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Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

By Published: July 7, 2010
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
Reggie Workman
Reggie Workman
, me and Rashied—it 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
William Parker
William Parker
bass, acoustic
and [saxophonist/pianist] Charles Gayle
Charles Gayle
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 out—sometimes 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 time—he'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 reasons—congregations, 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 drums—there 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 there—Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
and Joe Chambers
Joe Chambers
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 Ali—artistically like Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
(Abdullah Ibn Buhaina) and Larry Young
Larry Young
Larry Young
1940 - 1978
organ, Hammond B3
(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]!

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 3: Ken Weiss

Page 5: HORACE

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