Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists
All About Jazz: Is it right that your aunt was married to a drummer?
Muhammad Ali: Well, in my family, both of my father's cousins were drummers, Beck Rice and Charlie Rice. My grandmother was an ordained minister and she had a church. All of my aunts and my mother attendedthey all sung and played piano, and my youngest aunt on my mother's side, Esther, was a child prodigy. She played piano and sang, and we always used to go and sit around her and listen because she was the genius of the family. She was an extraordinary pianist, but all of the family was musicalmy uncles and cousins, you know, and we came up under that.
AAJ: Could you put that in the context of who was living around you in the neighborhood, like other musicians and so forth?
MA: At that time we were very young and all the musicians that came around were olderwe were just taking it in and indulging, rather than being involved. Most of the things that were happeningmy mother was very friendly with a lot of the singers and she was close to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and people like that. They were mentors to my mother and her sisters.
We had heard the records and understood what our aunts wanted to be, but we weren't connected to the musicians in the city then. There were just three of us brothersRashied was the oldest, Omar is in the middle and he plays all sorts of African percussion, and then me. I just came up underneath themeverything that was passed down to me came from my brother, Rashied.
AAJ: When did you start getting interested in playing the drums and playing music?
MA: Since I was a kid I played bongos and congas and so forth, when I was very young, and we studied together and played a lot of percussion that way. When Rashied came back from the army, which would have been in 1956 or 1957, that's when the drums started.
AAJ: Did you have any formal instruction, or was it more picking up things from Rashied?
MA: Yeah, he had gone through a little more of a formal thing and then laid it on me. We were studying out of the Buddy Rich book, because that was the basic thing that most young drummers were studying out of. We started dealing with that and that's when I began learning. I sort of went to a music school in Philadelphia which was connected to an instrument shop, but as far as any other institutions I didn't do that. I got most of my tutoring from Rashied and some of the other fine drummers in Philadelphia at that time.
AAJ: Who would be some of those other drummers?
MA: Ronald Tucker, a fine drummer, and Lex Humphries was around then as well. A man named Robbie Mack gave us our first drum set, and he played a lot of rhythm and blues stuff, you know. We kind of learned from those cats in the beginningthe R&B cats played a lot of jazz, but in order to get gigs, they had to play in the rhythm and blues clubs. Max Roach would come through all the time, and Philly Joe Jones as wellI got it straight from the masters rather than a normal educational area, you know.
AAJ: Did you have neighborhood or local bands that you would play with?
MA: There was a lot of sitting in at that time, so I worked with people like Hasaan Ibn Ali on piano, Clarence and John Hughes (a pianist and a trumpet player, respectively), and quite a few of the young musicians who were running around Philly at that time. I worked with them as they were coming up in the ranks. A lot of the older cats were doing things, and I wasn't in their bands but I was there watching and learning. I played with guys like [trumpeter] Lee Morgan, [alto saxophonist] Clarence "C" Sharpe, and with African percussion groups as wellI was a young cat being tutored.
AAJ: During that time did you have any ideas about the differences between the bebop drummers and the R&B drummers, or were you were thinking about making those influences into a different approach?
MA: At that time I was very oriented to playing jazz, especially coming up under my brother Rashied. Playing with my brother and other drummers from Philly, I began to think very deeply about getting the structure of my playing together and of the drums as well. Learning the way I did, I had to take it in before I became technical, though I was blessed with the older musicians who were coming through and allowing me to be on the set and play. Max would come through, [alto saxophonist] Jackie McLean and players from New York, and the guitarist Thornel Schwartz introduced me to a lot of things also. I got thrust right into it, thanks to my brother, and that happened a lot earlier because he would give me the gigs that he wasn't taking. It made me advance a little sooner than the average cat.
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 was a great friend of minewe 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 and [tenor saxophonist] Albert Aylerhe 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 jazzI 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, we did a gig with [trumpeter] Donald Ayler and Beaver Harris 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 called him the Kenny Clarke of free jazz.
MA: Beaver laid that on me, and I had heard Sunny and Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrilleall 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 itI 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 around that time, right?
MA: That was a little laterRashied 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 was on piano, and [saxophonist] Sonny Fortune 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 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. 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 phonemy brother and I were living together in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at that time. We arranged that we'd come together and do that dateI 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, where I played congas, and also with Albert Ayler.
AAJ: Did you know Archie in Philly at all?
MA: I knew of him, but I didn't know him until I got to New York. I did several concerts with him, and I also worked with [alto saxophonist] Marion Brown. The cats that Rashied used to play with I started playing with, because he went with John and I was up for grabs. It was a blessing for me, you know! I did the Newport festival with Archie and Beaver and [bassist] Wilbur Ware, and it was really cool during those days in New York.
AAJ: One gets the impression that around 1968 the gigs in the States started drying up, and people like Noah and Frank had to relocate to Europe for work. What was your experience?
MA: We didn't go until 1969, and I'd say I was working regularly from 1966 up until that point when we went to France to work the Actuel festival. Frank was over with Sunny Murray already, and me and Noah and [pianist] Bobby Few went over there to join him. I did Music is the Healing Force of the Universe, with Albert Ayler (Impulse!, 1969), and Orgasm (Verve, 1958), with [trumpeter] Alan Shorter, before I left as well.
AAJ: And you and Rashied sort of split the duties on Orgasm, right?
MA: Yeah, we didwhen I came in, Rashied had done some tunes with Reggie Johnson on bass, Alan, and [tenor saxophonist] Gato Barbieri. I came in and did the last part of the session, which wound up being the first and sixth tracks, and we brought in Charlie Haden on bass.
AAJ: The listener really gets quite a view into how you and Rashied are different from that recording. It's an interesting way to program an album; there's a rumor that Rashied had a fight with the producer and that's why the album didn't get completed the first time.
MA: Yeah, well, it was also a difference about the time structure and Rashied probably didn't want to play the strict time that Alan had written. They kept doing takes and people got more involved with not liking how things were going down than trying to make the record. But whatever the case might have been, it fell in my hands and I took care of it!
AAJ: Well, it's really impressive how you tackled those time signatures. And when you played Alan's "Coral Rock" piece on the Archie Shepp record [Coral Rock (America, 1970)], again there was that really specific time playing with something else over and under it that's very fascinating.
MA: It has to come from your thoughtsAlan Shorter was a dynamic person, and he used to sing the parts to me while we were in the car on the way to the studio. I learned how to deal with his music because of that. There's a whole lot of rehearsing that people do, and there's another way of rehearsing where a person has particular music they want you to play, they can sing it to you. He'll make you understand and feel what he wants, rather than going to the studio and rehearsing for five or six hours. It's a way of acceptance of another person.
AAJ: Right, getting in with the personality of a player in order to understand the compositions.
MA: That way, you can get more strategic and delicate things than if you're just making a regular rehearsal. You might not pick up what he's doing otherwise.
AAJ: What about the Frank Wright Quartet and how things came together in Europe for you? It was such a wonderfully long run for a group that could work together in very special ways. It would be interesting to get an idea of how Europe was different at that time from the States, and what that experience was like for you.
MA: Well, I've written some things down about that that I'll read to you: In 1969, I went to Europe where I performed major festivals in Europe and was very well received, especially in Paris. In Paris, I recorded with Frank Wright, Noah Howard, and Bobby Few the One for John LP on BYG Actuel records. I began playing jazz clubs, concerts, universities, and other noted venues with the Frank Wright Quartet. From 1970-1972, the band (minus Noah Howard) traveled through France, Holland, Germany and back to New York. The gigs in Europe were definitely more happening, so in 1972 we returned to Europe. While living in Paris, bassist Alan Silva joined the band and shortly after the label Center of the World Productions was formed. We soon changed the name of the band to match the label; during that time, Silva had also formed the Celestrial Communications Orchestra, and I was the drummer of both groups.
We played all overwe were so well accepted and we were blessed to the point that we were able to work all around with Frank and Bobby. At the beginning we used different bass players sometimes, and even a trumpet player, as well as Arthur Jones on alto (it hurt me to my heart when we lost him). All the time that we lived in Paris, we were able to travel for sixteen years performing and recording in Europe and North Africa. It was during that time that we were still working under the name The Frank Wright Quartet. The Center of the World came in with the Rotterdam concert in '72. We figured that business-wise, we'd try to change the situation to more of a cooperative thing.
We just went from one place to the nextFrance, Holland, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Demark, Luxembourg, Tunisia, Morocco, and England. We didn't just go to one city; we'd go back and forth to all the cities and towns, do the whole country, and during that time we were always working and playing. We were really into itliving in Paris, then Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva, though we did decide to base ourselves in Paris eventually because going from one place to another was a bit too much. We were so well-received and we decided to do everything from Parisand I lived there until 1984 or '85, because it wasn't until 1986 that I returned to the States.
AAJ: There are several things that are really intriguing about this group. One gets the impression that, after a point in the early '70s in France, the American musicians weren't quite as popular as they once were, owing to difficulties with the unions and so forth. This group remained extremely popular in France and throughout Europe for the whole decade, much more so than other bands. Also, you listen back to the recordings, and there's this generous and theatrical rapport with the audience that's so different from anything else that was going on. It was so warmwhat it must have been like to experience the band is just really special.
MA: For me it was a musical voyage and we had no idea how much acceptance and good fortune we would encounter. We had played alongside the masters at all of the European festivalswe were starting the festivals, North Sea and Groeningen, Nice [France], and it's really hard to understand but we were just put into the mix. Other cats that were playing the music couldn't even get to the gigs we were getting, and we were playing every festival that the bebop cats were on, too. We toured with [bassist-composer] Charles Mingus's group during the Newport in Europe thing. We worked with [tenor saxophonist] Hans Dulfer and [drummer] Han Bennink in Holland, in Germany we got involved with [reedman] Peter Brotzmann and his group, and we were the pick of the musicians.
This is how we got involved with everybodythe musicians put on a lot of festivals, and they turned us on to the good agents. During those days, we didn't just go to one city, before we knew it we'd hit every town and every little festival in a countrythey tried to keep us! We were put on a lot of festivals that were just starting out, and now those are the major jazz festivals in Europe. All the people in Europe that were into the music wanted us, and we were pioneers carrying this music across the continent.
AAJ: It's interesting because this music isn't "easy music" on any levelaesthetically, spiritually, politically or whatever else. It's challenging. It's a lot to deal with, but listening back to the records they might start off really heavy, but they bring you in with a groove that's extraordinarily enveloping. It's hard to put one's finger on, but it's so different from the later music of Coltrane, or Albert Ayler, and joyous in a way that's separate from other bands. It was a heavy thing, but that force would bring you along with it.
MA: There was this young Indian lady and I knew her husband, and he brought her along to one of the gigs we did in Paris. She was very skeptical because she didn't understand that music, had heard it before and wasn't accepting of it. When he brought her to the gig, she came up afterward crying and was just trying to explain how she hadn't trusted that she would like it, not knowing that she would was shocking to her, and she gave her heart to the music that day. Her husband came up to me later and said that they went back and made a baby after that! You put that to the fact that this person came to the gig and opened herself up, it's beautiful. Frank used to always talk about the spiritual aspect of the music, and I loved playing with everyone I played with, but the fact that we came so close to making people understand the music was really specialnot just wanting to turn away from it as too overpowering or something.
People are often not spiritually open, and whether or not they are believers, they still have to understand that the music comes from the spirit. It's a spiritual thing that connects people, and you don't have to put a name on it, but it is a feeling that makes a sort of connection. You don't have to name itin fact, it's the names that people put on things that create all this separation between people. But something that can't be separated, can't be named, and is more of a feelingthis is what I had with the people I played with.
We used to work some with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and we connected from that spiritual aspect, even though the things they were doing were totally different. When we came togethersometimes we all played togetherit was a connection. It's a lot to do with me because I try to find a way to enter what's happening, rather than dominate it, overpower or direct it. It can manifest itself into being one thing musically, and that's what I try to do and why I was accepted by a lot of players.
With the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, there were a lot of individual players and I had to find my way to each one of them. Sometimes there would be thirty cats on the bandstand, and I'd find my way to each one of them so I can connect with them, as well as to the whole ensemble when it's necessary. When Alan was conducting, whoever was soloing I had to make a connection with them, to the point that whatever was happening around us was just something added on. That way you wouldn't be so overcome because it was such a huge ensemble.
AAJ: That fits with how the Orchestra appeared to work, because it was a massing of related individuals rather than one composer's vision.
MA: Right, that's the feeling, and it would make the conductor get up and start dancing because you connect with him too! Me and Alan had a special thing, and when he wanted something he knew he could get it because I would be right there with him. Like Frank used to say, it's a blessing that you have to follow to get to where you need to go. I was blessed to be accepted by the mastersJohn Coltrane, Max, Klook [drummer Kenny Clarke], [drummer] Elvin Jonesjust name the drummers, they loved me and we didn't go through a lot of static because we played the same instrument, you know.
AAJ: Sunny Murray has mentioned you, and he mentioned also that he felt he was in competition with Rashied. He has always said, though, that with you he never felt any of those vibes.
MA: What can I say about that? I'm spiritually lucky, and whatever static went around, I didn't get it. When I played with another drummer they understood that my energy was right there, and they had to bring it, you know? They had to cooperate, because I just wanted to be pure and put that out. I've just been comfortable with the other musicians, and the masters cradled methey spoiled me because they gave me love and taught me, and didn't hesitate to tell me things and teach me. I still feel fortunateI'm frank and direct and I don't allow disrespect, nor do I disrespect others, but at the same time I don't go through that bickering and hassling that other musicians go through.
AAJ: In the 1980s when the Quartet stopped, you moved back to the States. Normally there would be a certain point that a group couldn't stay together any longer and would run its natural course. People go on to do other things, and so forth. Was that the case here as well?
MA: It really upset me. At the time the band was running into these obstacles, I was being torn apart because everybody was trying to get me to work individually with them. I was keeping people together, and we were doing things partially together while at the same time the other guys were pulling on me to join other bands with them. So, I'm turning into plastic man nowI'm playing with this guy and that guy, plus people are coming over from the States and asking me to work with them, like Archie and [tenor saxophonist] Frank Lowe, [violinist] Billy Bang, [vibraphonist] Khan Jamal, and all those cats.
I wanted to work, and I couldn't be in a band that didn't know what it wanted to do. I got together with some of the cats in Germany and elsewhere in Europe as well[bass clarinetist] Michel Pilz and [trumpeter] Itaru Oki, and with Alan's orchestra, and I was very busy. The more that happened the band started to come apart. Bobby had his thing going, and Frank started to work with other people and really went out on his own.
AAJ: Right, with [multi-instrumentalist/visual artist] A.R. Penck.
MA: Well, and even before that he started that band with [pianist] Georges Arvanitas in Paris. And he also was playing in the States more, and that was something I wasn't interested in doing. That's when I realized that the band was coming apart. When he started to get away more that was when I understood and saw it happening. I kept working with whoever called me, and I did that for a while until I decided that I needed to abandon ship from everybody.
I'm not going to go through the frustrationit seemed temporary, and there was a moment when I thought I should just go into myself for a while and I decided not to play with anybody. I didn't want the beauty that was inside me to get all twisted up by all these negative things. To make that story short, I decided that it was time to come back to the States and be with my family, because I'd been over there so long anyway. I didn't want to be an expatriate all my life.
The whole thing was that I functioned musically over there from the beginning until when I left, and I was blessed with thata lot of people had work dry up and then they were stuck over there during hard times. That wasn't something I had to deal withI actually got more than what I wanted, because when the Quartet ended and there were other things open for me, I was able to make a decision whether I still wanted to do this or take a break. At the same time, I didn't want to go completely underground, but since the cats I really wanted to play withwell, we stopped doing something that should never have stopped.
I believe in the music and in myself, and what I do I can put it wherever it's needed, and I never had the problem of not being able to play with somebody. I never had that problem and I still don'tit's a spiritual connection that's really within me, and I've never lost that. The things that are coming up today, I'll apply myself as I always have. It's just that the disappointmentI've seen some beautiful bands break up for different reasons, and I never looked at that band to break up for some strangeness but that's exactly what happened. So when that went down, I gave myself a break.
My brother was always on my case because he didn't accept that I should be taking a break, but he understood that I had to do that for myself as well. Between him and Omar, I was coolI came back to them and to my family, and I can't wait to hook up with the cats again. I'm going to see what's going on in America because there are things I'm looking forward to here.
AAJ: You played recently with [pianist] Dave Burrell in Philly, right [for John Coltrane's birthday in 2006]?
MA: Yeah, we did a double-drum thing with [bassist] Reggie Workman, me and Rashiedit was a beautiful gig. I did a duo with Noah Howard at Temple University, and then the moment my brother was in the hospital, he asked me to do the gig at Newport for him with By Any Means, with [bassist] William Parker and [saxophonist/pianist] Charles Gayle. That was the group that Rashied was in, and so I did that gig and Rashied was very happy that I did it for him and that it went so well.
The gig was on the 9th of August and I told him I'd split the money with him and so forth, and then on the 12th he passed. It wiped me outsometimes I have to say it to get it out of my brain, because we always have played together since I was a kid, we used to be in the cellar and play hours and hours and he'd show me everything he knew. We were really close musically as well as spiritually and by being brothers.
AAJ: Is Omar still with us?
MA: Oh yes, he's with me now as a matter of fact. He's still playing all the timehe's a very spiritual person and he plays the spiritual part of the instrument, the African part, you know. He does the rituals as part of the Afro-Cuban thing, which is different. They play for reasonscongregations, fairs, marriages and wakes. It's a special kind of communication and anybody who isn't around that kind of music very much might not realize how much they do play. It's a wonderful thing. We all came up and we're all drummers.
AAJ: Did you ever play any other instruments? Rashied was quite a trumpeter at one point also.
MA: No, I play drumsthere are congas and bongos as well as the kit, and that's what I am really locked in with. Max told me that there was a lot to get out of this instrument, and if you're blessed, you've got so much in percussion to deal with that if you think you can find something else, that's up to you. There's so much thereJack DeJohnette and Joe Chambers, they're beautiful piano players and some guys start off with trumpets and trombones, and I do play a little piano but percussion was my legacy and I'm still learning and dealing with it.
AAJ: Any plans to record again?
MA: Down the road; I've got some projects in the wings and I have been offered some things. I want to make one thing clear, by the way: I was born in Philadelphia in 1936 as Raymond Patterson and that's my family name. When we took on the Ali name, it was religious and artistic. Artistically and religiously is the way I accept Muhammad Aliartistically like Art Blakey (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina) and Larry Young (Khalid Yasin), who later came into Islam and changed their names. Back in those days, that's how we came out of it, though I'm not following anything anymore. I'm too old to be following anything other than music [laughs]!
Michel Pilz, Jamabiko (MP, 1984)
Bobby Few, Rhapsody in Few (Black Lion, 1983)
Alan Silva and the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, The Shout/Portrait from a Small Woman (Sun, 1978)
Noah Howard, Live in Europe Volume 1 (Sun, 1975)
Frank Wright, Unity (ESP, 1975)
Frank Wright/Muhammad Ali Duo, Adieu, Little Man (Center of the World, 1974)
Bobby Few, More or Less Few (Center of the World, 1974)
Frank Wright, Last Polka in Nancy? (Center of the World, 1973)
Frank Wright, Center of the World (Center of the World, 1972)
Hans Dulfer, El Saxofon (Catfish, 1971)
Archie Shepp, Doodlin' (Carson/Inner City, 1970)
Archie Shepp, Coral Rock (America, 1970)
Archie Shepp, Pitchin' Can (America, 1970)
Frank Wright, Church Number Nine (Calumet, 1970)
Frank Wright, One for John (BYG, 1969)
Albert Ayler, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe (Impulse!, 1969)
Alan Shorter, Orgasm (Verve, 1968)
Noah Howard, The Black Ark (Freedom, 1968)
Frank Wright, Your Prayer (ESP, 1968)
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