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Enjoying the beat of the music

28th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Inside the Music – The Life of Idris Muhammad Xlibris Publications

One doesn’t necessarily have to be a music authority to enjoy the autobiography of Idris Muham­mad who was known to family, friends, neighbors and early rhythm and blues fans in New Orleans as Leo Mor­ris. Later in life he become internationally renowned playing jazz with many of the genre’s greats though he always declared, “I am not a jazz drummer, I’m a funk drummer.” Muhammad, 73, first gained recognition providing the unique beat to “Mardi Gras Mambo” with Art Neville’s group, the Hawketts. At age 17, the native New Orleanian made his first road trip with Hawketts backing up pian­ist/vocalist Larry Wil­liams who was on a roll with his hits “Short Fat Fanny” and “Bony Maro­nie.” It is also Muham­mad’s drums heard on Fats Domino’s 1956 classic “Blueberry Hill.

In the early chapters of the book, which is written in the first person and derived from extensive interviews conducted by writer/drummer Britt Alexander, Muhammad talks in a conversational tone about his childhood and growing up in New Orleans. He remembers the simple pleasures of fishing with his father and the poles they would make out of bamboo. Muhammad, who throughout his life sought to keep money in his pockets, refers to now long defunct barrooms near his family’s home at 1220 Lyons street where he would hustle a little cash racking up pool balls or making beer deliveries.

Local people of a certain age have the opportunity to reminisce along with Muhammad about what this city was like back in the day. They might remember that the area where he lived, near Coliseum Street was called The French Square even though the connecting streets formed a triangle. Those curious to seek out what made and makes New Orleans tick and how a young drummer with little formal musical schooling could make it to the world arena can find the ans­wers in this book.

In Muhammad’s case, the love of and dedication to the instrument was always his passion. Living in Uptown New Orleans, he was fascinated by the second line rhythms of the brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians that surrounded him in every day life. One of Muham­mad’s many unique approaches to the drum kit is that he plays it, as he describes, “from the bottom up.” That stems directly from hearing the big sound emanating from the bass drum during second line parades.

Muhammad’s first professional gig was when he was about nine years old playing onboard a flatbed truck with what he calls a Dixieland band on Mardi Gras Day. “You get paid for this?” he asked the band leader at the end of the day when he was handed $10. That, as well as the admiration of a girl he’d had an eye on, kind of sealed the deal for him to pursue a career in music.

For many years, Muhammad would continue on the more lucrative rhythm and blues path playing and recording with the likes of vocalist/producer Joe Jones of “You Talk Too Much” fame and national icons such as vocalists Nat King Cole and Curtis Mayfield. He first stuck his toe in the jazz world when invited by New Orleans saxophonist Clar­ence Ford to come to practices at pianist Ellis Marsalis’ house where he would meet up with this city’s drum legends Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer.

Somewhat bewildered by what it took to play jazz as opposed to R&B, funk or soul that he was used to, Blackwell offered this advice: “Just don’t play the backbeat.”

“Inside the Music” has a wealth of wonderful little stories within its pages. Muhammad relates how he remembers a very young Ziga­boo Modeliste standing so long at the screen door of the Nevilles’ home listening to him and Art Neville practice that the kid left with impressions of the screen on his face. Modeliste, of course would go on to be at Neville’s side as the drummer in the very influential band, the Meters.

A much in demand drummer in an array of styles, Muhammad landed in New York City and made his bucks in the house band at the Apollo Theater while hearing the call of jazz from artists like the great drummer Art Blakey. Muhammad, who has retired in his hometown of New Orleans, spent many years living abroad primarily in England and Austria. In the jazz world he perhaps remains best known for his longstanding association with piano great Ahmad Jamal and superb work with pianists Randy Weston and John Hicks as well as with his work with vocalist Roberta Flack. As a leader, Muhammad’s release Power of Soul kicks.

Leo Morris embraced the Muslim religion in the 1960s and became Idris Muhammad. When he masked Indian for the first time, which was a life-long ambition he became Chief Red, the First Chief of the Congo Nation led by Donald Harrison Jr. Impor­tantly, he forever remains a son of New Orleans whose every drumbeat, as he explains in this book, stems from the experiences of his lifetime.

Rhythmic ‘Family Reunion’

Bassist George Porter and percussionist Bill Summers headline this Thursday’s edition of Jazz in the Park. “It will be George Porter’s funk with Bill Summers’ African influence,” Summers explains. “The first funk beat was invented in Africa and we take it to New Orleans and combine the two entities that are related. It’s a family reunion of Africa, New Orleans and the Caribbean.”

Summers and Porter have worked together before, initially when Porter performed with the noted jazz/funk group the Head­hunters of which Summers was an original member. “The history between us really starts there,” says the percussionist. Joining the duo for the May 30 date will be saxophonist Khris Royal among others.

Summers has been has been helping out the People United for Armstrong Park organization by acting as an emcee and offering his expertise in the production of the concerts. His involvement began last year when he helped the crew with the PA and lighting for the event’s all-star grand finale.

“I was able to bring some things to the table and improve the quality of the production and then they asked me to join the team,” he explains. “I’m enjoying the ride and just helping the people and seeing some positive things happening. It’s doing a lot for the musicians and the park and the people. I support it one million percent.”

The Old Skool Brass Band kicks off at 3 p.m. with slide guitarist and vocalist Colin Lake taking the stage at 5 p.m. Porter and Summers follow at 6:30 p.m. Free admission; refreshments for sale.

This article originally published in the May 27, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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