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Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

By Published: May 22, 2006

AAJ: I knew you were gonna say that!

Don AliasDA: 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 friend—and this is a true story—a guy comes running out of the Berklee dormitory—and 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 was—bam!—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 City—because we had gotten close—he 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].

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