Out Front and Down Low

By Ted Panken

This text is part one of an oral interview dated February 23, 1977 with drummer/composer Ajaramu (formerly known as Gerald Donavan, née Joe Shelton), who was a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the beloved father of Detroit saxophonist Skeeter CR Shelton. The interview was conducted and transcribed by Ted Panken on a manual typewriter 45 years ago, and has recently been transcribed and edited for clarity for Three Fold. Part two will be published in our September 2022 issue.

Ted Panken [TP]  First of all, tell us about your musical beginnings. How did you come to play the drums, and who were the first people you followed on the drums? What types of things were you doing back then?

Ajaramu [A]  Well, I started playing drums at the Cotton Club, a place on 62nd and Cottage Grove. It was owned by… I think it was two or three musicians, Bobby Payne and Herald Youngblood… and this club was quite famous all over the country, because musicians from all over used to come through there and play, you know, we had sessions seven nights a week. And when I first started coming in there to play, dudes used to walk off the bandstand on me (laughs) because, you know, I was just getting started. I was playing with brothers like Donald Garrett—well, Raphael Garrett, I should say—Raphael Garrett, Nicky Hill, Muhal (Richard Abrams)...

[TP] When was this?

[A] This was around 1957.

[TP] That’s when you started on drums?

[A] Yeah, about ’56 or ’57, in that era. And we used to play all night. And then we’d go next door to the restaurant, either to Fowers’ or the Home Restaurant down the street, and wait for them to clean the joint up and we’d come back in at seven o’clock and start all over again. That’s how it started.

[TP] What kind of things were you doing then?

[A] Bebop. You know, bebop was strong then. That’s when I met most of the musicians, like Frank Foster, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, I met Bud Powell there, he came through, Red Garland, just about... Look man, you could come in then and see just about anybody would come up in there. Whenever they’d come to town, they’d come to the Cotton Club and play.

[TP]  Was there a lot of music in your home when you were growing up?

[A] Oh yeah.

[TP] What types of things were you hearing when you were growing up?

[A] Well, mostly guitar. My father played guitar, my mother played piano and organ. She had one of those pump organs, you know, you have to pump it while you’re playing... and violin, stuff like that. There was no drums, you know, like my people never used drums. They played mostly, I’d say... what would you call it? It wasn’t blues, and it wasn’t gospel, but it was somewhere in that area, right in that type of music. They would just play to entertain themselves. My old man used to sit on the porch, play his guitar, and sing country western tunes. And I’m around there, bangin’ on pots and pans (laughs). They thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t. They couldn’t understand what was happening, you know, that I wanted to play drums. The grade school I went to, I started in Forestville and at the time I was in Forestville, Muhal was going there, Paul Serrano, Johnny Griffin, and a bunch of cats. And then I moved out...

[TP] This was in grade school?

[A] Yeah, grade school (laughs).

[TP] All of you in one grade school, huh? (laughter)

[A] So, you know, I went to McCottrell Elementary School, down on 65th and Champlain. And the school had a band, you dig. But in the band, see, they only had one drummer, so you had to wait until someone graduated so you could fill the spot, if you could play. So a friend of mine, named Kenneth Peterson—Melvin Peterson’s brother, do you know Melvin, plays alto? They used to call him Little Bird—and Kenneth, he was a drummer. And I said, “Well, when Kenneth graduates, then I’ll be able to play.” But I caught up with Kenneth (laughs). I got a double promotion and caught up with Kenneth, so I didn’t get a chance to play in grade school. I went to high school, got into the band, and the band teacher gave me a tuba and told me I had to play tuba. I said, “Man, I wanna play drums.” He said, “I don’t need a drummer, I need a tuba player.” I wouldn’t play tuba so he kicked me out of the band, dig that? I was playing football. I gave up gym, gave up football, and got into the ROTC so I could get into the drum and bugle corps. I got in and said they didn’t have an opening for a drummer (laughs). So they gave me a bugle. I said, “Wow!” I went to the navy, and I got into the drum and bugle corps and finally got a chance to play some drums.

[TP] You must have been a pretty good brass player back in the ’40s?

[A] Hey man, I was playin’ on the bugles, man. I was good on bugle, man. I played bass bugle and [inaudible] bugle. It was hip, you know, but I wanted to play drums and my folks didn’t understand that. First drum I had, man, like, I begged my mother for about six months. It was a drum in the hardware store. And I would go shopping with her every Saturday and we’d pass this window and I’d say, “I want this drum for Christmas.” She got me the drum for Christmas. I played on the drum about twice, and I woke my old man up. He came out and said, “You’re keeping me up with too much noise. I got to get my rest. Put that drum away.”

[TP] Sounds like you were pretty frustrated when you were a kid.

[A] (Laughs). Hey man, look here, my mother used to really get on me, man. She used to be looking for stuff to cook in and I had got the pots and pans out, under the back porch, playing on the pots and pans.

[TP] Did you hear any drummers at that time who turned you on?

[A] No, I didn’t get a chance to hear much music on records and stuff, or bands, you know. When I started out... when I did get a chance to hear some music, was when I started hanging out, going to dances and stuff. Because we didn’t have a record player or nothing, you know, and most of the times, what we listed to on the radio was mostly the soap operas. My mother would be listening to the soap operas. I was in a tin can band. When I stayed on 43rd Street, I organized a tin can band. We were a tramp band, you dig? I was about seven to eight years old. And we had a good band! And a teenaged dude took the band away from me and kicked me out of the band (laughs). So then, I started going around to the clubs, man. I was about fifteen. I was going into the clubs and listening to the bands. I guessed that’s when I started listening to Jug (Gene Ammons). And he had a drummer with him named Wesley Landers, man, and this guy was bad! And I would be sitting right up under Wesley, until the bouncer would peep me and throw me out the joint. But I was pretty fortunate I had a pretty thick mustache and some of the places I could go in and get away with it, but they got to know me so well, ’til they started throwing me out as soon as I’d come in. But I got a chance to hear a lot of good music up at the Pershing, you know. All the bands used to come through. Stan Kenton, man, he used to bring his big band up in there. I got a chance to hear Bird (Charlie Parker) and Prez (Lester Young)—Prez stayed around here for a while; I got a chance to hear him quite a bit.

I don’t know, man, drums was just something that I wanted to play, man. I don’t know why it was, just I could play. You know, I started playing drums, I never had a drum lesson. It was just a natural feeling. Johnny Griffin was a great inspiration to me. He made me play. He used to snatch me up on the bandstand. You know, just, “Come on man, come on and play. You got to play.” He would just make me play, you know, and I love him for that. ’Cause I was kind of scared, man, so many bad dudes used to come through. Another drummer—it was a drummer named James King—he used to make me play every time I’d come in the place. And I learned, right there at the Cotton Club, man. Just one of those things man.

[TP] It seems that the scene was different in Chicago than it is now. A lot more places to play, and more cooperation.

[A] Yeah, there was a lot of places to play at that time. I mean, most of it was on the South Side. You know, you could go…look, I’ll tell you what I used to do. I used to come in here from Detroit—I moved to Detroit. I used to come in from Detroit. I used to get off the Greyhound bus at 63rd and Stony and I would start making the joints from Stony Island on over and I wouldn’t even get halfway to Cottage Grove. And it would take me a week to get from Stony Island to King Drive on 63rd Street ’cause once you hit 63rd and Cottage Grove, then it was all kinds of clubs around and all the clubs had bands in ‘em. You know... it was a lot of music here then, man.

[TP] A lot of the headline bands here too?

[A] Yeah. Max (Roach) and all them cats was playin’ here, man. Down at the Beehive and Nob Hill... the Nob Hill was over on Lake Park. The Beehive was on 55th Street. But I heard a lot about a drummer named Ike Day. I never got to see Ike Day, you know, but I heard a lot about him. But Dorél Anderson… Dorél and Wilbur Campbell and Marshall Thompson, those three cats, man. I really listened to them a lot. And I started hanging out with Vernell Fournier. We used to hang out quite a bit ’cause we were driving cabs together for the same cab company.  I started hanging out with him, and I got to meet Dinah Washington... a lot of people. And another cat, James Slaughter, he used to let me play on his set quite a bit.

See now, I was drug one night one time... I went down to the Cotton Club. I was playing. I had a good time playing, man. Nicky Hill used to walk off the bandstand on me, every time I use to get on the bandstand.

[TP] Why?

[A] Because I wasn’t playing nothing. I knew I wasn’t playing, but man, I was trying to learn! This night, Nicky Hill walked off the bandstand, then he walked back up on the bandstand and started playing. He said, “You finally got your stuff together, huh?” I said, “Well, I’ve been trying Nicky, you know, sitting down here, listening.” So I had a good night that night at the Cotton Club. So I went down to the C&C, you dig, and James Slaughter was playing down there, you dig. So I went down there, and James said, “Come on up at play some.” Solid! (laughs). Started playing, and Gus Rapell came over and said, “Hey man, let me play some.” Gus Rapell was the trombone player in the band. Man, I was really drug (laughs). That really hurt me man. I said, “Damn!” You know, now Nicky Hill walked back up on the bandstand, and I said, “I must be playing pretty good for Nicky to do this.” And Gus Rapell came over there and took the sticks out of my hand, and said, “Man, let me play this set.”

[TP] So when did that kind of thing stop happening?

[A] We was at the Cotton Club one day—I think it was on a Monday—and Frank Foster, Johnny Griffin, a bass player, and there was a cat named Buddy Smith playing drums. The drummers used to line up over there by the drums, you know, at that part of the bar where the drums were. Just all drummers hung out over there. So they struck up “How High the Moon” then, you know. Johnny Griffin, he’s a racehorse, he likes to play real fast. Buddy Smith got up. He said, “Man, I can’t play, I’m sick. I’m sick.” You know, he had some kind of stomach problem. So he got up and walked off the stage. And Johnny said, “Give me a drummer. Give me a drummer.” And he’s looking around and he said, “Come on man, come on.” And I’m sitting there, you dig, and I know he wasn’t talking about me—well, you know, all the time, he’d been telling me to play anyway—I said, he couldn’t be talking about me, as fast as they’re playing. I looked around man: all the drummers had split! I’m the only one sitting there. Johnny said, “Come on, man, come on!” He reached down and grabbed me and snatched me up on the bandstand. Hey man, we played for about an hour or longer. I don’t know. It seemed like it was forever to me, man, because after he had played about a thousand choruses, Frank Foster played about a thousand, then, after everybody played a solo, they dropped the drum solo on me, you dig? I said, “Oh my goodness. What am I into now?” But hey man, I came on through that, you dig? And after that, everybody accepted me. You know, they said, “Hey man, you can play.” So I kept on playing down there and guys started calling me for gigs and everything, man. When I would walk into a place, the cats would say, “Hey man come on and play some.” I didn’t have to ask anymore. They kind of started asking me to play. Nicky Hill wound up playing in my band (laughs).

[TP] Tell me about the first bands you started with and the first organized groups you were dealing with.

[A] Well, the first gig I had was with Memphis Slim. That’s strange, man. I spent all that time learning how to play, and I learned playing jazz, you dig? And the first gig I had, I had with Memphis Slim.

[TP] Different rhythms involved there?

[A] Well, you know, blues, you dig? I think Memphis is one of the greatest blues artists living today, because the cat, he has a natural thing for the blues. He took me on the road. And hey, you hear about experiences on the road, right? Hey man, I got ‘em out there on my first trip, man, on my way down to Tampa, Florida. I drove down there, you know. Me and—Sonny Boy Williamson was on it too, harmonica player, he was on the gig—so I took Sonny Boy and James Connolly. We all drove down there. And a policeman followed me out of Birmingham, Alabama, stopped me on the highway, took all my money—said I was speeding and took all my money (laughs). We got to Tampa (laughs)... We played Tampa, we played some more places, like Jacksonville. We was following James Brown at the time, so on our way back we stopped in Birmingham, Alabama. We played two weeks in Birmingham but didn’t get paid. They had all our stuff locked up in the hotel. We couldn’t get our stuff out of the hotel. So finally, the club owner, he went around a signed a voucher or something to get our stuff out of the hotel, gave us a bucket of chicken, gave us ten dollars apiece—we had two cars—gave us ten dollars apiece and a tank of gas in each of the cars. So, we had to make it from Birmingham back to Chicago. Now on the way, I got to drop James Connolly off in Decatur, Illinois, on my way back.

So anyway, I quit Slim’s band and started working for Sonny Thompson. That’s another blues band. And this band—James Spaulding, trumpet player Rashid Ali and a cat named Curly Thompson playing guitar and George Freeman was playing bass on the gig, he was playing Fender bass (laughs)—it was a good band. Sonny Thompson was a terrible piano player man. He could really play. So then, I left Sonny’s band. I said, “Well I’ve had enough of the blues for a while, I want to play jazz.” So I hooked up with Eddie Buster, who was playing at McKie’s at the time. So I hooked up James Spaulding, who was playing drums with him, and he cut out and went down to the Playboy. And I took his place with Eddie Buster, man. I played at McKie’s for about five years you know, something like that, and I got a chance to play with a whole lot of cats, man.

[TP] You were in the house band at McKie’s?

[A] Yeah. I played with Jug; I played with Sonny; Ben Webster; Roy Eldridge; Howard McGee… man, I can’t name all the cats I played with... yeah, James Moody.

[TP] McKie’s was the big club in town in the early ’60s, wasn’t it?

[A] Yeah. I started playing at McKie’s in ’59. I stayed there until ’65.

[TP] So that time at McKie’s must have been a real period of maturing for you, all those different styles.

[A] Yeah. Well, you know, I used to tell people—the musicians who used to come through there—I used to tell them, I got ten years of experience in about six months at McKie’s ’cause we started, like, in September and played all the way up until the holidays of that year. And during that time, I played with a lot of different musicians who played a lot of different types of music. I even played with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on a TV show—Marty Faye had a TV show. 

Everybody was telling me things, showing me, helping me. Dexter Gordon told me about rhythm. Sonny Stitt told me about dynamics, you know, and playing with him and Jug at the same time... it was Bennie Green, Gene Ammons, and Sonny Stitt. Whew! They had these three different things happening. And Dex’s playing is very rhythmical, man. I used to listen to Trane, you know, and I could tell that Trane used to listen to Dex quite a bit. Sonny told me about time and dynamics, you dig? And what was happening, playing with these three dudes, you had to play different with all three of them. See, with Sonny, Sonny would play and he would build, then he’d drop back and build again and drop back and build again. So what I found out was that a drummer accompanies the soloist, just like a piano and bass. See, it’s a matter of accompanying whoever’s out there and you have to constantly be feeding them stuff. So Sonny made me aware of this. Jug, he would start building and he wouldn’t stop. He’d keep building ’til his solo was over, you know, and it was just a constant build, build, build, build, build, build. One night we got to playing, and we built the intensity of it so high, when Jug got through playing his solo he came back and just picked me up off the drums and hugged me on the stage, and he said, “Baby, you’re sure kicking me.” Bennie Green… It was so relaxed playing with Benny. Oh man this guy played so relaxed.

Then we had a set with Sonny Stitt and James Moody and Gene Ammons (laughs). Boy, that was a ball, man. You know, I had a lot of fun with Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge. They had a different kind of thing going altogether. And I played with Paul Serrano and Howard McGee. That was a different experience (laughs).

[TP] All those guys had different ideas on how they used time.

[A] That’s right. But Jug and Sonny and James Moody and Dexter Gordon, they told me quite a bit about playing and everything, because they knew I was just starting out, you know. And they helped me quite a bit, because when they finished with me, I was ready. I could play with anybody, and I didn’t back off of nobody after that.

[TP] So the time you were at McKie’s, 1959 through ’65, was also the time of the roots of the AACM. What was your first musical connection with these people?

[A] Well, like I said, my first musical connection with Muhal was down at the Cotton Club. That’s when we realized that we knew each other from grade school. I hadn’t seen him, man, since the third grade. We knew each other, but we didn’t know each other. Eugene Bass, he was there too you know—he’s a drummer—and that’s when I first got hooked up with Muhal, musically, ’cause we started doing gigs together. I used to go to Muhal’s house. I’ll never forget it, man. I think in 1959—was one of the coldest winters I can remember—and I used to take my drums out to Muhal’s on the bus. We would practice out there, Muhal and a cat called Erskine Brody, a trumpet player, and myself. And we would be out there then. Muhal had one room—it wasn’t much bigger than this—and we used to set up in there and practice every day. So like, things started. I don’t know, when the Cotton Club closed it seemed like everything started closing, and there just wasn’t no place to play. So we just had to play wherever we could get together, you know? So then Muhal and Steve McCall and them cats come up with this idea about the AACM. Jodie Christian was involved, Gene Easton, and Phil Cohran. So Muhal called me up and told me about it. At that time, I was working pretty steady, seven, eight nights a week, sometimes two or three matinees and breakfast dances and all that, ’cause I was getting a lot of work. So they came up with the idea of getting this organization together so we could have somewhere to play, man, because all the jobs were gone.

Muhal called and told me about it, so I went to the meeting and we got organized. The first meeting we organized elected officers and everything. I was elected sergeant at arms. I held that position for about three years. Then Malachai Favors became the sergeant at arms. He’s still sergeant at arms, whenever he’s at the meetings. I became business manager because I learned a lot from McKie about promotion when I was working there with him. I used to help him promote the programs and stuff. So I was very helpful in promoting our concerts and stuff. We started out... we had some beautiful concerts.

Muhal had the Experimental Band going at the time, but I wasn’t a part of it. Thurman Barker was playing drums with that band. When he first started at the C&C, I went out there a few times, but I was so busy I didn’t have the time to… you know, I couldn’t function like I wanted. So I cooled out.

[TP] Did your involvement with the AACM involve any change in your musical ideas? How did your ideas about the role of percussion change between 1961 and 1965?

[A] Well, see, I played with a lot of different musicians, a lot of great musicians. But in the process of playing for these musicians and with these musicians, I never had a chance to play what I wanted to play.

[TP] So you were hearing something different while you were playing?

[A] Yeah. I would stretch out. And whenever I would start stretching out, the cats would say, “Oh man, straight time brother, straight time.” But I always felt that the drums was supposed to be played just like the rest of the instruments. I always felt that drums were very melodic. I think the drums were the first melodic instrument ever played, you know, rhythm instruments. Because you’ve got different sounds on the drums, you know, if you tune your drums up. Some cats don’t tune their drums—they tighten them, but they don’t tune them. But I think if you tune your drums, you can play very melodic. And I always want to play melodic phrases on the drums, while I’m keeping time, not just in the solo. See, only time a drummer got a chance to play was on his solo. He might get one solo a night! I felt as long as you didn’t get in the way, you know, that you’re supposed to have more freedom. I never liked the idea of just playing that sock cymbal, just one-two, one-two. I always felt that you’re supposed to be doing something. I always felt you’re supposed to be dancing on the drums, you know what I mean? When you’re playing different things with the sock cymbal, along with the bass drum and your two hands and stuff.

But I would start stretching out, playing my whole set, during the time that the cats were soloing. Cats would turn around: “No no, don’t play all of that, man, just play straight time.” And I always felt that handicapped a drummer, because see man, when I listen to them cats man—them Latin bands and stuff—hey man, they have so much rhythm going on, different drums and different drummers, and all that kind of stuff. ’Til I say, “Wait a minute” you know, “there’s got to be something else to playing drums,” you know, something that’s not so restricting. So when I became involved with the AACM the first thing they said was, “Look, we’re going to play original. All our stuff is going to be original. We’re not going to play any standard tunes. We’re going to play all original tunes. And we’re going to play our own ideas, and what not, because this is what we’ve been looking for. We’ve been trying to hook it up so that we can play what we want to play.” So when I started playing with the AACM, I got a chance to play my drums like I always wanted to play them. Seems like there’s always something to keep me from playing, you dig? I said, “Wow!” I’ll never forget my old man asked me, he said, “Do you get paid for playing?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Are you having fun playing music you get paid to play?” I said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I have fun.” He said, “Ah, you’ll find out what I’m talking about a little later on.” And I did! Every band I went into the cats wanted to tell me how to play. “Hey man, play like this, play like that, play like this.” I said, “I’m playing like I want to play” you dig? But they said, “Man, you can’t be playing all that stuff.”

[TP] Everybody said that? There must have been some people—like Sonny Rollins, who played there, say—who gave you freedom.

[A] I never got a chance to play with Sonny. When Sonny came there, he always brought his band. I had a certain amount of freedom with Jug and Sonny and Dex.  But see, not so much with them cats. I’m talking about local dudes that I was working with. I know one dude in particular—I won’t call his name—but man, this dude, man, every time I hit the bandstand he’d turn around: “Hey man. Don’t be playing all that stuff man. Don’t be playing all that avant-garde.” I said, “Man, listen this isn’t avant-garde. This is me! This is just a session, man. This ain’t no gig. This is just a set. You don’t be telling me how to play on a session,” you understand. A jam session? You dig? So, we was working a gig one time—Lefty Bates was on the gig, guitar player—and Leftie was playing and I was playing free with him. And Leftie was digging it! And this cat said, “Hey man stop playing all that stuff. Let Leftie play.” And Leftie turned around and said, “Man, why don’t you leave him alone? (laughs) Let him play his drums.” And that dude ain’t said nothing to me from that day to this one. And I told him, I said, “Hey man, look. You don’t even play anymore”—he played saxophone—“why don’t you try to stretch your stuff out? So you won’t be dated. Because your stuff is late. You’re always talking about how I’m playing too free and that my stuff is getting in the way.” I said, “Maybe you ought to get in the way. Maybe somebody might notice you, you dig? You’re going to keep on ’til you ain’t going to be able to get a gig playing what you’re playing.” And I was right. He ain’t playing no place now, you know, and I’m still playing.

What happened then was that the AACM just opened up a whole new life for me, man, insofar as music is concerned. ’Cause I would go in there and bring my own ideas, and write my own tunes. I could play the way I wanted to play. Like, I used four, five, six drummers... like, people dig it! I mean, I never had a bad concert. Everybody always liked my concerts.

[TP] Tell me about some of the concerts and ideas you were able to put through at those concerts that stick in your mind?

[A] Well, I was the first leader in the AACM to use more than one drum at a concert.

[TP] Tell me about that concert.

[A] Well, we were down at Lincoln Center and I used Thurman Barker—I used Thurman in just about all my concerts, you know, when we first started out up until Thurman split. I don’t know, Thurman cut out. He just stopped functioning and he wasn’t around. But I always used no less than three drummers on my concerts. I always used Wallace McMillan because he played conga drums, I would use him and Thurman and myself. Everybody in the group would be playing some kind of rhythm instrument. And people dug my conception, you know.

[TP] How would you arrange that?

[A] What I would do, I would use voices and instruments, you see I would use voices to show the relationship between voices and melodic instruments. The voices would be singing lines just like the instruments. Say, I would set up a melody you understand—well see, the drummers always had first call on the music—so we would set up the rhythm. Then we would play the melodies on top of the rhythms, and whenever the rhythms would change the melodies and stuff would also.

So anyway, I always felt that drums were kicked over in the corner. You know what a set of drums is, right? You got to set your drums up on the stage, and the bandstand was so small. Hey man, the drummer was always crowded back over in the corner some place. He never really had room to stretch out and play all his stuff like he wanted to. I always felt that drummers weren’t given enough recognition in the bands, because they would say, “Just sit back there and keep time and then just be quiet.” And you’d say, “Hey man you’re playing wrong on that tune, you know.  You’re playing wrong changes.” “What do you know about changes?” (laughs). I always felt that the drummers were cheated because people just wanted them to sit back in the background and keep time like I said.  And I always felt that they should be out front just like everybody else. So when I got my stuff together, whenever I would plan a concert, the music that I got together was mostly for drums, you know, to give the drummers a chance to play. OK, melodic instruments, you all step back over there and listen to us for a while, you understand? So that’s why I always had about three or four drummers, so we could get together and start to play some polyrhythms and all that kind of stuff, you know, and really hook up our own groove. And then, the voices and stuff would be accompanying the drummer. I feel that this is the way that it was supposed to be in the first place. I don’t feel that the drummer is just supposed to accompany, you know, if a soloist is out there playing, yeah, you accompany the soloist, push the soloist on out there, make him play, you dig. But hey, why not have some background music for the drum, let the drummers play. When the drummer plays, everybody lays out. Everybody walks off the bandstand. Why not stand up there and accompany the drummers, give them something, push them on out there, make them play.

[TP] Did the musicians dig it?

[A] They dug it. Because we really had a lot of intensity going on, you know. So like, what it was like man, was just like a volcano erupting and pushing something up. Like the dude standing on top of a volcano, playing, and just pushing it right on up (laughs).

[TP] It seems to me that you like to use the lower pitches of the drum, the lower spectrum of the drum’s sound registers.

[A] Well, see, conga drums are high-pitched, you dig? So I like to play my drums low-pitched, you know, it gives a bottom to it. The conga players are playing on top so you’ve got sort of a bass effect, right under that. So what you’re doing is pushing the conga players out there. I always played my drums low. I don’t like drums that are high-pitched. Some cats, you know, they sound cool, but when you’re playing with conga players well, I think that your drums should be lower. Because the conga drums, they’re pitched high, you know… you have a contrast of sounds going on, you got different things. I think that the drums when they’re low-pitched like that creates a good bottom, a good foundation for whatever’s going on top. Well, I just like the low sound anyway, because that’s what I hear, that’s what I feel. So I always play my drums down low, pitched down low. Another thing about that, when your drums are pitched low, you never play too loud. When your drums are pitched high, you get pretty noisy. But that way, you can play them as hard as you want to, and it won’t be too loud.

[TP] The overtones don’t take over.

[A] That’s right. And I just like to play mine like that. Now Max Roach. He plays his drums real high. He sounds good on it.

[TP] He plays melodic too.

[A] Yeah, he plays very melodic. But this is where his ear is. I think Max hears like a trumpet player. Me, I hear like a baritone and the tenors and things. I hear down in that range. I don’t know. I just like it down there myself.

[TP] That’s obvious on your work with Kalaparusha on Humility, when you’re using the low sounds. Let’s get to something else now. You formed your own working trio at about the time of the formation of the AACM.

[A] Yeah, I had a trio.

[TP] And that was a pretty successful trio around Chicago. Can you talk about that and the ideas you tried to bring to it?

[A] Yeah, I always liked big band, you know, so I used organ. Amina (Claudine Myers) was playing with me. She was playing organ. I feel the next thing to a big band is an organ. because an organ’s got that range, the volume, the sound and everything, if you’ve got somebody who can handle it. I met Amina at a session I went to. She was playing organ. Up until that time, man, I’d had such bad luck with groups… see, people didn’t want to hire four pieces. It was hard to get a gig because people were saying, “Man, I can’t afford to pay that.” And they didn’t want a piano trio, so what are you going to do? Play with horns, drums, and piano? Or with horns, drums, and bass? To me, that sound was too light. I wanted big sounds. So when I met Amina, I got together with her and a brother named Skip James, Stafford James’ brother, and organized this trio. And we had a nice, big sound, man. Then it got to the place where there was nowhere to work out here, man. So that was when the AACM really became organized. We all became AACM members.

And then I got off into a bigger group type thing, you know. Anthony Braxton played... the first concert Anthony Braxton ever played he played with me. It was... since the trio broke up—Skip James, he hasn’t even played anymore. He quit. He don’t even play anymore. I’ve been trying to get him to come back out and play, man, but he ain’t doing nothing.  Then what happened, the AACM, man, I just got completely involved in it. It was just like being involved in myself, in what I wanted to do. So I just lost interest in everything else, you know.

Then I started working with Sonny Stitt. Sonny Stitt needed a band, so Amina and I started working with him. Then Jug came up when he came off his vacation—he did a seven-year vacation—and he came back on the scene. So we started working with him, and I was with him up until he died, which was a couple of years ago. It was a good experience. I met a lot of people playing with Jug. But it was a different type of music, naturally, than what we were doing with the AACM. But anyhow, I got a lot of good experiences being out there with him. He made me realize... he used to tell me all the time, “Hey man, you’ve just got to do your thing,” you know. He said you just can’t do other peoples’ things because people used to try to get Jug. They’d talk to Jug about doing this, doing that. He said, “Man, you dig it, this is my thing, and this is the best thing I can do. I can’t do nobody else’s stuff. I have to do my own stuff.” And that’s the way he did it. He did Gene Ammons. So since he cut out, that’s what I’ve been dealing in, just in my own thing, because you know, let’s face it, man, if you don’t dig your thing, it takes the fun out of playing music. You can play some music and make a lot of money. That’s cool. But a lot of times you can be making a lot of money, you don’t be having no fun. Now, it ‘d be beautiful if you could make a lot of money and have fun too, you know. But hey, man, just being able to play what you want to play, man, that makes up for some of it. ’Cause we all got to make money to live, you know, to have some of the comforts of life. But I don’t think that anything is promised to anyone out here in this music. You see, I always felt that if I could play music, you know, I always wanted to play. This has been the most important thing to me. When I got into music, I wasn’t even thinking about making money. I just wanted to play.  When the brothers started calling me on gigs and paid money, I said, “Wow!” you know, “I’m making money playing music!” I see these cats out here making all this money playing... some are not playing, I think, what they should be playing. I mean, I could mention some names, but we won’t go into that. Some giants out here, man, that have went the other direction and forsaken the music for the dollar, when they could be making it better for the musicians that are trying to play their own music because see, they are already established in the music, and I think they if they would go ahead on and play their stuff, it would make it better for the cats that are coming on. I always feel that people will come listen to what you’re playing if it’s promoted, if you can hear the music on the radio, all day, you know, not just twelve o’clock at night, but all day, 24 hours a day, if you could turn the radio on and hear Muhal Abrams or Roscoe Mitchell and people like this. If people hear it, they’ll go and buy the records. But hey, man, you never hear the records on in the daytime, never. I think everybody should have a chance. All they have to do is give the musicians a chance, man, ’cause you see the audiences in New York. You see the way they turn out for the music in New York, right? They turn out for concerts here, but the listening audience in New York is much bigger than it is here. That’s probably because there’s more people there, but I think that the music is being held back. There’s a lot of beautiful musicians out there with a lot of beautiful ideas and they never get a chance to be heard, because the music is not promoted. Seems like people are trying to hold the music back. 

Ajaramu of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) plays the drums, Chicago, Illinois, 1968 | Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

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Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.