Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs
“ One time I made a mistake. [Miles] called me down to his room and I'm nervous and I made the mistake of asking....'Am I doing okay, Miles?' And his reply was, 'I didn't say nothin', did I?' ”
We have lost one of the greats.
The proverbial six-degrees-of-separation aside, Don Alias, has played with everyone. Active since the late '50s, he stands as easily the most influential percussionist in jazz and one of the few who ever transcended jazz and flamenco successfully and could by all accounts truly swing hard on congas. Alias has created or added an almost spiritual dimension to the pivotal work of Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell (touring with the dream band of Mike Becker, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays), Sting, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, John Scofield, George Benson, Lou Rawls, Roberta Flack, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Weather Report. The list is nearly endless. But like all great art, his music will continue to press the truth about all that is music, all that is art, all that is spiritual and human, and the apex of each.
Among musicians it's a well known fact that, beyond all other instrumentalists, percussionists and drummers tend to have an innate and immediate connection, camaraderie and simpatico with each otherthat sense of being instant brotherssomething the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine and Tony Williams could easily attest to, relative to Alias.
Though no doubt whatever Alias decided to do with his life would have benefited from his innate sensitivity and ability to listen and instantly respond, his original focus was medicine and biochemistry. But after early stints with Nina Simone as her musical director, and tours with Dizzy Gillespie, word spread fast and Alias soon became a top call percussionist.
Alias was nothing if not full of life and energy. He truly livedcompletely and to the edge. He always wanted to do itwhatever "it was"right now," and put all of himself into it, because he knew life would always intervene, and it would happen whether we're living it or not. Don knew how to do it and showed that, with every blistered finger, every knowing grin, every drop of blood and sweat he paid to do this gig he so loved, and made us lovelife and musiche could make them one.
I last spoke with Alias on Sunday March 19, 2006 for close to an hour-and-a-half, and at the end, since he was tired and we'd still barely scratched the surface, we decided to set up another time to talk in the following week or two. Being in autobiographical mode, he was excited but not just about the interviewhe was excited about everything, and seemed ready to jump on any and every project equally and immediately. But life intervened this time. The first week blurred into the second, and by Wednesday, March 29 there was an incredibly disturbing rumor going around that Don had passed in his apartment sometime Tuesday, March 28, just nine days after we'd talked. The worst part was that it wasn't a rumor. Don will be profoundly missed by so many. What follows is Don's final interview.
All About Jazz: Originally you were studying biochemistry. How did that get turned around, 'cause that's really a stretch isn't it?
Don Alias: Yeah, it sure was. When I was coming up the drum thing kind of started with the guys around the block, you know what I mean? Me and my brother, when we were about eight, nine, ten years old we grew up with the calypso thing, not the reggae thing. My family's from St. Maarten in the West Indies and we were surrounded with the calypso thing, you know. That's what the feel was. Harry Belafonte was out doing his thing so we were surrounded with that kind of music, so me and my brother started playing that stuff around the house and we got hanging with the guys on the block and kind of added a bit of calypso to it. And we used to actually go out in the street and down in the subway and if my mother had caught us she would've killed us [laughs]she just didn't want us to be doing thatand we just started doing it like that.
I wasn't playing the conga drums and I had these tiny little drums and he would sing and people would throw money so we'd make a little change. We ended up abruptly getting caught [laughs] doing it! And we were asked to do a kind of audition at a famous club in Harlem called the Baby Grand so we snuck out of the house and went down there and she came downstairs and my feet were sticking out of the covers 'cause I'm kind of tall and she said, "wait a minute" and she tracked us down through the neighbors in the block and came down and busted us at the Baby Grand playin'.
They wouldn't allow us in the club so we played in front of the club. And when I say busted I mean busted. And there was this Eartha Kitt dance foundation at the Harlem YMCA and they were looking for some drummers to perform with her dance foundation. You've gotta remember, for a guy who's playing conga drums in Harlem, to play for a dance group, that was really an ultimate thing, for guys like us. Because what you do is play for half an hour or 45 minutes while they're dancing around and you get a lot of stamina and training; you learn a lot of stuff with the drummers. So I joined this Eartha Kitt Dance Foundation and one day she decided that she would come in and teach a class.
And, that was quite a deal. She was a star at the time and she had all these records but she brought in like two of her own drummers and these guys were like really pros. They were professional players, you know? I wasn't even near where they were and they started to play for the dancers and I started to play and they looked at me and they very, very consciously and judiciously, for their own satisfaction, told me, "why don't you stop playing and listen . That's what I did. I was a little embarrassed by it but I did.
So I started listening and started picking up things and different rhythms. I can give you a lot of titles...a lot of Haitian rhythms; there's one called a Yambalou. And then Eartha Kitt got invited to the Newport Jazz Festival. This is '57. And Dizzy Gillespie had gotten into Afro-Cuban music 'cause he had the great percussionist, Chaz Rebozo, who was into like the religious playing. And anyway, Chaz Rebozzo hummed some of these melodies; this is how some of those tunes came about and they turned out things like "Quantaka? and "Tin Tin Deo and all of these great tunes he recorded. But here he was with Eartha Kitt and the tunes they picked out were "Tin Tin Deo and she could've scared me with playing these tunes.
And then she turned around and at the jazz festival and said ' I want to take you' I said, "what? . And she picked me over the guyI must've learned a lot during that periodbut she picked me over the other guys and they didn't really like that too much. And my first name was Charles, my middle name is Donald and she called me Charles. She said, "Charlie, we're going to go up to Newport and I want you to go with me.
And I said, "Oh, my God " I went back in and told my mom and of course she was like, "What? You've got to be kidding me. I said, "Mom, this is like Eartha Kitt, so she said, "Okay, you can go up there. I mean, there's a picture of me in the New York Times in July at the festival on a Sunday.
AAJ: That must've blown you away.
DA: Oh yeah. Blew me away and my family. And if you looked at the picture you could see the fear because all my idols were there. Yeah, we started listening to jazz when we were really young but Dizzy Gillespie had this big band and in this band were like Lee Morgan, who wasn't much older than I was, and Charlie Persip was playing drums and Billy Mitchell was playing saxophone. I mean all of these great, great jazz guys. And I can see the fear in my eyes up there playing conga drums with this big band. And on this festival was like Billie Holiday and George Shearing and here I am amongst all of these guys and their photographs, a young teenager; I hadn't even graduated from high school.
So time goes on and I get to go to college and mom wanted me to be a doctor. I mean, that was always the plan. For a black family growing up in New York City that's a prestige thing. You're going to be a lawyer or a doctor. Even at the time, something like a postman was considered to be a high profile job. So I'm going to be a doctor so I went to Gannon college to study pre-med.
It just so happens that I wind up being the only black guy in this college. I went to high school in New YorkLasalle Academyand I was the only black guy at that school but I'd go up after school and hang with the guys from the block and do do-wop and play conga drums, so I wasn't really conscious of any kind of racial thing at that time at all. It just never entered my mind. All of the guys were Latino or white guys and we were all friends and the racial thing never came up, even though it was quite prevalent around, I was just never privy to it.
And I went to this college and I was the only black guy in Erie, Pennsylvania, and then I'm confronted with the racism thing. And that came about because I wanted to pledge a fraternity up there where all of the basketball players were in. So I went to go pledge it and was told I couldn't because it didn't allow Negros, Chinese or Jews. And so I freaked out and went to the dean and said, "what's happening? And it was a Jesuit Catholic school and I said you've got discrimination in your fraternity on your campus and freaked out. And they said the charter originates down south for the fraternity and they never changed it.
Oh man, I went nuts. I was playing basketball on a partial scholarship and I hung my basketball coach in effigy in the town square [laughs] and of course got busted. I called the newspaper and of course the paper said, "Oh, we got a call from a student and he had a New York accent. Damn! You know? So I had to own up to it, 'cause here I am the only kid in the school with a New York accent. So I just dropped out and didn't want to hear about anything at that time. Here was racism around but it was never directed at me. There was name calling and all. So I said, "What are you guys doing? I'm one of them. I'm black, you know? And then I started to realize that maybe I'm starting to lose my identity here!
And I didn't want to. I mean, I'm a black guy, you know? They didn't consider me, I guess, to be a normal black guy. So I dropped out and obviously it was time to get out. So this disappointed mom. This was a big deal. She wanted me to be a doctor. So I figured I would try to be as close to the medical field as I possibly can, so what is that? Being in the lab. I figured if I were in the laboratory I would know more about the patients than the doctors, and know first hand what was going on with the patients before a doctor.
I picked this particular school up in Boston and it was called Carnegie Institute; it had nothing to do with the huge university, the private school, but it had lab technology, biochemistry and all of that. So I opted to go there! So to my mom I had to say, "I may not be a doctor but I'm going to be in the laboratory, I'll be in the autopsy room, getting bone marrow, all that stuff. And that's eventually what happened.
AAJ: So you were looking forward to it.
DA: Looking forward to it, yeah! I'm not a doctor but I'm close to it. After she got over the initial shock I went to school in Boston and met a girl and it coincided with me and this young lady and me going to school, getting out of school and getting married. Still absolutely no thoughts about being a musician. Forget it, you know what I mean? But I loved drumming. Growing up I always loved the Latin jazz big band thing like with Cal Tjader and all those guys. So here I am in Boston but I've still got my conga drums. And I literally would walk around Boston looking just to play and maybe to sit in or do some gigsbecause here we've got Berklee school of Music.
AAJ: So What year was this...'60?
DA: Oh, we're looking at '61, '62.
AAJ: What was the scene like in Boston there? Storyville, right?
DA: Yeah, it was great! The Jazz Workshop and Storyville. Then again, which still I wasn't aware of. And then there was Hermosa Beach, which was a jazz club. It was a famous club, too. I remember seeing Woody Herman there and I played there later on with Nina Simone. It was a scene. So I was walking around and there was this club called Club 47, and you could look into the club, and I'm walking with my conga drums and I see this young dude and this guy couldn't have looked like he was 13, you know? And I'm like, what's going on? And it turned out to be Tony Williams!
AAJ: I knew you were gonna say that!
DA: Yeah, you know...this young kid. And Alan Dawson, who was a teacher at the time, at Berklee. He was playing vibraphones and for people who don't know, he was actually a vibraphonist. And Tony Williams was playing the drums and a musician called Leroy Felana was playing the piano and a bassist who got pretty well known around the Boston area, named Bill Morrison. So I ran in there, man, and I was like, "Oh, boy, this young kid's a kid! And it turned out to be Tony but man, just playing his ass off. He had Philly Joe down, just looking at Tony then, he was playing his ass off! You have to be really tight.
And this one day, walking down Commonwealth Avenue with a friendand this is a true storya guy comes running out of the Berklee dormitoryand he goes, "Do you know anybody who plays Latin conga drums? And I'm thinking this doesn't happen. And I figure it's just some guy who's beating on the drums just for the hell of it. And by this time, of course, I'd had my training in playing Afro-Cuban music, because that's what we used to do in New York. So I told him I could play and he goes, "You're kidding me! and he invited me upstairs and to his dormitory room in Berklee and he started to play and man, I could not believe the way that this guy played!
I'm giving you a little bit of history here. And it turned out that his name would be the unlikely name of Bill Fitch, believe it or not, the same as the basketball coach [laughs]. And here I am meeting the first conga drummer that can read music and can write music and he was an excellent conga player. So I'm knocked out, man. And we would up rooming together. So all of a sudden he said, "I've got this gig out at Revere Beach with a trumpet player by the name of Phil Barbosa. And in the band was a young keyboard player by the name of Chick Corea.
AAJ: Aw. I knew you were gonna say that, too! Here we go.
DA: Yeah [laughs]! And I'm like, whoa! So now, we go to do this gig and it was kind of like a Latin thing. And of course you have to remember in New York around the '40s and '50s it was the black people who supported a lot of the Latin music, because they could dance. And just as a side thing, I was watching the movie Bugsy about Bugsy Malone, with Warren Beatty, and Bill Graham was in that movie. But what they showed of him was him dancing to this Salsa thing in the background and I'm telling you the guy had all of the moves that we used to do when we were kids growin' up going to the Palladium and so forth. So I went and got his book, his biography, and the guy who wrote it mentions that he used to go to the Palladium when he was young and he had won a dance contest. So I went and rented the movie just to see it again and he had all the moves. If you ever see that movie again look for Bill in the latter part of it.
So there's Chick Corea and there I am playing congas and Chick didn't know diddly about Latin. Didn't play Latin, he had all the Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner in his repertoire and he had no idea of how to really begin, you know, like how to play like Eddie Palmieri. He had no idea what that was all about. So we invited him over to our apartment and we had all the Latin jazz records, we had all the Cal Tjader and Tito Puente records. As a matter of fact at that time, Eddie Palmieri hadn't come out, but his brother, Charlie Palmieri who was the premier Latin pianist at the time, who subsequently died, that was the guy.
So we had all the records and gave them to Chick and he took these records home and if it wasn't the next day it was the day after Chick came on the gig and he wasbam!into Latin. Right smack dab into the Latin. He copped right away, the comping and all the stuff. As a matter of fact, when he was going to New York Citybecause we had gotten closehe dropped by my house and said, "Don, I'm going to New York City, and I'm jealous as hell, of course, now working in the laboratory in Boston, but playing here and there. And the first gig that he got was with Mongo Santamaria. And Chick does not have the Latin background. He was adopted by an Italian family.
Alright, so this guy that I'm rooming with, Bill Fitch, he's going to New York now. He got a job working with Miriam Makeba, who was a South African woman who was the equivalent of being the African Nina Simone or the female Harry Belafonte. And she was singing all these South African songs, and he got the gig! He came by and said, "I'm going to New York. And I'm, "Oh God, man, everybody's going. And I had a family and this wonderful job working in research in Cambridge, Mass working with a very famous doctor who discovered hemoglobin studies. They had a great big fire in Coconut Grove in Boston in the '30s and he did the research on the hemoglobin.
Anyway, I wasn't about to go anywhere, but Bill Fitch would write me and we would talk on the phone and started playing with all these Latin cats and Chick Corea got himself a Latin jazz group. And actually before Chick left Boston, I used to play bass in his band! [laughs].
AAJ: You're kidding!
DA: I swear to God! [laughs]. And he had like a little trio thing and guess who the drummer was? Tony Williams. And I was the percussionist and bass player. And his father had a 5-string bass and I'm not a bassist. I played a little bit while I was in college for a little bit of extra money. I didn't know anything about the bass but it was a Latin thing and if you know anything about Latin music, a lot of it is Montunos, and I would just go back and forth on the bass, you know. It didn't really require any jazz sensibility or knowledge.I was just going back and forth from one string to the other and then my ear took over. When it would get down to the jazz I would fake it [laughs]. So I'm in Boston and I'm thinking I'm liking this music thing. So let me see if I can get into Berklee, man, and study some music.
Of course if you wanted to get into it, the piano was the thing. Well, I didn't have a piano. I couldn't afford it. So I bought this cheap guitar and started to study guitar at Berklee. But being married and having two kids, I couldn't keep it up, so I only went there for about 6 or 7 months and learned some very basic fundamentals about music that would help me later on in the studios, and started to self teach. I got into guitar and violin etudes and stuff, but had to give it up because I didn't have the money.
Alright, so times going by, I'm in Boston and there's this gig that comes up at a place called The Cavea Latin dance jointwith a couple of guys I knew through Berklee and playing with Tony Williams. Me and Tony used to have a Saturday class together being taught be a trumpet played name Alan Kempler about the avant-garde called Pointillistic Texture [laughs] and some of the ways of doing it was turning on this clock and playing a number of notes before this clock went off. It was very avant-garde. So we used to play the Cave six nights a week and I was still working in the hospital. And I made a decision to go to California. I the meantime, Bill Fitch had gotten a job with Cal Tjader.
Now for a black American to get a job playing with a Latin group was a big step up. That was like utopia. So he wrote me and said there's a job open with a vibraphonist name Johnny Martinez. So I decided to go to California and take my family and we stopped in New York City before going out there to visit my mom for maybe a month and I started going around to see what was happening music-wise. We used to go up to the Bronx to these Latin clubs where most people don't go and I saw what was happening with the music.
And while I was in New York I got hired to play an after hour club in the Bronx where all the action started at four o'clock in the morning. I can't tell you what the bathrooms looked like. At that time every musician in the world was there [laughs]. In the after hour band were all these other great musicians. Then all the other guys would come in after their gig, like Chucho Valdez, one of the great conga players of all time. And I got a gig playing timbales and all these underground Latin guys would come in. I got to play with all of these cats, man. As a black American guy I got accepted 'cause I knew the music and things started to happen. When it came time to go to California I had to tell my family, "I can't leave New York City. No way, there's too much shit going on.
AAJ: It's all happening.
DA: It's all happening. So I had to tell my mom I got bit by the music bug.
AAJ: Just what she wanted to hear.
DA: Yeah, just what she wanted to hear. Still not knowing if I was going to be a musician or not, just following my muse, man, just following my instincts. It was a terrific blow to her, really up until recently [laughs], I'm telling you. She'd introduce me to her friends and say, "Yep, I sent him to school to be a doctor but he became a musician anyway.
Anyway, she finally accepted it when I started working with Lou Rawls. I'm finally a musician then. So I started getting a lot of gigs and then I sent my family back to Providence, Rhode Island, which is where she was from, so I could see if I could make it in New York. I got a gig next to the Copa Cabana which was the premier night club where all the major acts performed: Sinatra, The Temptations. So I'm making about 95 bucks a week and sending about 85 of it back home to support my family, and then I find myself sleeping on a park bench in New York with a tuxedo on [laughs], 'cause I had severed ties with mom. And you can't ask mom for money after she wanted you to be a doctor and you became a musician...even though I still ask her for money now [laughs]! It never stops.
Anyway, things got rough and I thought I go back and take care of my family, so I moved back to Providence and got the very excellent job in cancer research; went back to the lab thing, and it was a great, great gig, man, at Rhode Island hospital. I had my own laboratory and we wrote a paper with a very famous doctor on blood disorders.
AAJ: You were really in both worlds then.
DA: Both worlds. But you have to remember, I stopped playing now. Then all of a sudden, this guy calls me in Boston and his name is Gene Dicaso, the trombone player and he's starting a band and this is now the '70s. And there was this guitarist, Mick Goodrick, and Rick Laird who subsequently went on to play with Mahavishnu, and [drummer] Peter Donald. And this trombone player was a great arranger and he went on to arrange the music for Grease, which I passed up [laughs]. I'll tell you about that in another story.
So I said, sure, the only thing is I'm going to have to go to Boston by bus and take a 45 minute to an hour ride. So I figured that I'd get off work, go back home, eat, jump on the bus around 7:30, 8:00 o'clock and get to Bostonwe were working at the Jazz Workshop at the timedo the gig and come home. The next bus after the gig ended was like getting in around 2:45, 3:00 o'clock. So I get to my pad at 3:45, 4:00 o'clock, try to get a couple hours sleep before going to the day job. Of course things started to get weird in terms of my marriage and I'm getting exhausted.
So one night I got home late, got up and went to work and I made a decision. I sat at my desk and I'm dead tired and I decided to become a musician, wrote my superior a letter saying I wanted to pursue another occupation, I'll see you. It was devastating for him because I was his boy. I was his main laboratory connection and wrote a book with him and so forth and I went home and said, "I'm going to be a musician.
So, I'm still trying to learn as much about drums and percussion as I can in my spare time. So I came home and told my wife I quit my job. And, boom, here comes the hammer. So she hung in there anyway. The first playing job that I gotremember this it the'70s now was with an acid rock band [laughs]. The guy who was a saxophonist was a student at Harvard University who said when the shit came down he wanted to live off the land. It was a real acid, blues/rock band. It was equivalent to a band like Mountain [or] ZZ Top. Everything was available to us because it was a rock band, psychedelic, the whole thing.
AAJ: Did you like it?
DA: Yeah, any chance to play. Remember we were in the revolution now. Hendrix had come and all the cats, Donovan and before that I'm into James Brown and the rhythm and blues thing and Buffalo Springfield and all of these cats, you know. The music started to change up, you know? And I'm into it. I'm into playing conga drums for an acid rock band and we got the chance to play in New York with Jeremy Steig. And his engineer was Eddie Kramer, who was Jimi Hendrix's engineer, so I got a chance to play with Hendrix before he died. And the band's rhythm section at that time was Gene Perla and myself and of course we were living in like a commune. And in the commune there's all these drugs going around and the revolution and women walking around with no clothes and free sex and all of this. And I invited my wife up there.
AAJ: Uh oh.
DA: Yeah. And she saw all of that stuff and...no good. It didn't work out. So all of a sudden, this friend of mine, Gene Perlalet me just mention his nameI don't know if you know that name.
AAJ: Sure I do, from Stone Alliance. We talked about that the other day
DA: Oh, sure, just a little taste. He had joined this band. And he has been my friend now for almost 40 years, like my brother.
AAJ: I hear you.
DA: And the Stone Alliance thing came a little bit later on. And he was working with Nina Simone! And he was like this white cat working with Nina Simone and she was a part of the black revolution and it took a lot of guts, man, to join that band but he was an excellent bassist so she was into the music and there wasn't anything about her hiring white people to play with her even though she was part of the movement.
So he says, "Nina Simone is looking for a drummer. And now I had started to play drums but I didn't even know how to set up the damned drums! I'd go to the gig sometimes hours early just to try to hook this drum set up, the hi-hat and the bass drum pedals; I didn't know any of that. But Nina Simone needed a drummer and I decided to try out for the gig. So of course I had to become somewhat of an adequate jazz drummer in order to fit in and play with some jazz cats. I said, sure. It comes the day of the audition and she doesn't show up and it just so happens that that day was a gig, so my audition with Nina Simone was a gig [laughs].
AAJ: Wow. Unbelievable.
DA: Unbelievable, man. I mean, Nina Simone. Even amongst the community in New York she's famous. I mean, she's got "I Love You, Porgy, which was a big hit in New York City. And she's known as this black singer who plays the piano and so forth and now she's the revolution and so forth, and I'm nervous as hell. And she comes in and goes, "This is what I want. I want you to do this here, and on this tune I want you to do this here. And she's just calling out the tunes and telling me what to do. And obviously when its show time I don't know what I'm doing and I'm like, "Oh my God.
AAJ: You must've been freaking out.
DA: Yeah, I was freaking out. But listen, I don't know, some magic happens...something happens and boom, boom, boom, I get the gig and after the gig she calls me and says, "Oh, you're blacker than you look like, [laughs] which was something coming from her, 'cause I'm a light skinned black guy and back in the day the blacker you were, supposedly, the more soul you had; that kind of vibe. And I got the gig!
Of course, playing with Nina Simone, whew! What are you gonna do? It's just a big feather in the cap. So the band's working great and Gene Perla started to get gigs with Sarah Vaughn and jazz gigs, which is what he really wanted. He wanted to play with all the cats.
So he left and somehow or other Nina made me her musical director, because she said, "You feel what I feel, and I couldn't turn that down. And we became very close and we made a great record, Nina Simone at Town Hall, called Black Gold and it did turn out to be a gold record and it was really a live concert on RCA/Victor. And in the course of being musical director a lot of gigs came along. And George Wein would pair a lot of strange groups together then and he would have groups together like Nina Simone and Miles Davis, you know what I mean? And Blood, Sweat and Tears and Led Zeppelin and Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, things like that.
All of a sudden I got to play opposite a lot of these guys I got to play with later on. So we're doing a gigMiles Davis and Nina Simoneand I'm there playing and I just happen to look up and turn around and Miles Davis is standing there. And I later found out that Nina had seen the same thing and had mentioned, "I hope Miles Davis does not steal my drummer. And that's what happened. Meanwhile Nina had put me on salary and to be on salary then, to be paid when you're not working; she obviously wanted me to stay. Well, Miles calls me to be in his band and we had done the Bitches Brew session. I got called by Tony Williams to do this Bitches Brew thing and it was a hell of a monumental thing.
AAJ: You could feel it, right?
DA: Yeah. So I had to tell Nina this is what I always wanted, to play with Miles Davis.
AAJ: Everyone wanted that.
DA: Oh, everyone. And all hell broke loose. Miles would call me and say, "Hey, get this bitch off my back. [laughs].
AAJ: Was she giving him a hard time?
DA: Oh, big time, man, big time. But what can I do? She didn't speak to me for about ten years. Actually, in a way I don't blame her. But in a way I think she understood when Miles Davis calls...and at the time she was considered the female Miles Davis. She was just phenomenal. And she didn't speak to me for awhile and I had to join Miles, and whew! That was the culmination of a whole bunch of shit.
AAJ: Can you talk about the Bitches Brew session?
DA: Sure. I'm with Nina and Tony Williams calls meof course this is before I joined the bandand says, "Miles wants you to play on this record. And I go, "What? Of course that's big, big...I'm out of my mind. I go to the session and I see all these cats, man. I say, what the hell is going on. Deep down in my soul I knew that this was going to be some serious, monumental stuff. This was going to be different.
There was a percussionist with Nina, because I had started to play drums all of the time, but I had one solo, but most of the time I'm the drummer. So she hired a percussionist by the name of James Riley. And when he heard that I had the session with Miles Davis he was like beside himself and tagged along and bogarted his way into the session and during the session he begged Miles to play on one tune. And all of these cats are there and I'm like, "Oh, my God, and I had to tell him, "Don't play, because he just didn't have the sensitivity towards thismusic, man.
Miles was playing "Sanctuary and all these tunes and he's like bashing away and if you notice on the record they've got Jack DeJohnette and Lenny White. The thing is that those two guys brought drum sets on the session that really sounded similar, which was like that Tony Williams sound, you know, very small bass drum. That was the shit, you know? The jazz sound. And Miles had this one tune called "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down. This is all a true story. Any biographies or movies come out and this shit ain't in there it'd be wrong.
Anyway, so come to this tune and every tune is one or one-and-a-half takes at the most. We're getting this shit like right away. That's what Miles wanted. So he counted it off and the drummers started to play, Lenny and Jack, and I guess they didn't cop the vibe. "Cut the shit off [affects Miles' rasp]. So it's a little nervous in the studio, so he counted it off again and the shit just wasn't coming together. So I had this drum beat from a guy who's name I can't recall, and it's a real awkward kind of beat, and I thought, "Man, this beat is gonna be perfect for this tune. [laughs]
So by this time people started getting nervous, shifting around and before he counted it off the third time I said, "Wait a minute Miles, I got this drumbeat that you may dig for this tune. And he went, "Okay. Over there. So Jack went off the drums and went down there and played this beat and then he wanted me to show Jack. And I went to show Jack this rhythm and its one of these kinds of rhythms that doesn't require any chops, its just some weird-ass coordination. And I tried to show it to Jack and Jack was struggling a little bit with it and there's no time to waste so Miles goes, "Stay there. [laughs] So, on the record I got to play drums on "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down. First thing that you hear, that drumbeat, is me playing and then Jack comes to join in.
AAJ: Do a lot of people think it's not you because you're credited as Charles Alias?
DA: Well, I'm credited as percussionist. And it's a rare name. I'm known as Don Alias but Charles...who's Charles Alias? That's me! [laughs] And there are some issues like the Japanese that got it right, where I'm credited with drums and percussion. So you get it right. And I'm saying this with really not a whole lot of ego involved it's just that I want to get this shit right.
AAJ: It should be, yeahwhat happened happened.
DA: What happened happened. That's right.
AAJ: What was your relationship like with Miles?
DA: Man, there's the take on Miles...there are a lot of different variations on the take.
AAJ: So many stories...
DA: Oh, man, so many stories. Some say that he was the meanest guy in the world. But he always, always showed me the greatest respect in the world. And I've always said that. I mean respect, man, no harsh words. I have actually heard him say, during the course of some gigs, tell certain people things, "Motherfucker, get with it, and if you haven't got your stuff together that could destroy you.
But he was always good to me, even up to the last. I think the last time that I actually spoke to him was during the Amandla session. That always meant a lot to me. One time I made a mistake. He called me down to his room and I'm nervous and I made the mistake of asking him if he liked how I sounded [laughs]... Am I doing okay, Miles? And his reply was, "I didn't say nothin', did I? [laughs] If he doesn't say nothin' to you everything is okay!
AAJ: But you never know, people are different.
DA: People are different and I learned a good lesson from that. It's good to praise your musicians...you sound good. But this is Miles Davis, you know what I mean? The way that you can mistake his personality, I'll give you an example, to make you think he was another type of guy. My first gig with him was at the Beacon Theater. Richard Pryor was also on the gig, too.
My first gig with Miles Davis, c'mon man, you're not nervous? [laughs] Yeah, you're thinking something is wrong. And the thing that is funny about this is I was watching this movie Collateral, with Tom Cruise, and they actually go visit this horn player that he eventually shot and he relates this story like this, what I'm gonna tell you, to Tom Cruise.
AAJ: To see if he gets he details right, I remember that scene.
DA: Yeah, yeah, and he relates this story and I was taken aback a little bit about this story and I wonder where he got that story, because I'm sure there may have been some instances of this happening again in the course of Miles' life. Anyway, I'm nervousand in the story in Collateral I think this guy and his wife or girlfriend had come up to Milesso I go over to the side at the Beacon Theater to get my shit together.
I got to think about this, you know? And oh my God, lo and behold here comes Miles. And he comes and he sits down right next to me and, hey, I don't know what the hell to do. This guy comes over and he's dressed very, very nicely and he had a hat on and a tie and I don't know, maybe he wanted an interview. So he comes over to Miles and starts to say, "Hey Miles, I would like to... And again, before he got the words out of his mouth, Miles told him to "Get the fuck out of my face. Of course the guy was devastated, but then if you don't know Miles and you hear this kind of thing coming from him, you're like, "This is the nastiest cat in the world. And I'm sitting there and I said, "Hey, Miles, man, that was kinda rough, because regardless of what, I'm not gonna back down. I got balls. I'm gonna say something.
And he said, "Shit, man, I'm trying to get my shit together. That's exactly what he said. So I also learned that here's the great Miles Davis trying to get a moment to himself to try to prepare himself for playing. Of course he may have done that because I have seen him really rail on women. So many stories about Miles. Great stories, too. Now in Miles' book, a lot of people come to me and say, "Hey, I didn't see your name in the book, and I'm like, "What the fuck is goin' on? It's weird, you know? I was with this guy for almost two years and so I confronted him, "Miles, man, what's up? I'm not in your book. His actual reply was, "Don, I was so high during those days that there's a lot of stuff that just went by. And he apologized to me!
AAJ: He was saying he was high when the book was created or you were playing together?
DA: No, when we were playing together. I'm not telling you nothing new. There was heroin and in later years coke and stuff. I don't need to go over that.
AAJ: What about when you moved on and started working with Joni Mitchell?
DA: Oh yeah, and then there was the time that I took Joni by Miles' house. Oh! [laughs] That's another story. With Joni, I'm in California. Miles at this time had gone to live in this villa with Juliette Greco; famous French actress. So anyway, I've got two kids and I can't afford to do this shit, so I went and I got a call from Lou Rawls. And Lou Rawls was big time in that field, Las Vegas, MGM Grand, that circuit. And I got to make some money.
AAJ: Was Jaco in that band?
DA: Oh no. I got Jaco in that band. All this happened at the same time I was getting a divorce, so I moved out to California. Joni and I had a beautiful four year relationship together.
AAJ: No kidding. I wasn't aware of that. [Note: Due to length and the fact that further material was subsequently discussed but became personal, it was decided to end here]. Thank you, Don. All the best to you.
DA: Thank you. take care.
Note: The Arts Council of England funded a series of concerts in the UK a few years back which Don led and were recorded. These dates included the Brecker Brothers, Paco de Lucia and various flamenco greats and is expected to be released in the near future.
Though the new Stone Alliance with Gene Perla and Chris Potter didn't have the chance to come to fruition, there are original, unreleased live Stone Alliance dates with Steve Grossman which are to be made available, as well.
Don also collaborated with his longtime friend, Jack DeJohnette on the Talking Drummers project, a video documentation and commentary on the making of their Duo album project, with notes from Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Dave Holland.
To leave comments and condolences please visit www.donalias.com
Stone Alliance, Live in Buenos Aires (Mambo Maniacs, 2006)
Stone Alliance, Live in Bremen (Mambo Maniacs, 2005)
Bill Frisell, Unspeakable (Nonesuch, 2004)
Various Artists, Mysterious Voyage: A Tribute to Weather Report (Tone Center/ESC, 2005)
Mike Stern, These Times (ESC, 2004)
James Moody, Homage (Savoy Jazz, 2004)
David Sanborn, Time Again (GRP, 2004)
Carla Bley, Looking for America (Watt/ECM, 2003)
Jane Monheit, In the Sun (N2K, 2002)
Bill Evans, Soul Insider (ESC, 2001)
Barbara Dennerlein, Outhipped (Verve, 2000)
Don Grolnick Group, London Concert (Fuzzy Music, 2000)
Howard Mandel, Future Jazz (Knitting Factory, 1999)
Michael Brecker, Two Blocks from the Edge (Impulse!, 1997)
Uri Caine, Toys (JMT, 1996; reissued on Winter&Winter)
Jack DeJohnette, Oneness (ECM, 1996)
Steve Khan, Got My Mental (Evidence, 1996; reissued ESC, 2006)
John Scofield, Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995)
Herbie Hancock, The New Standard (Verve, 1995)
Joe Lovano, Tenor Legacy (Blue Note, 1993)
The Brecker Brothers, Return of the Brecker Brothers (GRP, 1992)
Steve Swallow, Swallow (XtraWatt/ECM, 1991)
James Taylor, New Moon Shine (Columbia, 1991)
Michael Brecker, Now You See It...Now You Don't (GRP, 1990)
Gil Goldstein, City of Dreams (Blue Note, 1989)
Miles Davis, Amandla (Warner Bros., 1989)
John Scofield, Loud Jazz (Gramavision, 1987)
Jaco Pastorius, Invitation (Warner Bros., 1983)
Chick Corea, Again and Again (Elektra, 1982)
Joni Mitchell, Shadows and Light (Asylum, 1980)
Joni Mitchell, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum, 1977)
Chick Corea, My Spanish Heart (Polydor, 1976)
Jaco Pastorius, Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976)
Dave Liebman, Lookout Farm (ECM, 1973)
Miles Davis, On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)
Read testimonials from musicians and friends: In the Artist's Own WordsDon Alias: A Tribute
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Don Alias, Jr.