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Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

Clifford Allen By

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Though not as well known as his brother, drummer Rashied Ali (1935-2009), Muhammad Ali spent the 1970s as one of the busiest drummers in free jazz, primarily working in a cooperative Paris-based quartet with saxophonist Frank Wright, pianist Bobby Few and bassist Alan Silva, and known as the Center of the World Quartet. Born in Philadelphia in 1936 as Raymond Patterson, Ali has worked with many of the preeminent names in the jazz avant-garde, including saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Byard Lancaster, Noah Howard, Archie Shepp, pianists Cecil Taylor and Dave Burrell, trumpeters Butch Morris and Don Cherry, and bassist William Parker. Though after the Center of the World dissolved in 1984, Ali mostly retired from regular performance, he is slowly but surely reasserting his presence on the scene.

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 attended—they 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 musical—my 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 older—we were just taking it in and indulging, rather than being involved. Most of the things that were happening—my 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 brothers—Rashied was the oldest, Omar is in the middle and he plays all sorts of African percussion, and then me. I just came up underneath them—everything 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 beginning—the 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 well—I 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 well—I 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.

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