Book cover: Rebelmusic

Jazz and Islam: A Retrospective Series (P.5)

 The Musicians (Continued)

Text by Dawoud Kringle

This continued series explores the relation between jazz and Islam. In this installment, I am continuing the presentation of the biographies of Muslim jazz artists.

Max Roach (1924-2007) was one of the most influential drummers in American history. At the age of 10 he played drums in various gospel bands, and later studied at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1942 he became a member of the house band at Monroe’s Uptown House, and played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. He also played at Minton’s Playhouse; the “birthplace” of be-bop. From 1944-53 he continued to work with Parker and Gillespie; and played with Coleman Hawkins, Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Jordan, and on Miles Davis‘ “The Birth of the Cool” sessions. Roach led his own group with Clifford Brown between 1954-56, and between 1954-66 he made several monumental recordings, including “Study In Brown”, “At Basin Street”, “Roach Plus 4 at Newport”, “Deeds, Not Words”, We Insist! Freedom Now!” (with his former wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln), and “Drums Unlimited”. During the 1960’s he was active as a spokesman for the development of African-American cultural arts; much of which was undertaken with Lincoln; his wife at the time. From that time, he continued to work as a bandleader, in collaboration with artists such as Archie Shepp, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Anthony Braxton, and as composer for Broadway musicals, films, television, and symphony orchestra, percussion ensemble, and string quartet. He held positions at the Lennox Massachusetts School of Jazz, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Drummer Vernel Fournier (a.k.a. Amir Rushdan. 1928-2000) began his career playing with King Kolax, Paul Bascomb, and Teddy Wilson. From 1953-55 he worked with Norman Simmons in the house band at the Bee Hive in Chicago; accompanying J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster, Bud Freeman, and others. From 1957 on he worked with Lorez Alexandria, Gary Burton, Nancy Wilson, George Shearing, Clifford Jordan, and Ahmad Jamal.

Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean (a.k.a. Abdul Kareem, Omar Karim. b. 1931) was the son of John McLean; a guitarist in Tiny Bradshaw’s orchestra. He began playing the saxophone at age 15. In 1948-49 he worked with Sonny Rollins. He worked on and off between 1951-2 with Miles Davis. 1955-58 he played with Paul Bley, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In 1958 he formed his own quintet with which he performed and made several recordings, and later toured Japan (1965). In 1968 he accepted a teaching position at the Hart School of Music, and taught in Europe; all the while touring during the summers (occasionally with his son saxophonist and flautist René). In the 1980’s he appeared in the film Jackie McLean on Mars; a documentary by Ken Levis.

Bassist Jamil Nasser (a.k.a. George Joyner) was born in 1932. He began playing piano with his mother as a child, and took up the bass at age 16. In 1949-52 he led the band at Arkansas State University and in 1953-5 he played tuba and bass in the US Army. In 1955-56 he played electric bass with B.B. King and worked with Phineas Newborn, Sonny Rollins, and others. In 1959 he toured Europe and North Africa with Idrees Sulieman and worked with Lester Young. After living in Milan, Italy in 1961, he returned to the USA and played with Ahmad Jamal, Al Haig, Clifford Jordan, and many others.

Multi-instrumentalist (notably, tenor saxophone, flute, percussion) and composer Pharoah Sanders was born in Little Rock, AK. in 1940. He began playing a variety of instruments at an early age before settling on the tenor saxophone. After graduating high school in 1959, he moved to Oakland, CA (playing with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sonny Simmons, Dewey Redman, Monty Waters, Ed Kelly, Philly Joe Jones, and others), and later to San Francisco to study art in college. He continued to play music. It was during this time that he heard Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Sanders moved to New York City in 1962. He studied for a while with Sun Ra, and began playing with people like C Sharp, Billy Higgins, and later Don Cherry. During this period he began to experiment with different techniques and concepts in music. He was later asked to join John Coltrane’s group. After Coltrane’s death, Sanders embarked upon a solo career and also performed with Idris Muhammad, Alice Coltrane, John Hicks, the Master Gnawa Musicians, Leon Thomas, and others.

James “Blood” Ulmer was born in St. Matthews, SC in 1942. He began to play guitar at an early age, and sang in gospel groups. He began to play professionally with several groups in Pittsburgh 1959-64, and later in Columbus, OH 1964-7. He moved to New York in 1971 and played at Minton’s Playhouse for nine months. After a brief stint with Art Blakey, in 1973 he studied and performed with Ornette Coleman. He later became the first to incorporate Coleman’s harmolodics into blues and funk, During a brief period in 1983 he led Odyssey; a group consisting of guitar, drums, and violin; and performed in England with saxophonist George Adams. He continues to perform and record as a leader to this day.

Vibraphonist Khan Jamal was born in Jacksonville, FL in 1946 and began playing the vibraphone in 1964. In the late 1960’s he joined the Cosmic Forces (which included several former Sun Ra sidemen), and later formed the Sounds of Liberation. In the late 1970’s, after studying vibraphone with Bill Lewis and percussion at the Combs Collage of Music, he recorded with Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor. In the 1980’s he worked with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Joe Bonner, and Billy Bang.

(Much of the material in this series is from my as yet unpublished book A Garden of Air and Light: The Relationship Between Music and Islamic Spirituality and Culture (c). 2004. Used by DBDBD NY & MFM by permission of the author).

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