“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Smitty: My special guest at JazzMonthly.com for the very first time is an incredible actor and an incredible musician, and what I love about this cat is that he is the real deal. You know him as the ambitious young character “Theo” from the mega hit TV series, The Cosby Show and also Malcolm and Eddie. He’s got a great record out that really reaches the heart of what we appreciate and love every day, and it is called Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Miles Long, Love & Other Social Issues. Please welcome the incredible Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Malcolm, how ya doin’, my friend? And welcome to JazzMonthly.com.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner (MJW): Yeah, that was much love, man. Thank you.
Smitty: Thank you!
MJW: Heavenly, man.
Smitty: My pleasure. It’s great to have you here and great to talk with you, and I must say, man, when I first listened to this record, I said “This is some powerful stuff.”
MJW: Hey, thank you.
Smitty: Yeah, I mean, it’s got the rhyme and reason, it’s got the grooves, and it’s thought provoking. It’s got substance that I really appreciate and I know that people who appreciate music and great dialogue will love this record.
MJW: Right, yeah, thank you, man. It’s really that kind of record and that’s really what I set out to do, was to be able to make a thought provoking record, but also a record that you would want to listen to over and over again. I kind of have a criteria when I talk to people about music. I always ask people “Well, name five CD’s that you bought in the last five years that you know you’re still gonna be playing five or ten years from now.” That’s really the kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted to make a record that was timeless.
Smitty: Absolutely. And I think that’s a great perspective going in to make a record, that you want some longevity there, it’s something that’s gonna reach people, that they always want to hold onto. I think that’s great.
MJW: Yeah, yeah. Especially with where the music business is now. It’s in such a flux…that you want to be able to…at least as an artist, I would believe that you would want to be able to leave something that’s going to have some kind of meaning and have some kind of substance.
Smitty: Yeah, man. Well, I think you scored right on with this one.
MJW: Hey, thank you, man. There’s a great book by Kenny Warner called Effortless Mastery and in it he talks about, really, how the music world does not need another amazing musician. We don’t need another musician who can play a thousand notes a minute. We need musicians who are going to express themselves and lay themselves on the line, and I take that to heart, seriously.
Smitty: Yeah. Well, I can feel that, man, in this record, and I think that’s a great thing because when we think about it, music has a powerful influence. It has throughout the ages been a powerful influence in our lives.
MJW: Yeah, yeah.
Smitty: And so we want it to be that, we want it to be positive if we’re going to do that.
MJW: Yes, exactly.
Smitty: Yeah, and I think you really had your head on straight with it and you were able to put that out there in this great art form, and that’s fantastic.
MJW: Well, I appreciate that, Smitty.
Smitty: Yeah, man, and I know you’re proud of it because I am. (Both laugh.)
MJW: Very proud, yes, sir.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Malcolm, when I listen to it also—because I listen deeply—and I couldn’t help but reflect back on what I’ve seen of you as well, and following your career over the many years—not that you’re an old man or anything, you’re not even close to that, but you started very early—and I think you grasp your career in such a unique and beautiful way that you’re able to do what you’re doing right now, and I think that’s great.
MJW: Yeah, you know, there’s always a—especially when you’ve been in the business for a while and you’ve had some kind of relative success early on, there’s always the struggle to stay relevant, in all honesty. You always have to constantly reinvent yourself and constantly raise the bar for yourself so you can come outside of your comfort zone and grow.
Smitty: Yes. Well, tell me something—because I think you’ve done that and I think that’s a great perspective—when did this really hit you early on in the business? Because let’s face it, you had some great influence in Bill Cosby, being on that mega hit show, and a lot was shared through that medium about life…
Smitty: …about family life, and decision making, leadership. All of those things were discussed in great detail and in such a beautiful way in that one show in itself, and there you were, a part of it, right in the middle of it, and your input was right there, you know? At what point did you say “Wow, I get this and this is real and it’s so cool and I want to make sure that I shape my decision making around some or all of this”?
MJW: Well, my perspective was very different. The show had been on for a couple of weeks and it was really becoming this phenomenal success and I was 13-14 years old and my mother sat me down and said “Listen, it’s really great that this show is doing what it is, but you know how this business is. This show could be over next year.”
MJW: “What are you gonna do when the show is over?” So as a result, my mother and I both spent eight years of that show—we spent each year as if it were the last year.
MJW: So I never really had the time to sit back and say “Hey, I’m on this great TV show” or “Hey, I’m a TV star” because it was really about what’s gonna happen after Cosby, so I in a sense really spent those years with this almost maniacal obsession with what was going to happen when the show was over. I never wanted to be on that “Where Are They Now?” list.
Smitty: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MJW: Going back to always wanting to be relevant, I knew back at 14 years old, when that show shot up to the No. 1 show, that I did not want this to be the end all, be all of my career. I was very clear on that.
Smitty: Well, that’s being well grounded, man.
MJW: Well, yeah, I think that’s kinda, you know, and again, my mother, who was also my manager, was a very strong influence, but then also it’s really difficult to be under Mr. Cosby’s wing for all those years and not think about longevity.
Smitty: Yes indeed!
MJW: Here’s a man, you know, when the Cosby Show hit, he had already had a 20-odd-year career already. So being around him, longevity was always impressed upon me.
Smitty: Yeah. You mentioned somewhere that he gave you such a platform to express yourself in a gracious and unapologetic way.
Smitty: Can you expound upon that? Talk a little bit about how he led by example, and I know at one point you said he encouraged you verbally and non-verbally. Can you talk a little bit about that whole scene of growing up and being around Mr. Cosby the way you were?
MJW: Yeah. Well, it really started before that with my own father…who has always been an integral part of my life. This is a man who named me after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal. This is a man who when I was 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, during my summer vacations, would make me read and do book reports on Langston Hughes and Richard White and Mary McLeod Bethune and Marian Anderson and Frederick Douglass. I mean, at 6, 7, 8 years old, during my summer vacations, when I’m supposed to be having fun…
Smitty: (Both laugh.) You’re reading James Baldwin, huh?
MJW: Right. Because he really impressed upon me the importance of having a connection of my history, knowing where I came from and knowing everything that it took our people to get to where we are.
Smitty: Yes, absolutely.
MJW: So he had already instilled a certain foundation and I think certain morals and integrity in me as a young kid, so by the time I got to Cosby, it was like my father gave me the voice, Mr. Cosby gave me the platform, because the show set such a high quality of standards, for one, there was no way I could go from that show and then go do bullcrap.
MJW: And because he was as unapologetic as he was about the show, I picked up a lot of that as well, so I guess it allowed me to have the strength to maintain my integrity. Which at the end of the day I believe is the utmost important thing. The most important thing that you can hold onto, it’s the most valuable thing in this business. It may not seem like it, and holding onto your integrity certainly makes the path a little more difficult and it always seems to be the road less traveled, but I think at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, for me I want to be able to leave this earth with my integrity intact.
Smitty: Yeah, man. I totally feel ya. So now you were in this great show, you had a great deal of wonderful influence, and you were able to intelligently disseminate all of that and it has brought you to where you are, but you gotta tell me, where did the music come in?
MJW: (Both laugh.) Well, you know, the music has always been a part of my life. Again, my dad wanting me to be a jazz pianist. When I was a baby, he used to sit me in my little carrier and would sit me in front of the speakers and play jazz.
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.
Smitty: But that’s real.
MJW: Yes, sir.
Smitty: It is so real.
MJW: Yes, sir.
Smitty: And I can tell you that your audience is not only nodding to the groove but they’re also nodding in agreement with the spoken word. (Laughs.)
MJW: Oh yeah, they get it.
Smitty: You know? Because it’s those commonalities of life in music that is a serious attraction.
Smitty: So, yeah, that one and “Ascension,” oh, man.
Smitty: You know? That’s heavy.
MJW: Thank you.
Smitty: And I love my boy, Gerald Albright, his contribution there.
MJW: Yes, sir.
Smitty: Gerald Albright can play with anybody anywhere.
MJW: Oh, yeah.
Smitty: And jump right in, you know?
MJW: Yeah, sax or bass.
Smitty: Yeah, exactly. Thank you! (Both laugh.) Yes.
MJW: That’s what I love about him. When he told me that he actually went on tour as Anita Baker’s bass player I was so blown away. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Yeah, man, and it was a while before I knew that and I just kinda looked at him sideways like how did you hide that, you know?
Smitty: With me not knowing, I said, man, I did not know that and I was just so overwhelmed that I didn’t know that, you know?
Smitty: And he’s got some chops.
MJW: Yeah, man, he does.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s another track that really struck me. Oh, “What if Summer Never Comes?”
Smitty: Whoo, that’s heavy.
MJW: That was a fun track and I actually produced that track for the other poet on that song, Poetri.
MJW: Poetri is one of the def poetry jam…Broadway guys. He’s a Tony Award winning poet, so I’d actually produced that track for his record and it just came out so great, I was like “Dude, you gotta let me put this on my record.”
MJW: He was like “Oh yeah.” (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Oh yeah, you gotta share when it comes out like that, you know?
MJW: Yeah, man, yeah.
Smitty: I love the way you designed the album cover and you featured some of your favorite instruments there.
MJW: Yeah, yeah. The photographer is Conrad Montgomery—I’ve known the guy for literally 20 years. He’s a buddy of mine from New York who lives out here in L.A. and also the young lady who designed the CD cover is also another friend of mine who I’ve known for about 20 years.
Smitty: Yeah, Kami Lerner.
MJW: Yeah, and it’s funny because Kami started doing her artistry thing around the same time I started playing bass, so it’s just a really great full circle with this record in terms of my friends who have supported me and who I have supported over a lot of our lives.
Smitty: Yeah, that is beautiful, man. And I love this statement, and I’m just gonna quote you here: “I do not fear the devil because his playground cannot match the level of my spiritual path.”
Smitty: Whoo, you know?
MJW: Yeah. (Laughs.) As cliché and as corny as it sounds, when artists talk about their work really being God’s work and they’re just being the instrument…
MJW: As cliché as it sounds, that’s so totally true so much of the time. And a lotta times I will look at a lyric and listen to a lyric and just kind of sit there and be like “I wrote that?”
MJW: You know, like “Wow, that came through me?”
MJW: And that’s really a great feeling because a lotta times—and I heard Bill Withers say this—a lotta times you may hear things, you may hear a song, you may hear a lyric that someone’s written and you say “Damn, I wish I wrote that.”
Smitty: (Laughs.) How many times?
MJW: You know? And I think what’s so pleasing to me is that there are times here and there where I may hear a line and my first reaction is that like “Wow, I wish I wrote that. Oh, wait, I did write that. That’s hot!” (Both laugh.) And it’s that moment of pride. It’s not conceit, it’s not ego, it’s like “Wow, I can produce the same kind of work that produces that same feeling of hearing somebody else’s stuff that really inspires me.”
MJW: That makes it.
Smitty: Yeah, and that’s a very humble way of looking at it. I mean, a humble feeling. It’s quite the opposite of the radical pride, you might say.
MJW: Yeah, yeah, totally.
Smitty: Yeah, man. Well, Malcolm, I tell ya, man, I am just blown away and love this record. I highly recommend this, man.
MJW: Great, thank you, Smitty.
Smitty: Yeah, those fascinating lyrics that blow you away, it’s double when it comes our way, you know? And it’s a beautiful thing, man, and I congratulate you and I would say keep doing your thing, keep your flava strong, brotha, because you’re doing some beautiful work.
MJW: (Laughs.) Thank you. I appreciate that, Smitty, and I really appreciate that on such an entirely different level in that this project has really been, you know, for me it’s been a labor of love. I don’t have a record label behind me, I don’t have a touring budget behind me.
MJW: Every cent that went into this record came out of my pocket and out of blood, sweat and tears. I mean, it’s like this record is really—it’s me.
Smitty: Yeah, in the true sense.
MJW: So to be able to put out work like that that is so touching to me and for other people to receive it and get it, I mean, it makes me very proud but also makes me very grateful that I actually have….I’ve got something worthwhile to offer to the music world.
Smitty: Oh yes, absolutely. Speaking of that, how can people get this record?
MJW: Ah, thank you for asking me. (Both laugh.) Because it’s a totally independent project, I sell it at live shows and I sell it off of my Web site, www.malcolmjamalwarner.com.
Smitty: All right, very cool.
MJW: You need to go to www.malcolmjamalwarner.com or if your have readers who I’m sure are My Space heads, you can go to www.myspace.com/malcolmjamalwarner.
Smitty: Very cool, man.
MJW: And then also, on both sides it also tells when we’re performing because I do a lot of out-of-town gigs.
Smitty: Oh, cool.
MJW: And again, because I don’t have a touring budget, when I go to different towns, I usually use pickup bands and use local musicians.
Smitty: Oh, yeah. I know the drill.
MJW: Which has been obviously cost-effective but it’s also really great for me as a musician because I get to go around the country and play with so many different cats, which obviously influences my playing.
Smitty: Yeah, you get to stretch out a little bit and see some new stuff. Yeah, man.
MJW: Yeah, man, yeah, yeah.
Smitty: So now I know with your live shows you also do a one-man show-type format. Talk a little bit about that.
MJW: Yeah, well, Love & Other Social Issues is the name of the one-man show and that’s a theatrical production and that show, a lot of that is based on the poetry. There are some pieces that I take from the record that I use in the one-man show and a lot of stuff it’s just poetry that doesn’t necessarily work with music. A lot of the record was poetry and was written and then I wrote music around it and put it to music.
MJW: That’s probably half the record. It started out as poems. So the theatrical production is literally a full-on theatrical experience. Like it’s not me at a mic doing poetry for an hour and a half; it’s literally there’s a set, there’s blocking, there’s music, there’s lighting changes, it’s a full-on theatrical production, and over the summer we did a six-week run here in Los Angeles and got really wonderful reviews. Every single review that was written on the show was a great review, from L.A. Times to L.A. Weekly to Backstage to Music Connection. Everyone really gave the show a lot of love.
Smitty: Wow, so are we gonna see more of that?
MJW: Yeah, we’re actually putting together and talking to some people to put it on the road. I did it two years at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem in 2003 and 2005, and this summer was the actual West Coast premier, so this summer was great because I did the one-man show, got great reviews, and we also played Playboy Jazz Festival this year as well. Which was really a blast.
Smitty: Yeah, man, that’s always a tight show. (Laughs.)
MJW: Yeah, yeah, that was great. We were an opening band for that and a couple of bands later Marcus Miller performed, and at the end of his show, he brought me on stage and gave me his bass.
MJW: He strapped it on me and I’m playing Marcus Miller’s bass with his band. (Laughs.)
MJW: And he hears us playing and he goes and gets his bass clarinet and starts playing with his horn section. It was awesome.
Smitty: (Laughs.) How cool is that? That’s the kind of cat Marcus is, you know?
Smitty: He’s a cool cat, man. I love that brotha. Yeah, man. Well, hey, man, that’s fantastic. So we have that to look forward to and I know everyone that caught that show certainly would like to see it again, you know?
MJW: Yeah, we’re definitely gonna put it back out there.
Smitty: And that’s incredible. Wow, Malcolm, man, you really got it together, man, and I applaud you for it.
MJW: Thank you, Smitty.
Smitty: Absolutely. So go to his Web site, check out his My Space, and by the way, you’re My Space is tight. Whoo!
MJW: (Laughs.) Thank you, sir.
Smitty: Man, I’ll say to everybody, you’ve gotta visit his My Space because, man, when I logged onto your My Space, it was on!
MJW: It is, that’s Kami. Kami designed the My Space page and the Malcolm-Jamal Warner Web site.
Smitty: Oh, really?
Smitty: Well, let’s give her some props, man.
MJW: Yeah, man, she’s really dope. People can check her out at www.kamiart.com. She’s really an amazing artist as well as Web designer.
Smitty: Oh, very cool. Well, Kami, we got you, girl! (Both laugh.) Absolutely. Well, Malcolm, man, I wanna say thank you so much for spending some time with The Smitty.
MJW: Hey, no problem. I appreciate your interest, man.
Smitty: Yeah, and I wanna say once again to music lovers, you gotta get out there, check out his live show, go to his Web site, find out where he’s appearing close to you, it’s well worth it, you’re gonna love it, and you gotta pick up this record because I’m telling ya, it’s not like any other record I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a few. (Laughs.) And you’re gonna love this because it’s so real and the grooves are amazing. You gotta check this out. It’s called Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s Miles Long Love & Other Social Issues.
MJW: Yes, sir.
Smitty: Hey, Malcolm, thanks so much, man. The best to you the rest of this year 2007 and 2008.
MJW: Hey, no problem, Smitty. Thank you, man.
Smitty: Let’s do this again, man. Let’s get back together and do this again maybe sometime next year, and see what else is happening you. .
MJW: Sweet. I’d love to.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.malcolmjamalwarner.com and www.myspace.com/malcolmjamalwarner
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