Rashied Ali (1935 – 2009), multi-directional drummer, speaks

A 1990 interview with drummer Rashied Ali, about his relationship with John Coltrane.

In 1990 I interviewed drummer Rashied Ali for The World According to John Coltrane, a documentary produced and directed by Toby Byron. It was the first but not the last time I spoke to Ali, a sorely underrated musician and jazz presence who died yesterday (August 12, 2009) following a heart attack at age 74. Here’s a transcript of our talk, slightly edited and annotated, mostly about Coltrane, with whom Ali became famous. He describes hearing the saxophonist practicing at his mother’s home in Philadelphia, how he first began to play with Coltrane, Trane’s dedication to improving his instrumental skills, their tour of Japan, of dreaming about Coltrane and of their duet recording Interstellar Space. Only excerpts were used in the film.

Rashied, will you introduce yourself for the camera and to me, and sort of
include in it how you think of yourself in relationship to John Coltrane.

RA: Well,
I’m Rashied Ali, and I play drums and how I can relate myself with John is . . .
well, for one thing he put the name on the type of drums I was playing. I
didn’t know what it was, but he called it multi-directional rhythms. Which I
looked up in the dictionary and found that it means playing three or four
different rhythms at the same time. And I guess I can relate to John as trying
to be the best that I can be in whatever I do. Because just the thing that he
seemed to instill on me and on people around him as to try to be really be the
best at what you do. So I can relate that way to him.

HM: You were
saying that as a kid you used to go to his mother’s house in Philadelphia and
sit around there?

RA:  Well, his mom lived on 33rd Street
right across from the park. It was a section of Philadelphia called Strawberry Mansion.
And I lived in that same section. And during the time he was working with Miles
Davis we used to, you know, go around to his house just trying to see if we
could see him outside or sitting around. Anywhere. And a lot of times we would
just hear him practicing out of his window, so we just sit around the steps and
sit around and listen to him practice. Actually to meet him and to talk to him
came years later after I had really got into playing. I met him at a club in
Philadelphia for the first time.

HM: Was he
like a local hero of a sort, somebody who was really admired among the young

RA:  Yeah, he had something for the young
musicians at that time.  He was
playing a totally different kind of saxophone sound than we had been accustomed
to listening to. We were listening to Charlie Parker and Stan Getz even and
Dexter Gordon and people like that, you know, and Gerry Mulligan, But Coltrane —
he sort of had grown into this new way of playing. It’s hard to explain the way
it was but the youngsters got on to it right away. I mean we were listening to
it right away. First it sort of seemed strange to us and at first I was going,
like, ‘You know, I think I’d rather listen to Dexter Gordon,’ because some of
the stuff he was playing, I couldn’t really understand what it was.  And then after a while listening to him
play with Miles Davis, everybody just fell in love with that stuff.

HM:  What were these first records that you
were hearing, that seemed odd?

RA: The first
records that he did with Miles. I was into Miles Davis. I was listening to
everything he’d do. Miles came out with his first LP for Prestige Records
called Musing With Miles. He just had
a jacket on and a hat [in the cover photo] and I think it was Philly Joe Jones
and Oscar Pettiford and was there a pianist on it? Red Garland, or one of those
people. Well, anyway, Miles came out with this record and then somehow, Miles
was looking for a saxophone player and Philly Joe Jones came from Philly and
introduced him to ‘Trane and then ‘Trane got with Miles and they started doing
these records on Prestige, Workin’ and
‘Round Midnight. No, I think that was
on Columbia Records. But Workin’ and
a few other good records [Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’] that came out of there
[Prestige]. That’s when I heard Trane the first time that really made an
impression on me, when I heard him play with Miles on those records and that’s
when I started looking for all Coltrane’s records.

HM:  Were you already playing by the time
you heard Coltrane?

RA: Yeah, I
was playing at that time. I started playing drums at a very early age. I was
playing drums when I was in high school. So, I knew about Trane even before Miles
Davis because I have cousins, well, second cousins, my father’s first cousins —
Charlie Rice and Berna [?] Rice who play drums also.  They both play drums and they both played around with each
other, like Jimmy Heath and Charlie Rice and Coltrane, they all played
together, so like, I’d always heard of him through that source. But I never got
a chance to really see him play until I got into playing myself.

HM: Even
when you were listening to his records, did the music that Miles and Coltrane
play effect how you played the drums?

RA: Yeah,
it definitely effected my playing. Because I was very influenced and still am
— well, not very influenced now, but I learned a lot from listening to people
like Max Roach and Art Blakey. Max Roach had a hot band in those days with
Clifford Brown, and Blakey, he just had one hot band after another with that Jazz
Messengers. Between those two, I was listening a lot to the way they played
drums.  But then when I hear
Coltrane play with Elvin Jones…now I had heard him play before with different
drummers like Philly Jo Jones and people like that who complemented Coltrane,
what he was doing really good, but when Elvin came into the band somehow that was
like a Charlie Parker and Max Roach combination. That was like the ultimate
combination and that, and listening to Ornette Coleman and different people, it
sort of changed my feelings about the drum set. Instead of being a timekeeper
drummer, I wanted to play more. You know I wanted to be more freer and play
more drums than just being a timekeeper, you know.  So, that’s how it influenced me by listening to Coltrane and
Elvin Jones play some of those duets that they were playing.  When everybody would just drop out,
McCoy [Tyner, pianist] would drop out and Jimmy [Garrison, bassist] would drop
out and, and Jones and Trane had it. 
That influenced me quite a bit. 
I was very taken back by that type of music.

HM: Did you
seek out somebody that you could have that kind of partnership with?

RA: Oh,
definitely, in fact, I was doing things like that round Philadelphia on my own.
I have two brothers who also play drums and we would put bands together, with
saxophone players. We would sometimes just have two sets of drums and three
saxophone players for the whole band. We were doing a lot of drums and
saxophones and stuff like that — double quartets — like coming from Ornette
type of thing [documented on Free Jazz]
two groups playing at the same time simultaneously. This was like in the late
’50s and early ’60s.

HM: Why was
there so much searching going on? Is that something that Coltrane
was an example of, looking for things? 

RA: He sort
of opened things up because he such a relentless player and searcher. He never
stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He
would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me.
Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the
ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the
dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in
the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all
that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless. He was
always pressuring the music, I mean trying to get as much out of it as he
could. As far as the music was concerned, it was hard to keep up with a person
like that. I mean, most people, they play — but with Coltrane, that was all he
did. That was every bit of it. He wasn’t into sports; he wasn’t into baseball,
basketball. He wasn’t into anything but music.  So he just did that all the time, all the time. It was a
heck of a thing to be around a person like that. I think I learned a lot from
just being around a person that way. 

HM: It
sounds almost frightening.  Sort of
like, doesn’t this guy have any other life at all?

RA: He had
only music. I mean, I’m sure he had other life, other than music, but for the
life of me I couldn’t see anything else that he did except play. He just played
all the time. Even when I was with the band. When I was working with the band,
he played on the airplane. He had a flute or something. On the train, in the
hotel room. You walk in the hotel room you hear this saxophone all up and down
the hotel. Everywhere he played, the first thing he wanted to know was would he
be able to play, before he even got a place to stay. And they would go,
“Oh yeah, sure.” That’s the way he did all the time. You know
what?  That helped me a lot.  You know, to see somebody with that
kind of dedication.

He was
always playing and I think that’s what really got me the most with him.  I was heavily influenced by the man’s
music, just his music. But then, you know, after I’d seen what it took to be
great like that — I mean, it was awesome.  He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was
always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could
he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done
already? And after playing all these years with all these different people,
King Kolax and Eddie Vinson and all these rock and rollers and rhythm and blues
artists and jazz artists, the man still had a vision that he could be better
than he was and he was still practicing. You know, after awhile you stop
practicing. This man was in his 40s, right?  And he had played with everybody and he was still playing
everyday. So that was a profound statement as far as I was concerned.

When I was
younger, I practiced like that — hard, everyday, 12 hours a day.  And you know, here I was playing with
Coltrane, like I made it. Okay. I was makin’ it. I was playing with Coltrane —
but this man was still practicing like he was 20 years old.  So that I think that influenced me
again. See, I was influenced being around him to try to keep up with what he
was doing and I think that helped me musically.

HM: When
you did begin to play as a professional, did you start off with rock and roll
and rhythm and blues bands and then played with jazz musicians and then played something that was like
beyond jazz?

RA: I think
jazz is like everything else. You learn how to play that and then after you play
that you you become who you are. You become yourself, I mean. I’ve heard Coltrane
was influenced by people like Dexter Gordon and people like that, you know. And
Bird. In fact, he told me himself that when he heard Bird he stopped playing
alto saxophone, because he had started playing alto saxophone and he said that
when he heard Bird he just didn’t want no part to that horn anymore. Because
what Bird was doing with the horn was just impossible for anybody else to do. So
he stopped playing the alto and picked up the tenor, man. And I thank Bird a
thousand times-fold for getting Trane to play the tenor saxophone because what
he did with the tenor saxophone is still being reckoned with today and there
are scores of players, I don’t care who they are, if they play the tenor
saxophone you can hear a little bit of John Coltrane in them. And it was just
the way he was, the way he lived. 
He played what he lived, and it was an honor to be around him.

HM: Tell me
about when you first got the call from him to come join the band or however
that happened.

RA: I’m
gonna tell you, I wanted to play with Trane so bad . . . I was motivated to do
that because I been listening to his records all my life and most of my practice
was with Coltrane records. I would just get into my basement and I’d play these
records so you could hear him a mile away and I’d be practicing and playing with
these records all the time. And so I had a real good idea of what to play with Trane.
So I didn’t really get the call, I just sort of put myself into a position to
do that. He was working at this club, right down here on Spring St.  It was called the Half Note at the
time, on Hudson at Spring. Trane had that place for as long as he was in New
York; if he wasn’t playing [on tour] he could go there and play for two weeks,
three weeks, a month, however long he wanted to. And that’s how he got a lot of
things together. He would write songs and he would play ’em there for the first
time to try things out. I would go over there and I would just sit around on
the steps and I asked to play and he said ‘Well, no, not today.’

And I would
just sit there and ask again the next night and the next night and the next
night. One day I just came there and I don’t know, fate, whatever, Elvin wasn’t
there yet and it was time to play and everybody was walking around the stage to
play. And I said, ‘Can I play?’ And he looked at me for a long time and he
said, ‘All right, c’mon.’ And I went up and I played. I played for a whole set
before Elvin came, and then I got down. And the next day I was there again and
I said, ‘Can I play?’ He said, ‘Sure, c’mon.’ And I played again.  And then I went there one time and
Elvin seen me coming and he said, ‘C’mon up here and play for me.’ He had to
run somewhere and I played again.

And then he
[Coltrane] asked me, he said, ‘Rashied, I’m gonna do some tapes and I would
like for you to play on them with me.’ And I, you know — I’m gonna tell you,
man, I had an ego bigger than this building at that point, playing with Trane. Just
sitting in with him just inflated my ego to the point when I was ridiculous. I
was young, I was ridiculous and I said, ‘Yeah I would like to play. Who else is
gonna play?’ He said, ‘Elvin is gonna play.’ I said, ‘You gonna have two
drummers like that?’ He said, Yeah,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I wanna
play with two drummers.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think
so.’  So I blew the date, which
turned out to be Ascension.

You heard
of that date, right? All my friends like Dewey Johnson, Archie Shepp, Larry
Young, John Tchicai, all these guys made this date and I wasn’t there, behind
being stupid, right? I go like, ‘Oh, man!’ He was talking about a record date
when he said tapes. I thought to myself, ‘Whoa, man, you better get it
together.’ So then after the date, Coltrane went out with Pharoah Sanders, and
he called me up and said came back you know, ‘You know Coltrane’s back and we’re
gonna play at the Village Gate. You ought to call him up, man.” So, I
called him up.

I said, ‘Hi
‘Trane.’ He said, ‘Hey Rashied, how you doing?’ I said, ‘You playing at the
Village Gate?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I would love to play with you.’ He
said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, you know, but Elvin’s gonna be playing, too.’  I said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. It’s great, I
mean, of course, I don’t mind. He said, ‘Okay, have your drums there at eight
o’clock. Then that’s it.’ And I learned such a lesson on that, you know. I
mean, I don’t have anything bad to say about musicians, hardly ever. Because I
feel like you can always learn something from anybody, I don’t care how bad or
how good they are. So I learned a lesson on that. My ego sort of got deflated
on that one.

HM: What
about Elvin? Was he not shaken by your being on the set, too?

RA: Oh,
definitely not. Elvin Jones is a creative artist and there was a lot of rumors
out at the time that he was upset . . . Well, maybe he might have been a little
upset, but he wasn’t shaken by no point because he’s a great artist and I
learned a lot from Elvin Jones’ style of drumming. He was one of the direct reasons
why I play today. It was because of the way Elvin Jones played. I was young and
I was into being in a band. It was like going to college, being a sophomore or
a freshman in a college. Here I was just coming into the band and I was playing
with people like Jimmy Garrison and then Elvin Jones and McCoy and I was like I
had to keep up something, you know. I had to feel like I couldn’t show any
weaknesses, you know, because these guys were veterans, they knew everything
and I guess I sort of overreacted to a lot of things.  But at the same time I have one hell of a love feeling for
Elvin Jones because I think that Elvin Jones’ style of drumming helped me with
the style that I developed.

HM: Why did
Coltrane want another drummer? 
What did he hear?

RA: Because
he was in a drummer thing. He just wanted to free himself from playing these
strict changes. The bass player and the piano player would lay these chords
down, you know, and he played just about everything he could play on these
chords. He played ’em upside down. He’d turn ’em around. He played ’em
sideways. He did just about everything he could to ’em. And playing with the
drums he didn’t have to deal with chord changes and keys and stuff like that.
So he was free to play however he wanted to play. There were times I played
with Trane, he had a battery of drummers, like about three conga players, guys
playing batas, shakers and barrels and everything. On one of his records he did
that. At the Village Vanguard, live, we had a whole bunch of drummers plus the
traps. And then sometimes he would have double traps. Like in Chicago, I played
double traps with a young drummer  coming up there, named Jack DeJohnette.

HM: So what
are the tours that you went on with Trane? In ’66 you went to Japan, didn’t

RA: If I
can remember correctly, we did eight or nine concerts in Japan. We started in
Tokyo and we went to Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Nagoya…a couple places that I can’t
pronounce, and Kyoto. I remember Kyoto because this is the place where they
have beer-fed cows to make the steak tender. They feed beer to the cows, that
was their thing. But anyway, in Japan, that was a heck of a trip because we
played in theaters and they were large theaters and it was unbelievable, the
people that came out to hear Coltrane. They packed the theaters. People were
sitting in the aisles and on half of the stage.  And it was just jam-packed, every concert we did there. Even
sneak concerts — when we first went there we had like a preview press
conference-concert and that was jammed. So we got a chance to play to a lot of
people in Japan, a lot of people.

HM: Why do
you think they were so receptive to Coltrane? 

RA: Because
the Japanese, they have a reputation of being up on everything.  And this was in ’67 and they were up on
jazz, even in ’67. I don’t know when they got into it, but they had drum
machines and all that stuff going on — I remember seeing the first drum
machine in Japan when I was there in the ’66.  And so, they were just waiting for Trane. When we came off
the airplane, they had life-size posters of us like, you know, like in the
sheath, how you carry a flag? They had life-size posters and bigger, cut-out to
shape, of each one of us at the airport and then they took a red carpet and
rolled a red carpet from the plane into the terminal for Coltrane. That’s the
way they did it in Japan.

HM: Have
you ever gotten a reception like that anyplace else? 

RA: Never,
ever, never. And I don’t think it will ever happen again. That was a once in a
lifetime situation. 

HM: What
kind of songs repertoire were you performing?

RA: Mostly
all original songs. Coltrane played mostly all original songs.  He played ‘Leo,’ he played ‘My Favorite
Things.’ It’s hard for me to think of the names of these songs. ‘Living
Colors.’ I can’t really think of the names, ‘Meditation,’ ‘Impressions’ and
stuff like that, you know. He wrote a lot of new stuff for this band. He tried
not to play the same kind of music he played with the previous band. He was doing
things from Impressions, Meditations,
“Ogunde,” stuff he was doing on the new record that came out as Cosmic Music. Stuff like that.

HM: He was
playing a little flute, too, wasn’t he?

RA: Yeah,
he had inherited Eric Dolphy’s instruments — the base clarinet and the flutes
and so on. Eric’s mom gave him the flutes so he felt that he had to try and
learn how to play the flute. He always didn’t want to know how to play it, for
some reason. But when he got Eric’s horns, he started playing the flute.  He was coming on with that flute, too. I
mean, he only had a little while and he recorded with it. It wasn’t gonna be
long before he would started playing it but he didn’t live to really get into
it.  I think he was on his way of
becoming a good flutist.

HM: What
did you notice about his health?

RA: I never
noticed. I didn’t know he was sick. I had no idea he was sick. I knew he was
drinking juices and stuff. But he was not the kind of person that complained. Not
to me, anyway, about being sick or anything. A few things he said to me to make
me think, but I wasn’t hardly listening to it because I just couldn’t see him
being sick at all. The way he played on the stage and as much power he used to
play the saxophone, I had no idea that he was sick. But I have pictures of him
where he had his hands on his liver at times, he was getting pains there. And
he complained sometimes about being tired, you know, being not as energetic as
he usually was. But that was about the only complaints that I ever got. I was
totally in shock when I heard that he had died that morning, July 17, when I
had heard about that. I had no idea. In fact, we had just played about two
weeks or a week before that happened. And he was playing strong, but I noticed
he was sitting down in a chair so I guess he was a little tired . . . The liver
robs you of a lot of energy when it gets on the blink.  And, that’s all you know, I just never
really realized that he was sick enough to pass.

HM: Were
you close with Alice [Coltrane’s wife, then playing piano with him]?  Did the family do anything?  What was hap­pening in the musical
community at that point?

RA: What do
you mean?

HM: I suppose
everybody felt the way you did, like shocked.

RA: Yeah,

HM: What,
what was happening around Alice? 
What happened to the band?

RA: Well, Alice
kept going with the band.  She put
out this record Cosmic Music, on the
John Coltrane label that when it first came out [quickly re-released by
Impulse!] And she did a Carnegie Hall concert to open up with the label. And we
did that. And then we did a lot of different things as far as playing and
recording. We did a lot of recording because Coltrane built the studio right in
his basement and so it was just about going out to Deer Park [Long Island, New
York] and into the basement and playing, and so we did some recordings there.
And she kept it going. But it was a shock. Not only was it a shock to me and
the family, it was a shock amongst all the musicians, too.  Because nobody had an inkling that he
was sick enough to pass. 

HM: Do you
think about Coltrane often these days?

RA: I dream
about Coltrane, vivid dreams, like live dreams. I used to dream about him so
much when he first died I told my mother used to get very nervous about me
dreaming about him. She used to always tell me, ‘If he asks you to come with
him, don’t go. Refuse to go.’ My mother’s very psychic about that. She says at
one point in the dream he’d extend his hand out for me to come and I shouldn’t,
because he was supposed to not be here and I was saying, ‘You’re not supposed
to be here.’  But the dreams were
real and every now and then I dream a real dream about Coltrane and it’s such a
real dream until I wake up and I have to really lay there and get it together
to make sure that I’m back. Because I would definitely be gone into the dream.
I mean, musical dreams. I hear some stuff in dreams that needed written down. I
woke up and I would get my pencil out and I would put it down on paper, or put
it down on the tape. I could remember the songs that I played. Or heard him
play. Or played with him. Yeah. It was very musical.

HM:  Tell me something about Interstellar Space, your duet record with Coltrane.

RA: That’s
what I was getting to. Interstellar Space
was like the ultimate record that Coltrane really always wanted to do, because
he loved drums. In fact, he loved drums so much, if we would have a second set
of drums on the stage, sometimes he would come up there and play them.

I mean, he
would sit behind the drums and play with the band, you know. He really had
something about drums that he loved. And to do a record with him, to do a
complete record with him, just as a duo was a big honor for me. In fact, I
still charge up from that record. I can play that record in the morning and it
gets me started for the whole day. I just heard that they released some new
material that we’d done in Japan on some duet stuff. We just went into the
studio for a day or two days and we just played and recorded, just played and
recorded. And that’s the way it was. I think that was some of the greatest
stuff we ever did, I think.

HM: He
would give you structure, you would give him structure or — ?

RA: Ah, he
did the whole thing. He would say what kind of song it is, if it is in three or
four, if it was fast, if it was slow, if it was medium and sometimes he would
just say that we’d just play and we would just make things up. We’d play slow
for a little while and then I’d speed it up and play faster. He used to always
tell me that he could play any kind of way with the way I played drums. He
could play fast or slow, it doesn’t matter. Just because I was just always
keeping something going, you know. Not necessarily keeping a tempo. You know,
just wide open, just keeping it open so that he was free to play. However he felt
like, or however he wished. 

HM: Thanks,
Rashied, that gives us plenty to work with.

RA: It’s
over that quick?

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  1. Allan Chase says

    Thanks for this great interview — it’s nice to finally read the whole thing. It really captures his voice, which I will miss. I use the segments from the film in my jazz history classes often.
    The other excellent interview with Rashied that I’ve read was done by Bob Moses for Modern Drummer a few years ago.

  2. says

    Wow…Really great interview!
    I never heard Rashied talk about his dreams about Coltrane. That was really funny that his mom told him “If he asks you to come with him, don’t go…” I met her a few times and she was really cool.
    Rashied was very fortunate to have a close relationship on and off the bandstand with Trane, and the evidence of Trane’s influence followed him wherever he went. I think Rashied tried the best he could to pass on that regal legacy to us.