Above all else, Idris Muhammad is a keeper of the New Orleans flame. Through more than five decades of popular music he has ladled his Louisiana grooves onto top-selling records from the worlds of R&B, pop, jazz, rock, and funk. But while he seems to blend in like a musical chameleon as he moves between styles, he’s really a rhythmic leopard, one whose spots don’t need to change. For at nearly every turn in popular music — pop to rock, R&B to funk, post-bop to soul-jazz, and funk to hip-hop — Muhammad’s Big Easy style has been a natural fit. In every context his work has embodied the spirit of New Orleans and its mix of American jazz and African drumming, Latin beats and funky second-line rhythms.
Even those who don’t know Muhammad’s work have heard him on seminal recordings from Roberta Flack and Curtis Mayfield, and on soul-jazz breakthroughs from Charles Earland, Grant Green, George Benson, Bob James, Lou Donaldson, and others. Or they’ve heard his own funky jazz hits that charted in the ’70s, or the recent hip-hop and acid jazz grooves that reflect the esteem he is held in by beat samplers. Now in his sixth decade as a pro, Muhammad keeps time with the Ahmad Jamal Trio, traveling the world in his trademark red beret and sunglasses, an ambassador of genuine cool in a world that always needs more of the real thing.
Lightly tapping a closed hi-hat with a stick in his left hand while his right grasps a mallet, Muhammad creates the flow of the beat for “Poinciana” with the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The groove is timeless: the percolating rhythm, split between cymbals and drums, creates a chatter of call and response and bubbles against the offbeat metallic chick of the hi-hat. It’s one of the most recognizable beats in jazz history. Muhammad plays it quiet, bouncing the rhythm against Jamal’s lush half-time chords and James Cammack’s grinding bass riffs, growing in volume, strength, and intensity as Jamal’s solo progresses. All the while, the boom-chick-boom-chick-boom-chick-buh-boom-chick pattern stays focused on the groove and never gets in the way. It’s a beat he inherited from Jamal’s recording of the song in the late ’50s with another great New Orleans drummer, Vernel Fournier. Or was it?
“Man, that groove is a street beat! I’ve heard that since I was a kid,” says Muhammad in his distinctive New Orleans accent. “Poinciana” had made its way from a swing-era creeper in the mid ’30s to a quasi-Latin feel in the mid ’50s, but it wasn’t until 1958 that Fournier put the definitive New Orleans stamp of approval on it, using the street beat Muhammad knew so well.
By the time the song became a hit with Jamal (Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing, 1958), Muhammad was already immersed in New Orleans drumming. Born as Leo Morris in 1939 in New Orleans, he learned his rhythms early in the 13th Ward. His parents were musicians, and his three brothers and sisters all played drums. Street bands were frequently playing in the neighborhood, and Muhammad remembers, “I was so small, I could fit under the bass drum player! I really liked the bottom end, so I would dance under it. I could really feel it. The guy would say, ’Get out of here, or I’ll hit you with this mallet!’ So, all of those rhythms really sunk in, and I think it made me play the way I do. I’m a bottom-up drummer.”
One day in the late ’40s, one of these street bands came by looking for a pickup drummer, and his brothers and sisters weren’t home. After some coercion, Muhammad’s mother allowed him to go with the band on its march through the streets. “After a while, these old guys said, ’This kid can play,’ and at the end, one of the guys gave me $10,” Muhammad remembers. “I never thought that you could make money playing music. I wasn’t going to shine any more shoes after that! I started practicing all the time at home along with my brothers and sisters. I had to play my brother’s drums when he wasn’t there; I didn’t have my own set. My mom said, ’Oh no, not another drummer!’”
The one formal drum lesson Muhammad had was with the legendary Paul Barbarin, who has played with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. “I asked Mr. Barbarin to give me a lesson, and he came over to my house. He got there and asked me to play the beginning of ’Bourbon Street Parade,’ which had a famous intro he had written. I played it. He asked me to play a waltz, and I played it. He asked me to play a mambo, and I played it. He asked me to play a cha-cha, and I played it. Then he said, ’Listen, I’m a very busy man. I’ve got things to do. One day you’re going to be a great drummer, but when people say, ’You’re great,’ let it go in one ear and out the other. Now give me my $2.’ That was the end of the lesson!”
Over the next several years, Muhammad became involved with the growing R&B scene, along with other New Orleans drummers John Boudreaux and Smokey Johnson. By the early ’50s he was already gigging with Art Neville’s band, the Hawkettes, who would record the classic single “Mardi Gras Mambo” in 1954.
“Aaron Neville and I sat in with the band many times,” says Muhammad. “John Boudreaux had gone on the road with [pianist] Eddie Bo about 1952, and their dad said, ’Hey, this kid Leo is pretty good, but he doesn’t have a set of drums.’ That weekend they had four gigs, so they came around and talked to me, and my mother made my brother loan me his drums because he wasn’t working that weekend. We went to Shreveport and places like that, and that’s how it started. I was about 14 at the time. When I got back from the weekend, my brother asked me if I wanted to buy his drums, and I said yes! They cost me $115 and they were Ludwig drums, blue, with a gray stripe around the middle.”