Abdul Wadud obituary

Cellist who gave his instrument a new, original and influential voice in the world of jazz music

Despite occasional valiant efforts, the cello was among a group of European concert instruments – such as the bassoon, the oboe and the French horn – that long struggled to find a place for itself within jazz. The emergence in the 1970s of Abdul Wadud, who brought a fine classical technique to bear on a knowledge of the idiom’s latest developments and its deepest roots, gave the instrument a new, original and influential voice.

Wadud, who has died aged 75, initially came to attention through a series of remarkable small-group recordings in which the saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill sought inspiration in the sounds and rhythms of Africa, particularly the Dogon people of Mali.

The dry snap of Wadud’s pizzicato, the keening of his bowed lines and the spring-loaded energy of his improvisations added a defining flavour to the highly sophisticated but blues-drenched music.

Finding it helpful to keep his musical identities separate, he was known by his birth name, Ron DeVaughn, in the classical world, but it was as Abdul Wadud that he appeared as a soloist in orchestral works by Anthony Davis and George Lewis, two composers who spanned both worlds.

In 1976 he toured with Stevie Wonder, conducting a 60-piece ensemble in the concert version of the singer’s extended work A Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

Although Wadud made a number of recordings, only one of them, an album of solo cello pieces, appeared under his own name. It was issued in 1977, titled By Myself, seemingly the only release on the Bishara label and now a collector’s item.

Born in Cleveland, brought up in a housing project, he was the youngest of the 12 children of Alberta Miller and Edward DeVaughn. His father played the trumpet and the French horn, and music of all kinds was a constant presence in the family home. He took advantage of what was then a thriving music education system in local schools, playing saxophone as well as cello, on which he also took private lessons with members of the Cleveland Orchestra.

It was while studying at Oberlin college in Ohio, famed for its music programme, that he became a Muslim. With two friends, the saxophonist Yusuf Mumin and the drummer Hasan Shahid, he formed the Black Unity Trio, playing music inspired by their interest in the new avant-garde sounds of Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler.

At Stony Brook University on Long Island, Wadud was awarded a master’s degree in performance at the age of 24. While there he joined the New Jersey Symphony for a seven-year stay, followed by spells with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Long Island Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles, as well as taking jobs in Broadway pit orchestras.

It was through a black history teacher that he first connected with Hemphill, a co-founder of the Black Artists Group in St Louis, Missouri. In 1972 he was invited to St Louis, where he recorded with other BAG members, including the saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and the trumpeter Baikida EJ Carroll. The albums Dogon AD and Coon Bid’ness, initially released on small specialist labels, would gather admirers and acclaim as the years went by.

In New York he and his new colleagues were embraced by the burgeoning “loft jazz” scene. As his reputation grew, he toured the US, Canada, Europe and Japan with many groups, including those of the saxophonists Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake, and in a trio with Davis and the flautist James Newton.

His style was radically different from those of the classically trained cellists who had appeared in jazz environments before him, such as Fred Katz with the popular Chico Hamilton Quintet, and the celebrated jazz double bassists who had given it try, including Oscar Pettiford in the 1950s and Sam Jones and Ron Carter in the 1960s, some of them making the transition easier for themselves by tuning the strings in fourths, like their basses, rather than the normal fifths.

“I approached the cello not in the lyrical sense that it was known for,” Wadud once said. “I had a percussive touch at times, a chordal approach as well as a linear approach, and I tried to incorporate all of that, depending on the situation and the demands of the music.”

Other cellists were active in the avant-garde of jazz and improvised music, including Calo Scott, Irene Aebi, Dierdre Murray and David Baker, but Wadud’s approach was the most distinctive and influential. Among those to benefit from his example was Tomeka Reid, whose work with Nicole Mitchell, Mary Halvorson, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Alexander Hawkins has made her the pre-eminent figure on her instrument among the current generation.

In 1992 Wadud decided to withdraw completely from the music scene, disillusioned by a continuing lack of recognition and “burned out”, as he described his state of mind at the time in an interview with Reid and the film-maker Joel Wanek, who tracked him down to Cleveland in 2014.

Two years ago his playing attracted new attention through the inclusion of an outstanding 1989 duo concert with Hemphill in a much praised box set of unreleased recordings by the saxophonist, who died in 1995.

Twice married and twice divorced, Wadud is survived by a daughter, Aisha, a son, Raheem, and five grandchildren.

• Abdul Khabir Wadud (Ronald Earsall DeVaughn), cellist, born 30 April 1947; died 10 August 2022

This article was amended on 24 August 2022. The surname of the saxophonist Yusuf Mumin was corrected, as was the name of the drummer Hasan Shahid.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Charlie Watts obituary
Dapper and elegant drummer who was the rock-steady heartbeat of the Rolling Stones

Adam Sweeting

24, Aug, 2021 @7:39 PM

Article image
Bob Koester obituary
Owner of Chicago’s influential Jazz Record Mart and Delmark label, which recorded many of the city’s blues greats

Tony Russell

28, May, 2021 @11:53 AM

Article image
Chris Barber obituary
Jazz trombonist and bandleader whose eclectic tastes helped to shape the face of British popular music

John Fordham

03, Mar, 2021 @12:08 PM

Article image
Otis Rush obituary
Singer and guitarist who by the 90s was called ‘the greatest living bluesman’

Tony Russell

03, Oct, 2018 @11:02 AM

Article image
Jimmy Johnson obituary
Stalwart of the Chicago scene whose searing guitar playing and sensitive voice helped take the blues in a new direction

Tony Russell

08, Feb, 2022 @5:50 PM

Article image
James Harman obituary
Blues singer, songwriter and harmonica player renowned for his demanding approach as a bandleader

Tony Russell

25, Jun, 2021 @5:08 PM

Article image
Art Neville obituary
New Orleans singer and songwriter who was a founder member of the Meters and the Neville Brothers

Adam Sweeting

28, Jul, 2019 @4:35 PM

Article image
Henry Gray obituary
Blues pianist who played and recorded with Howlin’ Wolf

Jack Barlow

24, Mar, 2020 @4:35 PM

Article image
Don Everly obituary
Half of the Everly Brothers, the famous US pop duo known for hits such as Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie and Cathy’s Clown

Michael Gray

22, Aug, 2021 @2:46 PM

Article image
Art Rosenbaum obituary
Folklorist, painter and musician who documented traditional American music with warmth and tenderness

Tony Russell

21, Sep, 2022 @4:02 PM