Abdul Wadud, cellist who crossed musical boundaries, dies at 75

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Abdul Wadud, cellist who crossed musical boundaries, dies at 75
He performed with classical ensembles, but he was best known for his work with cutting-edge composers and improvisers like Anthony Davis and Julius Hemphill.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK, NY.- Abdul Wadud, a distinctive cellist who crossed genres and was a key collaborator with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis, died Aug. 10 in Cleveland. He was 75.

His son, R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn, said the death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of multiple recent illnesses.

Wadud converted to Islam while in college but continued to use his given name, Ronald DeVaughn, when playing with classical ensembles, as he did with the New Jersey Symphony in the 1970s.

He also performed in Broadway pit bands and with Stevie Wonder. But he is best known for his work with Davis, saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, and others who were central to the development of American composition and improvisation in the late 20th century.

Skilled at eliciting variations of instrumental color with a bow, Wadud pioneered a pizzicato language on the cello that was sometimes subtle, sometimes booming.

For many of his contemporaries, the first taste of his instrumental prowess came via his appearance on Hemphill’s 1972 album, “Dogon A.D.” (Like many important recordings featuring Wadud, it is out of print.)

Over the title track’s unusual loping groove, Wadud supported Hemphill’s saxophone lines with crying, bluesy bowed phrases as well as some select, forcefully plucked notes. Baikida Carroll, the trumpeter on that session — and, like Hemphill, a member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group — remembered Wadud’s insightful questioning during rehearsals about that composition’s 11/16 meter.

“He asked Julius about the relation of the drum part and the cello part, how they hook up,” Carroll recalled, adding that he “pointedly observed” Wadud’s working methods “because I was, like, ‘This is the cat!’”

Composer, trombonist and scholar George Lewis said that he regarded Wadud’s playing on “Dogon A.D.” as a landmark of 20th-century music. He tied that performance to Wadud’s later solo recording, “By Myself,” which is also out of print.

“There’s the electricity — he’s amplified — there’s the funk, there’s the off-meter; a lot of the stuff that turns up being crystallized in ‘By Myself’ is sort of foreshadowed in ‘Dogon A.D,’” Lewis said. “It’s like James Brown — but I bet even James Brown couldn’t have done it if it had been in 11/16.” (A 1977 live performance of the piece is included on a boxed set of Hemphill’s work, released in 2021 by New World Records.)

Wadud did not record much of his own music, aside from his 1977 solo LP, but his solo work had an impact. Writing in The New York Times about the Abdul original “Camille,” from “By Myself,” cellist Tomeka Reid praised him for using “the whole range of the cello” and moving among “lyrical, free playing and groove with ease, something I strive to do in my own work.” In a recent interview, Reid added, “What Pablo Casals did for the Bach suites, I feel like Abdul Wadud did for the new generation of cello in jazz.”

Around the time of “By Myself,” Lewis chose Wadud for an ensemble that performed the Lewis composition “Monads,” his attempt to “come to terms” with the graphic scores of composer Morton Feldman.

“Abdul knew all about that kind of thing; he knew more about it than I did,” Lewis said. “That combination, of having the strong kind of Black bass and having all these other possibilities — equally strong — made him someone you could work with who was super versatile and could do anything.”

Similarly, clarinetist J.D. Parran noted that “you could run into Abdul Wadud anywhere.” He remembered with particular pleasure seeing “this gigantic smile” on Wadud’s face during their tour with Wonder, in support of the album “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” (Parran added that Wadud was the contractor for the ambitious, larger than usual outfit Wonder used on that tour.)

DeVaughn, Wadud’s son, recalled his father offering his ear when DeVaughn was recording his album “The Love Reunion.” “He went with me to a couple studio sessions,” the son said. “And he would make some cool suggestions.”

Ronald Earsall DeVaughn was born April 30, 1947, in Cleveland, the youngest of 12 children of Alberta Miller and Edward DeVaughn. He studied at Youngstown State University and Oberlin College in Ohio and, although accepted to Yale for graduate work in performance, chose to attend Stony Brook University, in Long Island, New York, for his master’s degree, so that he could study cello with Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux Arts Trio.

In 2014, in one of his last interviews, Wadud said of 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.”

Wadud clinched some of these chamber music ambitions in the 1980s as part of a stellar trio with Davis and flutist and composer James Newton.

“A lot of people have spoken about his pizzicato playing, but I was also excited by his arco tone,” Davis said, referring to Wadud’s use of the bow. “He had a unique sound, a beautiful sound. I think James and I were both so excited; it opened up so many avenues in terms of our composition, to create pieces for him.”

When the trio performed with the New York Philharmonic, as soloists in an orchestral performance of Davis’ “Still Waters,” there came a distinct moment of respect for Wadud’s musicianship, Newton recalled.

“The principal cellist in the orchestra at that time said, ‘Mr. Wadud, what is the fingering that you’re using for this phrase?’” Newton recalled saying to himself, knowing the Philharmonic’s reputation for icy welcomes, “We got ’em.’”

At the same time, Davis had unwittingly spoiled Wadud’s strategic use of his dual musical identities, in which he went by his original name, Ronald DeVaughn, for classical gigs while saving the name Abdul Wadud for improvisational work. “He was laughing,” Davis remembered, “Because, he said, now I had busted him: People in the classical world knew he was Abdul Wadud.”

In addition to his son, Wadud is survived by a daughter, Aisha DeVaughn; a brother, Marvin DeVaughn; a sister, Floretta Perry; and five grandchildren. He was married and divorced twice.

Shortly after recording the album “Oakland Duets” with Hemphill in 1992, Wadud retired from playing. Newton said of that decision: “I think when people believe that you’ve changed an instrument, as he did, the level of what they’re looking to hear every night is not always easy.” Citing Wadud’s ability to operate in so many worlds, he said, “You add all of that together, and the pressures are not minimal.”

Reid said she had tried to coax Wadud back into playing. He was the guest of honor at the 2016 edition of her Chicago Jazz String Summit. And she repeatedly told him how influential he was.

But a revival did not occur. “He was just so humble,” Reid said. “And I think he was happy that I even reached out to him.” She added that many record companies have since approached her, wondering if Wadud would be interested in reissuing “By Myself.”

DeVaughn, Wadud’s son, said that just such a release remains in the cards. “I plan to definitely keep the torch burning,” he said, “and having that stuff put on vinyl.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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