Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ali, Rashied (Robert Patterson Jr.)

Drummer Rashied Ali dedicated his career to enhancing the voice of the drums in the modern jazz ensemble. Best known for his work with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Rashied also worked with Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, with whom he developed a personal approach that expanded the melodic potential of the drums.

Rashied Ali

Ali was born Robert Patterson Jr. on July 1, 1935 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother was a singer who had performed with Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra. The family were also actively religious, and were members of their Baptist Church choir. Along with his father and brother, Rashied changed his last name from “Patterson” to “Ali” upon their conversion to Islam when he was a young boy. His brother, Muhammad, is a drummer who performed with tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler .

As a child, Rashied reluctantly studied voice and piano before turning to the conga drum at the age of nine. In 1952, he enlisted in the United States Army, where he received percussion lessons and began playing on a full drum set. Upon his discharge from the Army in 1955, he continued his studies at the Granoff School of Music in Philadelphia, whose alumni include trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

Ali soon began to perform around Philadelphia with rhythm and blues groups and singers ,including Dick Hart & the Heartaches, Big Maybelle and Lin Holt. Rashied also began to perform with Philadelphia's top jazz musicians including pianist McCoy Tyner, trumpeter Lee Morgan and organist Jimmy Smith, amongst others.

Ali moved to New York City in 1963, where he began to perform with pianist Paul Bley and trumpeter Bill Dixon before playing with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders,trumpeter Don Cherry as well as bandleader Sun Ra.

In 1964, Ali briefly performed as the second drummer alongside Sunny Murray in Albert Ayler’s group. In the following year, Rashied made his first significant recording as a sideman with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp’s album On This Night. Soon after, he began to sit in with John Coltrane’s group at the Half Note club.

In November 1965, Coltrane asked Ali to perform with his group at the Village Gate club. At this time, Coltrane was experimenting with a two-drummer arrangement, Ali alongside Elvin Jones. Impressed with Rashied, John invited him to join his group to record the album Ascension, but he was unable to do so at the last minute.

Beginning with Coltrane’s 1965 album Meditations, Ali became a fixture on the saxophonist’s recordings until his death two years later. Ali performed with Coltrane on a Japanese tour which yielded the album Live in Japan. On February 22, 1967, Ali recorded Interstellar Space with Coltrane, which is an album-length dueHe was also present at Coltrane's last recording session in March of 1967, which produced the album Expression,, alongside Pharoah Sanders, pianist Alice Coltrane, and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

The Album's title cut begins with the entire group vamping behind Coltrane’s solo, and Ali supplies light ornamentations on the snare drum and ride cymbal, which adds to the free flowing atmosphere of the song. Rashied’s articulation and rhythmic prowess work well with Garrison, adding a strong foundation to Coltrane’s beautiful, yet unbridled timbre. What is most striking about Rashied’s performance is how he is able to perform around Coltrane, making himself more of a melodic presence than a rhythmic one.

On April 23, 1967, Rashied recorded The Olatunji Concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York with Coltrane. The album was the last live recording. After Coltrane's death on July 17, 1967, Ali traveled to Europe, where he performed in Copenhagen with saxophonist John Tchicai and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. Shortly after, Rashied traveled throughout Germany and Sweden, where he freelanced with several musicians.

Ali then traveled to England, where he studied with drummer Philly Joe Jones for three months. Rashied performed for a while in London, accompanying singer Jon Hendricks at Ronnie Scott's club, and eh formed a trio with saxophonist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland.

Ali returned to New York City, where recorded Alice Coltrane’s first record A Monastic Trio in 1968. Over the next few years, recorded and performed with Alice as well as alto saxophonist Jackie McLean.

In the summer of 1972, Ali helped organize the New York Jazz Musicians Festival. He became an advocate for jazz musicians to take charge of their own careers and finances, which culminated in the creation of his own record label, Survival Records. In 1973, he opened Ali’s Alley, a loft jazz club which showcased experimental jazz. Located at 77 Greene Street in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, the club operated for six years.

In 1973 Ali released both Duo Exchange, with tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, and Rashied Ali Quintet. In the mid 1970s, Rashied performed with drummers Milford Graves and Andrew Cyrille on a series of concerts called “Dialogue of the Drums,” an all percussion concert showcasing the possibilities of modern drumming.

In the early 1980s, Ali was performed with the trio Afro Algonquin and the sextet Funkyfreeboppers with saxophonist/guitarist Arthur Rhames. In 1981, he joined bassist Jaco Pastorius on a tour to the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe. Around this time, he also performed with violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune and tenor saxophonist Odean Pope.

In 1982, Ali performed with the rock group Hot Tuna. While the association lasted only one year, it allowed him a rare opportunity to perform for non-jazz audiences. Two years later, Rashied performed with bassist Saheb Sarbib on his album It Couldn’t Happen Without You.In April of 1984, he formed the band Phalanx with saxophonist George Adams, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and bassist Sirone. The group’s sound provided a juxtaposition of avant-garde jazz and funk styles. They released their debut album Original Phalanx in 1987 and by 1988’s In Touch before disbanding.By the early 1990s, Ali was leading a quartet that included saxophonist Antoine Roney.

In 1991, Rashied performed in a duo with saxophonist Evan Parker and in a trio with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and bassist Fred Hopkins at the Total Music Meeting in Berlin, Germany. The same year he recorded the album Touchin’ on Trane along with his trio “By Any Means,” which included bassist William Parker and tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle. Around this time, Ali also formed a quintet with tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Matt Garrison, pianist Greg Murphy and guitarist Gene Ess.

In 1992, Ali began to perform with the group Prima Materia, a group dedicated to the songbook of Coltrane and Ayler. The group toured prolifically and released the album Peace on Earth: The Music of John Coltrane on the Knitting Factory label in 1994. The following year, the group released the album Meditations.

On June 29, 1994, Ali performed an outdoor concert during the JVC Jazz Festival with By Any Means. Jon Pareles of the New York Times stated that their music “shrieked and thundered and zoomed through free-jazz pieces.” The following year, Rashied participated in a celebration of the 31st anniversary of the so-called October Revolution in Jazz, a series of concerts organized by Bill Dixon in 1964 which showcased avant-garde jazz outside of the era's more conventional jazz festivals.

In December 1995, Ali recorded alongside bassist Calvin Jones on James “Blood” Ulmer’s album Music Speaks Louder Than Words. Recorded for the Koch Jazz label, the album features Ulmer’s versions of six compositions by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman including “Cherry, Cherry” and “Street News.” The trio is especially outstanding in their treatment of the Coleman standard “Lonely Woman.”

Ali's version of "Lonely Woman" begins with a brief introduction by Ali and Jones, before Ulmer begins the verse with the melody. Rashied applies more of a rhythmic foundation while Jones plays in counterpoint with Ulmer. Rashied’s performance sees him playing with broader rhythmic strokes rather than the more melodic devices and motifs that are more in his style.

The following year, Ali recorded alongside Gayle on spoken word artist Henry Rollins’ album Everything. In 1998, Rashied recorded on multi-instrumentalist Mighty Mo Rodgers’ album Blues Is My Wailin’ Wall. The following year, he released the album The Rings of Saturn, an album he co-led with tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis.

Ali began the new millennium with an appearance on Sonny Fortune’s album In The Spirit of John Coltrane. In 2003, Rashied formed the “Rashied Ali Quintet.” Upon their conception, the band performed locally throughout New York at such spots as Sweet Rhythm and Tonic. With the success of these shows, the group began to make appearances at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle, the Monterey Jazz Festival in California and numerous other national and international festivals.

In 2006, the group released the albums Judgment Day Vol. 1 & 2, which featured Greg Murphy, trumpeter Jumaane Smith, tenor saxophonist Lawrence Clarke and bassist Juris Teepe. In 2009, Ali released the album Live In Europe. Originally recorded in May 2007 in Tampere, Finland, the album features a cover of Ulmer’s song “Theme From Captain Black.” Ali’s performance on this track is noteworthy for the way he adjusts to the presence of two horns. Rashied designs several rhythmic patterns which easily adhere the timbres of the two hornsm, creating a cohesive and unified ensemble. Ali and Murphy’s melodic relationship further augments the design of the song with Ali playing off of Murphy’s melodic motifs.

On Wednesday, August 12, 2009, Ali passed away at the age of seventy-four at Bellevue Hospital in New York City from complications stemming from a heart attack he suffered a week earlier. Rashied is survived by his wife Patricia.

Select Discography

As a leader

Duo Exchange (1973)

Rashied Ali Quintet (1973)

Touchin’ On Trane (1991)

Rings of Saturn (1999)

Judgment Day Vol. 1 & 2 (2006)

Live in Europe (2009)

With Alice Coltrane


A Monastic Trio (1968)

With John Coltrane

Meditations (1965)

Live in Japan (1966)

Expression (1967)

Interstellar Space (1967)

The Olatunji Concert (1967)

With Sonny Fortune

In The Spirit of John Coltrane (2000)

With Phalanx

Original Phalanx (1987)

In Touch (1988)

With Prima Materia

Peace on Earth: The Music of John Coltrane (1994)

Meditations (1995)

With Mighty Mo Rodgers

Blues Is My Wailin’ Wall (1999)

With Henry Rollins

Everything (1996)

With Saheb Sarbib

It Couldn’t Happen Without You (1984)

With Archie Shepp

On This Night (1965)

With James “Blood Ulmer

Music Speaks Louder Than Words (1997)

Contributor: Eric Wendell