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Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

By Published: May 22, 2006

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 Cave—a Latin dance joint—with 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.

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