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Interviews

Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

By Published: July 7, 2010
AAJ: Having listened to your recordings from the 1960s and 70s, your approach to the kit seems very different from your brother Rashied's. When did you start differentiating your playing from your brothers? Was there a specific instance or a time that you thought you'd like to go in a different direction with the kit?

MA: I can tell you exactly how that jumped off. I was really locked down trying to play time, and I was very concerned with that because my mentors at the time were Max and Philly Joe. I had 4/4 in my mind, and [drummer] Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
b.1937
drums
was a great friend of mine—we grew up together. Sunny came back from New York and came by my house, and he said "let me show you what I've been dealing with." At that time he was playing with [pianist] Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
and [tenor saxophonist] Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
—he said "man, you're sounding good, but this is what's happening now." We went into the studio that Rashied and I had in the house, and he started playing and I said "what's going on? What's all this you're doing?" He'd totally changed the structure of the drums to something else. He said "this is what's happening now, and this is what I'm doing." Rashied was living downstairs and I called him to come up and see what Sunny was up to. Sunny was basically the first avant-garde drummer that I heard, and I said that this was something I could feel and relate to.

AAJ: Could you say why that is?

MA: Because of the multiple rhythm structure, and because of being able to carry the melody and play that, while still being outside of it. You could still carry a 4/4 like a metronome, but you could color it and improvise around it and make it deal with multiple things. It just changes the atmosphere.

AAJ: There was criticism at the time against musicians who were playing the "New Thing," that perhaps they couldn't play time or play bebop very well, and that's why they wanted to play free. But since you're coming from a very heavy time perspective, obviously your response was different.

MA: That's why I was able to go into a method of playing that took me away from some of the other people who played free jazz—I knew how to swing and was very committed to that, and I feel like this music should be swung. I don't want an avant-garde that's just making sounds; it has to have structure for me. I come from a long line of bebop players, and for me it's not about making a bunch of noises but about playing and taking it somewhere. A bassist can be free enough to walk as well, and a horn player can be free enough to play and not feel that I'm going to restrict him to time, but I'm not going to take the melody away from him either by just booming and banging. I want players to head the way they're heading and find themselves.

During the time I played with [alto saxophonist] Noah Howard
Noah Howard
Noah Howard
1943 - 2010
sax, alto
, we did a gig with [trumpeter] Donald Ayler
Donald Ayler
b.1942
and Beaver Harris
Beaver Harris
b.1936
on drums, a double-drum thing at Town Hall. It was a great concert, and Beaver came up and was explaining something about me to some other people, and he said "Muhammad is the Max Roach of free jazz" and his considering me in that way was important.

AAJ: And Beaver was someone who could really swing too—[drummer] Alvin Fielder
Alvin Fielder
Alvin Fielder
b.1935
drums
called him the Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
Kenny Clarke
1914 - 1985
drums
of free jazz.

MA: Beaver laid that on me, and I had heard Sunny and Milford Graves
Milford Graves
Milford Graves
b.1940
drums
, Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
—all the free drummers. It had been such a locked-in thing before that I had to keep playing and playing to find a way out of everybody else's concept, so I found this. It's a gift to be able to find something like that; people can't show you, you know? It has to come out of you and you have to work to find it—I think I was very fortunate.

AAJ: When did you decide to move to New York? You were in Philly in the early 1960s, right?

MA: I went to New York in 1966, and Rashied was already living there and I started trying to make my way. I was still studying with my brother, and during that time I was able to hook up with Philly Joe more personally and became a private student of his. Then I began to work with many of the same musicians that Rashied had performed and recorded with.

AAJ: You even sat in with John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
around that time, right?

MA: That was a little later—Rashied had just got the gig a little earlier, as a matter of fact. I played with Trane in Philadelphia; I was visiting and John asked me to work with him because he was trying to organize a festival at a church in North Philly that he was a member of. At the time Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane
1937 - 2007
piano
was on piano, and [saxophonist] Sonny Fortune
Sonny Fortune
Sonny Fortune
b.1939
sax, alto
was there, Sonny Johnson on bass (the trumpeter Dewey Johnson's brother), and Baba Robert Crowley and his African ensemble with about five African percussionists. It was a massive gig, and many of the Philadelphia musicians were also performing at the festival. That was the first time that I ever worked with John, and he had the quintet with Rashied and [saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders
b.1940
saxophone
then but he didn't want to bring them down for the gig. It just so happened that I walked into the club where he was watching the African percussionists, and he invited me on that gig he had. It was a blessed thing for me.

After that, [saxophonist] Frank Wright called Trane and he was looking for a drummer in New York, because he had just recorded for ESP with Tom Price on drums and [bassist] Henry Grimes
Henry Grimes
Henry Grimes
b.1935
bass, acoustic
. Frank wanted a different band for his next recording, and he called Trane and Trane told him to check me out. Frank called Rashied and got me on the phone—my brother and I were living together in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at that time. We arranged that we'd come together and do that date—I was working with Noah Howard as well, so around the same time I did Your Prayer with Frank for ESP and The Black Ark with Noah for Freedom. I was in between both of them for a while; we played Slug's, Judson Hall and Town Hall. Between those bands I had a lot of work, and it opened me up so that I began doing things with [saxophonist] Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
, where I played congas, and also with Albert Ayler.


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