But less than three months after Wadud handed over the “By Myself” master tapes, he died at age 75 from complications of multiple illnesses.
The cellist’s son, the R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn, sees the new edition of “By Myself” as key to preserving his father’s legacy. “I think it’s going to warm his heart,” he said, clarifying his belief that those who have died are still spiritually present. “I think that it’s going to mean a lot to a lot of people around the world whose lives he’s touched and changed and influenced.”
Born in 1947, Wadud started out playing saxophone and picked up the cello in fourth grade. Nurtured by what he later called the “dynamite” music-education programs then available in Cleveland’s public schools, he went on to perform in local youth orchestras while also playing alto in a jazz combo. As a teenager, he discovered free jazz, inspired in part by the Cleveland-born saxophonist Albert Ayler, and began exploring the style along with the saxophonist Yusuf Mumin and the drummer then known as Haasan-Al-Hut, his bandmates in the Black Unity Trio.
By the 1970s, after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance, he was living in East Orange, N.J., and excelling as a member of the New Jersey Symphony, on Broadway and in studios, and on the cutting edge of the jazz avant-garde, with bandleaders including the multi-instrumentalist Julius Hemphill and the saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
In 1977, when he entered the Manhattan studio Blank Tapes to record “By Myself,” he was ready to synthesize his various musical dialects. On “Expansions,” he sounds like a jazz bassist, walking a brisk line, before switching to arco and summoning scraping cries and heaving groans out of the strings. On “Happiness,” he uses the bow percussively, generating skipping rhythms and foreshadowing a statement he made about his instrument in the 1980 interview: “If I want it to be a drum, it can be a drum.”
As Janel Leppin, another adventurous cellist, said, “You’re taught from a very young age, ‘This is right and this is wrong,’” noting that Wadud’s album “is just a really bold expression of eschewing all that baggage.” James Newton, a flutist who collaborated extensively with Wadud, said the cellist brought African string-instrument techniques into his own language: “In ‘By Myself,’ I hear resonances of the kora, oud and molo, along with their American transplants, including the banjo and acoustic guitar, played with the slide.”