Smitty: How cool.
MJW: Because he wanted me to grow up with an appreciation for music. When I got into my teenage years….I’ve always had drum machines and keyboards and four-track always around, so for a while I was doing the hip hop thing. The original Miles Long was a rap group in ’89, ’90.
MJW: And I thank God nothing ever happened with that. (Both laugh.) I’ve always dabbled around in the music, but it really wasn’t until I was about 26 that I decided that I wanted to actually study, I wanted to pick up an instrument and study the language of music, and I think that’s when things really started to kinda take off for me. The impetus behind that was, in all honesty, it was the first season of Malcolm & Eddie, and here I am having gone from the No. 1 television show in the world and working with NBC and working under Bill Cosby to being over at UPN.
MJW: Where, if you remember UPN’s programming and the audience they were marketing toward, that network didn’t really—they weren’t really concerned with the image of people of color on that network. So I came from a career of protecting the portrayal of who we are as people of color, so being at UPN was really difficult for me because I found myself in a situation where I’m trying to tell these people, “Listen, I come from a history-making show that shows that black people don’t have to be stereotypical in order to be funny.”
MJW: So I found myself in a situation where I was fighting writers, directors, producers, studio, network, fellow actors, sometimes the viewing public, so I just really found myself in a situation where I felt like I was caring too much about the show, and acting had always been my hobby, even when it became a career for me, it was always the thing I loved to do. So at 26, first season of Malcolm & Eddie, I realized I needed a hobby, so initially picking up the bass was just to be a hobby. Directing started out as a hobby, it became a career, so with the music I figured, okay, well, if I start playing an instrument, I’ll never start a band, I’ll never record a CD…
MJW: …it’ll never become another career, it’ll just be for fun.
Smitty: A release. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Oh, man, famous last words.
MJW: Yeah, man. But I realized early on that sitting in my dressing room practicing scales to a metronome was not going to keep my interest. So I figured, okay, well, at least if I put a band together, it would give me a reason to practice.
Smitty: Yeah, and it just blossomed.
MJW: Yeah, it started from there. I had been doing poetry before I started playing bass, so I was already heavily entrenched in the underground spoken word scene here in Los Angeles. I was very active in the resurgence of the poetry boom out here, so I had already been doing poetry and when I first started Miles Long, it was to be the bass player, so I wasn’t even doing poetry with the band. It was just me wanting to hold down the groove. But after a while, it just seemed to make more sense to incorporate what I was doing with the poetry and incorporate that into the music.
Smitty: Yeah, well, I can see the evolution there, you know? And that’s a great transition.
MJW: Yeah, my dad went to school, went to Lincoln, with Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, so I had also, just growing up, I’d been heavily influenced by Gil Scott and by the last poets, and Stevie Wonder, because these were the cats my dad was always playing.
Smitty: Yeah, that great influence from your dad really paid off in such a beautiful thing, yeah. So why the bass, man?
MJW: You know, I tell you, it’s a funny story, I think. (Both laugh.) I’ve always been attracted to the bass. When I was seven years old, I got my first stereo and the first record I lifted from my mother’s collection was Grand Central Station.
MJW: So even before I ever even thought about being a musician, the bass was always the thing that I felt a connection with.
Smitty: Yeah, the groove.
MJW: Yeah, and then when I decided that it was time to pick an instrument at 26, my thinking was (laughs) unlike guitar players and piano players, if I played bass, I don’t have to be concerned with studying chords and chord progressions.
MJW: I could just get by with playing the root and I’d be fine. (Both laugh.) I had no idea that out of anybody the bass player has to know music theory. No, he doesn’t have to, but it heavily increases his game by knowing music theory and knowing chord progressions and chord changes and how to get around that. I didn’t realize that when I first started.
Smitty: Yeah, because when you said that, I thought, oh really?
MJW: Right. (Both laugh.) Right, man. Within the year, I picked up the upright, I started playing upright bass.
MJW: So that just made the journey even that much more frustrating.
Smitty: Yes indeed.
MJW: Because when I started playing upright, I figured, okay, well, I can just transfer what I’m learning from the electric bass to the upright bass and I’ll be straight.
MJW: I didn’t realize that they were two totally different things.
MJW: I really kinda made a little path for myself.
Smitty: Yeah, but look at the capacity you had to make those transitions valuable and where it has brought you today.
MJW: Yeah, and I’m really proud that I stuck with it, and as frustrating as being a musician can be in terms of the discipline and the practice and all of that, I’m really proud that I went with that, that I’ve stuck with it and I’m still sticking with it and I’m still studying and I’m just kinda getting a picture of where I really want to take this.
Smitty: Yeah, so does each instrument put you in a different mood?
MJW: Yeah, oh my gosh, yes.
Smitty: Yeah, yeah.
MJW: And I’ve got several different electric basses, I’ve got two different upright basses, and each instrument has a different personality and different voice and different characteristics, so each of them, just playing each instrument brings out something totally different.
Smitty: Yeah, and it’s a beautiful thing, man, you know? Unless a person can get into that and really feel it, they don’t fully know what that’s like.
MJW: I know, right.
Smitty: You know? And that’s why I asked that because I know where you are when you said what you just said. (Both laugh.) You know?
MJW: Yeah, man.
Smitty: That’s beautiful, man, yeah, but I love what you’re doing with each instrument and I must say with this record, I totally get what you’re doing and love the cats that you have with you on this record.
MJW: Thank you.
Smitty: Yeah, man, you’ve got some beautiful cats playing with you that are in sync with what you are accomplishing.
Smitty: Yeah, and that’s so valuable and priceless, you know?
MJW: Yeah, to work with cats who kinda get what you’re doing is a real blessing, especially when you’re not doing things the conventional way.
Smitty: Right, yes.
MJW: Because I always tell people, you know, I’m always making sure that people understand that Miles Long is a jazz funk band. We’re not a straight ahead band. We will do some straight ahead covers, but we’re not really a straight ahead band. But it’s that jazz funk because that’s really where I am as I’m studying jazz and I’m studying to be that straight ahead cat, there are also other influences that weigh heavy into what I do. And so to be able to hang out with cats who get that and embrace that is a real blessing.
Smitty: Yes it is.
MJW: Especially when you’re putting a record together.
Smitty: Yes, absolutely, man, and I love the tracks on here. And you totally connect with the lyrics. Like “Keep Smiling” is one of my favorites.
Smitty: And “Confessions of a Confused Romantic.” (Both laugh.)
MJW: Yeah, man.