The Idris Muhammad interview
"I’m a natural drummer. I have some special qualities that came from the Creator, which allow me to play all kinds of music."
by Eothen Alapatt
I met Idris through Jimmy Lewis. I needed a drummer. We’d had a drummer on Hair when we were doing it downtown. He’d gone out of town, but he wasn’t quite what we wanted anyway. So I asked Jimmy, “Who should we get?” He said, “Idris.” He had worked with Idris as a sessioner and in the King Curtis Band. I think I had Idris come play with us, but it may have been that we went straight into rehearsals. He was great, right from the start. He had a great, strong beat. And he played in the right style. He actually was a jazz drummer but when he heard the music for Hair he didn’t go the wrong way. He went right with it. He stayed in the band for four and a half years. He created a book of drumming, for when he missed the show. [Idris’s subs] had to try to do what he did, and none of them could. He was so powerful; it was unbelievable! After he played that show for about a year, I said, “We’ve got to record this band; they’re so good!” And then we did the First Natural Hair Band LP. “Ripped Open by Metal Explosions” is probably the most funky outing on the record but Idris had a lot of moments in the show that were really terrific. Towards the end of the show it goes into pure rhythm for about twenty minutes. Idris just kept it up, it was great. From one song to the other, with lots of breaks and interesting stuff. I used Idris for other projects, like the Woman Is Sweeter LP, and lots of demos. I used his wife Sakinah too. We all had a close relationship. But after the show closed, he moved out. He was traveling, playing with jazz groups and such. So I started with Bernard [Purdie] again. I’d kept in touch with him anyway during that time. For certain things, I used Bernard. The two are just different. Bernard is very sharp, you know. He plays a lot of interesting rhythms. Idris concentrates not so much on rhythm as on the beat—the actual four beats in the bar. And he generates a terrific momentum, like a train going down a hill. I don’t know anyone who does that better than Idris. And in a show, it’s overwhelming. By the end of the show the audience is breathless, because of this unbelievable drumming. They didn’t know it, but I knew that’s what it was.
Where were you born?
New Orleans—that’s my home. Sixty-one years have gone by so fast, I’m shocked. I was born Leo Morris. My father’s family originated from Nigeria, and my mother was French. When I came into the family, there were seven of us. My three brothers, and one of my sisters, were drummers. The first day I went in to school, the teacher gave me a drum. She said, “Here’s another Morris; give him a drum!” I went home with this drum and, man, my mother was mad! She said, “Oh shit, not another one! I got to buy khaki pants, a white shirt, a yellow tie, and a blue jacket so he can be in the band!”
Well, you had to follow the Morris’s musical dynasty!
See, I was just a kid trying to play cowboys and Indians. I wanted cap pistols! But it was already written that this was going to happen. I lived in a neighborhood that was full of musicians and schoolteachers. Any day, you could hear music just walking the streets—somebody playing, rehearsing. Or you’d hear these marching bands in the streets. I think my attention focused when the bands in the neighborhood would play in the streets. I lived near two bars, a club, and a restaurant. The bands would do what we called a “dry run.” They’d start rehearsing in a guy’s house, then they’d come out of the house and go down the street, and people would follow them right into a bar. It was spontaneous. Someone would say, “Get the band a drink!” and then they’d move on to the next bar. This was my beginning in music, because the music was there. My thing was the bass drum. I used to hear this boom boom boom, and I’d run out the house and dance underneath the bass drum player. I can still remember the guy with the bass drum saying “Move your ass from under this drum, or I’ll hit you with this mallet!” I was walking between the bass drum player and the snare drum player.
An important point regarding the precision that New Orleans’s drummers embody—in marching bands, the drum kit had to be separated.
Well, you had a guy that played the bass drum with a cymbal at the top that he played with a coat hanger attached to a broomstick. That was the hi-hat. And then you had the snare drum player. These were bands that would play for funerals—or for any occasion. Back in those days you’d go to the same school from start to grade twelve. So my first professor was my musical director all the way through high school. And him and my older brother, “Weedy” Morris, were the first two Black musicians in Louisiana to be inducted into the Navy Band. My brother was the snare drum player, and my professor played the bass drum. While they were in the service, Weedy said, “When you get out, look for my brother and them.” All of the drummers I met coming up in New Orleans knew him.
What led to your professional start?
It was one Mardi Gras day, and I was eight or nine. A guy came by the house looking for drummers. He asked for me—these old Dixieland musicians wanted me! They begged my mother; they said they’d take care of me. I played on the back of a flatbed truck. They set up three or four beer cases for me to sit on and gave me a kick drum, snare, and a cymbal. I knew all the songs, so I started playing. I was in the parade, and the kids from school saw me. One thing I’ll never forget, there was this girl from school I was trying to talk to, but she would never look at me. She would come to school every day, all pressed and ironed. This day she saw me, and she said, “Hey, Leo!” I was playing drums in the parade! Then they slipped me a little wine, and at the end they were passing this money out: I got two fives. I said, “You get paid for this?” The man said, “Yeah!” That was it. That’s when I decided I would be a musician. See, in those days going to the movies cost twelve cents. And from then on, it was a different story with that girl. You know what I mean? I went home, gave my mom five dollars, and then I took all my buddies to the movies. I said, “Mom, I’m going to be a musician.”
Did your parents recognize your nascent talent?
One day, my father told my mother, “Tell Sydney to stop playing!” Sydney was my older brother. My father had just come home from work, and he wanted to smoke his pipe and read the paper. So my mother went around back and saw me playing the drums. She didn’t say anything and left. My father said, “Tell the kid to stop it with that noise!” She said, “You go tell him!” Well, he went back there, saw it was me, and he was shocked! He said that he thought it was my older brother. He had no idea!
You never had any formal training?
No. See, I’m a natural drummer. I’m a drummer that inherited the drums from my family. And my father was a banjo player. He played with Louis Armstrong back in the days. But we had so many kids that he became an interior decorator to support us. He couldn’t do it just playing music. But he used to sing to us all of these songs—standards. From my father, I inherited a musical ability. That’s where the musical part of my drumming comes from. See, my drumming is different from the rest of the drummers, ’cause I’m a musical drummer. I play the musical part of the song. I inherited a gift from the Creator. I can do things with the drums that no other drummer I know can do.
So when did you really start gigging?
I started going to my brother’s gigs and waiting till he decided I could play a song with the band—maybe the last song of the night. The Nevilles are my family; we lived in the same neighborhood. So Aaron and I used to play gigs at Tulane and LSU with our music professor. We’d also go to see Arthur Neville’s band, which at that time was called the Hawkettes.
The Hawkettes would later become the Meters.
Well, the band would play at the YMCA. We would go to the dance, and then I would sit in with the band, and Aaron would sit in with his brother. At the time, both John Boudreux and Smokey Johnson were drumming for the Hawkettes. I knew them both. They would come to my house to practice on my drum set, ’cause my mother had bought me a tape recorder. They’d practice and listen to themselves on the tape recorder. Smokey would play like Art Blakey. John would play like Max Roach. I’d listen to them for hours. Next thing you know, I could play what they both played. This started me practicing different things with the drums. Then John went on the road with Eddie Bo; the Hawkettes needed a drummer. So Arthur’s father, who was their manager, said, “Go around the corner and get Leo.” They said, “Well, he could play with us, but he doesn’t have a set of drums!” I’m, like, fourteen years old. So my mother made Sydney lend me his drums. We traveled—Bogalusa, Shreveport, Baton Rouge. So I’m playing with the band, and the father said, “He knows all our music!” [Back] at home, I played with Eddie Bo, Earl King, and Lloyd Price. I went on the road with Arthur in 1957 with Larry Williams. We recorded some good records. Man, I was recording at fifteen years old!
Were you making good money?
My father asked me what I would do for a living. I said, “I’m going to play the drums, pop!” Once I started this thing I was making money so fast! Man, when I was living at home I was wearing clothes tailor-made on Rampart Street. I was clean!
What led you out of New Orleans?
Fate came through in this area. I came back with Arthur Neville, and the band wasn’t working. I met this guy Joe Jones. We had a hit record, so I went on the road with him. Then I met Dee Clarke and Jerry Butler. They flipped over my drum playing! Once I was with Joe at a restaurant, and he told me Sam Cooke was sitting in the dining room. Joe told me Sam was complaining about his drummer. See, Joe had the gift of gab. He said, “I’ve been talking with him, and I want you to meet him.” So we went over to his table, and Sam asked me to sit down. He asked if I knew his songs, I said, “Yeah.” He started singing, and I started playing on the table. He hired me right there. He said, “Come to the Municipal Auditorium and play with me tonight.” When he went on, I went on. I played that show without a rehearsal. And nailed it! I left town with Sam Cooke. He brought me to New York. My first trip to New York, and I was his personal drummer, man.
But you didn’t stay in New York.
No, I came back to New Orleans, and another guy from New Orleans took my gig with Sam. I went back out with Joe Jones. But Maxine Brown took me to New York again. We were opening at the Apollo Theater. Jerry Butler was the star on the bill. But I was playing with Maxine Brown. She bought me my first brand-new set of drums. Jerry said [of our performance], “Damn, man, he got that burning for her. Maybe I can get that for me.” So I played for him on the same show! I made a whole lot of money. I went to Chicago, and Curtis Mayfield started playing the guitar. I ended up being Jerry’s musical director. Then I left Jerry and went with Curtis.
So how did you end up playing jazz again?
My wife, who was the lead singer with the Crystals, was living in New York. I was living in Chicago. I decided I would come to New York to be with her. When I got there, I had no gig, so I went to the Apollo Theater. I met with Reuben Phillips, the Apollo’s bandleader, and let him know I was in town. He fired the drummer in the Apollo band and hired me! So I was in the band for about a year and a half. As I worked there, I was playing around town, sitting in with this group and that group. One day, I went down to this club called the Five Spot, and I sat in with Rashaan Roland Kirk. When I finished, this guy came up to me and said I sounded good—could I do a concert with him? His name was Kenny Dorham. So now I’m playing a concert at Town Hall with Kenny Dorham’s band, Freddie Hubbard’s band, and Lee Morgan’s band. So I met all of these jazz musicians.
And you went on to infuse New York jazz with the diverse influences you picked up in New Orleans in your fledgling years.
I’m a natural drummer. I have some special qualities that came from the Creator, which allow me to play all kinds of music. In New Orleans, you had to play for all different kinds of people. You played bar mitzvahs, you played at the universities, you played jazz, you played the street music, Latin music. I didn’t know that my repertoire for music was so vast until I came to New York.
And jazz was changing from an intellectual music that had to be “appreciated” to a danceable, fun music again.
Right. The straightahead bebop took a step backwards to the music that was coming up that had a beat to it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was setting the trend for this music. I met Lou Donaldson at Birdland on 52nd Street. I was coming up the stairs, he was coming down the stairs. Bill Hartman, a trumpet player, said, “Hey Lou, that’s the little drummer I was telling you about.” Lou said, “Hey you, can you swing?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You working this weekend? Gimme your number.” And he called me. I went to Baltimore, and we played a gig. During the first tune we played, he turned around and told Bill, “We got ourselves a drummer!” Within two weeks, I’m in the studio recording with Lou for Blue Note. My first record for Blue Note was Alligator Bogaloo. It was an instant hit. Oh, man, next thing you know Blue Note is calling me to record with George Benson, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine. All of these guys.
Not surprisingly. You were a hit maker.
Yeah, my track record for R&B had already been set down. I had made hit records with the Impressions. I have a gift, man, that I can tune into your music. I can make your music better than what you thought you wrote. I had no idea I was doing this. But next thing you know, I’m recording with all these guys. I’m doing so well that I’m shocked. Everybody’s saying, “This Leo Morris is a bad cat.” I met Eric Gale, Chuck Rainey, Ralph McDonald. These were the session guys that were doing the R&B and funk stuff in New York. They latched into me, got me doing dates.
What were those Prestige and Blue Note dates like?
We’d just go to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and run through the song a few times. They might give me chord changes, but they never gave me no notes, ’cause they relied on me to play something to make the song happen.
You and Bernard Purdie supplied the backbeat to the entire soul-jazz movement!
[laughs] But Bernard could never play the drums that I played. He is a great drummer with his own style. But guys learned how to play the drums from me. There were things I was doing with the drums that guys took and made their trademark.
That hi-hat thing that Bernard does. That shoop shoop shoop. This is something that I created. I was the drummer with Galt MacDermot for Hair. We played onstage with the actors, on the back of a flatbed truck. My drum set was set near the cab of the truck. I could only have one ride cymbal and the hi-hat. So I played all of this music off of the hi-hat, and I accented off the ride cymbal. After a year and a half I became sick, so they sent in a sub to play for me, and it was a disaster! After I came back, Galt made me get a book written up. Eventually, I had nine drummers subbing for me. This started with Bernard Purdie, Billy Cobham, Alphonse Mouzon. All these guys were subbing for me, ’cause this was the hottest musical on Broadway. So I’d created this thing off the hi-hat; Bernard comes by and looks at the book and says, “I can’t play this shit, Idris!” And he leaves. Next time I heard that thing was on Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem.” I saw Bernard, he said, “Did you hear what I stole from you? This hi-hat lick.” So guys were taking things from my drum playing and incorporating it into their style of drum playing.
And a lot of musicians were influenced by Hair.
I met Miles Davis two years before he died. We were playing a gig, and he asked me who I was playing with. He said, “Idris, you should get a band together and play some of that funky shit I heard you play in Hair. When I saw Hair, I changed my whole band. I knew there was money in that kind of music.”
Wow, right around the time of Bitches Brew.
That’s right! He changed everything to electric.
And got Jack DeJohnette to play funky rhythms—like you played. What do you know about the hip-hop movement?
They hear these beats, and they take a part of it and sample them. I wasn’t hip to it till my son Idris Jr. showed me what these guys were doing. I’ve met some hip-hop musicians. These guys said that they could get into the stuff I did really fast, ’cause it’s so clean, so natural—but funky.
Your drumbeat is instrumental to ’90s hip-hop production.
That’s the nucleus of the music, the beat. If they don’t have the beat how can the rappers do their thing right? The rappers have told me that with my drumbeat, the lyrics go right.
On top of that, you had such a bangin’ sound on your kit.
I have a unique way of tuning my drums. I learned this as a youngster, and at Rudy’s [studio] on the [mixing] board. Rudy took my drum playing and put it up front and put all of the other instruments around it. So when you first hear my record, you hear the drum. On all of these guys’ records! I learned to get my drum sound in the studio. So if I just meet an engineer, I know how to explain what I’m going for, so he and I will have a good rapport.
There’s nothing worse than having a great drummer paired with a bad engineer. How about your equipment itself?
Well, there’s a funny story about that. Art Blakey heard me play at the Five Spot the night after someone stole my cymbal bag. I was using cymbals some guy brought in, and he said, “Son, you sound real great but those pot covers you’re playing on don’t do you no justice!” He said, “I’ll be back after you get off, and I got something at the house I think I can give you.” So I hung out with him for two and a half days before I got back to my apartment. I ended up with the cymbals that I made all of the records that you’re talking about on. I’ve had those cymbals for thirty-two years. I’m playing with them right now.
How do you feel about the appropriation of your music by the hip-hop generation?
I think it’s a great music, man; look at the record sales. These guys sell so many records that they only have to have one hit.
But how do you feel about the movement artistically?
Yeah, I like it, ’cause it’s another phase of the music.
Even though hip-hop musicians appropriate your music? And you’re not necessarily getting paid for it?
It don’t really belong to me, man; I’m only the creator. If you take something I create, and you do something with it, then someone else will take it and move it to another stage. And this is what happened with hip-hop. This is in my aura. I’m doing stuff for people to put out there so people can grab it. The gift the Creator has given me, I can’t be selfish with. If I keep it in my pocket, it’s not going to go anyplace. It doesn’t matter if a guy stole from me. I’d say, “Well, what did you do? Okay, let me show you this.” This is how I live.
That’s a very humble attitude.
I watched people. I used to travel with the rock-and-roll shows. I watched stars. I got to the point where I had Turn This Mother Out, and it frightened me. I had a big record. I was opening for the Jackson 5, but the saddest point in my life was being a star and being in the dressing room by myself. And then the most sad thing was that the band was on the bandstand, and I had to wait for the police to escort me to the stage. I’m by myself. I’m used to being with the band. I was a sad dude, man.
I wish more people were as open-minded about their music as you are.
Well, you see, man, it don’t belong to us. Secretly, whatever you have is gonna come out anyhow. If you think you are hiding something—you have a private vault that you have stuff in—when you leave this world your wife is going to open it up and sell everything. She’s gonna sell everything in that vault! It’s gonna come out anyway. So why not be free with it while you’re here and share it with other people? ’Cause it don’t belong to you.
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