I was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas in 1940. Both my parents were music lovers. My mother played piano and organ at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, and worked as a schoolteacher. My father owned the only black-owned local record store and jukebox business. On one side of my family is Curtis Ousley (who became famous as King Curtis). On the other is David “Fathead” Newman. I started playing drums in elementary school under the clarinetist John Carter, and in high school under Mr. Baxter, the same teacher who taught Ornette Coleman, Curtis Ousley, Dewey Redman, John Carter, Julius Hemphill, Charles Moffett, and James Jordan. I began playing professionally in Dallas with members of the Ray Charles band, and worked in Fort Worth, Houston, New Haven, and Bridgeport before moving to New York City in 1966. I attended New York University along with alto saxophonist René McLean, trumpeter Charles Sullivan, and bassist Abdul Malik, who had worked with Thelonious Monk.
Since that time, I have performed with many legendary jazz musicians including Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ray Bryant, Stanley Turrentine, Bennie Maupin, Shirley Scott and others.
I performed and recorded with three musical revolutionaries who virtually defined jazz in the 1970s: Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman. I am the only musician to perform and record with all three.
After my final performance with Ornette Coleman on Saturday Night Live in 1979, I created The Decoding Society, whose classic recordings, including “Eye on You,” “Mandance,” “Street Priest,” “Barbeque Dog,” and “When Colors Play” breathed new life into American music. On more than 15 albums and countless tours, I helped launch the careers of some of the most talented musicians in jazz, including Bill Frisell, Byard Lancaster, Billy Bang, James “Blood” Ulmer, Vernon Reid, Melvin Gibbs, Akbar Ali, Jef Lee Johnson, Robin Eubanks, Eric Person, and James Carter.
During the 1980s, I traveled on behalf of the Voice of America and the U.S. Information Service to 15 African countries, India, and eight East Asian countries with The Decoding Society. During a solo trip to Africa, I composed much of “When Colors Play.”
My string quartets and other composed music have been performed by the most noted orchestras in Europe and the United States, the Cologne Jazz Society, WDR (Köln) and on radio in France, Germany, England, and Poland. I have performed in classical concerts in Europe and the U.S. with Eliot Fisk, Ruggiero Ricci, Dennis Russell Davies, and Garrett List.