Idris Muhammad: Coming to Grips with His Greatness
So I moved to New York. I was workin' at the Apollo Theater. I had quite a bit of money because Curtis gave me a point and a half of Curtom Publishing. I didn't really know what that was at that time, but it was a lot of money. I came to New York and went to see a show that was there and the musical director, who knew me, asked me what I was doing in town. I said I'm living here. In the next couple of days I got a call from him. Charlie Persip was the drummer. He fired Charlie Persip and gave me the job. That was my first beginning of workin' a steady job in New York City.
Because I could play all of that music. All of the acts that was on the road, everybody knew me. A lot of guys, at that time, didn't know how to play the funk that I play. So it was a new thing in New York City. I was the only guy to play that type of funk. So I would have guys coming by and watching me play. They would say, "What is this?" I tell you, man, I had no idea I was starting a trend, that I was playin' a style of drums that the guys who play the drums today learned how to play from. I had no idea. They was tellin' me this, but I was stickin' to what Mr. Barbarin said. All I was doin' was workin', you know? I was married and had a kid and I was trying to take care of my family. It wasn't that I wanted to be famous or something like that.
AAJ: Is that where you started hearing more jazz, in New York?
IM: Well, yeah. I was listening to jazz because when I finished work at the Apollo Theater, the guys would say "Max Roach is playin' over there," and I would go to the club and see him play. Then I'd go down to Birdland and see who was playin' there, you know, Miles Davis and Coltrane, Cannonball, all of these groups. I'd go there just to hear something else.
AAJ: Philly Joe?
IM: Oh man! Philly was my buddy. I would go hear Philly Joe and all of these cats play, man. Gee whiz. It was a long time before I would get the nerve to go up to them and say to them I played the drums. I'd just be hanging around, listenin' at what they were sayin'. I was too young to have a drink in Birdland. They had a space in the club they called the Peanut Gallery. That's where all the young people used to go and have a Coca Cola and listen to the music.
As I got older, I would go out and hear guys playin'. One time I went from the Apollo Theater down to the Five Spot to hear this guy that all the members in the band was talkin' about that played three horns at one time. I thought they was crazy. I thought it was impossible. How could you play three horns at one time? You only have one mouth, you know? I went down and it was Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was amazin' to hear this guy do this. So I asked the drummer, could I play one tune with him. It was like a magnet drawing me to him. So he asked me where I was from. His name was Candy Finch. And he let me play. And after the melody, Roland Kirk turned around and said, "Who's that on them drums?" And I said I was Leo Morris. And he said, "Keep that beat! Keep that beat!" And the next thing you know I end up playin' the whole set.
And then this guy came to me and said, "man, you sound great. I'd like you to play a concert with me at Town Hall." I said I was workin' at the Apollo. He said, "Oh, man. If you can work it in, I want you to play this concert." So I said, "OK, what's your name?" He said Kenny Dorham. I said, "Oh man, I can't do this." He said, "Yeah, you can do it." So I had a couple rehearsals with him and played the concert at Town Hall. It was Kenny Dorham's band, Freddie Hubbard's band and Lee Morgan's band, in one night. Kenny Dorham's band played first, then all the guys were saying "Who is this drummer?" They said, "It's this guy from New Orleans." That's how the jazz guys got a hold of me.
I never played jazz before. Never of that caliber. I met Betty Carter there and George Coleman and McCoy Tyner, all of these guys I met at this one gig. The next thing you know, jazz guys started calling me. I was in Betty Carter's band with George Coleman and John Hicks and Paul Chambers. Then I was making records for Blue Note with Lou Donaldson and all of these Alligator boogaloo and all these organ records I was makin'. Guys were callin' me to do these records. They never gave me any music. A few times with Horace Silver, he gave me some music and played it. And he said, "No, that don't sound right. Throw that page away and play something." They would play a song and I would just make up a rhythm to it. If I was a smart dude at that time, I could be rich today [laughter], by just writing out those parts and making them pay for it. But I was a guy who was just very friendly and kind. And kind guys, a lot of times, they take advantage of you.