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Monday, May 9, 2011

Marvin BuGaLu Smith Local Drum Great & Jazz Man


Marvin Smith is all head & feet. This masterful jazz drummer, a Mid-Hudson resident for the last 10 years, a man who goes by the name of BuGaLu, is that ole cantankerous cat you’ll hear trash-talking lethargic wannabes to the hammers of his understudies’ ears at taverns teeming with chance. One day, a number of years ago, a young musician had lit his fuse, & hurling caution to tornadoes, Marvin was spitting out sparks in a pool of gasoline. “Them cats be livin’ in Candyland, man!...” he shouted at me, adding “they think they all that when they can’t play their way outta’ paper bag...”
BuGaLu was fed up with that young musician who thought the world of himself & expected the world to do the same. BuGaLu was on fire, his voice powerfully rising. He shot rejoinders in blasts of vituperative gunpowder. He screamed into the mouthpiece of his cell phone, then, aiming at me. When flames curled out his nostrils, I heard the call to action & instinctively threw a bucket of water on him.

I was pleased to read Ron Petrides’ recent article on Marvin, published last February in Modern Drummer magazine. This musician, one of the few who can say he sat under the high-hat of the greats until they let him play, Marvin grew up studying under his older brother Earl “Buster” Smith, who played with Eric Dolphy & Oscar Petiford. Visits by hard-hitters like Roy Haynes, Charlie Persip & Donald Byrd were common at the Smith house. At the age of 19, BuGaLu went to California for a gig that, underfunded as it was, changed his 2 week stint into a 2 year stay. During his time in California he was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism & chant, “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo”. After working with funk bands through the late 1960s, BuGaLu then opened a new chapter of his life when left the U.S. for Italia.

There he played with Rocky Roberts, who then was singing soul music in Italian. The group was widely popular & played all across Europe. While in Italy, Marvin started a drum school & also played with his own group Life Force Inc (Karl Potter, congas; Larry Dinwittie, tenor sax; & Marvin’s wife, Patrizia Scascitelli, piano). In Europe he played with great jazz greats like Art Farmer, Chet Baker & Charles Mingus. It was also then that his lasting friendship with Max Roach first took root (1).

When Marvin returned to the U.S in the early 1980s he was hired by Archie Shepp & toured the world with his band (2). One night while playing a gig across the street from the club where Sun Ra was coincidentally playing, between sets BuGaLu went to check out Sun Ra & his band. He was invited to sit in & a new journey began: “Sun Ra paid me $100 that night & said ‘see ya tomorrow night’“, recalls BuGaLu with lively effusion. Tomorrow night quickly turned into several years, & Marvin traveled all over with this band too.

His return to the U.S. with the new millennium brought him to the Hudson Valley, & a now seasoned BuGaLu blew up New Paltz in 2001 while sitting in with professors of the Jazz Studies Program at the club Oasis. Two students of that program, Andrew Greeney & Kesai Riddick have developed into drummers of a higher breed, since they have been thrown, have requested permission to dive, into the oft-dreaded deep water. The Andrew Greeney Jazz Quartet plays all over the Hudson Valley & is currently lighting up Rhinebeck’s Zen Dog Cafe on a regular basis.

To become one of Marvin’s students it is necessary to do more than simply pay for lessons & show up on time. It requires arduous technical training, spiritual exploration & an unyielding desire to decipher where & how the rhythms of the universe participate in a single polyrhythm. Marvin’s music is similar to Gospel music in its upward movement; but whereas Gospel music is uplifting (as if from a hand above), Marvin’s music is an uprising, self-empowered & empowering.

BuGaLu’s method for keeping the bar way up is the jam session, where he brings masters of jazz to his workshop so that his students can & must jump in the “deep water”, where they are forced out of their comfort zone & into new territories, different times & feels... While for a relatively inexperienced student this can be frightening & embarrassing, BuGaLu maintains that growth in music is possible by getting in over one’s head. With regards to his own early & trying years, BuGaLu remarks, “I got sent home from the jam sessions in New York every night for 20 years... & the cats sending me home wasn’t no light weights either! I got sent home by cats like Lee Morgan & Roy Haynes.” When he says ‘sent home’ he means that there were players at the jam session who towered over him & made him feel like he wasn’t playing at all. What he learned, & what he teaches now to his students, has much to do about transformation: “I become the shape of what I’m hearing”, says BuGaLu, “& flow like the waves coming in & out.”

But that is it! Not fire! Not the fear that BuGaLu, while ranting about some not so up & coming euthyphronian drummer, with ire like I’ve never seen, would actually burst into flames before my eyes in rancorous & fatal combustion; but because he was not on fire that day & is not, as I had thought, a cantankerous cat at all. Not even feline. No. This man is a cephalopod (perhaps an octopus or giant squid), with his sharpened depth perception & ability to camouflage while using his tentacles to reach equilibrium in the undulating currents of the jazz aquatic. Yes. Ecco il polpo, davvero! This BuGaLu, this coleoidean cephalopod whose molluscan shell has been internalized & now is absent altogether. Curious to this class of musicians is the presence of statocysts, which permit a drummer like Marvin to listen with his tentacles. Hence, the fusion of sound perception & mobility.

As an aquatic relative of the terrestrial chameleon, BuGaLu is capable of completely camouflaging into his surroundings. Yes. I now know for sure. This is why I threw a bucket of water on Marvin BuGaLu Smith that day: because, while his camouflage is made possible in part by chromatophores, which modulate the brightness & design of his un-shelled exterior in relation to the background they see, it is also made possible by other cells, like iridophores & leucophores that reflect light from the environment.

Marvin’s online presence (3) is astounding with his YouTube Channel & Vimeo Channel where you’ll find a whopping 1000 + videos, from jam sessions to lessons, concerts &, in general, a wealth of jazz for any enthusiast, player or student. But seeing BuGaLu live is an altogether different & richer experience. Hold on to your hats & catch him in the act at Fat Cat in Manhattan, where he plays once or twice a month with jazz legend George Braith.

Joseph Mulligan
New Paltz, NY

(1) It was during his time in Italy that he also began his friendship with Max Roach. “Larry, Karl, & I were at the Duomo & we saw this black cat across the street. I said, ‘that cat looks a lot like Max man’ & it was. Max didn’t know where to go to eat & enjoy his time in Rome so BuGaLu showed him around & a great friendship began. “Max bought us all dinner that day.” For more on this, see the interview with Piero Borri.
(2) The band included Santi Debriano on Bass & Kenny Werner on Piano. Their Album “Down Home New York“ won album of the year, 1984, in Downbeat magazine.
(3) The best way to stay up on performances is through the musician’s Facebook Account, which is updated regularly with news, show listings, jam sessions & as many video clips as one could ask for. 



  1. I would love to meet the person that
    Joseph Mulligan wrote this paper for because it's a great piece of work thank you Joseph Mulligan
    Baba Marvin BuGaLu Smith

  2. I'd be happy to meet you as well. I had the pleasure of seeing you perform at the Falcon. I'm at the store (Barner Books) or would be happy to stop and see you at your convenience.

    David (Barner Books Owner)

  3. This is a very good article about my master Marvin Bugalu Smith !
    Thank you very much !