Don Alias: Heart, Soul and Lungs

Mike Brannon By

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One time I made a mistake. [Miles] called me down to his room and I'm nervous and I made the mistake of asking....'Am I doing okay, Miles?' And his reply was, 'I didn't say nothin', did I?' —Don Alias
Don AliasWe have lost one of the greats.

The proverbial six-degrees-of-separation aside, Don Alias, has played with everyone. Active since the late '50s, he stands as easily the most influential percussionist in jazz and one of the few who ever transcended jazz and flamenco successfully and could by all accounts truly swing hard on congas. Alias has created or added an almost spiritual dimension to the pivotal work of Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell (touring with the dream band of Mike Becker, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays), Sting, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, John Scofield, George Benson, Lou Rawls, Roberta Flack, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Weather Report. The list is nearly endless. But like all great art, his music will continue to press the truth about all that is music, all that is art, all that is spiritual and human, and the apex of each.

Among musicians it's a well known fact that, beyond all other instrumentalists, percussionists and drummers tend to have an innate and immediate connection, camaraderie and simpatico with each other—that sense of being instant brothers—something the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine and Tony Williams could easily attest to, relative to Alias.

Though no doubt whatever Alias decided to do with his life would have benefited from his innate sensitivity and ability to listen and instantly respond, his original focus was medicine and biochemistry. But after early stints with Nina Simone as her musical director, and tours with Dizzy Gillespie, word spread fast and Alias soon became a top call percussionist.

Alias was nothing if not full of life and energy. He truly lived—completely and to the edge. He always wanted to do it—whatever "it was—"right now," and put all of himself into it, because he knew life would always intervene, and it would happen whether we're living it or not. Don knew how to do it and showed that, with every blistered finger, every knowing grin, every drop of blood and sweat he paid to do this gig he so loved, and made us love—life and music—he could make them one.

I last spoke with Alias on Sunday March 19, 2006 for close to an hour-and-a-half, and at the end, since he was tired and we'd still barely scratched the surface, we decided to set up another time to talk in the following week or two. Being in autobiographical mode, he was excited but not just about the interview—he was excited about everything, and seemed ready to jump on any and every project equally and immediately. But life intervened this time. The first week blurred into the second, and by Wednesday, March 29 there was an incredibly disturbing rumor going around that Don had passed in his apartment sometime Tuesday, March 28, just nine days after we'd talked. The worst part was that it wasn't a rumor. Don will be profoundly missed by so many. What follows is Don's final interview.

All About Jazz: Originally you were studying biochemistry. How did that get turned around, 'cause that's really a stretch isn't it?

Don Alias: Yeah, it sure was. When I was coming up the drum thing kind of started with the guys around the block, you know what I mean? Me and my brother, when we were about eight, nine, ten years old we grew up with the calypso thing, not the reggae thing. My family's from St. Maarten in the West Indies and we were surrounded with the calypso thing, you know. That's what the feel was. Harry Belafonte was out doing his thing so we were surrounded with that kind of music, so me and my brother started playing that stuff around the house and we got hanging with the guys on the block and kind of added a bit of calypso to it. And we used to actually go out in the street and down in the subway and if my mother had caught us she would've killed us [laughs]—she just didn't want us to be doing that—and we just started doing it like that.

I wasn't playing the conga drums and I had these tiny little drums and he would sing and people would throw money so we'd make a little change. We ended up abruptly getting caught [laughs] doing it! And we were asked to do a kind of audition at a famous club in Harlem called the Baby Grand so we snuck out of the house and went down there and she came downstairs and my feet were sticking out of the covers 'cause I'm kind of tall and she said, "wait a minute" and she tracked us down through the neighbors in the block and came down and busted us at the Baby Grand playin'.

They wouldn't allow us in the club so we played in front of the club. And when I say busted I mean busted. And there was this Eartha Kitt dance foundation at the Harlem YMCA and they were looking for some drummers to perform with her dance foundation. You've gotta remember, for a guy who's playing conga drums in Harlem, to play for a dance group, that was really an ultimate thing, for guys like us. Because what you do is play for half an hour or 45 minutes while they're dancing around and you get a lot of stamina and training; you learn a lot of stuff with the drummers. So I joined this Eartha Kitt Dance Foundation and one day she decided that she would come in and teach a class.

And, that was quite a deal. She was a star at the time and she had all these records but she brought in like two of her own drummers and these guys were like really pros. They were professional players, you know? I wasn't even near where they were and they started to play for the dancers and I started to play and they looked at me and they very, very consciously and judiciously, for their own satisfaction, told me, "why don't you stop playing and listen . That's what I did. I was a little embarrassed by it but I did.

So I started listening and started picking up things and different rhythms. I can give you a lot of titles...a lot of Haitian rhythms; there's one called a Yambalou. And then Eartha Kitt got invited to the Newport Jazz Festival. This is '57. And Dizzy Gillespie had gotten into Afro-Cuban music 'cause he had the great percussionist, Chaz Rebozo, who was into like the religious playing. And anyway, Chaz Rebozzo hummed some of these melodies; this is how some of those tunes came about and they turned out things like "Quantaka? and "Tin Tin Deo and all of these great tunes he recorded. But here he was with Eartha Kitt and the tunes they picked out were "Tin Tin Deo and she could've scared me with playing these tunes.

And then she turned around and at the jazz festival and said ' I want to take you' I said, "what? . And she picked me over the guy—I must've learned a lot during that period—but she picked me over the other guys and they didn't really like that too much. And my first name was Charles, my middle name is Donald and she called me Charles. She said, "Charlie, we're going to go up to Newport and I want you to go with me.

And I said, "Oh, my God " I went back in and told my mom and of course she was like, "What? You've got to be kidding me. I said, "Mom, this is like Eartha Kitt, so she said, "Okay, you can go up there. I mean, there's a picture of me in the New York Times in July at the festival on a Sunday.

AAJ: That must've blown you away.

DA: Oh yeah. Blew me away and my family. And if you looked at the picture you could see the fear because all my idols were there. Yeah, we started listening to jazz when we were really young but Dizzy Gillespie had this big band and in this band were like Lee Morgan, who wasn't much older than I was, and Charlie Persip was playing drums and Billy Mitchell was playing saxophone. I mean all of these great, great jazz guys. And I can see the fear in my eyes up there playing conga drums with this big band. And on this festival was like Billie Holiday and George Shearing and here I am amongst all of these guys and their photographs, a young teenager; I hadn't even graduated from high school.

So time goes on and I get to go to college and mom wanted me to be a doctor. I mean, that was always the plan. For a black family growing up in New York City that's a prestige thing. You're going to be a lawyer or a doctor. Even at the time, something like a postman was considered to be a high profile job. So I'm going to be a doctor so I went to Gannon college to study pre-med.

It just so happens that I wind up being the only black guy in this college. I went to high school in New York—Lasalle Academy—and I was the only black guy at that school but I'd go up after school and hang with the guys from the block and do do-wop and play conga drums, so I wasn't really conscious of any kind of racial thing at that time at all. It just never entered my mind. All of the guys were Latino or white guys and we were all friends and the racial thing never came up, even though it was quite prevalent around, I was just never privy to it.

And I went to this college and I was the only black guy in Erie, Pennsylvania, and then I'm confronted with the racism thing. And that came about because I wanted to pledge a fraternity up there where all of the basketball players were in. So I went to go pledge it and was told I couldn't because it didn't allow Negros, Chinese or Jews. And so I freaked out and went to the dean and said, "what's happening? And it was a Jesuit Catholic school and I said you've got discrimination in your fraternity on your campus and freaked out. And they said the charter originates down south for the fraternity and they never changed it.

Oh man, I went nuts. I was playing basketball on a partial scholarship and I hung my basketball coach in effigy in the town square [laughs] and of course got busted. I called the newspaper and of course the paper said, "Oh, we got a call from a student and he had a New York accent. Damn! You know? So I had to own up to it, 'cause here I am the only kid in the school with a New York accent. So I just dropped out and didn't want to hear about anything at that time. Here was racism around but it was never directed at me. There was name calling and all. So I said, "What are you guys doing? I'm one of them. I'm black, you know? And then I started to realize that maybe I'm starting to lose my identity here!

And I didn't want to. I mean, I'm a black guy, you know? They didn't consider me, I guess, to be a normal black guy. So I dropped out and obviously it was time to get out. So this disappointed mom. This was a big deal. She wanted me to be a doctor. So I figured I would try to be as close to the medical field as I possibly can, so what is that? Being in the lab. I figured if I were in the laboratory I would know more about the patients than the doctors, and know first hand what was going on with the patients before a doctor.

I picked this particular school up in Boston and it was called Carnegie Institute; it had nothing to do with the huge university, the private school, but it had lab technology, biochemistry and all of that. So I opted to go there! So to my mom I had to say, "I may not be a doctor but I'm going to be in the laboratory, I'll be in the autopsy room, getting bone marrow, all that stuff. And that's eventually what happened.

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