Malcolm-Jamal Warner is best known for his role as Theo Huxtable The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992, and given that show’s depressing decline in recent years, it must be a huge pain in the neck for him to talk about.
Luckily here at bassist We’re only interested in his career as a musician, and in any case he’s had decades of acclaimed performances behind him Malcolm and Eddie, the inhabitant, Sons of Anarchyand many, many other television and film productions to be proud of – no wonder he was in high spirits when we met him recently.
Tell us about your take on music, Malcolm.
“I’m a poet, so in my band I recite my poetry over my music. I didn’t start playing bass until I was 26, and since I’ve always played with advanced musicians, the best way for me to communicate has always been music theory. When I first picked up the bass I delved deeply into music theory because I knew it would be useful.
“In fact, I went to the Musicians’ Institute a year after I started bass because I was working on a TV show at the time and we were on hiatus. I had a short time off so I attended their 10 week bass intensive. [Six-string bass pioneer] Todd Johnson was one of my teachers and he said to me, ‘Dude, I’m telling you, you’re way over your head – but hang in there!’
“So I stayed in the class and collected all the material, but it took me the next three or four years to really understand all that stuff. Since then, theory has always been my way of communicating what I want.”
how did you get in bass guitar?
“I was working on a TV show at the time. I had worked with Mr. Cosby for eight years where he had created an environment that made everyone involved keenly aware of the images of people of color we were sending over the airwaves. On the new show, I found myself in a position where I was the only one taking care of the show’s pictures of people of color.
“I’ve literally battled every day with writers, producers, fellow actors and the viewing audience, and at some point I realized, ‘I need a hobby — something that has nothing to do with acting.’ I thought about it and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve always wanted to make music.
“When I pick up an instrument, it gives me something to do. I can practice scales to a metronome in my dressing room to keep myself centered. I’ll never start a band, I’ll never become one of those cheesy actors who dabble in music. That was my whole approach – and then, of course, it turned into a different career. I’ve made three albums, I’ve got a band, I’ve done jazz festivals and cruises – all of that.”
What motivated you to record albums of your music?
“I just got out of MI and figured the quickest way for me to develop as a bassist was to start a band and start dating clubs. I put a band together and pretty soon we were doing covers of everything from John Coltrane to Living Color although acting was still my main career.
“But what happened was I was broke after every gig because after I paid the band and after I paid the videographer I lost money – so I felt like I had a CD to sell after the show , I would not always be out of pocket. I didn’t have my own music, so – because I was already an established poet with other projects – I decided to do poetry with my band and create my own music. That way I would have product.”
You recite your poems while playing the bass at the same time. How do you match your words to the bass?
“It’s just about knowing the rhythm. If I know where one is, there are a few sentences I can start with. It’s really a constantly evolving thing. However, I can’t do a whole sentence this way because it takes so much on both ends.”
You were in Robert Glasper’s band when he won the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2015.
“Yes totally. I wasn’t aiming for that at all! It was really great how that came about. Robert worked in the studio where my MD had offices and I just came and hung out. Robert knew I played bass and he told me about a friend of his whose daughter was one of the kids killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and he wanted to write a poem for this play.
“Two weeks later he was mixing the record and I came over to hang out. He said, “Look, at the end of the day my buddy couldn’t do the poem because it was too close to his home.” I was like, ‘Give me the track and I’ll go upstairs and write the poem.’ And literally, after an hour and a few edits, I had the whole piece written. If I had to create something on-site, it was like a channel would open up and it would come out.”
Tell us about the bass gear you play.
“Well, Gallien-Krueger has always been a big supporter. Forest Gallien is a really cool guy and I’ve been using their gear for about 10-12 years now. When I first started playing I used a 60 pound power amp, a five string and my double bass. I didn’t have a roadie, so I packed all that stuff in my truck myself. As a musician, that’s what you should do, right? So soon after that I got the idea to take out a single GK and bass. For effects, I have a Pigtronix Infinity Looper and a reverb.”
What about basses?
“I’m primarily a five-string player. A Xotic was my bass for a long time, and then I played Sadowsky for a few years, which were just as good. Then I went to the Fender Custom Shop in LA and found a refurbished ’60s Jazz, so that’s been my bass for a while. I was also interested in the Sire Marcus bass and Marco Bass from Oregon made me a custom Jazz.”
Who influenced you on the bass?
“Marcus Miller was always at the top of the list. What’s really interesting is that when I was 10 or 11 years old, without even thinking that one day I would be a musician, one of my favorite records was Luther Vandross Never too much (1981). This record speaks to my soul to this day. I know every lyric on that LP, and Marcus Miller is on that record, so I grew up with Marcus affecting my life without even realizing it.
“When I started playing bass I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been listening to this guy my whole life. This guy really impacted my life growing up.’ That’s why he’s at the top of the list. Then there’s Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Stanley Clarke… It’s funny – when George Duke died [in 2013], I hosted George’s memorial, and a bunch of musicians came by. Stanley played, and he did the whole flamenco thing on his piano. When it was over, I thought, ‘This looks like it’s going to hurt.’ He said: ‘It does!’
What areas of your game are you working on?
“There’s so much practice and work to do, but I’m studying with Anthony Wellington and have also spent some time with Phil Mann and Rich Brown of your magazine. I know all these great cats that I have had the pleasure of learning with. For me, bass and acting belong together because of the shared discipline, but as an actor I’m obviously much further along.
“I keep telling people that I have great respect for great musicians because of the time, discipline, energy, focus and dedication it takes to be a good musician. I work hard just to keep a good level. People know that I take it seriously and that I’m not just an actor playing some tunes so I can call myself a bassist. I’ll bust my ass!”