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Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

By Published: July 7, 2010
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 masters—John Coltrane, Max, Klook [drummer Kenny Clarke], [drummer] Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
—just 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 me—they spoiled me because they gave me love and taught me, and didn't hesitate to tell me things and teach me. I still feel fortunate—I'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 now—I'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
Frank Lowe
Frank Lowe
1943 - 2003
sax, tenor
, [violinist] Billy Bang
Billy Bang
Billy Bang
1947 - 2011
, [vibraphonist] Khan Jamal
Khan Jamal
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
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 frustration—it 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 that—a 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 with—I 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 with—well, 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't—it'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 disappointment—I'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 cool—I 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.

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