Abdul Wadud, Cellist Who Crossed Musical Boundaries, Dies at 75
Abdul Wadud, a distinctive cellist who crossed genres and was a key collaborator with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis, died on Aug. 10 in Cleveland. He was 75.
His son, the R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn, said the death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of multiple recent illnesses.
Mr. 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 Mr. Davis, the 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Hemphill’s 1972 album, “Dogon A.D.” (Like many important recordings featuring Mr. Wadud, it is currently out of print.)
Over the title track’s unusual loping groove, Mr. Wadud supported Mr. 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 Mr. Hemphill, a member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group — remembered Mr. 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,” Mr. Carroll recalled in an interview, adding that he “pointedly observed” Mr. Wadud’s working methods “because I was, like, This is the cat!”
The composer, trombonist and scholar George Lewis said in an interview that he regarded Mr. Wadud’s playing on “Dogon A.D.” as a landmark of 20th-century music. He tied that performance to Mr. 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,’” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s like James Brown — but I bet even James Brown couldn’t have done if it had been in 11/16.” (A 1977 live performance of the piece is included on a boxed set of Mr. Hemphill’s work, released in 2021 by New World Records.)
Mr. 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,” the cellist Tomeka Reid praised him for using “the whole range of the cello” and moving “between lyrical, free playing and groove with ease, something I strive to do in my own work.” In a recent interview, Ms. 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,” Mr. Lewis chose Mr. Wadud for an ensemble that performed the Lewis composition “Monads,” his attempt to “come to terms” with the graphic scores of the composer Morton Feldman.
“Abdul knew all about that kind of thing; he knew more about it than I did,” Mr. 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, the clarinetist J.D. Parran noted that “you could run into Abdul Wadud anywhere.” He remembered with particular pleasure seeing “this gigantic smile” on Mr. Wadud’s face during their tour with Stevie Wonder, in support of the album “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” (Mr. Parran added that Mr. Wadud was the contractor for the ambitious, larger than usual touring outfit Mr. Wonder used on that tour.)
Mr. DeVaughn, Mr. Wadud’s son, recalled his father offering his ear when Mr. 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 on 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, though accepted to Yale for graduate work in performance, chose to attend Stony Brook University, on Long Island, 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, Mr. Wadud said of Mr. 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.”
Mr. Wadud clinched some of these chamber music ambitions in the 1980s as part of a stellar trio with Mr. Davis and the flutist and composer James Newton.
“A lot of people have spoken about his pizzicato playing, but I was also excited by his arco tone,” Mr. Davis said in an interview, referring to Mr. 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 Mr. Davis’s “Still Waters,” there came a distinct moment of respect for Mr. Wadud’s musicianship, Mr. 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?’” Mr. Newton recalled saying to himself, knowing the Philharmonic’s reputation for icy welcomes, “We got ’em.’”
At the same time, Mr. Davis had unwittingly spoiled the dance of names that Mr. Wadud had engaged in between genres, in which he reserved Ronald DeVaughn for classical settings. “He was laughing,” Mr. 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, Mr. Wadud is survived by a daughter, Aisha DeVaughn; a brother, Marvin DeVaughn; a sister, Loretta Perry; and five grandchildren. He was married and divorced twice.
Shortly after recording the album “Oakland Duets” with Mr. Hemphill in 1992, Mr. Wadud retired from playing. Mr. 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 Mr. Wadud’s ability to operate in so many worlds, he said, “You add all of that together, and the pressures are not minimal.”
Ms. Reid said she had tried to coax Mr. 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,” Ms. 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 Mr. Wadud would be interested in reissuing “By Myself.”
Mr. DeVaughn, Mr. 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.”