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.