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Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness

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AAJ: How did you make it to New York?

IM: My first trip to New York was with Sam Cooke. That was just an eye opener. We were workin' from the south, all the way up. We played the Apollo Theater and then we went on. I came back to New Orleans. There was some kind of mix-up with Sam and the guitarist that played with Sam, and another drummer named June Gardner, from New Orleans. The guitarist wanted an older guy to play with him. But Sam hired me, so he couldn't do anything about it. So, he called June Gardner and offered him the gig. June took the gig, and told me I could have his gig in town. So I took his gig in town and he went out on the road with Sam.

The next time I saw Sam, I was Jerry Butler's musical director, me and Curtis Mayfield. He asked me why I quit, and I told him I never quit. He fired me. He said he would have NEVER fire me. Then we found out the guitarist pulled a fast one. So I was already with Jerry, and Curtis Mayfield was the guitarist. So I stood with Jerry. We were workin' at the Apollo Theater, workin' all the theaters. Then Curtis put the Impressions back together and he made me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I went with Curtis. At this particular time I was living in Chicago. So I was recording a lot of music in Chicago with Curtis. I decided that Chicago's weather in the wintertime was very, very cold. So I decided after about three and a half years I was gonna move to New York.

So I moved to New York. I was workin' at the Apollo Theater. I had quite a bit of money because Curtis gave me a point and a half of Curtom Publishing. I didn't really know what that was at that time, but it was a lot of money. I came to New York and went to see a show that was there and the musical director, who knew me, asked me what I was doing in town. I said I'm living here. In the next couple of days I got a call from him. Charlie Persip was the drummer. He fired Charlie Persip and gave me the job. That was my first beginning of workin' a steady job in New York City.

Because I could play all of that music. All of the acts that was on the road, everybody knew me. A lot of guys, at that time, didn't know how to play the funk that I play. So it was a new thing in New York City. I was the only guy to play that type of funk. So I would have guys coming by and watching me play. They would say, "What is this?" I tell you, man, I had no idea I was starting a trend, that I was playin' a style of drums that the guys who play the drums today learned how to play from. I had no idea. They was tellin' me this, but I was stickin' to what Mr. Barbarin said. All I was doin' was workin,' you know? I was married and had a kid and I was trying to take care of my family. It wasn't that I wanted to be famous or something like that.

AAJ: Is that where you started hearing more jazz, in New York?

IM: Well, yeah. I was listening to jazz because when I finished work at the Apollo Theater, the guys would say "Max Roach is playin' over there," and I would go to the club and see him play. Then I'd go down to Birdland and see who was playin' there, you know, Miles Davis and Coltrane, Cannonball, all of these groups. I'd go there just to hear something else.

AAJ: Philly Joe?

IM: Oh man! Philly was my buddy. I would go hear Philly Joe and all of these cats play, man. Gee whiz. It was a long time before I would get the nerve to go up to them and say to them I played the drums. I'd just be hanging around, listenin' at what they were sayin.' I was too young to have a drink in Birdland. They had a space in the club they called the Peanut Gallery. That's where all the young people used to go and have a Coca Cola and listen to the music.

As I got older, I would go out and hear guys playin.' One time I went from the Apollo Theater down to the Five Spot to hear this guy that all the members in the band was talkin' about that played three horns at one time. I thought they was crazy. I thought it was impossible. How could you play three horns at one time? You only have one mouth, you know? I went down and it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was amazin' to hear this guy do this. So I asked the drummer, could I play one tune with him. It was like a magnet drawing me to him. So he asked me where I was from. His name was Candy Finch. And he let me play. And after the melody, Roland Kirk turned around and said, "Who's that on them drums?" And I said I was Leo Morris. And he said, "Keep that beat! Keep that beat!" And the next thing you know I end up playin' the whole set.

And then this guy came to me and said, "man, you sound great. I'd like you to play a concert with me at Town Hall." I said I was workin' at the Apollo. He said, "Oh, man. If you can work it in, I want you to play this concert." So I said, "OK, what's your name?" He said Kenny Dorham. I said, "Oh man, I can't do this." He said, "Yeah, you can do it." So I had a couple rehearsals with him and played the concert at Town Hall. It was Kenny Dorham's band, Freddie Hubbard's band and Lee Morgan's band, in one night. Kenny Dorham's band played first, then all the guys were saying "Who is this drummer?" They said, "It's this guy from New Orleans." That's how the jazz guys got a hold of me.

I never played jazz before. Never of that caliber. I met Betty Carter there and George Coleman and McCoy Tyner, all of these guys I met at this one gig. The next thing you know, jazz guys started calling me. I was in Betty Carter's band with George Coleman and John Hicks and Paul Chambers. Then I was making records for Blue Note with Lou Donaldson and all of these Alligator boogaloo and all these organ records I was makin.' Guys were callin' me to do these records. They never gave me any music. A few times with Horace Silver, he gave me some music and played it. And he said, "No, that don't sound right. Throw that page away and play something." They would play a song and I would just make up a rhythm to it. If I was a smart dude at that time, I could be rich today [laughter], by just writing out those parts and making them pay for it. But I was a guy who was just very friendly and kind. And kind guys, a lot of times, they take advantage of you.

But I made a lot of records with organ. The organ trend came on the scene and I was makin' all these records with Charles Earland and Dr. Lonnie Smith. We have a great history of all of these records that we have out. Now they call it Acid Jazz. But that was the beginning of something that was a trend that was happening. And during this period, a lot of drummers in town was just listenin' at what I was doin' and copying what I was doin.' So it was like a new trend. I had no idea that this was happening, until "Hair." I'm the original drummer from the musical "Hair."

We were on Broadway four years and a half on that play. And the drum rhythms from "Hair" belongs to me. It's mine. I created it. A guy gave me 43 pages of chord changes, with just titles on it. And I made up all these rhythms. I played the show for about a year and a half and I got really sick. And they had to send in a sub, and there was no music. So the play was in an uproar for about five days until I got well and came back. They had me get the drum book written. A drummer friend of mine who was good at that, Warren Smith, he wrote the drum book for "Hair." Then I would have different drummers coming by to hear me play "Hair." Bernard Purdie, Alphonse Mouzon, Billy Cobham, all of these guys were coming by checking out what I was doing with the drums, so they could be a sub. But they couldn't play the show. But they took pieces of me with them from that. They took pieces of rhythm. Because it was a new trend that was happenin.' So they developed what they heard, the way they wanted it. But it all came from me.

I was recording a lot. Playin' the music in "Hair." You know, "Hair" had many plays going on around the country, and overseas. So I would go to Chicago and show the drummer how to play, go to Los Angeles, show the drummer how to play. I'd go around at every "Hair" opening to show guys how to play the show. That opened up a whole new avenue for me, being on Broadway. So my exposure in New York City was—today they say, "You da man, you da man." [laughter]

But I still didn't know this. At that time I had four kids. So my whole thing was trying to take care of these kids. I bought a house in New Jersey. So I was busy trying to work and take care of responsibilities. Not trying to be so famous. I would hear people say things, and it was nice to hear and nice to have nice write-ups and things like that. Still today, I like to hear nice words when I talk to people and they write about me. Because I'm getting older now and getting kind of sentimental and saying kind of, "Did I really do that? Did I pass that much time?"

I remember when we recorded with Roberta Flack. She asked me to join her band. And I said I'm with "Hair." And she said, "Whenever you quit 'Hair' I want you in my band." After a while I decided to quit "Hair" and as soon as I did I went with Roberta Flack. We had Eric Gale, Ralph MacDonald, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey and myself. We were recording all of these records.

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