Idris Muhammad: From Here to Hair

Idris Muhammad. Photo by Clayton Call.

Idris Muhammad. Photo by Clayton Call.

Born Leo Morris—a relative of the Nevilles, a resident of the 13th Ward—Idris Muhammad was destined to make an impact. At nine years old, he was drumming with Dixieland bands. By his teens, he was playing with the Hawketts, who had gained notoriety before he joined with their 1954 song, “Mardi Gras Mambo.”

In an interview with R.J. Deluke, Muhammad remembered some early advice that drummer and mentor Paul Barbarin gave him, reminding the drummer that praise was on its way, but not to invest too much in it. Coming from a man who had played with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, the words stuck.

Muhammad’s stint with the Hawketts and Joe Jones brought him national attention. When Sam Cooke took notice, Muhammad passed an impromptu tableside audition that changed his life. Muhammad told Deluke, “Cooke is complaining about the drummer with the Upsetters band. He was on tour in New Orleans that night. Joe Jones said, ‘Look, my drummer plays anything.’ So he came and got me to sit at the dining table. Sam said “Do you know any of my music?” I said, “Yeah.” He started singin’ and I started playin’ on the table and he hired me.”

From Cooke, Muhammad migrated to Jerry Butler, and eventually to Curtis Mayfield’s band. As his family grew, work became regular. His beats did the talking. He stayed in demand because his style was so inexplicable and next to impossible to replicate without him teaching you how.

Eventually, Muhammad migrated to jazz. Having gotten a taste early on with the Dixieland bands, he was well prepared.

Everyone who was anyone in the jazz world was gigging and recording in New York. After shows, Muhammad accompanied band members to watch jazz giants such as Max Roach, multi-reedist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard. As he got to know them, they returned the favor, showing up at his gigs, and offering him recording sessions. Horace Silver hired him, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, a who’s who of the jazz scene.

Muhammad even made it to Broadway. He told Deluke, “the drum rhythm from Hair belongs to me. It’s mine. I created it. A guy gave me 43 pages of chord changes, with just titles on it. I made up all these rhythms. Played the show for about a year and a half and I got really sick. They had to send in a sub, there was no music. The play was in an uproar for about five days until I came back. So they had me get the drum book written.” Muhammad worked with drummer/educator Warren Smith, of New York’s loft jazz scene to help him get the drum score for the musical down on paper.

Drummers followed him from gig to gig, town to town, eager to learn his bottom-up style of drumming. Then they went out and recorded funk and acid jazz tunes, based on what Muhammad taught them.

Muhammad’s credits are incredibly diverse, from respected jazz authorities to funk-soul wunderkinds. But the scope of his recordings is what’s most monumental. From his early years in New Orleans, to his time in Chicago, and in New York, Muhammad has recorded thousands of sessions.

While Idris Muhammad is not fighting off the paparazzi outside his house, his sound is as immediately identifiable as any Hollywood A-lister. But Barbarin’s advice sank in. Muhammad let the music do the talking.

And talk it did. Pharoah Sanders replaced drum great Roy Haynes with him. Jazz guitarist Grant Green turned out the hardest funk of his career while Muhammad tended the traps. Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins tapped Muhammad to drum for him in 1998. But when you scour the credits Muhammad has garnered over time, it’s his inclusion in a myriad of funk and jazz compilations that best testifies to his genius. Muhammad might not have created the boom-bip, but he certainly escalated a style of cadence in drumming that baked the off beat into an upside down turnover cake of blissed out, rhythmic funk.

For real evidence of Muhammad’s genius at work, there is the criminally unknown recording he did while in- house drummer for Prestige Records, working under Rudy Van Gelder, the label’s engineer. Titled Peace & Rhythm, the record has been compared with the work of Brian Eno and the Orb, but besides the proto-ambient space echoes, it offers drumming so forceful and mind boggling AllMusic critic Stewart Mason called it “arrhythmic… downright revolutionary.”

Though claiming to be retired, Muhammad has recently been spotted around town giving drum tutorials, and playing one-off gigs with his friends and relatives. Of his style, Muhammad told OffBeat, “My drum playing came from dancing in New Orleans in the street bands underneath the bass drum player. I can remember thinking as a kid, ‘I don’t know why, but I like that bass drum.”