Rashied Ali (Robert Patterson, Jr.) was born in Philadelphia on July 1, 1935. Well known in New York avant-garde circles by 1963, he came to international prominence as John Coltrane’s last full-time drummer, from 1965 until the master’s death in 1967. Following a brief stay in Europe during 1967 and 1968, Rashied resettled in New York, where he performed and recorded with Alice Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and others.
In recent years, as a leader and as a sideman, Rashied has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in a variety of settings: the trio Afro Algonquin led by the Rozie brothers (Lee on reeds and percussion, Rick on bass), the danceable Funkyfreeboppers (Zane Massey, tenor; Roy Campbell, trumpet; Sonelius Smith, electric piano; Martin Aubert, Marcus Fiorillo, or Arthur Rhames, guitar; Richard Williams, acoustic and electric basses), the duo with saxophonist-guitarist Rhames (of their performance at the 1981 Willisau Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Mark Theiler of the Luzern Tagblatt wrote, “Rashied Ali played with such fast, thick sounds that it was difficult to believe there was a duo on stage”), and groups with violinist Billy Bang, reedmen Sonny Fortune and Odeon Pope, bassist Calvin Hill, and others. In 1984 Rashied was in the studio with the Saheb Sarbib Quintet for Soul Note Records. Moonflight is Rashied’s newest release on his own Survival label.
Rashied’s methods of preparing and striking his instruments are somewhat unorthodox: He seems to rely little on the natural rebound of the surfaces and jabs at his cymbals with quick, delicate strokes, usually clutching the stick intently with all his fingers. His drums are muffled well beyond accepted “jazz” standards, and his cymbals are tightened to the stands at a deep slant so that they do not swing freely. (This last practice, incidentally, works in Rashied’s favor because he seeks a dark, understated tone quality in his cymbals and strikes them carefully; whereas the method is generally criticized by cymbal experts because it hinders the vibration of the cymbals and increases the danger of cracking them, Ali points out that he him self has never cracked a cymbal.) Rashied’s Slingerland white gloss drumset consists of a 6 1/2 x 14 metal snare drum; a 14 x 18 wood bass drum; 8 x 12, 9 x 13, 14 x 14, and 16 x 16 wood tom-toms; and assorted Avedis Zildjian cymbals, discussed below. (Recently I have seen Rashied smiling from behind a new set of Sonors.) He uses a small nylon-tipped stick such as a Regal Tip 7A.
The feel of Rashied’s pulse is very much on top of the beat and highly intuitive. He will contrast turbulent bass drum figures and uproarious multi-cymbal washes with fills that consist of casual, sometimes barely audible, roll patterns, in a way that suggests the natural, rather than the regulated, passage of time—always as though the listener has just opened the door onto a concert of music already in progress. I spoke with Rashied Ali in Washington, D.C., while he was appearing with his quartet at D. C. Space.
HH: Let’s begin by discussing your background and training as a drummer.
RA: Well, I was really young when I started with the drums. Let’s see, I started playing congas first. I think my father got me a set of congas when I was about nine, and I played them for a while, until I was about 16. Then I went into the army. They didn’t have a place for congas in the band, but I ran into a sergeant named Clarence Brown who liked me a lot, and he knew I didn’t dig working in the fields, so he pulled some strings to get me into the band. He told me he would teach me how to play the bass drum so I could learn the parts for the marching band. He started turning me on to charts and reading percussion music. That’s how I got into it, and I went from there into traps.
HH: Were you playing jazz before this time?
RA: Well, not before I went into the service. I was listening to it. I mean, my father is a jazz fan, and my mother is a singer, so I was exposed to jazz all my life. I’d been playing and listening through records, and while going to school I saw people like Charlie Parker. I saw all the greats playing at theaters in Philadelphia. So I had a pretty thorough background in listening to jazz and being around it. My mother used to keep me up on all the latest tunes.
HH: You didn’t move to New York right after the army?
RA: No, I played in Philadelphia for years after I got out of the service. I got out in ’55, and I was really anxious to play, so I started playing with a lot of rock bands around the city, more or less learning the drumset. I played with bands like Dick Hart & the Heartaches, Big Maybelle, and Lin Holt—people like that, sort of like that rhythm & blues, rock type of thing. I played that around Philly for a few years. Then I started working with jazz musicians around there; I played with most all of the cats—the Heath brothers, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Don Patterson, Jimmy Smith. Living in Philly, so close to New York, I had been going to New York all the time anyway for a weekend, five days, a month—as long as I had enough money to keep me. I finally decided just to move there permanently. I got there and in a couple of days I was working with Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders in a heavy group downtown. It was a place that was there about a year, on MacDougal Street right between Washington and Third, but I can’t think of the name. It was a beatnik type of coffee shop—they didn’t have a liquor license—where they served doughnuts and stuff like that. In fact, a lot of groups played in there; I did later with Paul Bley. We played this club for about four or five months, which really gave me a niche. After those few months I started working with different people: Paul Bley was the next gig, then Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, and it just kept going, until I finally got a gig with ‘Trane. That lasted for about two years.
HH: And you began it playing alongside Elvin Jones.
RA: Yeah, for the first six months or so we played together. Then Elvin left the band out in California, and McCoy Tyner did too. Alice Coltrane came in his place, and Killer Ray Appleton came in Elvin’s place while we were in California. Then we left California and went to Chicago where we picked up a drummer named Jack De- Johnette. Then we went to Philadelphia and we got my brothers Muhammad and Omar Ali on drums and congas. They lasted in the band for about two gigs. Then we had Algie DeWitt playing bata drum.
John started cutting down on the band, and finally got it down to just four people: Alice, himself, myself, and Jimmy Garrison. We did a lot of recordings like that; we didn’t do much playing because he was kind of sick in those days. But it worked out okay. Musically he finally found out what he wanted to do, and he had broken it down to the kind of band that he wanted. A lot of recordings are still coming out: We did duos, trios, quartets, quintets; sometimes Pharoah would play on a couple of them. Then we did a trio with just ‘Trane, McCoy and myself which is not out yet. In fact, all of his stuff that he did in those last years was recorded, so there is a lot of stuff yet to come out from that band.
HH: Did you have formal drum instruction in the early years?
RA: Well, I’m mainly self-taught, but I studied extensively with Philly Joe Jones when I first got out of the service. He was playing with Miles Davis at the time—him and ‘Trane both. I knew a friend from Philadelphia named Bubbles Ross, who was a really great drummer, I thought. He used to sort of be Philly Joe’s teacher, be cause Bubbles is an older drummer. They were friends, and they learned from each other. Bubbles taught me a lot of things: how to hold my hands, how to get around the drums from left to right without overcrossing, how to use the left this way and the right this way…
HH: Yes, you play time on the cymbals with either hand.
RA: And then he turned me on to the matched grip, which I finally just got together, to be able to play both ways. I do things with both hands anyway, and he just showed me how to play with both hands. He found that I could write with my left hand and do other things the same as I could with my right. And then he told me that I should deal with Philly, so he introduced me to Philly Joe Jones. Well, it was really weird, man, because I wanted to study with him so badly that I just cut out and went to England because Philly Joe had gone to England. I stayed over there with him for about three months, and every day we would write music and band charts, and play rudiments on practice pads. Philly Joe Jones was very instrumental in things that I do now.
HH: He was the last drummer with whom you actually sat down and took instruction?
RA: To study, yeah. Papa Jo Jones, too, though—I studied with him when I came to New York because I wanted to learn how to play the sock cymbal, and he was the best sock cymbal player that I’d ever seen in my life. So I studied with him, along with his son, Jo, Jr., for about a year. He was trying to show me a lot of things, but I was more interested in the hi-hat thing that he was doing, and that I think I copped. I split my finger up because I was doing it wrong. I got five stitches in this finger while learning, but I got it together. That’s why I went to him. I was using the stick with all four fingers, and he showed me how to use just two so I didn’t have so much exposed.
HH: You were learning to play the cymbals from both sides.
RA: Yeah, fanning and so forth. I was ripping up my hands because I didn’t know what I was doing.
HH: When Max Roach does it, his fingers are so close to the cymbals and are moving so fast that it almost makes one nervous.
RA: Yeah, but Max got it together because Papa Jo turned him on, too. Papa Jo turned a lot of cats on to that cymbal. Of course, I played with Elvin Jones for about six or seven months and watched him play with ‘Trane, so I got a lot just from watch ing. And Max Roach and Art Blakey—I didn’t actually sit down and study with those guys. I was just listening to their records and watching them closely when I saw them play.
HH: Would you say that they’re your most important influences?
RA: Those cats are definitely a main influence, but just an influence; right now I don’t really play like them. I mean, you might hear a familiar lick, like a Philly Joe Jones lick, every now and then, which is deep in my system, but I try not to be repetitious. I will do anything. I don’t like to sound like I’m playing the same licks all night, so I will make any sacrifice to play something different, like come off the wall or scream at the drum—anything just to get a different sound.
HH: What were your impressions of the European music scene?
RA: When I went to Europe I was really down, you know? ‘Trane had just died, and I kind of felt weird because I knew it was going to be hard for me to get work; a lot of people were putting ‘Trane down for hiring me in the first place. So I cut out a couple of months after he died. He died in the summer, and I split that fall or early winter. I went to Europe and stayed there for about three months; that’s when I studied with Philly Joe, too. But before I hooked up with Joe in England I went all the way to Copenhagen. That was in ’67, so I think it’s changed a lot now, because when I got there I didn’t have much trouble. Right away I got a gig in this place called the Club Montmartre; I just showed my face there, and they said, “Rashied Ali!” which was weird, because I hadn’t been playing with ‘Trane that long. That shows you how up on things those Europeans are; they knew me—knew all about me. So I got a gig there with John Tchicai; Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, bassist; and a trumpet player—no piano. I played that club, I did a TV show, radio show, and I took that group to Germany and Sweden. After the Sweden gig, it broke up—that was after about a month—and then I went to England. I didn’t go to Paris because. . . well, at that time I was getting paranoid; I wanted to get back home. First of all, I was alone, you know? I didn’t feel so comfortable in Europe. It was cold, too—unbelievably cold up there in the wintertime. And so I started heading back home, because I had this concert at Carnegie Hall with Alice Coltrane that I wanted to get back to in the early spring anyway. So I went to England instead of going to Paris, and I got there with Dave Holland and John Surman—before Dave went with Miles Davis. In fact, I think that’s where Dave got the gig with Miles, because Miles was in the audience when we were playing over there. What’s that club there?
HH: Ronnie Scott’s?
RA: Ronnie Scott’s place. Well, the way I got that gig there was, Jon Hendricks was playing a single, and his drummer didn’t show. He said, “Hey, man, you’re Rashied, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m uptight; I don’t have a drummer. Do you play bebop? I know you’re a free drummer.” I said, “Yeah, man, I’ll play it.” So I worked there for two weeks with him. Scott dug what I was doing, and he asked me to bring a band in, but he didn’t dig what I was doing with the band, because I came in playing all the other different stuff. It was a pretty weird week, although we had people there. Ronnie Scott wasn’t too much for that kind of music. We were supposed to do two weeks, but we only lasted for one. That was the trio with Dave Holland and John Surman. Right after that gig I came back to New York. Since ’79 I’ve been to Europe at least twice every year; it’s happening more now.
HH: Is it more appealing to you personally now?
RA: Kind of yes and kind of no, but I feel it’s going to be better very soon because I’ve got some good people really interested. I’m kind of lax on getting people interested in me; it seems like it’s hard to talk people into that. But I’ve got the credentials, and now somebody is doing the dealing for me. I think it’s going to work out pretty cool. It’s difficult to sell yourself to people in different situations. When somebody else is saying, “Hey, this cat is dynamite; he can do this and that,” it sounds a little better.
HH: Tell me about the New York Jazz Musicians’ Festival that you are said to have formed.
RA: Well, I didn’t really form it myself; it was a collective effort from a lot of the musicians in New York at the time. That was the first year George Wein was bringing his festival to New York , and we felt intimidated that he would have the audacity to bring his thing to New York City and not invite any of the local New York jazz musicians. So we all got together and used Studio We as a headquarters. We formed this concert series which would come off at the same time that Newport would be there. It was very successful. In fact, it was so successful that the next year George Wein said, “Hey, I’m going to give all you avant-garde musicians Alice Tully Hall. I’ll pay you X-amount of dollars and you can have your concerts there under the banner of Newport.” So we went to this meeting, but I walked out because I didn’t really dig what was happening. I wanted certain things; I just didn’t want to work on a Newport concert, you know? I knew that George Wein had concerts all over the country—every six months or so he was sending somebody somewhere—and I was more interested in putting the New York jazz musicians on all of those programs—at least one or two groups. He didn’t want to hear it; to me it felt like he wanted to make us look bad. He gave us this hall and a little money, and he wanted us to play, so I split out. I broke up with the New York Jazz Musicians then, and I wrote a big, 30- or 40-page story on the whole situation. I told on everybody, and one of these days I’m going to publish that. George Wein proved himself to be exactly what I thought he was. The Alice Tully Hall part of the festival was the most poorly advertised part, the money he was paying them was an insult, and many people didn’t come to Alice Tully Hall because no emphasis was put on it. And so he got in the paper after the festival and said “Oh, well, you know, I tried to give these people a break, but they’re not playing anything, nobody wanted to hear them, people didn’t dig it, and we lost a lot of money.” That broke the whole thing off; that just really messed it up. So the next year they did it without him; they totally ignored him. They tried some feeble thing, but it didn’t work out too well, because a lot of the good groups had pulled out. So that was like the beginning and the end of that New York Jazz Musicians’ Festival.
HH: Is there a recording of your New Directions In Jazz suite?
RA: Just parts of it are recorded. I’ve finished writing the music; I wrote the music with the help of an Endowment grant, and I finally finished the whole suite, but I’ve just recorded two selections from it on the New Directions album [Survival]. I really want to record that with a big band—brass, strings and voices—and I’m going to try to do that. Right now I have my own record company, but I don’t have a big enough budget to do it, so what’s coming out now is some stuff I recorded just with a quintet and voices.
HH: Writing a large-scale composition can seem very impractical in today’s economic situation.
RA: Well, it’s not hard to write it, but to play it is the thing—to get a big enough budget to take it into a studio. And I don’t have a big enough studio to do that thing; I’ve only got a four-track studio. I need something like a 24-track or at least a 16- track to do that. I did do parts of it with the three singers, but I want to elaborate on that more.
HH: Survival Records as a whole isn’t just four-track, is it?
RA: Survival is a company, and whoever puts out a record on the company can get any kind of recording. It’s just that the material that I did on Survival was just about all four-track. The company is still happening, and producers can use any kind of track they want to get the baddest sound.
Survival recording and Survival Records are two different things. When I first opened up the club, I had a little recording studio there that was called Survival. I’m not into the recording part of it anymore. I have seven records with the company, and if I produce some stuff, I’ll just go to a regular 24-track studio and get the kind of engineer I want.
HH: What is the background of Ali’s Alley?
RA: I opened the club in ’74. It wasn’t a club then; it was sort of a loft. It was the same type of situation that was happening around New York at the time—these loft situations. We got this place, and Benny Wilson and I fixed it up and opened it. I had just been thinking about a place for me to play on weekends, because I hadn’t been playing in clubs at all. In the early ’70s I was just put in a corner; I couldn’t get a gig anywhere in New York—outside of New York, maybe, colleges and stuff like that. So we got this place and started playing on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I worked that gig for a year straight just with my group. We didn’t have a cabaret license or liquor license in those days, but we started getting some attention from playing every week. We started getting little write-ups and people started coming down. We thought it could turn into some thing really good if we could get enough money to get a license and make the place legal. We closed it for a year and started getting it ready to pass inspection. We got that together and we got our license. It got better; the longer it lasted, the better it got. People were coming out, we were getting more write-ups, and some really good musicians wanted to play there. I couldn’t re ally afford to hire anybody before, but now, just because the club was getting a reputation, musicians didn’t mind coming there, because it drew a lot of people. It was a chance to make money and a chance for exposure. And I only dealt with groups that, like myself, couldn’t play in a lot of clubs in New York. But bigger names like Jaki Byard, Clifford Jordan, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor were showing some interest. So I was hoping that in the ’80s the Alley would be one of the major clubs around the city.
HH: Being a musician helped you to know that business from both sides.
RA: Being the musician that I am, I know a lot of people; in fact, everybody I know is a musician, and they would work in Ali’s Alley. For instance, Eddie Jefferson would work in Ali’s Alley. He could work in any club he wanted, but he would work in Ali’s Alley because…of me, you know? And a lot of cats did that, just because of me, Rashied Ali! They said, “Yeah, man, I’ll play in your club before I’ll play in this club or that club,” because they knew I was very sensitive to their music and I would try to do everything I could to make it right, like tune the piano twice a day and pay for it. I mean, that’s just a simple thing, but most club owners don’t give a damn about it. But I’m sentimental; if it don’t sound good, I don’t really want to be a part of it because the music is my whole thing. If it’s sounding good, that’s like 50% of it. We were trying to get a new piano so we wouldn’t have to go through this shit, because it was costing me like 50, 60, and 70 dollars a week just to keep it tuned. The Alley’s not there anymore, but there’s a spot downstairs called Dr. B’s. I still own it, but I don’t run it anymore. I just sold the business, leased the space, and they do a lot of different kinds of music now.
HH: Did it eventually conflict with your performing schedule?
RA: Yeah, right, man, because I’m playing more now, and traveling. I got to the point where the business was really taking me on a trip, and I wasn’t really getting enough time to play. I decided that I’d rather play; that’s what it was all about anyway, you know? I secured a lot of stuff, I made money, and I did some nice things with it, so I could afford to let somebody else take over the business. It still works for me, but I’m not into it anymore, and I’m not there every night trying to see what’s happening with the bartenders and who’s doing what. I’m able to concentrate on playing. Starting this year, I’ve already been in the studio three times with three different projects, and I’m getting a group together to go to Canada for a little bit.
HH: Your drum sound is delicate and quite muffled. Do you follow planned tuning procedures?
RA: Well, I tune my drums in fourths. I used to tune them in thirds, but I didn’t like that sound. I can play little melodies and stuff in tune. I just tune to my ears, man, the way I hear it. I used to go to the piano and try it, but now I just more or less tune it to my ear.
HH: What is the function of the burlap that covers the front of your bass drum?
RA: I’ve been doing that for close to 15 years. A lot of cats were opening their drums up. I first had my drum open in the front because I wanted a louder but more subtle sound, and I used to put blankets inside my drum to take the ring out of it. Then I got the idea to cut a hole in my skin one time, because I didn’t like my drum open like that; it didn’t look so hip, you dig? So I just cut a hole in the skin the first time and I worked with that for a while, but I didn’t feel it. Then I was sitting in the house listening to records and tapes, and I noticed that my speaker had burlap on the front of it. I took the burlap off, and I noticed that it was a lot sharper—a lot more open without it. Burlap toned it down when I put it back on. So I tried that on my bass drum, and I got hooked. I left it there, and I think it’ll always be there, because the sound I get from that bass drum is exactly the sound that I was trying to get. And it works even with a big band. It’s not just designed to play with a small group; I could play it with anybody, because I like the sound it gives me.
HH: It has power and softness at once.
RA: Yeah, it carries, but it’s not so brash and ringy. I hate them bass drums that go BONG! BOYOING!
HH: Your cymbals also have a dark and distant quality. Are they all A. Zildjians?
RA: Yeah, they’re all A. Zildjians, and they’re old, too, man; I’ve had them for years. I’ve had one cymbal ever since I started playing. The one that I use on my left side is the first cymbal I ever bought.
HH: The 16″?
RA: Yeah, that little 16″. I’ve had that cymbal for 27 years. I’ve had the rest of them at least 17 years. And what can I say about those cymbals? I love those cymbals. And they’re A.’s, too. I never had a K. in my life. I always wanted one, but I never got one. I’m not really interested now anyway, because I like these cymbals I have now. They’re old, see. And I take really good care of my stuff. They don’t have runs in them, because I always made sure that I had those things on there to protect my cymbals, and I keep them down real tight. I don’t let my cymbals swing around. You know how cats hit their cymbals and they go “wowowowo.” My cymbals are tight, like pop! They resist the shake; they just vibrate. And they’re in really good shape, all right; they’re good cymbals.
HH: What are their dimensions?
RA: Well, the cymbals are 14″ over here, and I’ve got a 16″, a 20″, and an 18″. [Recently I have seen Rashied perform with a much larger array of cymbals.] And I’ve got those new socks from Zildjian…
RA: Well, one is heavy and one is light, but they’ve got a new flange sock now that I use, and, hey, man, I love it. I’ve also got a pair of 13″ socks that I use, because I’ve got a smaller drumset that I use sometimes. But I’m getting ready to sell that set. I don’t care how I tune it, or what I do. It don’t sound like me, you know? So I’m going to trade the whole set for a conga drum. Some woman has a bad conga that I want, so I told her I’d give her four drums for it. I hope she takes it; she’s been thinking about it heavy, so I think she’s going to do it.
I just love to play. I set my drums up and play whenever I can. When I have them set up at home I can’t walk past them without sitting down and playing. And I practice all the time, but I don’t call it practicing—just me, alone; I don’t need an audience. Even if I don’t perform in public for a couple months, I’m ready to play with somebody on a moment’s notice because I’m always at it.
HH: How is the record business?
RA: I’ve got seven records out on Survival Records, and I’m recording other artists, like Leroy Jenkins and Joe Lee Wilson, who are the first two, outside of myself, that I started recording with the company, and we’re coming out with some more records. In fact, Philly Joe Jones is out with one that he recorded live. Most of this stuff is recorded live, too, at the Alley. Eddie Jefferson is out with one playing with my band. The first two times Eddie Jefferson played in the club—this was in ’76—we recorded the second date. Then I have a date out with voices, and then I have another straight-ahead date; Byard Lancaster’s playing alto and tenor, and the rest of the cats are Lee Rozie, Oscar Brown and Nick DiGeronimo. I’ve been using the trumpet, too—Ahmed Abdullah; he’s been playing with Sun Ra’s band mostly, and he plays with me whenever he has some time off.
HH: Tell me about the Funkyfreeboppers.
RA: That’s the group I’m going to get back together real soon. I recorded with that group a few years ago. I thought the album would be out and I would be able to get more work with it, but as it happens I did enough stuff for two records. I really worked hard, wrote all that music and got it all together, and the people went out of business. I don’t know if they went out of business for real or on paper, but they never did put the record out, and I haven’t heard from them since then. So I finally just had to disband, because it’s kind of hard to get a band working if you don’t have any records out.
HH: Would the personnel be the same now?
RA: No, I doubt it; a lot of the personnel are now working with other people.
HH: What is the forecast for you as a player?
RA: A few years ago I was just starting to get myself together even to work again, you know? I was really out of it. I was concentrating on trying to get this club together, so I wasn’t really concentrating on a band until a few years ago. Right now it’s not steady enough. I’m trying to put a lot of emphasis on getting more gigs, so you can write there that I’m open: OPEN FOR GIGS! And if they want records, I can sell the records. It’s pretty hard to get my records since I have an independent company. I’ve got a couple of distributors, like Record People—they get the records all around, even to Europe and places—and JCOA [Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, which provides the New Music Distribution Service], a nonprofit organization that takes care of a lot of the New York area and south down as far as maybe Richmond. And that’s about it as far as distributing goes; I’m not really on a big-time distributing list yet. But Record People does a really good job, and gets rid of a lot of records for me. I can’t press that many records anyway, but the ones that I press, I sell. You know, I can say that I sell my records, and they sell pretty much.
HH: Is there anything about the future that particularly worries or excites you?
RA: It don’t worry me, man; the future just really looks good. I notice that, when I play for people, I don’t care how large or small an audience they are, they listen to every note; so that means they want to listen. They want to hear something different.
HH: People everywhere seem more and more open to new art.
RA: Yeah. And I think the ’80s are going to be really good for the music. The ’70s weren’t all that great, but I think the ’70s sort of set it up, and it’s going to start happening now. That’s one reason I’m feeling so good about working now, I think. I feel like now I should be playing. Now is the time for me to be moving around, playing in different places and traveling. I hate to travel, but I’ll do it if it’s worth my while. I wouldn’t want to get on a plane for nothing. I’m going to start doing things this year. Hopefully you’ll be hearing from me, man.