Clevelander Albert Ayler, who, among his innovations, sometimes used cellists in his bands.

Wadud went to Ohio’s Youngstown State University and then transferred to Oberlin Conservatory, where he concentrated solely on the cello. During that time he also earned a living commuting to play with several orchestras around northeastern Ohio. It was while at Oberlin that he converted to Islam and adopted the name Abdul Kabir Wadud—meaning “educated and loving servant of Allah.”

It was also at Oberlin that Wadud met Hemphill, who came to the conservatory for a concert and invited Wadud to come play in his home base of St. Louis. Out of this invitation came Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. Recorded in February 1972, the album became a milestone in jazz of the ’70s and prominently featured Wadud’s rough-hewn, blues-flavored cello playing.

After Oberlin, Wadud earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which brought him into the New York City sphere. While in graduate school he was also a member of the New Jersey Symphony, did Broadway and studio work in the city, and took part in the burgeoning loft-jazz scene. Along with Hemphill and Blythe, he worked with Oliver Lake, Sam Rivers, Frank Lowe, and in a leaderless trio with Anthony Davis and James Newton (which became perhaps his primary outlet in the 1980s). He toured Europe with many of these players, leading to a 1980 project in Germany with violinist Didier Lockwood and five other string players called String Summit.

Wadud made the decision in the mid-1990s to stop performing. “I guess you could say I was kind of burnt out a little bit,” he told Wanek and Reid in 2014. “Personally I just needed a break.” He lived for about 20 years in Charlotte, North Carolina, before moving to Cleveland, where he remained until his death.

In addition to Raheem DeVaughn, Wadud is survived by his daughter Aisha DeVaughn and a large extended family. His funeral was held in Cleveland on August 12.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.