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Abdul Wadud, expressive cellist who blazed a trail in improvised music, dies at 75

Abdul Wadud.
Courtesy of Raheem DeVaughn
Abdul Wadud.

Abdul Wadud, a groundbreaking cellist who expanded a realm of possibilities for his instrument in avant-garde jazz and classical music, died on Aug. 10. He was 75.

His son, the R&B singer and songwriter Raheem DeVaughn, announced his death on social media without providing a cause.

Wadud was a pioneer on his instrument. Some legendary bassists like Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter had doubled on cello before him, and a miniscule number of cellists, notably Fred Katz, had distinguished themselves as jazz improvisers. For Wadud, the cello was his primary ax — and an expansive vehicle for self-expression. Wadud's sound was unmistakable, rich and soulful, and he broadened 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. Any session with him had a unique sound that went beyond the sonorities of his instrument. There was clarity, order and a lyrical quality to the music, which is one reason many fans followed his work as a sideman no less than they did his bandleaders.

One of those leaders, and one of Wadud's most frequent collaborators, was saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. Their shared contribution to a 15-minute piece called "Dogon A.D.," the title track of Hemphill's 1972 album, amounts to one of the defining statements of early '70s jazz.

"I think of Abdul's playing on 'Dogon A.D.' like a full gospel choir," says Marty Ehrlich, the multi-reedist and composer who curates the Julius Hemphill Archive in the NYU Fales Library. "He is covering the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices. He is in many ways orchestrating the shape of the work. "

In the liner notes to Oakland Duets, released more than two decades later, Hemphill says of Wadud that "we're so close musically, I feel like I have total freedom. I feel like I could play anything, and he would respond. He knows he could do the same. I know for a fact that Abdul and I could count off 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 household; his father played trumpet and French horn and sang, and his older sister auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. His brother, a guitarist, was recruited by legendary soul group The O'Jays. (The idea was quashed by their mother, who insisted he stay in school.)

Wadud started out playing alto saxophone, but made cello his focus after hearing the instrument in groups led by the stellar saxophonist Albert Ayler, who also hailed from Cleveland. Wadud always praised the level of arts education in Cleveland's public schools, where he received an education on his instruments. The thriving local jazz scene also nurtured his interests; in an interview with Point of Departure in 2014, he recalled listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane while standing outside a local nightclub.

Wadud made his first recording at 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 Masters from SUNY Stonybrook in 1971, Wadud began splitting his time between symphony orchestra work, Broadway pits, and the thriving loft jazz scene in New York City, where his associates included saxophonist Arthur Blythe, flutist James Newton and pianist Anthony Davis.

Wadud performed in several settings with Blythe, including an era-defining quintet otherwise featuring drummer Bobby Battle, tubaist Bob Stewart, and either James Blood Ulmer or Kelvyn Bell on guitar. Whether soloing or supporting, Wadud is a vital factor in the quintet portion of Blythe's classic recording Illusions.

Wadud had not been active in recent years, and the jazz scene was poorer for it. Through the body of work he did leave behind, he blazed a trail for inheritors 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 titled 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Cello, Reid selected a piece from Wadud's 1977 solo album By Myself. "I love the freedom and creativity in his playing," she wrote. "He uses the whole range of the cello and moves between lyrical, free playing and groove with ease, something I strive to do in my own work."

Ehrlich, who featured Wadud in his Dark Woods Ensemble and other settings, tells NPR that his most striking characteristic was balance. "He brought a great intensity to all music making, and at the same time, he brought a great center to the music," Ehrlich says. "I always felt him hearing the whole proceeding, and centering it here, prodding it there. He amazed me always."

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Martin Johnson