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Malcolm-Jamal Warner: "For me, bass and acting go hand in hand because of the discipline they share"

Malcolm-Jamal Warner
(Image credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty)

Malcolm-Jamal Warner is best known for playing the part of Theo Huxtable in The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992, and given that show’s depressing fall from grace in recent years it must be a huge pain in the neck for him to talk about. 

Fortunately, here at Bass Player we’re only interested in his career as a musician, and in any case he’s got decades of acclaimed performances in Malcolm and Eddie, The Resident, Sons of Anarchy, and many, many more TV and film productions to be proud of – so it’s little wonder that he was in a great mood when we caught up with him recently.

Tell us about your approach to 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 because I’ve always played with advanced musicians, the best way I’ve found to communicate has always been through music theory. When I first picked up the bass, I went heavily into music theory because I knew it would be useful. 

“In fact, I went to the Musicians’ Institute a year after picking up the bass, because I was working on a TV show at the time, and we were on hiatus. I had a short period of time free, so I took their 10-week bass intensive. [Six-string bass pioneer] Todd Johnson was one of my teachers, and he told me, ‘Dude, I’m telling you now, you’re in way over your head – but still, hang in there!’ 

“So I stayed in the class and amassed all of the material, but it took me like the next three or four years to really grasp all of that stuff. Since then, theory has always been my way of being able to communicate what I want.”  

How did you get into bass guitar? 

“I was working on a TV show at the time. I had gone from eight years of working with Mr. Cosby, where he created an environment that made everyone involved acutely aware of the images of people of color that we were putting across the airwaves. On the new show, I found myself in a position where I was the only one caring about the show’s images of people of color. 

“Literally every day, I was fighting with writers, producers, fellow actors, and the viewing public, and at some point I realized, ‘I need a hobby – something that doesn’t have to do anything with acting’. I thought about it, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ve always wanted to play music. 

“If I pick up an instrument, it’ll give me something to do. I can practice scales to a metronome in my dressing room to keep me centered. I’ll never start a band, I’ll never become one of those corny actors who get into music’. That was my whole approach – and then, of course, it became another career. I’ve recorded three albums, I’ve got a band, I’ve been doing jazz festivals, and cruises – all of that.”  

What motivated you to start recording albums of your music? 

“I’d just come out of MI, and I figured that the quickest way for me to develop as a bassist was to start a band and start doing club dates. I put a band together, and pretty soon we were doing covers, from John Coltrane to Living Colour, although acting was still my primary career. 

“But what happened was, I was out of pocket after every gig, because after I paid the band, and after I paid the videographer, I was losing money – so I felt like if I had a CD to sell after the show, I wouldn’t always be out of pocket. I had no original music, so – because I was already an established poet with other projects – I decided to start doing poetry with my band, and create my own music. That way, I’d have product.”   

You recite your poetry while playing bass at the same time. How do you match your words to the bass? 

“It’s just knowing the rhythm. If I know where the one is, there’s some phrases I can start on the one. It’s really an ever-evolving thing. I can’t do a whole set that way, though, because it requires so much at both ends.”  

You were in Robert Glasper’s band when he won the Grammy For Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2015. 

“Yeah, totally. That had not been in my sights at all! It was really great how that came about. Robert was working at the studio where my MD had office space, and I just came and hung out. Robert knew I played bass, and he was telling me about a buddy of his whose daughter was one of the kids who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, and he was going to write a poem for this piece. 

“Two weeks later, he was mixing the record, and I came to hang out. He said, ‘Listen, at the end of the day, my buddy couldn’t do the poem because it was too close to home’. I was like, ‘Give me the track and I’ll go upstairs and write the poem.’ And literally, after an hour and some change, I had the whole piece written. When I needed to create something on the spot, it was like a channel opened up and it came out.”  

Tell us about the bass gear that you play. 

“Well, Gallien-Krueger has always been a big supporter. Forest Gallien is a really cool dude, and I’ve been using their gear for probably 10 to 12 years now. When I first started gigging, I took a 60-pound power amp, a five-string and my upright bass. I didn’t have a roadie, so I was packing all that stuff into my truck myself. As a musician, that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? So soon after that, I wised up to taking out a single G-K and one bass. For effects, I have a Pigtronix Infinity Looper and a reverb.”

What about basses? 

“I’m primarily a five-string player. An Xotic was my bass for a long time, and then I ended up playing Sadowsky for a couple of years, which were equally good. Then I was at the Fender custom shop in LA and I found a refurbished '60s Jazz, so that has been my bass for a while. I also got turned on to the Sire Marcus bass, and I have Marco Bass out of Oregon making me a custom Jazz.”   

Who influenced you on bass? 

Marcus Miller was always the top of the list. What’s really interesting is that when I was 10 or 11 years old, never even considering that one day I would end up being a musician, one of my favorite records was Luther Vandross’s Never Too Much (1981). That record just 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 having an influence on my life without even realizing it. 

“When I started playing bass, I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been listening to this guy all my life. This guy has really affected my life growing up.’ So that’s why he’s at the top of that list. Then there’s Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Stanley Clarke... It’s funny – when George Duke passed [in 2013], I hosted George’s memorial, and a bunch of musicians came through. Stanley played, and he was doing the whole flamenco thing on his upright. When it was over, I was like, ‘That looks like it hurts.’ He said, ‘It does!’  

Malcolm-Jamal Warner

(Image credit: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2020)

What areas of your playing do you work on? 

“There’s so much stuff to practice and so much stuff to work on, but I study with Anthony Wellington, and I’ve also spent some time with Phil Mann and Rich Brown from your magazine. I know all these great cats who I’ve had the pleasure of being able to study with. For me, bass and acting go hand in hand because of the discipline they share, but obviously, I’m much further ahead as an actor. 

“I tell people all the time that I have such great respect for great musicians, because of the time, discipline, energy, focus, and commitment it takes just to be an okay musician. I work hard just to maintain an okay level. People know that I take it seriously, and that I’m not just some actor who strums a few tunes so I can call myself a bass player. I bust my ass!”   

Joel McIver

Joel McIver is the Editor of Bass Player magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV and occasionally teaches at BIMM.