Finally able to practice on his own kit, Muhammad began to play along with the radio, but there was something unexpected that influenced his technique, style, and sound: a dry cleaner’s next door with three pressing machines. In an episode of art imitating life, Muhammad was able to hear the three steam-driven press machines at work. “And when you released the handle, these three machines would make a pssshhh sound, there was rhythm in there. As I played along with the radio, I would try to copy the sound of the machines by hitting the hi-hat and opening it. All the guys around town said, ’Yeah, that’s hip. How’d you do that with the hi-hat?’ So that was something that I did, and played on some recordings, but it wasn’t fully developed until I was in Hair. Because of the limited space on the flatbed truck we were on, I could only have a crash and the hi-hat so I had to play a lot of stuff off of the hi-hat. Bernard Purdie heard that, and he put it on Aretha Franklin’s ’Spanish Harlem.’”
Muhammad was witness to the traditional and modern jazz scenes that coexisted in New Orleans. “One time, I was rehearsing with [pianist] Ellis Marsalis and Clarence Ford, Fats Domino’s horn player. I couldn’t get down the fours because it was foreign to me. Ed Blackwell stopped over, and I said, ’I can’t get these fours down.’ So he sat down and played a few choruses, and then I played a few choruses. I asked, ’How do I play jazz?’ And he said, ’Use your left hand for anything, just don’t play the backbeat!’ So I played the concert, and it was great. It was the first time I had played that kind of music.”
Drummers like Blackwell, John Boudreaux, Earl Palmer, and Smokey Johnson were all influenced by the new bop-oriented styles of Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Roy Haynes. “Blackwell was a cold-blooded jazz guy,” says Muhammad. “When I was a kid, my brother took me to the YMCA to see Ed Blackwell’s and Earl Palmer’s bands. On the stage there were two sets. Earl’s set was a Silver Sparkle Ludwig set. The other kit looked like someone made it by hand. It had a snare drum for a tom-tom, and both the floor tom and the bass drum were 16". Earl played, and it was great. Then Blackwell’s band played, and I had never heard anything like that. I would see Blackwell around and talked to him, but those bands didn’t work a lot because there wasn’t so much straight-ahead jazz around. I didn’t gravitate towards it because there was no money. My family had a lot of kids, and I had to find out a way of making money without asking my mother.”
Over the next several years, Larry McKinley, a local New Orleans DJ, promoted shows where he would bring in artists from out of town, and they would use the Hawkettes as the backing band. Muhammad would get the work when Boudreaux wasn’t available. “In 1957, we went on the road with Larry Williams [who wrote hits like ’Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ and ’Bony Maroney’]. We made a recording called ’Short Fat Fannie’ [a #1 hit on the R&B charts] and were on the road all summer. We came back, had a few gigs, and then things got slow. I got married at 18, and had to get a job as a window painter.”
In 1959 Muhammad backed the singer Joe Jones on the hit “You Talk Too Much,” which led to a stint on the road. That was followed by tours with Sam Cooke and Dee Clark, with whom he recorded the hit “Raindrops” in Florida. Then he went back on tour with Joe Jones and [singer] Maxine Brown, a gig that would lead to his big career change. “We found out that Joe was going to the promoters and trying to make direct deals with him and not going through the agency. When the agency back in Washington D.C. found out, they fired the whole band. I was at the movies, and you know how the ushers show you to your seat with a flashlight? Well, they came in looking for me, flashing the light on me, and saying, ’There he is!’ and I was wondering what I did. I went outside, and Maxine Brown’s manager had my drums and my luggage on the top of the station wagon! They said to me, ’We’re going to New York, you should come with us.’ So we went to New York.”
Muhammad’s bass drum-centered New Orleans groove was an immediate hit in the Big Apple. He played with Maxine Brown at the Apollo and caught the ear of Jerry Butler (then leader of the Impressions). He soon joined the group, and recorded hit after hit with Curtis Mayfield, who took over the Impressions when Butler left in ’61. Muhammad continued working with Mayfield after the singer left to pursue his own solo career.
When Muhammad decided to come back to New York in 1963, Mayfield gave him a suitcase and told him not to open it until he was on the plane. “I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I remembered the suitcase. It was full of money. Curtis had given me a point-and-a-half of the publishing company, and there were thousands of dollars in there. I was glad that he had done that, because it really helped me get my footing back in New York City.” Muhammad would continue to record with Butler and Mayfield, including the soul classics “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready.”
Many of the original giants of jazz were still alive and gigging in New York in the mid ’60s. Fortunately, Idris had the luxury of not having to work, because of that suitcase full of cash. Checking out all the drummers he had only heard on records and through Blackwell, Boudreaux, and Smokey Johnson at various places around the city, he became familiar with his future jazz employers Lou Donaldson, Betty Carter, George Coleman, and others.
“I went to the Apollo, and I knew the musical director, Ruben Phillips, so the backstage was open to me. Ruben saw me backstage and asked me for my phone number, and in a couple of days he called me. He said, ’How’d you like to have the gig at the Apollo?’ And I said, ’That’s great, but Charlie Persip has the gig at the Apollo.’ He said, ’I just put him on two weeks’ notice.’ So, I worked the gig. Charlie told me himself that he came to the Apollo to see who had taken his job. He came backstage while I was playing and told me that there was no way that he could do what I did. He and I became good friends. I played at the Apollo for about a year and a half.
“I was doing that job uptown, which took all of the day, and at night, I was going downtown to see the jazz players. It was something I liked to listen to, but I couldn’t play. Plus, I couldn’t woodshed, because I was at the Apollo all day. I didn’t consider myself a jazz player,” says Muhammad. “But a lot of jazz guys started checking me out because I had this New Orleans thing going on.
“One day in 1965, I went to Birdland to see Miles Davis. I was going downstairs, and Lou Donaldson was coming upstairs. [Trumpeter] Bill Hardman was with him, and he says, ’Hey, Lou, that’s the drummer I was telling you about!’ And Lou says to me, ’Hey, you! Can you swing? You workin’ this week?’ I gave him my number and he called it. We ended up going to [saxophonist] Gary Bartz’s jazz club in Baltimore [The North End lounge was owned by Bartz’s parents], and the first tune was ’Scrapple From The Apple.’ He turned around and said to Bill, ’Hey, we got us a drummer!’”
Muhammad dug the music, but not the dough. “I did do a lot of gigs with Lou Donaldson, which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. I mean, the money was very bad. And I had to help carry the organ. It had four handles and there were four of us. Going up the stairs — it wasn’t that comfortable for me.”
Despite the pay and the labor, working with Donaldson broke down the doors for him in the studios when they recorded “Alligator Boogaloo.” “It opened a whole new recording thing with Blue Note. We were living in a building on 82nd and Broadway, and there were a lot of musicians that lived there too. There was a conga player that lived over me, and he would listen to me play. One day I was coming up the stairs, and he was too. He asked why I had stopped playing the day before, and I told him I was tired, that I had a gig that night, and I needed to sleep before. He said that he had never heard anything like that on the drums before. But as I was hearing that, I remembered what Mr. Barbarin had said to me years before about the compliments going in one ear and out the other.”