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Rashied Ali : CACP 10 Questions

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Rashied Ali played in R&B and jazz groups before joining Sonny Rollins for a tour of Japan in 1963. He then moved to New York City, where he played with Pharoah Sanders, Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Sunny Murray. In 1965, he started a tenure with John Coltrane than lasted until Coltrane’s death in 1967. Ali has done much to improve the lot of jazz musicians, starting a label, Survival Records, and running a venue for non-commercial music called Ali’s Alley, which operated from 1973 until 1979. In recent years he has worked with David Murray, Charles Gayle, and William Parker among many others.

Interview conducted and edited by Mark Patel, March 20, 2005—after a duo performance with Sonny Fortune.

1) What have you been listening to lately?

Well, actually, I’ve been listening to a lot of myself lately. I’ve been listening to a lot of Cuban music, too, because I also play hand drums, timbales, and congas, and I’m sort of getting ready to do some recording with my brothers who also play. So I’ve been listening to a lot of Cuban religious music.

2) What is your most memorable live performance?

That’s hard [pause]. Ah, I think my most memorable live performance was with John Coltrane at a club in New Jersey called the Living Room. Yeah.  I got a second one, too, with Sonny Rollins at the same club [laughs].

3) What is your most memorable concert-going experience?

Going to a concert? Man, you know how many concerts I’ve been too? I’ve seen Charlie Parker in concert. I saw John Coltrane in concert. But the one that I remember off the top of my head was a concert at Carnegie Hall, and for the first time I saw Ravi Shankar, and he had a tabla player, I can’t remember his name, but he died very young, and he was one of the most unbelievable tabla players I ever heard in my life. So I could say Ravi Shankar was that.

4) Who is the one musician with which you would most like to play?

That’s alive right now? Because if he’s dead, it would be John Coltrane. If it’s alive, it would be... you know, I don’t have a favorite. I like Reggie Workman, as a bass player. I mean for playing with me, he plays more into my thing than most bass players. So I would say Reggie Workman.

5) Who is your biggest non-musical influence?

Non-musical influence? Wow, non-musical influence... I guess I would say, um, I would say Muhammad Ali, actually, the heavyweight champion of the world, yeah, he’s definitely one of my heroes.

6) What is your first musical memory?

My first musical memory is my late aunt. She was the first person that I heard play, she was a hell of a piano player, and she died at the age of 22 years old. She was an incredible piano player. Lionel Hampton wanted my aunt to come to go on the road with him, but she was not even finished with high school yet, so my grandmother wouldn’t let her do it. Seeing her and listening to them rehearse in the house, she was playing with a group, and they would be rehearsing in the living room, and I would be, they wouldn’t let me come in, because they was probably doing something they didn’t want me to see, but I used to peep in the window at them and stand outside and listen to them play. I especially liked the drummer. In fact, the drummer married my aunt, and he got killed in the war, the Second World War.

7) When did you know that you wanted to be an improvising musician?

Right from the beginning. I always felt like I wanted to play something different. After seeing Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and people like that, I really knew I wanted to do something different, so I was always kind of experimental.

8) What is your ultimate goal as an artist?

My ultimate goal is to play before as many people as I can, because I really feel that this music is sort of being side-stepped, and so my thing is to play for as many people as I can, and you know, I’m still fortunate to have my health and everything, and I’m up here in age, so I’m still able to play and that’s what I want to do.

9) If music was banned tomorrow, what would you do?

Die. I don’t know anything else. I mean I’ve been playing music my whole life. I don’t have a trade or anything like that, and I didn’t graduate high school. I don’t know what I would do, because I don’t have any experience in anything else, and I never really did anything else, so I’d be in trouble [laughs].

10) Can music save people, and if so, how?

I think it’s a healing thing. Some people, I mean some scientists and doctors and stuff, they use music as a healing process. I think it’s hypnotic, and, uh, I don’t know, but I came up in the Baptist Church and the music used to be so intense in the churches that a lot of people would just jump up and fall out. I mean completely pass out from the pulsation of the music and it would just get to them. Sonny and I were playing in Italy last year, and we were playing in front of people just like in one of those sanctified churches, and a woman jumped up and fell out. I was like amazed and we was coming right to the end of the tune, because we had been playing almost 40 minutes. When we finished I ran back in the bathroom to see if she was OK, and they had her laying out on the floor. I bent down over her and I said, “Are you alright?” She said, “Yes, I’m alright, I’m alright,” she said, “The music just overwhelmed me.” So I really do think music has a kind of a power that can kind of relax people or even get people thinking different things and maybe even a healing force there somewhere.