Continuing our mini New Orleans drummer series, here’s an encounter with Idris Muhammad from a week in 1995 when he was working with George Coleman at the Village Vanguard, one of three successive Vanguard gigs in an 18-month span that George publicized with me on WKCR. Not sure whether it was George’s or my idea to have them up together, but whatever the case, Idris was in, as they say, expoobident form.
Not sure what happened to the beginning of the conversation, but I’m quite sure that most of the proceedings are contained herein.
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IM: …then I tried to play a little something, then we’d stop… And growing up, the school that I went to… All of us went to the same junior high school, grammar school, so it was known that we were going to play the drums.
Were your parents musicians?
IM: My father played the banjo. He played the banjo with Louis Armstrong. His name was Nathaniel Morris. Plus, he was an interior decorator; that’s how he supported us. But he had a sense of rhythm, that he could go from the kitchen to the living room with a pair of drumsticks, and play on everything, and make it happen.
What about his background? Did the music go back to your grandparents?
IM: My mother’s people originated from France, and my mother’s father was a violin player in the opera house in New York. So she knew music.
So your family, in a way, covers all the strains that make New Orleans a city that has such an incredible wealth of music.
IM: Right. Well, you see, the neighborhood that I lived in, musicians lived there and schoolteachers, see, and they had three bands that used to parade through the streets. And they had two Indian tribes. So when people ask me about my music, what happened: I used to follow the bands in the second-line, and I used to dance under the bass drum player. So as I grew up, I had this sense of bottom, playing the bottom, because I used to walk next to the guy that played the bass drum — and I used to hear this big sound all the time. And the snare drum player was always on his left, see. But I used to always march…
GC: This was marching in the street parades.
IM: The street, yeah, the Dixieland people! And the guy used to say to me, “Son, get away from this bass drum before I hit you with this mallet.” You know what I mean? And then the next thing you know, when I started playing the drums, I had this sense of bottom, playing the bottom, you see, where a lot of drummers play the top — they’ll be top heavy, but they don’t play the bottom.
So in a certain almost literal way, if someone hears you now playing trap drums with George Coleman, you’re playing an extension of what you heard in New Orleans as a kid.
IM: Yes. It’s a mixture between the Dixieland bands that marched through the streets and the Indian rhythms. You had two Indian tribes.
GC: And the Cajuns.
IM: Yeah, the Cajuns. These guys were playing these tambourines. See, there’s a rhythm that they play. See, in our neighborhood, there is a drum-beat that I developed, that I mixed the Second-Line and the beat with the Indians playing the tambourine. So I came up with this Funk sound that the Nevilles play today — because we’re from the same neighborhood. So I came up with this certain Funk sound. I was on the road in ’57 with Arthur. We had a band with a guy named Larry Williams; he had some records out, “Short Fat Fanny” and “Bony Moronie,” which were big hits in this time, kind of a takeoff on Little Richard. Then when we got back, the guys was all saying that they never… There was a lot of comments about the drums, and the sound that they was hearing. Then I was out with Sam Cooke (I was Sam Cooke’s personal drummer), and I came to New York, and I remember playing at the Apollo — and the guys were saying, “What is this drummer playing?” And I had no idea that it was that different, because up here they were playing a lot of shuffles.
GC: That’s right. I’m not cutting you off, but incidentally, Idris is on many of the commercial records, the hit records, with that fantastic beat, that boogaloo type thing that was quite prominent in the ’50s throughout the ’60s. He was one of the innovators that could play that type beat, that Boogaloo thing. And he’s been on many, many records that you hear this very distinctive beat. A lot of people call it a Rock-and-Roll beat, but I like to call it Rhythm-and-Blues
And the more you hear it, it sounds like the New Orleans beat.
IM: Well, that’s what it is. That’s what it is.
GC: Well, it pretty much comes from there. Of course, there were some guys in Memphis who could play that, too.
IM: They could play that also, yeah.
Of course, there was always an interchange between New Orleans and Memphis because of their proximity on the Mississippi River.
Did you know about George when you were a kid? You’re a little bit younger than George, I think.
IM: No, I didn’t. I met George, as we said, we were working with Betty Carter, and we became…
GC: That’s right. When he came to New York and we started working together, that’s when we hooked
Now, George, as a young guy, apart from learning Jazz, you were playing with people like B.B. King and other Blues and Rhythm-and-Blues bands.
GC: That’s right. A lot of people don’t know this, but a lot of the great Jazz players came from these bands. Like, John Coltrane, he was playing with Earl Bostic. Tommy Turrentine, a great trumpet player, he was playing with Earl Bostic. Blue Mitchell was with Earl Bostic.
Or Benny Golson with the Bullmoose Jackson band and Earl Bostic.
GC: That’s right. And Stanley Turrentine was with Earl Bostic, too. All of these great players have come from the R&B. We’re all coming from the R&B. I’d say a good portion of us started playing R&B in these bands. And there were quite a few of them out there. There was Amos Milburn, Sam Cooke, a lot of traveling bands out. And we used to run into each other out there, because we would be on the same bill sometimes. I used to run into Louis Jordan, and he had some great musicians in his band. The musicianship was very good in these bands. Those guys, the so-called headliners, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, they always kept good musicians in the band. They realized the value of having guys who could read and improvise — and play Jazz, too! But we were playing R&B, and on rare occasions we would get a chance to play a bit of Jazz.
Of course, sometimes the audiences might be a little rough.
GC: Well, see, the way it was, we would go out with B.B. and we’d play maybe a couple of Jazz tunes. We had a good book, too. We had special arrangements. There was a great arranger from Memphis that wrote for the band named R.J. Horn, and we had some nice arrangements. I think the instrumentation was two trumpets, alto, tenor and bari. This was the basic instrumentation. Maybe it was two tenors, because Bill Harvey was the leader, and he played tenor, too. So we had two tenors, bari, alto and two trumpets. So we had special arrangements written for this instrumentation. And it was Jazz pieces, too. We had Jazz pieces. A lot of it was original stuff. And we had another singer in the band who opened for B.B., so we would play a couple of Jazz tunes, the singer would come on, and then after that B.B. would come on. But before this would happen, while we would be playing, they would be impatient. They’d say, “Hey, come on! Where’s B.B.? Where’s B.B.? We were playing all of the hip stuff, you know, and they didn’t want to hear it. They wanted to hear B.B.
So that’s the way that went down, and I think in a lot of the other bands that’s what would happen. They would warm-up with just a couple of things, band tunes, and then after that you bring on the star.
Back to Idris for a moment, and staying with New Orleans. When you were coming up, were you basically just self-taught on the drums through picking up what was around you, or did you have people specifically teaching you hands-on?
IM: I am a self-taught drummer. I used to practice with two other drummers. One is named John Boudreaux and the other one’s name was Smokey Johnson. Now, Smokey played with Fats Domino, and John is living out in Los Angeles. They used to rehearse in my house. Now, these guys were more advanced than I was, and they would… Because my mother allowed us to play the drums in the house, and if anybody would say anything, she would protect us, and say, “This is my father’s house; he plays any time he wants.” So these guys used to come from downtown to my house, and practice. I would watch them practice, and John would play just like Max Roach, and Smokey had this thunder roll like Art Blakey. So when I got ready to play, they said, “Okay, now you get to that.” I said, “Man, I can’t play this.” He said, “Yes, you can. Just look. You put one hand here and you say ‘TING-A-LING,’ and then you do something else with the other hand.” So I would listen to what they were doing, and try to do something that they did. That was the closest I knew about Jazz.
When did Jazz start entering your consciousness more specifically?
IM: There was a saxophone player who used to play with Fats Domino. He asked me to make a Jazz concert with him.
Was that Clarence Ford?
IM: Yes, that’s Clarence Ford. And he asked me to make this Jazz concert, which I was scared to death. It was Ellis Marsalis and Richard Payne. So we made this gig, and I rehearsed it at Ellis’ house. At this time Wynton and Branford was like little kids, running through and disturbing the rehearsal. So I couldn’t… After rehearsing, I had no… The first time they had me to play 4’s, I couldn’t figure this out. It just so happened, Blackwell came to the house, and he was saying… I said, “Black, show me how to… I can’t feel these fours.” He said, “Oh, you can do this. All you have to do is listen.” And he played it a couple of times, and then I played it, and then I got it. So that was the first experience that I had of Jazz. I was basically a drummer that backed up a lot of singers, so I had a sense of playing to please people. When you were playing for singers, you had to play what they want, and you had to pay attention, see, because paying attention when playing was very, very important.
I had one lesson that I paid for in my life. There was a drummer called Paul Barbarin who had played with Louis Armstrong, and I asked him for a lesson. He said, “Yeah.” So he came by my house, and he says, “Okay, sit down. Play the intro to ‘Bourbon Street Parade'” — which is a drum intro. I played it. He says, “Okay, now play a Mambo.” And I played a Mambo. He says, “Play a Cha-Cha.” I played a Cha-Cha. He says, “Play a Waltz.” And I played a waltz. He said, “Listen, son, I don’t have time to waste. You’re wasting my time.” I said, “But Mr. Barbarin, I want to learn how to read these notes.” He said, “You’re going to school?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You will learn in school.” He says, “But I’ll tell you one thing. One day you’ll be a great drummer. But when they tell you that you’re great, let it go in one ear and out the other ear — and give me my two dollars.”
I’ll bet it was just like that, too.
GC: [LAUGHS] But you know, that’s pretty much what happened to a lot of us. Because I’m a self-taught musician, and I was fortunate enough to be around guys… When I first started playing music, I got the best schooling that you could ever want. Because I was right there with these guys. These guys were arrangers, composers, piano players…
Name a few names.
GC: Oh, nobody would know them. Some of them are still back in Memphis. There’s one guy, Robert Talley, who is still alive back in Memphis. Of course, Onzie Horne is dead. He was another great teacher. But Bob Talley, he was the guy who showed me all the stuff about chord progressions, all the stuff that these guys go to Berkeley for. I knew that stuff when I was about 16 or 17 years old! I knew about half-diminished chords, minor sevenths, thirteenth chords. I would sit right down at the piano with my horn, and this guy would show me all of this stuff. Then there were some elderly players, too, some older guys that played like Jelly Roll Morton — and I would get the basics from these guys, playing just my basic minor chords and dominant seventh chords. But they were correct! Everything was correct that these guys would show me. But then, when I began to get the modern harmony from this gentleman, Robert Talley, he was showing me all about the half-diminished chords, all the stuff these guys go to Berklee to learn. I knew that stuff when I was like 17 years old, when I first picked up the horn. The reading, arranging and composing, I began to get all of that at the same time. All of that stuff; it was right there available for me. So I didn’t have to… All I had to do was to apply myself, which I did — and study and practice. That’s all I needed. I didn’t need all of this going to school and learning the formal stuff about… Of course, I had a basic music education in high school, where you’d find out what the great staff was, the treble clef, the bass clef, a whole note, a half note, valuations, and all that different stuff. That was basic. That was just basic music that you learned in high school, from your music teacher.
Your music teacher was, by the way… In high school.
GC: Her name was Mrs. Thomas. I can’t even remember her first time. But this goes back to junior high school. She was great. Because she would set us down and she’d play some of the classics, and we had to identify Beethoven and different little things like that. So that helped the ear. So I was listening to Classics when I was a kid. Moonlight Sonata and all those things, you would have to… She would play it on the record player, and then you would identify it. “Now, what is this?” Then you would tell her what it is. This was just basic music. As I say, you found out about whole notes, half notes, the great staff, bass clef, treble clef, and all that.
Now, these things didn’t mean that much during that time. But as I grew and began to get involved in Jazz, then these things started making sense.
George, were you also listening to saxophone players and trying to emulate their style?
GC: Oh, yes, man. That was the order of the day — transcription. That was the order of the day. We were transcribing Bird solos. As I said, this same stuff that happens at Berklee and the University of Miami and places like that, I was doing that when I was 17. I was transcribing Charlie Parker solos. Maybe not writing all of them out, but I would emulate them, I would play them, and I would listen to them on the 78. And that was the top speed. You couldn’t slow it down. Today you can kind of slow things down. Then with 78’s, you had to hear it right from the speed.
Idris, did you practice off records, too, with other drummers, or was it all functional with you?
IM: Yes, I did. I practiced with the radio. [LAUGHS] It wasn’t a Jazz station, but it was a Rhythm-and-Blues station that used to sneak in every now and then with a couple of Jazz tunes. So I practiced playing… I had to learn the top ten tunes…
So you could play at the dances.
IM: Right, so I could play with these singers. And every now and then they’d sneak in one of these Jazz records, and I would play with that on the radio. Now, my high school teacher was Solomon Spencer, and to play in the high school band, you had to learn how to read. You just couldn’t play in the band. I mean, he was teaching us… A strange thing happened. There was a waltz that I hated to play, because the snare drum he only had to play BUHM-BOOM, and the bass drum says BOOM, and the snare drum answers BUHM-BOOM. I used to get sick of this. And he says, “Listen, son. You can’t…no BUH-DOOMP, BUH-DOOMP. You must play BUHM-BOOM. What’s on the music, that’s what you play. And I hated this waltz. Now, just recently, in the last six-seven years, I’m living in Vienna, in Austria, and I went to a park to pick up my wife one day, and I heard this orchestra playing in the park — I heard this waltz. I said, “Gee, whiz, that’s the waltz I used to hate to play!” And it turned out it’s the “Blue Danube Waltz.” [GC AND IM SING FIRST 8 BARS] [LAUGH] I hated that man! Johann Strauss. That’s one of this… Strange things happen.
But musically, you have to… When you’re playing the music, they always taught us to pay attention. You see, you had to pay attention. When someone taught you something, you observed and you got this down. So when you had to use it again… I remember I was playing back in the Big Joe Turner band, and he said, “Son, turn the sticks around, backwards, and give me that beat.” And I gave it to him, and I remember while performing he turned around and looked at me and gave me the greatest smile, man. It looked like I just hit the drums so hard… Then I remembered this, that my job is to please the people who I’m working for. If I take a job…
GC: Give them what they want.
IM: Yes. If I take a job, at the end of the night you’re going to be happy with what I’ve done, because I’m going to please you. That’s why I take the job. My object, I am the drummer, I am the spine of the band. You see? I am responsible for everything that goes down in the band and happens. I am carrying the band. I am the carpet under the band. So I let you ride on me. But when I take you for this ride, when I let you off, you’re going to be happy.
I want to follow up on one comment you made before about your first official Jazz concert, I guess in the early ’60s in New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis and Clarence Ford. You mentioned Blackwell coming by and showing you some stuff. So although you weren’t so familiar with Jazz as such, you knew Blackwell a little bit — and people like James Black as well?
IM: Well, you see, what happened is that Blackwell and Earl Palmer and Wilbur Hogan, these were Jazz drummers. These guys played Jazz. That’s all they did. They played Jazz. And Blackwell was known for playing Jazz…
IM: Oh, man, he played Jazz! And see, I learned these things about playing melodies, playing the melody on the drum by listening to Ed Blackwell. I had heard Max Roach and them do it, but I saw Blackwell do this. And he was so intricate the way he did it. I mean, he played the melodies like the horn player played it. So I saw it, but it didn’t… You see, I came from Funk and Rhythm-and-Blues. It didn’t dawn on me that…
What happened to me in the Jazz in New York, I was working at the Apollo Theater with Jerry Butler, and I went down to the Five Spot to hear Roland Kirk. So I just got enough nerve to ask the drummer to let me sit in — and he did! We started playing, and Roland got through the melody and says, “Who is that on them drums!? Who? Who’s that on them drums?” I said, “Leo.” He said, “Keep that beat! Keep that beat!” So I ended up playing a couple of numbers. When I finished, a guy came up to me out of the audience. He said, “Oh, man, you sound really great, and I’d like you to do a concert with me at Town Hall.” I said, “yeah, I think I could do that.” He told me when was the concert, and I said, “By the way, what is your name?” He said, “Kenny Dorham.”
IM: You see? And that was my first experience… The first Jazz thing I got into in New York, playing at Town Hall, was Kenny Dorham’s band, Freddie Hubbard’s band and Lee Morgan’s band. From that gig, I met Betty Carter. Betty heard me, and Betty hired me. You see? The next thing, George and I met up. And one thing led to another, and the next thing to another… Meanwhile, I’m still recording a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll, Funk records, because nobody in New York knew how to play these rhythms. Nobody could play these rhythms. See? So I made quite a few hit records with a lot of people.
GC: Yes, he did.
IM: Well, one is “Alligator Boogaloo.” “Feel Like Making Love” with Roberta Flack.
GC: Oh, you did some Bob James stuff, too.
IM: Yeah, Bob James. We did “Taxi.”
GC: And you also did that commercial with Bobby Short, “Charley.” [SINGS THEME] During those times, I made a few little things. Because the recording field was quite lucrative back in those days. So I used to make a few commercial things, too, just playing parts and stuff like that. But he was the man. He was the man for the beats, for that particular thing during that time — and in any other kind of beat. So when he’s telling you, “Well, I give them what they want,” he’s capable of doing that.
GC: Anybody. Whatever you want, he’ll give you. That’s what makes him so great. That’s why I’m very happy to have him. And when the people come out to hear us, they’re going to hear a great drummer.
[MUSIC: George Coleman, “El Barrio”; Idris Muhammad with Gene Ammons, “The Black Cat”]
That track brings up a kind of continuity. George spent a number of years in Chicago, sort of as the way-station between Memphis and New York. I’d like you to talk about the quality of those years.
GC: My stay in Chicago, it seemed as if I spent much more time than I actually did. I arrived somewhere circa 1956, and I departed March ’58 to join Max Roach. Now, that’s maybe a couple of years. But during that time I was there, it’s like I spent ten years, at least ten years there, because there was so much happening during that time Jazz-wise. As a matter of fact, it was 24 hours a day of music during that time. As a matter of fact, Norman Simmons and I were just talking about that last night at Bradley’s. There was so much happening at that time, musically, Jazz-wise, because there were so many clubs… There was just a tremendous amount of music, and great musicians, of course. Gene Ammons was there, and Johnny Griffin, and a lesser-known saxophone but nevertheless a great player, a guy named Nicky Hill. Of course, Eddie Harris; he was there. Eddie is a multi-instrumentalist. He played five saxophones, piano…
He said he used to play piano off-nights with Ahmad Jamal.
GC: Yeah, he probably did! There was just such an exciting array of talent there during that time. There was one club that was open 24 hours. I mean, you could go in early in the morning and play at 6 o’clock in the morning, all through the night — a place called the Cotton Club. It was first called the Cotton Club; then they changed it to Swingland. But the policy was still the same. The bass and the drums were always on the stand, and just any time of day or night there were people playing in there.
How would you distinguish, say, the way Chicago drummers were playing from the New Orleans sound? — if there’s a distinction.
GC: Well, I can’t correlate music geographically. Because there’s so many guys… It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It seems to me that whatever you do, or however you play… You could be from Timbuktu, and you could sound like somebody from New Orleans or Memphis or Detroit… There was a little argument just recently about Detroit pianos. Well, Tommy Flanagan says there’s no such thing as Detroit pianos. Because they tried to associate all the guys from Detroit as having some kind of connection style-wise. But it’s not. All those guys are different! Flanagan’s different from Lightsey and Barry Harris. But they’re all great. It just happens that there are a lot of great piano players from Detroit. And there are some great musicians in Philadelphia. There’s great musicians all over the place. So geographically, it’s kind of hard for me…
You don’t want to hear anything about Chicago Tenors, then.
GC: No. No, not really. It’s just that there are so many great musicians all over the world.
Well, Idris, do you think that someone like you or James Black or Ed Blackwell could have developed the type of style you did anywhere but New Orleans? What’s your take on that?
IM: Well, because I was raised there, and I had a sense of rhythm and time that we were taught, and it was the experience, you know… As George says, you could have gotten it no matter where you lived at, but it just so happened that I was in New Orleans…
GC: And there were some great drummers there…
IM: Yeah, and there was some great guys.
GC: See? That’s it.
IM: They taught us… I remember my father saying to me, “Son, what are you going to do as far as making a living?” I said, “Pop, I’m going to play the drums.” He said, “Is that all you’re going to do?”
GC: You’ve got to go out and get a real job!
IM: He said, “You’ve got to get a job, boy.” I said, “Well, Pop, I’m going to play the drums.” He said, “You’re going to play the drums and take care of a family?” I said, “Yeah, Pop.” He said, “Well, how are you going to do that?” I said, “Well, just play the drums.” He said, “Just play the drums?” And after… I think I was in the Tan Magazine (which was a rival of Ebony Magazine in these days) with Jerry Butler. Also, I spent a number of years in Chicago. And my mother saw this, and she went to the newsstand, and she bought all of the magazines, and she showed this to my father. When I came back to New Orleans, I had this nice Brooks Brothers suit, and I bought my father a canary-yellow sport-jacket. He said, “Son, it seems like you’ve made up your mind that you’re going to play the drums for a living.” I said, “Yeah, Pop. And look how much money I have!” He said, “Yes, I think you’re going to do all right.”
I guess being a musician himself, he had a well-earned skepticism about the life.
IM: Yes. Because we were 14 kids, you see, and he was an interior decorator also. We all learned this business, because all of my uncles are interior decorators. So as a kid, we were always apprenticed to learn this job. That’s how he really took care of us. Playing the banjo, it was like…
GC: It was fun. [LAUGHS]
IM: Yeah. I remember from my older brother, before he died, he told me something that I didn’t realize until… My brother heard me play with Johnny Griffin one time, and it was the first time he ever heard me play Jazz. Then he told me some history about myself that hadn’t been pulled out of me. It’s that when my father played this banjo, he used to sing all of these standard songs, all of these standard tunes that we play today that we call “standards” — “Stella by Starlight” and all of these. He used to sing them. We sat on the floor and he would sing to us! So I knew these standards as a kid. So when I started playing Jazz and the guy called a standard, I already knew that. I’d see that the piano players were having trouble with the changes, but I was playing it on the drums. They’d say, “Well, Idris, how did you know that this went like that?” I knew this music.
My brother said, “I listen to you solo. You’re playing the melody, you play the bridge, play the last eight, and you’re bringing them out. Your father used to do this.” Then he told me something about my hands, how to balance my hands out, you see. But I am a musical drum player.
GC: That’s right. Exactly. See, he hears tones as well as percussive sounds. Idris hears tones. This one tune we played, he heard the bridge and he said, “Man, that’s a hip bridge; that’s some hip changes on the bridge!” Now, how many drummers would really be listening to changes? He listens to changes and melodies. See, that’s what sets him apart from so many other drummers.
That’s George Coleman’s second encomium to Idris Muhammad. I’d like Idris to return the favor and talk about George. You’ve played with some of the greatest tenor players — Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Pharaoh Sanders. What makes George Coleman special to play with?
IM: For me, George is special because George is always working at new things. I heard a comment Elvin said about John, that when he worked with John, how John was inspirational to him. One time I was in the dressing room in between sets, and someone was interviewing Elvin, and they were commenting that Elvin was the number-one drummer and all of that, and Elvin was saying it’s due to John’s always working on new things that makes him reach for other things that he doesn’t know are inside of him. For me, George has this. To play with George is a challenge for me. I was saying to him last night… George, I was playing with you, and you were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what he was playing in my left hand, and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, “No, I’d better stop myself in,” because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat. See, it’s a challenge. I don’t have this challenge too much.
George is a fellow that’s always working on something new, and he’s always progressing — you see? And for me to play with him, I think that one of the greatest things is just watching George play, you see, and being able to play with him to hear these notes — because he is always reaching for things. I mean, new things. I have played with a lot of horn players, and a lot of the horn players have tunes that they like to play. George is playing things that’s always… When I play with George in the band it’s always something new. Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed. See? So it’s a challenge to me, because it makes me reach for things that.. If I hear something that I haven’t heard before, I try it with him. And if it comes out, then I reach a new area. So I think he’s a very exceptional horn player, and underrated.
Idris, how do you go about working on new things? Does it come through gigs, or through your own solitary practice?
IM: Well, strange as it might seem today, I don’t practice any more. I don’t have time. I really don’t time. I don’t have time to practice. I’m traveling a lot. My kids was asking me, “Pop, the drums are down there; I haven’t heard you play the drums in a while.” When I come off the road, I put the cymbals on the side, and I go to my family duties. Then the phone rings, and I’m out in a couple of days.
So what I do is, I use a theory that if I have a job, who I’m taking this job with, I think about them, think about their music — then on my way to the gig I’m playing with them already. So I’m already into you before we have already hit a note. On the way to the gig I’m thinking about you. If I’ve got to work with George, which is a rare thing unless we’re working on new tunes, we don’t have time to rehearse. You see? So when I’m on my way to the gig, I’ve taken a gig with George Coleman, so I’m thinking of George is playing. He’s a very strong player, a very devoted player, and I know he’s going to come up with some new things. So I am putting myself up for this. So I am playing already; before I set the drums up, I’m playing.
George, talk about your working on new things.
GC: Well, I’m basically the same way as what Idris is talking about. I don’t get a chance to practice too much. Fortunately, when I’m playing, that’s basically when I’m practicing, when I’m trying to create new things or do new things. What motivates this is my supporting cast, my being surrounded with excellence. That’s what makes me create and be able to do things, and just relax and play. If I have players like Idris and Jamil and Geoff and Harold Mabern and people like that, that’s the motivation. That gives me incentive to try new things and create new things. Because I don’t have to think about whether the beat is going to be messed up or somebody is going to play some wrong changes. All I have to do is lay back and just play, and when I am able to do this, then I can come up with some creativity. That’s what happens to me.
Actually, you’re practicing when you’re on the stand. That’s how you get your practice. You know when you become a performer and a professional that has been in the business as long as we have (I know exactly what he’s talking about), it’s not so important to practice.
Technique is no longer an issue.
This is a hard question, maybe even a corny question, but I’ll ask it anyway. George, five saxophonists, and Idris, five drummers who influenced you like no others.
GC: Okay. Bird, Trane, Sonny Rollins… There’s a host of others. Of course, Don Byas. People like that. And I respect all of the great players. I like all the guys who are sort of unsung. And when people tell me that I am underrated, I look at the whole… I mean, I’m at the back of the line. There’s a lot of guys, like Frank Foster, a great player, and Jimmy Heath, and of course the late Junior Cook — there are so many players. And then there’s a lot of great young players out there now. So I put myself in a position to listen to all of them.
But to answer your question about the influence, the basic influences were the aforementionables, the people I mentioned before. But there are so many other great talents. And I always find time to listen to guys and hear things, and I say, “Oh, man, that was really nice.” That’s how I perceive saxophone players. Even some of the young guys that nobody even knows about. I’ll hear a young player and I say, “Oh, that guy sounds good. I kind of liked that.” Then I might hear a guy who probably can’t play anything, and then I’ll search and I’ll search, and I’ll find out all those funny notes that he plays, and I may find something in there, one phrase that I say, “Mmm, I wonder if he did… Did he luck up on that?” I’ll weed out all of the negativity and come up with something positive. That’s how I listen.
Idris, you named some names, but the five drummer question for you. Or five musicians.
IM: Well, there was a saxophone player in New Orleans who a lot of people didn’t know about. His name was Nat Perillat.
He recorded with the Adderley’s and with Ellis Marsalis.
IM: Yes. He was one of the first guys who I heard. And of course, Coltrane, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons. A number of guys. A great friend of mine, the drummer Art Blakey, heard me play one time at the Five Spot, and he said, “Son, you sound great.” I said, “yes, Mr. Blakey.” He said, “Just call me Art.” He said, “You’re sounding great, but you’re playing on those pot covers.” [LAUGHS] Which my cymbals wasn’t so great! He said, “You sound great, but you’re playing on those pot covers. Come with me tonight.” So him and I and Paul Chambers hung out for a day-and-a-half, and I ended up with the cymbals that I have now, K-cymbals. It’s something special. It’s about 26 years I’ve had these cymbals, and everybody likes my cymbals.
GC: They love them.
IM: Yeah, everybody loves them.
They were hand-picked by Art Blakey!
IM: Yes, Art gave them to me. These were the cymbals that he used to record with. He gave me this gift.