In the heyday of New Orleans rhythm and blues, it was rare that sidemen on recording sessions were credited. That’s why few people know that the drums heard on the Hawkettes’ Carnival anthem “Mardi Gras Mambo” and Fats Domino’s 1956 hit “Blueberry Hill” were played by native son Leo Morris.
Internationally, the modern-jazz world knew Morris as the great Idris Muhammad, whose stunning career included working and recording as a bandleader as well as with such jazz giants as pianists Ahmad Jamal and Randy Weston and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Pharoah Sanders. Muhammad, who changed his name when he embraced the Islamic faith in the ’60s, died on July 29, 2014 at the age of 74.
“I play the drums from the bottom up,” Muhammad said in his intriguing biography, Inside the Music: The Life of Idris Muhammad. It’s a description that he would often repeat when explaining his approach to the trap-set playing in whatever style—jazz, funk, R&B.
“That’s the way you play drums,” says pianist Ahmad Jamal, with whom Muhammad performed and recorded extensively and who is renowned for his preference for New Orleans drummers, having worked with the great Vernel Fournier, then Muhammad and presently with Herlin Riley. “Idris was one of a kind. He was very, very special. He was very charismatic and was one of the most sought-after musicians in the world. He was a world traveler and my concept of a musical statesman worldwide—worldwide.”
In his biography, Muhammad explained just how he came to understand the importance of the bass drum. He grew up primarily in the city’s 13th Ward, where social-aid and pleasure club and Mardi Gras parades were a fabric of life. “… the bass drum attracted me because it was so big and loud,” he recalled. “I would get underneath the bass drum as the band would come by and I would dance to it. I was that small. And the bass drum guy would say, ‘Move your ass away from here before I hit you with this mallet.’ All my rhythms are based on two elements … the second-line bass-drum patterns and the tambourine rhythms from the Indians dancing at Mardi Gras.”
“Idris put our influences together,” remarks Donald Harrison, Jr., the renowned jazz saxophonist and the chief of the Afro-New Orleans cultural group, Congo Square Nation. “Idris followed my father’s [Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr.] tribe and incorporated that sound. It was incredible to know that my father had an influence on one of the most influential drummers ever in the music. He was the impetus of what we call the boogaloo style in jazz music with the funky sounds of New Orleans.”
From 2000 to 2002, Muhammad fulfilled a lifelong desire to mask Indian. He became the First Chief in Big Chief Harrison, Jr.’s Congo Nation (now named the Congo Square Nation). “It was like being a kid again,” Muhammad exclaimed of his experience in an interview. “When I put the suit on, I transformed into something I always wanted to be.”
“I was just happy that one of his dreams of life came true,” says Harrison. “To me, it was a great thrill to have him mask with me. I helped him on his first suit. My prerequisite is that you have to do the work and he did a lot of work. He had some sleepless nights, so he knew what it [making a suit] was about.”
Muhammad left New Orleans at a young age, first heading out on tour with vocalist Sam Cooke after making his initial out-of-town appearances with Art Neville and the Hawkettes and vocalist/pianist Larry Williams. He’s heard on Cooke’s 1960 chart-topper, “Chain Gang.” (Check Muhammad’s funky beat on this one.) Later, he would work with soulmen Jerry “Iceman” Butler and Curtis Mayfield. On the jazz scene, Muhammad would spend decades living in New York, London and Austria before returning to New Orleans to semi-retire in 2012.
At the time of his departure from his hometown, Muhammad had limited experience in playing jazz and considered himself strictly a funk/R&B musician. Recording as a bandleader on such albums as 1974’s monster Power of Soul and 1977’s Turn This Mutha Out, he demonstrated his continued involvement in funky music. His stylistic versatility and myriad abilities gained him a prominent position in the production of the musical Hair.
The New Orleans rhythms that surrounded Muhammad in his youth continued to pulsate through his life and music. For instance, when he was performing at the 1999 Montreal Jazz Festival with saxophonist Joe Lovano’s “Tenor Summit,” the group dug into John Coltrane’s “India.” Somewhere in the midst of the well-known classic, the drummer started playing a repeated rhythm, continually smacking the snare while allowing the cymbals to ring. “That was the street beat,” Muhammad explained in an interview soon thereafter. “I took them with me on a trip Uptown on the levee, downtown in the Ninth Ward, down in the Seventh Ward.”
“How you live reflects how you play,” Jamal reflects. “Every experience in life plays a role. Those people who live deeply and drink deeply at the fountain of life, they reflect that.”
Idris Muhammad enthusiastically imbibed in New Orleans’ rich musical heritage. Wearing his signature red sunglasses and wielding red drum sticks, the always-affable Idris Muhammad joyfully shared his passion with the world.