It’s not an overstatement: New Orleans drummers have profoundly influenced the world’s groove. They are an elite breed of musical samurai, the “Jedi” of 20th century music, working behind the scenes to keep the “Dark Side,” a.k.a. bland, soulless music, at bay.
Idris Muhammad is one of the most influential drummers to come out of this tradition. From his teenage days in the ’50 playing with Art Neville and the Hawkettes to current collaborations with some of the world’s finest jazz artists, he has imbued countless hit records and hip sets with a distinct Crescent City flavor. Yet, like so many of our great drummers, you have probably heard his music but not his name, because attention tends to follow the spotlight, which burns brightest on singers and “frontmen.”
He was born Leo Morris in 1939, with a father who played banjo and three drumming brothers. By the age of sixteen he was already touring with the Hawkettes and R&B stars like Larry Williams, Lloyd Price and Jerry Butler. He recorded with Fats Domino and laid down grooves for such seminal R&B singles as Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine” and Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much.” Word of his talent spread quickly, and he soon found himself touring and recording with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and, for a memorable period, Curtis Mayfield. (If you’ve heard the Superfly soundtrack, you’ve heard Idris.)
He moved to New York in the early ’60s where he was part of the house band at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Later, in the ’70s, he played in the pit band for the Broadway musical Hair, followed by a four year road stint with singer Roberta Flack. During this period, Idris was discovered by the jazz world, first gigging with Lou Donaldson in the late ’60s and eventually playing with such titans as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Betty Carter, Paul Chambers, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Ahmad Jamal and Pharoah Sanders.
Proving in all these situations to be an extremely creative and versatile musician, it’s no wonder that Idris evolved into a recording session guru. In time, and after many successful record dates, he earned the reputation of a New York “studio legend,” similar to the status achieved earlier by New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer in Los Angeles.
For the past decade, Idris has lived in a tiny village in Austria, but this hasn’t kept him in any way removed from the music scene. He played a crucial role on John Scofield’s well-received 1995 Blue Note record, Groovelation, and has appeared on several all-star “Chartbuster” sessions for the Hip-Bop label. He sizzles on saxophonist Joe Lovano’s latest effort, Friendly Fire, and has his own record out on Cannonball, Right Now, which features drum/sax duets with Lovano, George Coleman and Gary Bartz, a showcase for Muhammad’s unique, syncopated yet melodic style of drumming.
At the Montreal Jazz Fest last summer, where this interview took place, Idris was a key player. The previous night he had positively burned with a band led by Lovano, and then a half an hour later he filled in for a missing drummer with some young lions led by vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Idris went in unprepared, but the music soared, and Harris said the next day that his band had never sounded better.
In fact, one of the festival producers interrupted this interview to beg Idris to fill in for Toots Thielemans’ drummer that night. Clearly, the demand for Idris’ remarkable skill has not diminished, even as he talks about preparing for a self-imposed semi-retirement, filled, he hopes, with plenty of fishing, Cuban cigars, the occasional choice gig and frequent pilgrimages back to his beloved New Orleans.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in New Orleans in the 13th Ward. The Nevilles are my family. Arthur Neville’s first wife was, well, not first wife, but one, two, three, well anyhow, Doris is my first cousin and Art’s daughter, Arthel, that’s from my cousin Doris. I played with Arthur Neville in the Hawkettes when I was 15.
Were you living over near Valence Street?
Yeah, I was. I was born on Bordeaux Street. That’s my neighborhood, man. That’s the realm of my life… I heard music all my life. You know, all my brothers are drummers. One sister. The drum was in my family. So when a guy needed a drummer, he came to my house.
So there was never any question about what instrument to choose?
When I was five and I went to kindergarten, the first day I went to school the music teacher says, “Hey, you a Morris? Yeah, okay, here, take this drum.” So I said, “Solid.” I took the drum back home and my mother said, “Oh, no. Oh, God. Not another one!” (laughs) I was in the band, man.
Next thing you know, I’m playing these waltzes that I hated because there was nothing for the snare drum player to play, you know, (he sounds out the insipid “Blue Danube Waltz”). And it’s crazy, man, because I am now living in the country of the composer of the “Blue Danube Waltz,” Johann Strauss. Isn’t that wild?… I think I was about nine and I was going to the Mardi Gras one day with my family and this guy came by who needed a drummer.
My mother said, “They’re all gone. They’re all working.” And he said, “Well, what about this kid?” She said, “He’s going to the Mardi Gras.” So he says, “Give him to us. This is your son? Give him to us. We’ll take care of him.” Then these old Dixieland guys, we played on the back of a flatbed truck, all decorated. They had a big bass drum and a cymbal and a snare drum and they put some beer cases for a seat and I remember the bass drum had a big forest painted on the front and there was a light on the inside and every time you hit the bass drum, the light went off and the forest lit up.
The first tune we played was “Bourbon Street Parade,” and the guys said, “Man, this kid, he knows all this…” Afterwards, they handed out the money and I said, “What is this for?” He said, “For making the gig.” I said, “You get paid to do this? Solid!” (laughs) I had ten dollars, man. And I think what really sold me was that in my school, in my class, there was a girl that I really was in love with, man, but she would never say nothing to me. I would pull here pigtails and she would say, “Get away!”
While I was on the truck playing in the parade, I saw her! She says, “Oh, Leo, hey, how you doing?” She came right up to me. Suddenly, I had money and I had a girlfriend.
On the first gig, you saw all the fringe benefits.
I stopped everything, man, and I went to practice the drums. Because I had ten dollars. It was like 12 cents to go to the movies. A hamburger was 18 cents. I gave my mother five and said, “I’m going to be a musician.” That changed my whole life. I remember practicing the drums without being able to sit on the seat because I was too short. I was standing up.
I can remember one time I was playing and a lady called the police because I used to play with the radio. The radio has to be real loud to play with the drums, so I turned it all the way up. And the lady called the police and said, “There’s a band over there playing and they’re smoking that weed in that house.” The police came and my mother said, “Well, come on in.” And she opened the door, man, and it was just me and the radio. So the police says, “Listen, Mrs. Morris, anytime we get a call of disturbance of the drums, we’ll take the call, but we’ll never come back here again.” After that, I had carte blanche, you know, to play the drums.
I’ve noticed that you adjust the drum tension a lot while you play. Does that have anything to do with your upbringing?
Yeah, I learned this in New Orleans because all the guys that I used to play with, they said, “That bass drum is too loose, tighten that up. That snare drum is too loud, loosen it up.” And then I understood what they were talking about because they wanted me to play a part of the music, not so much sticking out.
You know, playing the rhythm that actually goes with the music. See, I’m a musical drummer. You know, most drummers play rhythm, but I play the melodic part of the song. So if you listen to my playing, you hear me inside the music, not so much standing outside with the rhythm. Wherever the band’s going, I’m going, because I’m playing the melody, I’m playing the song. So I tune the drums constantly so that I’m playing notes like the guys are playing.
You seem to be very adept at blending into a wide variety of styles, and at making other people sound very good.
I’m sharing, I’m sharing and that’s what I do. I give a part of what I inherit from New Orleans to you, to everybody that I come in contact with, because this is what I’ve been doing all of my life. I’ve been making hit records with people. I’ve been working in bands. I’ve been helping guys in the recording studio to arrange their record date, and most of the times they don’t write no music for me. They just say, “Idris, this is the way the song goes. Put something hip on that.” And the next thing you know, they have a hit record. And this is what I do, man. So now I’m trying to protect myself because they’re sampling my stuff a lot, because they send the money to the guy who wrote the song.
But he didn’t write the part that the rappers are taking, which is the drum rhythms, understand? So the rappers take your rhythm and when they have a big hit record, they send the money to the company, to the guy who wrote the song, not me. But it’s my rhythm you took. Most of the time, the guy who gets the money has amnesia about what happened at the studio, so now my lawyers are showing me how to protect myself.
In New Orleans, we learn music, but I never knew the music business. The only thing I knew about was playing music. All I knew was, “How much the gig pay? Solid. I play the gig, you give me the money, I go take care of my family.”
What is it about New Orleans that creates such wonderful drummers?
We have a thing with drummers, man, that doesn’t happen no where else in the world. Drummers are special there. I mean really, they’ve got some rhythms that don’t happen no place in the world, and can’t nobody else play these rhythms.
I mean, I’ve been knowing guys for years, man, always asking, “Idris, how do you play the second line?” And I say, “Man, you can’t hear this?” But you can hear it, but when you get to the drums, you can’t play it because you can’t comprehend how this is happening. It’s so simple and that’s what blows their minds. They try to play more than what’s supposed to be played, and the second line is just simple, man.
That bass drum playing, that symbol on the top and the snare drum, ain’t too much there, man. But the people come out the house and dance and they’ll be saying, “Oh, Gawd!” 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.”
I used to go and be under the drum, dancing. (laughs) And I remember the guy said, “Get your ass from here, I’ll hit you with this mallet!” What happened is that that bass drum got inside of me and this is my playing now. I play from the bottom up. You always hear my bass drum, because I’m playing from the bottom up. A lot of drummers play from the top, so they very rarely understand what’s happening down here.
Did you have any heroes when you were growing up, New Orleans drumming people that really influenced you?
Yeah, man, my brother Wheaty Morris, man. This is strange, but I never saw him play the drums. But I heard so much about him, how great he was, I knew that I had to live up to this qualification. John Boudreaux, Smokey Johnson, these were my guys that I practiced with in my house. I heard these guys doing things of Max Roach and Art Blakey in this period.
I was never a jazz drummer. I was a funk drummer. But these guys, when I saw them doing these things and we were around the same age, I was saying, “Damn, how y’all do that?” And, they said, “C’mon, sit down and do it. Okay, play like this.” Next thing you know, I was doing it. So these were close friends of mine, we all thought alike and liked guys like Earl Palmer, June Gardner.
My very close friend was James Black. That was my buddy. He was a great guy and not only that, he could write, man. James would write tunes, man, that would knock you down. When I got to New York, I met Roy Brooks and he paid me a great compliment and then I knew maybe I had something. And then my friends and mentors, like Art (Blakey), Max (Roach) and Elvin (Jones), these are guys that said I could play the drums.
I used to listen to these guys and the next thing you know, they’re telling me, “Oh, Idris, man, you bad and so and so… No, man, you like us, you at our level.” And I was shocked. I was in the room talking to them and then I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back, I kept saying, “No, man, you guys…” Art grabbed me from the back and he was squeezing and he said, “I’m going to squeeze you until you say that you’re with us. You’re one of us.” And we became friends, man.
(He pauses to light up a Cuban cigar.)
Did you leave New Orleans by choice?
No, I was kind of pushed into it. See, I was on the road in ’57 with the Hawkettes and Larry Williams and people used to comment about the drummer, “The drummer, what is that shit he’s playing?…” We played a bill with Larry Williams and the Little Richard band and Richard was saying, (imitating Richard) “I’m goin’ to steal that drummer. I want that drummer. He’s sweet. He’s cute.” (laughs) So the guys said, “Look, Leo, stay away from him. He ain’t talking about the drums, he’s talking about some other stuff.” (laughs) I came back to New Orleans and I started playing in Joe Jones’ band.
We laid the record, “You Talk Too Much.” That was a big hit, and we were back out on the road again. I came back in town and I was at Dooky Chase’s getting a sandwich and Joe Jones was there with me and he said, “Sam Cooke is in there, in the dining room eating. He’s complaining about the drummer, so go talk to him.” I introduce myself and he’s talking and eating and he says, “Man, you know any of my songs?” I said, “Yeah.” So he starts to singing and I start playing on the table and he hired me. Played the Municipal Auditorium that night, no rehearsal. He took me out of town. I was with him for about two years…
I mean, I didn’t leave New Orleans because of problems, I left because of gigs. I was kind of pulled out of there. I needed to be someplace were I could explore my talent. They kept telling me that I had this (talent), but I didn’t know that I had it because my concentration, being a Southern guy, was, “How can I take care of my family playing the drums?” I wasn’t worried about being famous and being this or that. Next thing you know, they say, “Man, you’re great, you’re great!” But I never heard it. I used to respect it, but I never thought I was that great. Just in the last ten years, I’m saying, “Yeah! I am that great!” Of course, I’m an old man now. I gotta to say something to keep my morale up. (laughs)
(The producer interrupts; they desperately need Idris to fill in on drums that night. Terms are discussed quickly and Idris agrees.)
You know, you’re going to have a tough time with your retirement plan. You’re in serious demand.
Yeah, but you see, what happens is that that way I can have me a little boat and I can go fishing, you know? And I can say, “Well, look man, I don’t have no cell phones, no nothing, I’m out fishing, so you can call me, great, solid, but I’m fishing.”… At this moment I’m real happy. I’m a blessed person. And my love is the place that you guys live, in New Orleans, I wish I could live there, but I can’t. I go back a lot. My kids are now asking me to get a house there. I’m thinking about it, but because I had so much experience, I grew outside of New Orleans.
It’s not like I can’t live there. I could live there and be happy, but I don’t know if I can adjust to the situation again, you understand? I live in Austria, man. I do as I like, I go where I like. My town at 6 o’clock closes down, ain’t nobody moving. Doesn’t wake up ’til 5 the next morning when the tractors start. People are kind. There’s no fire engines, no police cars, no stealing, no robbing, no murders, no nothing man. I don’t have to worry about my house, my family. I don’t have to worry about nothing. All I have to do is try to do good things.
That’s a little bit different than New Orleans.
Of course! You understand what I’m saying.
It sounds like no matter where you live, New Orleans is an integral part of your identity.
Hey man, listen, I wish I had an oyster loaf right now! I’m walking around here trying to get something to eat, man.
They’ve got something called “Cajun Pizza” down there.
Hey, man, don’t go there. Anytime you’re away from home, and somebody’s got some New Orleans food, don’t go there. Because you’re gonna get angry, you’re gonna get mad and say, “How dare you insult my home? Are you crazy? What is this, gumbo? Get out of here!”…I’m a great cook. My next love besides the drums is cooking. You see, to relax, man, you got to eat good. Man, I’ll bring you to my house and you’ll say, “Oh, Gawd, Idris you play the drums great but goodness gracious, this gumbo is out of sight!”
What do we have to do to get you to come down and play Jazz Fest?
Man, I wish somebody would invite me. All you have to do is invite me. I’m dying for it. If you know anybody that’s in charge, tell them I am a native who has played New Orleans music for now 47 years. I’m sixty years old now. And this entire 47 years I gave all the respect to New Orleans, because that’s where it came from. My idea is to play at least twice in New Orleans with my own group. I’m dying for that, you understand? I go there a lot, but I go to get a transfusion, like a blood transfusion.