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Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

By Published: May 22, 2006

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 York—Lasalle Academy—and 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 gigs—because 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!

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