Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness

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AAJ: That probably came in handy playin' rhythm and blues.

IM: Yeah. That was the basis of our music was rhythm and blues at that time. I was never a jazz drummer. I really don't think today that I'm a jazz drummer. They kind of made me do this. And I ended up making so many records with everybody that they started saying I was a jazz drummer, you know? But I started off playin' rhythm and blues with Arthur when we had the band. We used to back up all of the artists that would come to New Orleans. Big Joe Turner. Muddy Waters. We was the band that backed them up. So we always knew the top 10 tunes that was on the charts at that time.

That's what I played. I have a style that I made up due to the marching band in the street. We had two Indian tribes in the neighborhood. Donald Harrison's father was the chief of our neighborhood. Then we had Uncle Charlie, he was the chief of a couple blocks down. I used to follow the Indians. They'd sing these songs and play these tambourines. So the rhythms of the tambourine, I combined them. I took that rhythm and the rhythm from the second line and that's what I played.

AAJ: You knew at a young age music was going to be your life?

IM: Yeah. I got hooked one Mardi Gras day. I think I was about 9. Some Dixieland guys came by to get a drummer. My mother and I and my brother were going out to the Mardi Gras. They said they needed a drummer. This old guy asked my mother could I play on the back of this truck with these old Dixieland musicians. And she said, "he's 9 years old and he's going to enjoy the Mardi Gras." Some how or another, he convinced my mother to let me go with them.

They had a big bass drum and one snare drum and a symbol. They built up some beer cases for a seat for me and I played with these old guys, man. And these guys were saying, "This kid can play." After about six hours of touring through the streets of New Orleans, they started passing out money and he gave me two $5 bills. And I asked him, do we get paid to do this? And he said yes. And I think that was it for me. That was the end of shinin' shoes and trimmin' rose bushes and cleanin' swimmin' pools. I used to do that to make a little extra money to go to the movies, you know? But that was it for me. I started right away, when my brother wasn't home, to practice the drums. I thought it out as a way of makin' money to get the things that I wanted to get without bothering my dad, you know? It led from one thing to another. Then Arthur needed a drummer. I was 15 and they recorded a song called "Mardi Gras Mambo" which is the theme of the Mardi Gras today.

We worked and worked and worked and worked, next thing you know I was on the road with Arthur and a band. We were on the road in '57, that was the launching of my road career.

AAJ: You played those early years with people like Fats Domino and Sam Cooke.

IM: Yeah, I did some things with Fats. And I was Sam Cooke's personal drummer. I was workin' for a guy named Joe Jones. He had a record out called "You Talk Too Much." It was a big record at the time. The record had gotten kind of cold. I was going to a nice restaurant in New Orleans to get a sandwich with Joe Jones, and I'm waiting for my sandwich and Joe goes in the dining room and sees Sam. Sam is complaining about the drummer with the Upsetters band. He was on tour in New Orleans that night. Joe said, "Look, my drummer plays anything." So he came and he got me to sit at the dining table with Sam. Sam said "Do you know any of my music?" I said, "yeah." He started singin' and I started playin' on the table and he hired me.

AAJ: Did you have other influences on the drums during this time?

IM: There were guys around New Orleans. I didn't know too much about drummer outside New Orleans. There were so many great drummers in New Orleans. Earl Palmer was there. Ed Blackwell was there. John Boudreaux and Smokey Johnson. We used to rehearse in my house, but they were more advanced than I was. We used to go and watch all of these guys play. That was my influence until I started practicing with John Boudreau and Smokey Johnson. They knew how to play like Max Roach and Art Blakey. They would come to my house. They would play Art Blakey and Max Roach. And I would say "I never heard of these guys? Who is this guy?" And they brought these records. And I would say, "Aw, I can't do that, man. I'll stay with what I do. I can't do that." And that was my first introduction hearing Art Blakey and Max Roach.

AAJ: All that diversity in your playin' comes from New Orleans.

IM: Yeah, because it's such a musical place. I didn't really know that until I went to New York how much music I heard in New Orleans and how versatile the drummers were. We were taught to read through the school system, because you couldn't play the drums if you didn't know how to read the parts. We were playin' all these waltzes, "The Blue Danube Waltz," and overtures, "Stars and Stripes," and you had to read these drum parts. The professor made you, one at a time, read these parts, or else you got out of the band.

So we were kind of versatile in playin' the drums. New Orleans is so thick with rhythms, because I guess the many mixtures of people—the French and the Indians and the Africans, all different varieties that the French put in the colony. It made a nice gumbo. That's what I used to say. So I learned a lot of music. I could play, but I didn't really know I could play. They were sayin' to me I could play. But I never thought of myself as being that good because there was so many great drummers around and my brothers were drummers. They kept sayin' I was that good, but I didn't believe 'em.

I had one teacher in my life that I paid for one lesson. His name was Paul Barbarin. He used to play with Louis Armstrong. All of the seasoned guys used to say if you want to learn how to play drums, you got to take lessons with Paul Barbarin. So I asked Mr. Barbarin to come to my house so I could take a lesson. He came by. He said "Ok, sit down at the drums and play the intro to 'Bourbon Street Parade.'" He said play a waltz, and I played a waltz. He said play a mambo, and I played a mambo. He said play a cha-cha, and I played a cha-cha. He said, "Listen, son. I'm a very busy man. One day you're gonna be a great drummer, but when they say to you that you're great, let in go in one ear and out the other ear. Now gimme my two dollars."

And that was it, man. [laughter] That was the first and last and only paid lesson I ever had in my life. And I took that knowledge with me until about seven years ago that I had to acknowledge that I was with Max Roach and Art Blakely and Elvin [Jones], that they had said to me that I was in their class. Art gave me a set of symbols 37 years ago when he heard me play and they told me that I was great and I was something special. So just recently I started speaking about it, that I do have something special about my playin.'

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