Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness
IM: There were guys around New Orleans. I didn't know too much about drummer outside New Orleans. There were so many great drummers in New Orleans. Earl Palmer was there. Ed Blackwell was there. John Boudreaux and Smokey Johnson. We used to rehearse in my house, but they were more advanced than I was. We used to go and watch all of these guys play. That was my influence until I started practicing with John Boudreau and Smokey Johnson. They knew how to play like Max Roach and Art Blakey. They would come to my house. They would play Art Blakey and Max Roach. And I would say "I never heard of these guys? Who is this guy?" And they brought these records. And I would say, "Aw, I can't do that, man. I'll stay with what I do. I can't do that." And that was my first introduction hearing Art Blakey and Max Roach.
AAJ: All that diversity in your playin' comes from New Orleans.
IM: Yeah, because it's such a musical place. I didn't really know that until I went to New York how much music I heard in New Orleans and how versatile the drummers were. We were taught to read through the school system, because you couldn't play the drums if you didn't know how to read the parts. We were playin' all these waltzes, "The Blue Danube Waltz," and overtures, "Stars and Stripes," and you had to read these drum parts. The professor made you, one at a time, read these parts, or else you got out of the band.
So we were kind of versatile in playin' the drums. New Orleans is so thick with rhythms, because I guess the many mixtures of people – the French and the Indians and the Africans, all different varieties that the French put in the colony. It made a nice gumbo. That's what I used to say. So I learned a lot of music. I could play, but I didn't really know I could play. They were sayin' to me I could play. But I never thought of myself as being that good because there was so many great drummers around and my brothers were drummers. They kept sayin' I was that good, but I didn't believe ‘em.
I had one teacher in my life that I paid for one lesson. His name was Paul Barbarin. He used to play with Louis Armstrong. All of the seasoned guys used to say if you want to learn how to play drums, you got to take lessons with Paul Barbarin. So I asked Mr. Barbarin to come to my house so I could take a lesson. He came by. He said "Ok, sit down at the drums and play the intro to ‘Bourbon Street Parade.'" He said play a waltz, and I played a waltz. He said play a mambo, and I played a mambo. He said play a cha-cha, and I played a cha-cha. He said, "Listen, son. I'm a very busy man. One day you're gonna be a great drummer, but when they say to you that you're great, let in go in one ear and out the other ear. Now gimme my two dollars."
And that was it, man. [laughter] That was the first and last and only paid lesson I ever had in my life. And I took that knowledge with me until about seven years ago that I had to acknowledge that I was with Max Roach and Art Blakely and Elvin [Jones], that they had said to me that I was in their class. Art gave me a set of symbols 37 years ago when he heard me play and they told me that I was great and I was something special. So just recently I started speaking about it, that I do have something special about my playin'.
AAJ: How did you make it to New York?
IM: My first trip to New York was with Sam Cooke. That was just an eye opener. We were workin' from the south, all the way up. We played the Apollo Theater and then we went on. I came back to New Orleans. There was some kind of mix-up with Sam and the guitarist that played with Sam, and another drummer named June Gardner, from New Orleans. The guitarist wanted an older guy to play with him. But Sam hired me, so he couldn't do anything about it. So, he called June Gardner and offered him the gig. June took the gig, and told me I could have his gig in town. So I took his gig in town and he went out on the road with Sam.
The next time I saw Sam, I was Jerry Butler's musical director, me and Curtis Mayfield. He asked me why I quit, and I told him I never quit. He fired me. He said he would have NEVER fire me. Then we found out the guitarist pulled a fast one. So I was already with Jerry, and Curtis Mayfield was the guitarist. So I stood with Jerry. We were workin' at the Apollo Theater, workin' all the theaters. Then Curtis put the Impressions back together and he made me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I went with Curtis. At this particular time I was living in Chicago. So I was recording a lot of music in Chicago with Curtis. I decided that Chicago's weather in the wintertime was very, very cold. So I decided after about three and a half years I was gonna move to New York.