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Muhammad Ali: From a Family of Percussionists

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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.

AAJ: Having listened to your recordings from the 1960s and 70s, your approach to the kit seems very different from your brother Rashied's. When did you start differentiating your playing from your brothers? Was there a specific instance or a time that you thought you'd like to go in a different direction with the kit?

MA: I can tell you exactly how that jumped off. I was really locked down trying to play time, and I was very concerned with that because my mentors at the time were Max and Philly Joe. I had 4/4 in my mind, and [drummer] Sunny Murray was a great friend of mine—we grew up together. Sunny came back from New York and came by my house, and he said "let me show you what I've been dealing with." At that time he was playing with [pianist] Cecil Taylor and [tenor saxophonist] Albert Ayler—he said "man, you're sounding good, but this is what's happening now." We went into the studio that Rashied and I had in the house, and he started playing and I said "what's going on? What's all this you're doing?" He'd totally changed the structure of the drums to something else. He said "this is what's happening now, and this is what I'm doing." Rashied was living downstairs and I called him to come up and see what Sunny was up to. Sunny was basically the first avant-garde drummer that I heard, and I said that this was something I could feel and relate to.

AAJ: Could you say why that is?

MA: Because of the multiple rhythm structure, and because of being able to carry the melody and play that, while still being outside of it. You could still carry a 4/4 like a metronome, but you could color it and improvise around it and make it deal with multiple things. It just changes the atmosphere.

AAJ: There was criticism at the time against musicians who were playing the "New Thing," that perhaps they couldn't play time or play bebop very well, and that's why they wanted to play free. But since you're coming from a very heavy time perspective, obviously your response was different.

MA: That's why I was able to go into a method of playing that took me away from some of the other people who played free jazz—I knew how to swing and was very committed to that, and I feel like this music should be swung. I don't want an avant-garde that's just making sounds; it has to have structure for me. I come from a long line of bebop players, and for me it's not about making a bunch of noises but about playing and taking it somewhere. A bassist can be free enough to walk as well, and a horn player can be free enough to play and not feel that I'm going to restrict him to time, but I'm not going to take the melody away from him either by just booming and banging. I want players to head the way they're heading and find themselves.

During the time I played with [alto saxophonist] Noah Howard, we did a gig with [trumpeter] Donald Ayler and Beaver Harris on drums, a double-drum thing at Town Hall. It was a great concert, and Beaver came up and was explaining something about me to some other people, and he said "Muhammad is the Max Roach of free jazz" and his considering me in that way was important.

AAJ: And Beaver was someone who could really swing too—[drummer] Alvin Fielder called him the Kenny Clarke of free jazz.

MA: Beaver laid that on me, and I had heard Sunny and Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille—all the free drummers. It had been such a locked-in thing before that I had to keep playing and playing to find a way out of everybody else's concept, so I found this. It's a gift to be able to find something like that; people can't show you, you know? It has to come out of you and you have to work to find it—I think I was very fortunate.

AAJ: When did you decide to move to New York? You were in Philly in the early 1960s, right?

MA: I went to New York in 1966, and Rashied was already living there and I started trying to make my way. I was still studying with my brother, and during that time I was able to hook up with Philly Joe more personally and became a private student of his. Then I began to work with many of the same musicians that Rashied had performed and recorded with.

AAJ: You even sat in with John Coltrane around that time, right?

MA: That was a little later—Rashied had just got the gig a little earlier, as a matter of fact. I played with Trane in Philadelphia; I was visiting and John asked me to work with him because he was trying to organize a festival at a church in North Philly that he was a member of. At the time Alice Coltrane was on piano, and [saxophonist] Sonny Fortune was there, Sonny Johnson on bass (the trumpeter Dewey Johnson's brother), and Baba Robert Crowley and his African ensemble with about five African percussionists. It was a massive gig, and many of the Philadelphia musicians were also performing at the festival. That was the first time that I ever worked with John, and he had the quintet with Rashied and [saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders then but he didn't want to bring them down for the gig. It just so happened that I walked into the club where he was watching the African percussionists, and he invited me on that gig he had. It was a blessed thing for me.

After that, [saxophonist] Frank Wright called Trane and he was looking for a drummer in New York, because he had just recorded for ESP with Tom Price on drums and [bassist] Henry Grimes. Frank wanted a different band for his next recording, and he called Trane and Trane told him to check me out. Frank called Rashied and got me on the phone—my brother and I were living together in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at that time. We arranged that we'd come together and do that date—I was working with Noah Howard as well, so around the same time I did Your Prayer with Frank for ESP and The Black Ark with Noah for Freedom. I was in between both of them for a while; we played Slug's, Judson Hall and Town Hall. Between those bands I had a lot of work, and it opened me up so that I began doing things with [saxophonist] Archie Shepp, where I played congas, and also with Albert Ayler.

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