Idris Muhammad, whose drumming crossed over several musical styles including funk, jazz, and rhythm and blues, died Tuesday (July 29). He was 74.
Muhammad's death was confirmed by close friend Dan Williams, who got to know Muhammad through Williams' Jazz Journey concert series sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Williams learned of Muhammad's death through family members in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A converted Muslim, Muhammad was immediately buried in accordance with the traditions of Islam, Williams said.
His cause of death has not yet been confirmed, but Williams and other friends noted that Muhammad had been receiving dialysis treatment in New Orleans — where he had returned from New York City to retire back in 2011.
While he had spent the past two decades working with jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, Muhammad's drumming covered almost every genre of contemporary music, including rock 'n' roll. He toured or recorded with a who's who of big names — Roberta Flack, Grover Washington, George Benson, Sonny Stitt and John Scofield, to name a few. Williams said that Muhammad got his first national touring gig with Sam Cooke before moving on to Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and beyond.
"He was eclectic in terms of his playing," Williams said. "He mixed the New Orleans sound, that sound of the street music, with jazz music and rock 'n' roll, and had all that intertwined," Williams explained. "He tuned his drum to get the sound from the New Orleans street bands, the marching bands, and he'd get that kind of sound that would come from New Orleans. That's why he was so sought after.
"He had the syncopation of New Orleans."
The news devastated the WWOZ-FM staff, who had gotten to know Muhammad personally and through his music. After learning of the news, Wednesday's (July 30) "Morning Set" jazz show featured plenty of Muhammad's work.
I'd put him on the Mount Rushmore of New Orleans drummers, along with Smokey Johnson, Johnny Vidacovich and Herlin Riley." -- George Ingmire, DJ, WWOZ
"I'd put him on the Mount Rushmore of New Orleans drummers, along with Smokey Johnson, Johnny Vidacovich and Herlin Riley," said George Ingmire, host of Wednesday's "New Orleans Music Show" and the nationally syndicated radio show "New Orleans Calling." As soon as he had set up his Mount Rushmore, of course, Ingmire, who didn't know Muhammad personally, started thinking of others worth including, such as Zigaboo Modeliste and Ed Blackwell. But Muhammad, he said, was special: "It was his the soulfulness that he brought to the funkiness of the music. He opened it up a little more by drumming in a soulful way. He played with a lot of people, and made their music sound better."
Maryse Dejean, WWOZ's volunteer coordinator, had become acquainted with Muhammad along with her husband, Don Paul, and marveled at Muhammad's contrasting personalities behind and away from the drum kit.
"He was just a humble person," Dejean said. "He was a genuinely nice guy, but when you listen to that music ... Mmm! His drive, the creativity, the sheer masterful strokes."
Leo Morris was born in New Orleans on Nov. 13, 1939. He was friends with the famed Neville family, and as Keith Spera noted in a 2007 article, helped Aaron meet his beloved wife, Joel Roux (now deceased), when the boys were "bippity-bopping" down Valence Street one day in 1957. By the time he was 16, he had played the drums for Fats Domino's 1956 hit, "Blueberry Hill," and later played with the Hawketts (led by Art Neville) on their iconic anthem, "Mardi Gras Mambo."
Writing in 2010, Spera said, "Leo Morris was mesmerized by the chants and rhythms of the Mardi Gras Indians. Years later, he moved to New York and then Europe, changed his name to Idris Muhammad and deployed those rhythms as a prolific drummer for hire. Over five decades, he logged hundreds of recordings and thousands of performances with Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Roberta Flack, avant-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, jazz funk saxophonist Lou Donaldson, guitarist Melvin Sparks, pianist Ahmad Jamal, New York tenor star Joe Lovano and many more. In recent years, Muhammad has returned to his hometown to mask Indian with saxophonist Big Chief Donald Harrison's tribe."
In 2012, Muhammad collaborated with fellow drummer Britt Anderson on "Inside the Music: The Life of Idris Muhammad."
Come back to NOLA.com for additional information and reflection from those who were close to Muhammad, and leave your own reflections in the comment section below.
Chris Waddington contributed to this report.