Courtesy of Raheem DeVaughn
Abdul Wadud, a revolutionary cellist who expanded a realm of possibilities for his instrument in avant-garde jazz and classical music, died on August 10. He was 75 years old.
His son, R&B singer and songwriter Raheem DeVaughn, announced his death on social media without providing a cause.
Wadud was a pioneer on his instrument. A few legendary bass players like Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter had doubled on the cello before him, and a tiny number of cellists, notably Fred Katz, had distinguished themselves as jazz improvisers. For Wadud, the cello was his main ax – and an expansive vehicle for self-expression. Wadud’s sound was unmistakable, rich and soulful, and he expanded the sonic range of his instrument.
Although much of his work was as a sideman, Wadud was one of the most important jazz musicians of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Each session with him had a unique sound that went beyond the sounds of his instrument. There was clarity, order and a lyrical quality to the music, which is one of the reasons many fans followed his work as a sideman as much as they did his orchestra conductors.
One of these leaders, and one of Wadud’s most frequent collaborators, was the saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. Their joint contribution to a 15-minute piece called “Dogon AD”, the title track from Hemphill’s 1972 album, is one of the defining statements of early 70s jazz.
“I think Abdul plays on ‘Dogon AD’ like a full gospel choir,” says Marty Ehrlich, the multi-reedist and composer who manages the Julius Hemphill Archive at NYU Fales Library. “It spans the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. It orchestrates in many ways the form of the work.”
In the liner notes of Oakland Duosreleased over two decades later, Hemphill said of Wadud that “we’re so close musically, I feel like I have complete freedom. I feel like I could play anything, and he would answer. He knows he could do the same. I know for a fact that Abdul and I could count on a tempo and play for hours.”
Abdul Wadud was born Ronald DeVaughn in Cleveland, OH on April 10, 1947. He grew up in a musical family; her father played trumpet and French horn and sang, and her older sister auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. His brother, a guitarist, was recruited by legendary soul band The O’Jays. (The idea was quashed by their mother, who insisted he stay in school.)
Wadud began playing the alto saxophone, but focused on the cello after hearing the instrument in bands led by stellar saxophonist Albert Ayler, also from Cleveland. Wadud has always praised the level of artistic education in Cleveland public schools, where he received an education on his instruments. The thriving local jazz scene also nurtured his interests; in a interview with Point of Departure in 2014, he recalls listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane while standing outside a local nightclub.
Wadud made his first recording at age 18. He attended Youngstown State, then Oberlin College, where he converted to Islam – and met Hemphill, who had come to perform at the school. After earning a master’s degree from SUNY Stonybrook in 1971, Wadud began dividing his time between symphony orchestra work, the pits of Broadway and New York’s thriving loft jazz scene, where his associates included saxophonist Arthur Blythe, flautist James Newton and pianist Anthony Davis.
Wadud has performed in several settings with Blythe, including an era-defining quintet with drummer Bobby Battle, tuba player Bob Stewart and James Blood Ulmer or Kelvyn Bell on guitar. Whether solo or supporting, Wadud is an essential factor in the quintet part of Blythe’s classic recording. Illusions.
Wadud had not been active in recent years and the jazz scene was poorer for it. Thanks to the work he left behind, he paved the way for heirs like Akua Dixon, Dierdre Murray, Fred Longborg-Holm, Hank Roberts and Tomeka Reid, among others. For a June 2020 article in the New York Times title 5 minutes that will make you love the cello, Reid selected a track from Wadud’s 1977 solo album All alone. “I love the freedom and creativity of his playing,” she wrote. “It uses the full range of the cello and swings easily between lyrical playing, free playing and grooving, which is something I strive to do in my own work.”
Ehrlich, who has featured Wadud in his Dark Woods Ensemble and other sets, told NPR his most striking feature is balance. “He brought a great intensity to all musical creation, and at the same time he brought a great center to the music,” Ehrlich said. “I always felt him hearing the whole procedure, and centering it here, pushing it there. He always amazed me.”