Crossing Borders & Playing with Pioneers: My Life in Music is Warren Smith’s aptly titled autobiography published by Giant Steps Press and due out on the Fall of 2021. Jazz drummer, conservatory trained percussionist, founding member of the percussion ensemble M’Boom, composer, arranger, bandleader, Loft Era proprietor of Studio WIS and among the first generation of jazz educators at the university level, Smith is also a marvelous raconteur. He weaves hilarious anecdotes and insider information into a larger narrative about contemporary music, its giants and historical events with which he comes into contact over seven decades.
In “Part One, Sweet Home, Chicago,” Smith recounts his birth in 1934 during the Great Depression, his loving musical family and his growing up in a segregated Chicago amidst bombs tossed at Black homes, like his, located at a geographical border. In a voice humorous, earthy and insightful, he re-creates the 1930s and 40s and his musical apprenticeships with the family band, his high school concert and marching bands and his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana with Paul Price’s percussion ensemble and avant-garde composer Harry Partch’s residency. Nevertheless, he’s told by his instructors that there is no room for a Negro in classical music or on Broadway and that jazz is considered too unsophisticated for study at the college level.
However, “Part Two, New York City: Jazz Mecca” reveals Smith’s uncanny good fortune in being at the right place at the right time with the right musical gifts. After a summer fellowship at Tanglewood, he receives a scholarship from the Manhattan School of Music. He marries his childhood sweetheart Mary. They move to the Big Apple where he graduates with a Master’s degree in percussion a year later and finds employment on Broadway in the highly coveted percussion chair for West Side Story. The only Black musician in the orchestra pit, he then tours the States with the show for eighteen months as the drummer and section leader. The score by Leonard Bernstein is the most challenging of the fifty Broadway and off-Broadway shows he will play over the next forty years, and it leads to performing with musical pioneers like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, Lloyd Price, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones and Joe Zawinul, among others. He forms his own band, Composer’s Workshop Ensemble, which he keeps together to this day.
A master improviser and reader on all of the standard orchestral percussion instruments and the drum set, his work in the recording studio soon shifts from playing jingles to playing with John Cage, George Russell, Anthony Braxton, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, Van Morrison, The Fugs, The Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Judy Collins, Elvin Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Julius Hemphill, Count Basie and others spanning over 3,000 recording dates. He opens Studio WIS in 1967 as a performance and rehearsal space, one of the longest running and most respected of the Loft Era.
As for education, after getting kicked out of the high school music room for daring to improvise on an idea, he becomes a music teacher for New York’s Board of Ed in 1959. Ten years later, he chairs the Black Studies department and teaches music at Adelphi University. He leaves the program two years later to join the faculty of Ken McIntyre’s African American music and performing arts program at SUNY/Old Westbury, the first of its kind in the USA, where he teaches for the next 25 years.
In “Part Three: Touring the World” Smith becomes the musical director for Janis Joplin and tours Europe with her band, an experience he follows up with many more tours of Europe, Asia and Africa—with the Negro Ensemble Company, Sam Rivers, Tony Williams, Gil Evans, Muhal Richard Abrams and M’Boom, the percussion ensemble created by pioneer Max Roach which Smith considers his greatest achievement. He joins the Mercer-led Duke Ellington band and plays with them for seven years. Still quite active in the music scene at 88 and an inspiration to younger musicians, Smith ends his memoir with a celebration of his family of five daughters and their children that brings readers back to Chicago’s South Side and the enduring values of family and legacy in the pursuit of crossing borders and playing with pioneers.
Please click the covers to get more information and to purchase:
Warren Smith’s Band
Studio WIS 20th Anniversary Concert
Miff Music Company
Peru Dream Sequence
Miff Music Company
Cats Are Stealing My $hit
Natural Cultural Forces
Dragon Dave Meets Prince Black Knight from the Darkside of the Moon
Free Jazz, Soul-Jazz, Jazz-Funk, Spoken Word, Non-Music
Ain’t That Loving You Baby/Birds
Producer: Warren Smith and Richard Elderson
Jazz, Funk / Soul, Blues, Pop, Folk, World, & Country
Passage to Music
Live In New York, 2010
The Balance (Vision Festival XV+)
Free Jazz, Free Improvisation
The Art of the Ballad
Track 6: Descent Into Kangnung –Warren Smith
Bop, Avant-garde Jazz, Fusion
East Of Broadway: A Benefit For Fourth Arts Block
Track 17: Ten Thousand Things –Warren Smith
Classical, Folk, World, & Country, Jazz, Pop, Rock