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Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

By Published: May 22, 2006

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 Boston—we were working at the Jazz Workshop at the time—do 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 got—remember 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?

Don AliasDA: 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 good. It didn't work out. So all of a sudden, this friend of mine, Gene Perla—let me just mention his name—I 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.

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