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Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

By Published: May 22, 2006

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 gig—Miles Davis and Nina Simone—and 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 me—of course this is before I joined the band—and 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.

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