Don Alias, 66, Percussionist and Sideman, Is Dead
By NATE CHINEN
Published: April 5, 2006
Don Alias, a percussionist who had a long career as a sought-after sideman, working with an illustrious array of artists in jazz and pop including Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, died on March 28 at his home in Manhattan. He was 66. His death was announced by Melanie Futorian, his companion, who said the cause was under investigation.
Born Charles Donald Alias to Caribbean parents in New York, Mr. Alias liked to say that he learned percussion on the streets, picking up the techniques of Cuban and Puerto Rican hand drummers.
While in high school, he enlisted as a conga player with the Eartha Kitt Dance Foundation, which offered classes at a Y.M.C.A. Ms. Kitt herself took him along to the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, where he performed with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, his first professional experience.
At the urging of his family, Mr. Alias (pronounced uh-LIE-ess) studied biology at Gannon College in Erie, Pa., and the Carnegie Institute for Biochemistry in Boston. Playing in Boston clubs by night, he met students from the Berklee School of Music, most notably the bassist Gene Perla.
It was Mr. Perla who got Mr. Alias a job as a drummer with Ms. Simone, even though he had no experience with a full drum kit. He handled the challenge and eventually became Ms. Simone's musical director. In 1969, his work in her ensemble caught the attention of Miles Davis, who was then developing the hazy jazz-rock that would suffuse his album Bitches Brew.
Hired as an auxiliary percussionist for the album, Mr. Alias ended up playing a trap-set part, along with Jack DeJohnette, on the track Miles Runs the Voodoo Down." His lean and loosely syncopated beat, inspired by New Orleans parade music, is one of the album's most distinctive rhythms.
Mr. Alias played the role of trap drummer again on a 1979 concert tour with Joni Mitchell, in a band that included the saxophonist Michael Brecker, the guitarist Pat Metheny and the bassist Jaco Pastorius. A live recording from the tour, Shadows and Light, is often cited as a favorite among musicians.
Mr. Alias was the first-call percussionist for a host of other artists as well, including the singer Roberta Flack, the alto saxophonist David Sanborn (with whom he toured as recently as February) and the pianist Herbie Hancock. As a conga player, Mr. Alias could augment a rhythm section in a way that was urgent but never intrusive.
He also had a hand in forming two bands: Stone Alliance, an electric fusion project with Mr. Perla and the saxophonist Steve Grossman, and Kebekwa, a percussion ensemble based in Montreal. Kebekwa was short-lived, but several years ago Stone Alliance reunited after a two-decade hiatus. The group has three recent live albums on the Mambo Maniacs label.
In addition to Ms. Futorian, Mr. Alias is survived by his mother, Violet Richardson Alias; his son, Charles Donald Alias Jr.; his daughter, Kimberlee Marisa Alias; and four grandchildren.