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Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness

Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness

Courtesy Dr. Jazz


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I tell you, man, I had no idea I was starting a trend, that I was playin' a style of drums that the guys who play the drums today learned how to play from.
This interview was originally published on May 2002.

"Style? No, I just play, man. I don't really have a style. Just being able to play music is a style, you know?" says the veteran drummer master Idris Muhammad in his laid-back and understated style.

Others know better than to take that self-effacing comment at face value. His style developed into a unique sound over the years, a New Orleans-based rhythm that has influenced many other drummers that followed. He's always had a special "something" and others know it, hiring him repeatedly for settings ranging from the R&B of Sam Cooke and Fats Domino to the modern groove music of John Scofield. He tours with Joe Lovano and Ahmad Jamal. He's played behind singers Betty Carter, Etta Jones and Roberta Flack. Played with jazzmen as diverse as Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Pharoah Sanders as well as Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. His background comes from the funk of Arthur Neville and Curtis Mayfield. Over the years Idris has made music with so many legendary and renowned musicians that it's hard to keep track—he's on 136 albums recorded in Rudy Van Gelder's legendary New Jersey recording studio alone!

Idris Muhammad, born Leo Morris in New Orleans in 1939 into a family where his brothers also played the drums, readily admits he doesn't consider himself a jazz drummer. He's recorded with a Who's Who list in that genre after "the jazz guys" found out who he was, how well he played, and how he could bring different elements to the music. But to Muhammad, he's just a drummer.

This drummer may be under appreciated to those outside music—but not those inside. Only in the last few years, however, has he actually acknowledged his own greatness, finally ready to say that, yeah, he's pretty damn good. "Because I'm getting older now and getting kind of sentimental and saying, 'Did I really do that? Did I pass that much time?'" he says with a laugh.

You see, Idris Muhammad is just a flat-out nice guy. He'd rather just play than have people brag on him—a lesson he learned from Paul Barbarin, a New Orleans drummer who played with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet. Barbarin told a very young Leo Morris that the accolades would come one day, but to let them roll off his back.

Idris is an agreeable fellow, all right. Talkative, amusing, descriptive, but not demonstrative. Twice he was awakened from a sound sleep by an inquiry into finding interview time within his busy schedule. Rather than being irritated, he was cordial and patient. The second time, rather than postpone, it was: "Let's do it. Let's see what questions you want to ask, so I can answer them," and off he went on an open and enlightening discussion of music and his career. Idris Muhammad is not full of himself. And unlike many musicians who feel the need to play right up until the end, Muhammad—an immeasurably in-demand drummer—wants to step aside soon and "retire," satisfied that he has lived a good life; a life of his choosing; a life that already has its share of accomplishments.

"I would like to stop traveling and just go fishin' and smoke my Cuban cigars [delightfully pronounced CIGì-gars in a New Orleans-tinted way] and drink Diet Coke. I would like to enjoy a little bit of my life, come off of the road. I've done a lot of great things in my lifetime. And I know I can play. Some guys never reach their goal of what they're trying to achieve in life, you know? My life has been quite fruitful," says Muhammad. "I'm 62 now and I've been on the road 47 years and I'm thinkin' that I don't really want die out here."

If he does go out, he's sure had a life that any musician would be proud of.

"I grew up in New Orleans. I started out with the Neville Brothers. That's my family. Arthur Neville had a band when I was 14 or 15 [the Hawkettes]. They needed a drummer. All of my brothers are drummers. They just happened to grab a hold of me because everybody else was workin.' That was the launching of my career, playin' professionally," says Muhammad.

Awake and not groggy, Idris Muhammad embarked on a discourse of his career with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: Were you self-taught?

Idris Muhammad: I had played in school bands. I used to listen a lot to different bands play. My brothers was playin.' I couldn't play a lot and practice a lot because I didn't have a set of drums. In my neighborhood, there was a lot of schoolteachers and musicians. Uptown in New Orleans. It's actually the 13th Ward. There were bands that used to march through the streets. They would call it a "dry run." We had a lot of bars where we lived. Nightclubs. A restaurant in the neighborhood. So it was that kind of active place.

The guys in the neighborhood, they used to just start playin' at one of the guy's houses. The next thing you know, they'd come out in the streets and they would go from bar to bar. And the people would follow them. I was a young kid, excited about the music. I used to go and march with the band. I would dance under the bass drum player. I was that small. This big drum kind of attracted me because it was so loud—this big boom. I would go under the bass drum and dance and the guy would say to me "move your ass away from here before I hit you with this mallet." [laughter] Then I'd walk on the side of him.

Due to that, that was the extension of the way I play the drums. Because my drum playin' is from the bottom up. Most drummers play the top part of the drums, down. But I pay the bottom, up. Due to that, I got this rhythm, this bottom of the way I play that's so different from everybody.

AAJ: That probably came in handy playin' rhythm and blues.

IM: Yeah. That was the basis of our music was rhythm and blues at that time. I was never a jazz drummer. I really don't think today that I'm a jazz drummer. They kind of made me do this. And I ended up making so many records with everybody that they started saying I was a jazz drummer, you know? But I started off playin' rhythm and blues with Arthur when we had the band. We used to back up all of the artists that would come to New Orleans. Big Joe Turner. Muddy Waters. We was the band that backed them up. So we always knew the top 10 tunes that was on the charts at that time.

That's what I played. I have a style that I made up due to the marching band in the street. We had two Indian tribes in the neighborhood. Donald Harrison's father was the chief of our neighborhood. Then we had Uncle Charlie, he was the chief of a couple blocks down. I used to follow the Indians. They'd sing these songs and play these tambourines. So the rhythms of the tambourine, I combined them. I took that rhythm and the rhythm from the second line and that's what I played.

AAJ: You knew at a young age music was going to be your life?

IM: Yeah. I got hooked one Mardi Gras day. I think I was about 9. Some Dixieland guys came by to get a drummer. My mother and I and my brother were going out to the Mardi Gras. They said they needed a drummer. This old guy asked my mother could I play on the back of this truck with these old Dixieland musicians. And she said, "he's 9 years old and he's going to enjoy the Mardi Gras." Some how or another, he convinced my mother to let me go with them.

They had a big bass drum and one snare drum and a symbol. They built up some beer cases for a seat for me and I played with these old guys, man. And these guys were saying, "This kid can play." After about six hours of touring through the streets of New Orleans, they started passing out money and he gave me two $5 bills. And I asked him, do we get paid to do this? And he said yes. And I think that was it for me. That was the end of shinin' shoes and trimmin' rose bushes and cleanin' swimmin' pools. I used to do that to make a little extra money to go to the movies, you know? But that was it for me. I started right away, when my brother wasn't home, to practice the drums. I thought it out as a way of makin' money to get the things that I wanted to get without bothering my dad, you know? It led from one thing to another. Then Arthur needed a drummer. I was 15 and they recorded a song called "Mardi Gras Mambo" which is the theme of the Mardi Gras today.

We worked and worked and worked and worked, next thing you know I was on the road with Arthur and a band. We were on the road in '57, that was the launching of my road career.

AAJ: You played those early years with people like Fats Domino and Sam Cooke.

IM: Yeah, I did some things with Fats. And I was Sam Cooke's personal drummer. I was workin' for a guy named Joe Jones. He had a record out called "You Talk Too Much." It was a big record at the time. The record had gotten kind of cold. I was going to a nice restaurant in New Orleans to get a sandwich with Joe Jones, and I'm waiting for my sandwich and Joe goes in the dining room and sees Sam. Sam is complaining about the drummer with the Upsetters band. He was on tour in New Orleans that night. Joe said, "Look, my drummer plays anything." So he came and he got me to sit at the dining table with Sam. Sam said "Do you know any of my music?" I said, "yeah." He started singin' and I started playin' on the table and he hired me.

AAJ: Did you have other influences on the drums during this time?

IM: There were guys around New Orleans. I didn't know too much about drummer outside New Orleans. There were so many great drummers in New Orleans. Earl Palmer was there. Ed Blackwell was there. John Boudreaux and Smokey Johnson. We used to rehearse in my house, but they were more advanced than I was. We used to go and watch all of these guys play. That was my influence until I started practicing with John Boudreau and Smokey Johnson. They knew how to play like Max Roach and Art Blakey. They would come to my house. They would play Art Blakey and Max Roach. And I would say "I never heard of these guys? Who is this guy?" And they brought these records. And I would say, "Aw, I can't do that, man. I'll stay with what I do. I can't do that." And that was my first introduction hearing Art Blakey and Max Roach.

AAJ: All that diversity in your playin' comes from New Orleans.

IM: Yeah, because it's such a musical place. I didn't really know that until I went to New York how much music I heard in New Orleans and how versatile the drummers were. We were taught to read through the school system, because you couldn't play the drums if you didn't know how to read the parts. We were playin' all these waltzes, "The Blue Danube Waltz," and overtures, "Stars and Stripes," and you had to read these drum parts. The professor made you, one at a time, read these parts, or else you got out of the band.

So we were kind of versatile in playin' the drums. New Orleans is so thick with rhythms, because I guess the many mixtures of people—the French and the Indians and the Africans, all different varieties that the French put in the colony. It made a nice gumbo. That's what I used to say. So I learned a lot of music. I could play, but I didn't really know I could play. They were sayin' to me I could play. But I never thought of myself as being that good because there was so many great drummers around and my brothers were drummers. They kept sayin' I was that good, but I didn't believe 'em.

I had one teacher in my life that I paid for one lesson. His name was Paul Barbarin. He used to play with Louis Armstrong. All of the seasoned guys used to say if you want to learn how to play drums, you got to take lessons with Paul Barbarin. So I asked Mr. Barbarin to come to my house so I could take a lesson. He came by. He said "Ok, sit down at the drums and play the intro to 'Bourbon Street Parade.'" He said play a waltz, and I played a waltz. He said play a mambo, and I played a mambo. He said play a cha-cha, and I played a cha-cha. He said, "Listen, son. I'm a very busy man. One day you're gonna be a great drummer, but when they say to you that you're great, let in go in one ear and out the other ear. Now gimme my two dollars."

And that was it, man. [laughter] That was the first and last and only paid lesson I ever had in my life. And I took that knowledge with me until about seven years ago that I had to acknowledge that I was with Max Roach and Art Blakely and Elvin [Jones], that they had said to me that I was in their class. Art gave me a set of symbols 37 years ago when he heard me play and they told me that I was great and I was something special. So just recently I started speaking about it, that I do have something special about my playin.'

AAJ: How did you make it to New York?

IM: My first trip to New York was with Sam Cooke. That was just an eye opener. We were workin' from the south, all the way up. We played the Apollo Theater and then we went on. I came back to New Orleans. There was some kind of mix-up with Sam and the guitarist that played with Sam, and another drummer named June Gardner, from New Orleans. The guitarist wanted an older guy to play with him. But Sam hired me, so he couldn't do anything about it. So, he called June Gardner and offered him the gig. June took the gig, and told me I could have his gig in town. So I took his gig in town and he went out on the road with Sam.

The next time I saw Sam, I was Jerry Butler's musical director, me and Curtis Mayfield. He asked me why I quit, and I told him I never quit. He fired me. He said he would have NEVER fire me. Then we found out the guitarist pulled a fast one. So I was already with Jerry, and Curtis Mayfield was the guitarist. So I stood with Jerry. We were workin' at the Apollo Theater, workin' all the theaters. Then Curtis put the Impressions back together and he made me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I went with Curtis. At this particular time I was living in Chicago. So I was recording a lot of music in Chicago with Curtis. I decided that Chicago's weather in the wintertime was very, very cold. So I decided after about three and a half years I was gonna move to New York.

So I moved to New York. I was workin' at the Apollo Theater. I had quite a bit of money because Curtis gave me a point and a half of Curtom Publishing. I didn't really know what that was at that time, but it was a lot of money. I came to New York and went to see a show that was there and the musical director, who knew me, asked me what I was doing in town. I said I'm living here. In the next couple of days I got a call from him. Charlie Persip was the drummer. He fired Charlie Persip and gave me the job. That was my first beginning of workin' a steady job in New York City.

Because I could play all of that music. All of the acts that was on the road, everybody knew me. A lot of guys, at that time, didn't know how to play the funk that I play. So it was a new thing in New York City. I was the only guy to play that type of funk. So I would have guys coming by and watching me play. They would say, "What is this?" I tell you, man, I had no idea I was starting a trend, that I was playin' a style of drums that the guys who play the drums today learned how to play from. I had no idea. They was tellin' me this, but I was stickin' to what Mr. Barbarin said. All I was doin' was workin,' you know? I was married and had a kid and I was trying to take care of my family. It wasn't that I wanted to be famous or something like that.

AAJ: Is that where you started hearing more jazz, in New York?

IM: Well, yeah. I was listening to jazz because when I finished work at the Apollo Theater, the guys would say "Max Roach is playin' over there," and I would go to the club and see him play. Then I'd go down to Birdland and see who was playin' there, you know, Miles Davis and Coltrane, Cannonball, all of these groups. I'd go there just to hear something else.

AAJ: Philly Joe?

IM: Oh man! Philly was my buddy. I would go hear Philly Joe and all of these cats play, man. Gee whiz. It was a long time before I would get the nerve to go up to them and say to them I played the drums. I'd just be hanging around, listenin' at what they were sayin.' I was too young to have a drink in Birdland. They had a space in the club they called the Peanut Gallery. That's where all the young people used to go and have a Coca Cola and listen to the music.

As I got older, I would go out and hear guys playin.' One time I went from the Apollo Theater down to the Five Spot to hear this guy that all the members in the band was talkin' about that played three horns at one time. I thought they was crazy. I thought it was impossible. How could you play three horns at one time? You only have one mouth, you know? I went down and it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was amazin' to hear this guy do this. So I asked the drummer, could I play one tune with him. It was like a magnet drawing me to him. So he asked me where I was from. His name was Candy Finch. And he let me play. And after the melody, Roland Kirk turned around and said, "Who's that on them drums?" And I said I was Leo Morris. And he said, "Keep that beat! Keep that beat!" And the next thing you know I end up playin' the whole set.

And then this guy came to me and said, "man, you sound great. I'd like you to play a concert with me at Town Hall." I said I was workin' at the Apollo. He said, "Oh, man. If you can work it in, I want you to play this concert." So I said, "OK, what's your name?" He said Kenny Dorham. I said, "Oh man, I can't do this." He said, "Yeah, you can do it." So I had a couple rehearsals with him and played the concert at Town Hall. It was Kenny Dorham's band, Freddie Hubbard's band and Lee Morgan's band, in one night. Kenny Dorham's band played first, then all the guys were saying "Who is this drummer?" They said, "It's this guy from New Orleans." That's how the jazz guys got a hold of me.

I never played jazz before. Never of that caliber. I met Betty Carter there and George Coleman and McCoy Tyner, all of these guys I met at this one gig. The next thing you know, jazz guys started calling me. I was in Betty Carter's band with George Coleman and John Hicks and Paul Chambers. Then I was making records for Blue Note with Lou Donaldson and all of these Alligator boogaloo and all these organ records I was makin.' Guys were callin' me to do these records. They never gave me any music. A few times with Horace Silver, he gave me some music and played it. And he said, "No, that don't sound right. Throw that page away and play something." They would play a song and I would just make up a rhythm to it. If I was a smart dude at that time, I could be rich today [laughter], by just writing out those parts and making them pay for it. But I was a guy who was just very friendly and kind. And kind guys, a lot of times, they take advantage of you.

But I made a lot of records with organ. The organ trend came on the scene and I was makin' all these records with Charles Earland and Dr. Lonnie Smith. We have a great history of all of these records that we have out. Now they call it Acid Jazz. But that was the beginning of something that was a trend that was happening. And during this period, a lot of drummers in town was just listenin' at what I was doin' and copying what I was doin.' So it was like a new trend. I had no idea that this was happening, until "Hair." I'm the original drummer from the musical "Hair."

We were on Broadway four years and a half on that play. And the drum rhythms from "Hair" belongs to me. It's mine. I created it. A guy gave me 43 pages of chord changes, with just titles on it. And I made up all these rhythms. I played the show for about a year and a half and I got really sick. And they had to send in a sub, and there was no music. So the play was in an uproar for about five days until I got well and came back. They had me get the drum book written. A drummer friend of mine who was good at that, Warren Smith, he wrote the drum book for "Hair." Then I would have different drummers coming by to hear me play "Hair." Bernard Purdie, Alphonse Mouzon, Billy Cobham, all of these guys were coming by checking out what I was doing with the drums, so they could be a sub. But they couldn't play the show. But they took pieces of me with them from that. They took pieces of rhythm. Because it was a new trend that was happenin.' So they developed what they heard, the way they wanted it. But it all came from me.

I was recording a lot. Playin' the music in "Hair." You know, "Hair" had many plays going on around the country, and overseas. So I would go to Chicago and show the drummer how to play, go to Los Angeles, show the drummer how to play. I'd go around at every "Hair" opening to show guys how to play the show. That opened up a whole new avenue for me, being on Broadway. So my exposure in New York City was—today they say, "You da man, you da man." [laughter]

But I still didn't know this. At that time I had four kids. So my whole thing was trying to take care of these kids. I bought a house in New Jersey. So I was busy trying to work and take care of responsibilities. Not trying to be so famous. I would hear people say things, and it was nice to hear and nice to have nice write-ups and things like that. Still today, I like to hear nice words when I talk to people and they write about me. Because I'm getting older now and getting kind of sentimental and saying kind of, "Did I really do that? Did I pass that much time?"

I remember when we recorded with Roberta Flack. She asked me to join her band. And I said I'm with "Hair." And she said, "Whenever you quit 'Hair' I want you in my band." After a while I decided to quit "Hair" and as soon as I did I went with Roberta Flack. We had Eric Gale, Ralph MacDonald, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey and myself. We were recording all of these records.

AAJ: You must have recorded hundreds of records.

IM: There's a studio called Rudy Van Gelder's in New Jersey. One guy in Las Vegas was doing a story on his life and he called me for some comment. Rudy and I were good friends. As a matter of fact, it was Rudy who opened up my drum sound, so you could hear it on the radio and knew it was me. Rudy's studio was like a pyramid inside.

So this guy was asking me about Rudy and I told him and he said, "I have all of the records that you recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's. If you like I can send you a catalog of everything you ever recorded." He sent it to me and much to my surprise there was like 136 albums that I did at Rudy's alone.

AAJ: Over the years in jazz, you've played with so many guys.

IM: Many guys. Many guys. I haven't clocked the other stuff that I did. There are other studios in New York, you know, and Chicago.

I would like to stop traveling and just go fishin' and smoke my Cuban cigars and drink Diet Coke. I would like to enjoy a little bit of my life, come off of the road and not die here on the road. I'm playin' a lot. I've done a lot of great things in my lifetime. And I know I can play. Some guys never reach their goal of what they're trying to achieve in life, you know? My life has been quite fruitful. There's not many things that I'd like to do that I still haven't done. Now, since my kids are all grown up and they're livin' a good life and everybody's happy, I'd like to just try to enjoy a little life, by livin' in a warm climate, fishin' and smoking Cuban cigars.

I'll play, but I won't travel as much as I do today. Travelin' today is kind of hectic with the [September 11] crisis and being in the airport. It's good. I like it, and I like to be safe. But I'm 62 now and I've traveled for 47 years, I've been on the road 47 years and I'm thinkin' that I don't really want die out here.

AAJ: When you stop, you'll still do studio work?

IM: I wanna play when I wanna play because I wanna play. Not because I gotta pay a mortgage, you know what I mean? Not because I gotta pay the rent and the light bill and all like that. I wanna do what I wanna do. A lot of us, we don't get a chance to do that. And when we do, we're too damn old. We live a little while and the next thing you know, we're dead. Because the system's got it set up like that. You can't retire until 65, and at 65, man, you might be crippled or some shit. [laughter]

So I'm trying to do it now. I like to play, man. I like to make people happy. But I just came off a tour with Joe Lovano in Europe. I just was out in California with the Newport Jazz things, then Joe and I left there and went straight to Europe. So for the whole month we were on the road, man. We was playin' music, movin' from one country to the other. It's good and it's great, you know? But I think I got somethin' nicer to do in my life these days [laughter]. It's just that I think I'd like to do something else. I don't wanna be uptight for some money. If I'm gonna do it, it's because I wanna do it, not because I need the money to do it.

A lot of us don't get this chance and they love the music so much that they do it until they say "He used to play better than that." I don't wanna do that, man. If it gets to that point, I'm goin' fishin.' If I can't make you happy with this job, then I'm not gonna do it. It's my outlook of how I wanna play this music. I've had a wonderful career and I wanna keep it like that. I want to leave you with how good it was and how much fun we had and leave it like that.

AAJ: No regrets?

IM: Yeah. I had a good life, man. And I'm healthy. That's the other part of it. I survived through a lot of stuff, man, and I'm still healthy. And I still can play. My kids is sayin' to me, "Pop, you ought to go to Florida, go back to New Orleans, go someplace." I gotta check it out. I was thinking of going to St. Lucia. But these days I don't wanna be no place ... I lived eight years in England and nine years in Austria, because I took my kids abroad to be educated. Now they're grown up. I lived in Europe a lot. These days in crisis, I don't wanna be outside of the country no more. I don't wanna have to be some place and then have to get back to the States. I think I'll just stay in the States somewhere, get me a warm climate and go fishin,' man.

I just wanna enjoy life a little bit and have good vibes and good spirits around me.

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