“A Strong Vibration” – An interview with Pheeroan akLaff


Oliver Lake Quartet
Clevont Fitzhubert (A Good Friend of Mine)
Black Saint : 1981

PA, drums; Oliver Lake, alto sax; Baikida Carroll, trumpet; Donald Smith, piano.

3 IN 1
Pheeroan akLaff
House of Spirit –  “Mirth”
Passin’ Thru : 1979

PA, percussion.

New Air
Live at Montreal International Jazz Fest
Black Saint : 1984

PA, drums; Henry Threadgill, alto sax; Fred Hopkins, bass.

We at D:O were delighted to recently receive an email from Jake Nussbaum and Alex Lewis, of Expandable Sound, a documentary project that seeks to record knowledge associated with improvised music, and the performers thereof. They had interviewed drummer/composer Pheeroan akLaff, and wanted to know if we’d like to host it. This is what’s known in the blogging community as a no-brainer. Herewith, in mildly edited form, the words of akLaff, Nussbaum, and Lewis. (You might also be interested in checking out the interview Nussbaum & Lewis did with Oliver Lake, which you can find at Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math.)

This interview took place backstage at Flushing Town Hall, before Pheeroan’s performance with the Don Byron New Gospel Quintet, 9/27/2013.

Jake Nussbaum: Maybe we could start by introducing yourself and talking a little bit about Detroit.

Pheeroan akLaff: My name is Pheeroan akLaff and I would like to be forgiven for every place I have walked and crushed flowers, and for every place that I may have thought a bad thought. One of my biggest joys is that I came from a great family who enjoyed music and thought that we should all have music lessons. It started out with my elder brother (I am the second in seven), who took to the pianoforte like the fury of the heavens was unleashed. It was a very high bar for my involvement in music, and it took me a long time to talk my father into getting me a drum set. But my Uncle Harry forced his hand and I did get going with the drums. I took the usual lessons and played music in Junior High.

Then High School came and I had to decide whether to be in the band or on the football team. Well considering my size, I should have chosen the band. But the band director was a bad guy, and I thought I could actually go from Little Catholic League to High School League and still play middle linebacker. Well… that didn’t work out. The middle linebacker was as big as the coach himself. So, they told me to run the ball, but I ran over people instead of hitting the hole. They thought I was sarcastic.

Then I discovered tennis and said forget this! The tennis coach was very cool… He said, “Do you know who Arthur Ashe is? Do you know how fast the ball is traveling when Jimmy Connors hits it?” So I was like, wait a minute. This is something different.

All along, playing drums was for fun and at home. I would play for my friends, but I never thought I could really be professional. I’d seen the motown bands, they’d play Detroit every Christmas. I’d seen people in churches play. My friend and I would go see Alice Coltrane, Horace Silver… We were only 14 but we’d get on the bus and go downtown and see jazz.

So, somewhere along the line I just decided, OK, I should keep doing this. I took my drums into my room at Eastern Michigan University. Then I run into Travis Biggs, my brother’s colleague, who said, “You got your drums?” I said, “Yeah, but I don’t think you want me to play with you.”

Well he said, “Bring ‘em over!”

So basically I learned how to play drums from an arranger, conductor, producer, singer, violinist. saxophonist, piano­player guy named Travis. He taught me the most significant things about the drumset and its accompaniment role. Learning that helped me a lot, I even got on a record. I made a 45 when I was sixteen of a pretty popular bluesy R&B singer named Major Lasky. Lansky? Lasky? I can’t remember. He’s on those classic “whatever­happened­to” lists.

Alex Lewis: How did you meet Travis?

PA: I’d known him since I was 10. We were in the neighborhood together, and he had a younger brother my age. So there were the two genius guys, my brother and Travis, and then there were their younger brothers. So he was 18 when I was 15, and he’s already arranged and produced a 45 for this singer Major Lasky. And we went and recorded it, and then I heard it on the radio! So that was an inspiration…

But, I went in other directions thinking I could do something more in service or in communication. I thought I could do something in news or something like that, but once I started playing music I just kept going.

But I have to tell you ­ I ran into a brick wall. Because I played with a band called The Last Days. I quit a band that was workshopping in the basement of a former Motown studio writer. This woman was a songwriter and had written for Stevie Wonder even. We were rehearsing in her basement, but the keyboardist and I quit and went to The Last Days.

It really was the last days… At one point the organ player, the leader, looked at me said, “What’s wrong with you??”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“How old are you?!”


“Do you realize you’re playing in a band with 30-­year-­old junkies?! What are you going to do with your life?!”

So that was the end of that. I said I guess I’m not going to be doing this…

Between that and wanting to start a band like Weather Report, I said, it’s time to go. So I thought I’d go to New York.

I’d been there once when I was 15 years old to visit my aunt, and to protest the Vietnam War with the Church Bus. That was 1971. And there I heard the most memorable speech, by Julian Bond, to impeach Richard Nixon. That was the one that did it.

So I said I got to go back to that New York place. I hopped on a friend of mine’s back and I go to New Haven with him because he’s going to Yale Divinity School… So we started a band there, and I’m going around trying to make it work. It was a band with semi-­professionals and students.

Well, talk about spiritually connected to music! There was a 1970s feel that cannot be described when it came to a reverence in music. And music presentation. I would say that, from my personal work, it revolved around trying to do as well as other great men had done in their fields. So I’m here on Yale campus and I’m looking at great men like Charles T. Davis who started the African-­American studies department at Yale? Robert Thompson who is the most significant African Art professor at Yale and an ethomusicological genius and practitioner of spiritual work. All these great people that I’m performing music for and around.

The way I met Wadada Leo Smith was my band (called Deja Vu!!) played on the Yale Campus for students who were organizing a rally, against a speaking engagement given to William Shockley. He was known for his racist steering of gene technology. So this whole thing about having music be useful to bring about change, not immediately seen but maybe immediately felt, maybe not immediately felt or maybe the light bulb does come on, whatever the rate of vibration is that gets utilized, it’s just important to know that it’s there and we can direct it with our positive energies and transformative perspectives.

I learned that in a practical way by seeing simple beauties and resonances in church settings. But then there was this other more pungent kind of resonance that would happen in jazz­­ that would give much more challenge to the moment. Are you going to start crying or are you going to run out of the room screaming? Which one are you going to do? You may as well feel melted.

So that was my beginnings in terms of Detroit to the East Coast.

JN: Was it in New Haven that you fell in with the AACM guys?

PA: Yeah. Wadada himself was an AACM guy, the first I was to know. 1975. So by working with him and the New Delta Akri Group (which involved Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis, Wes Brown), I began to get active in New York, where other people like Henry Threadgill and Amina Claudine Myers also hired me. It was more than a hiring, actually, it was more of an adoption. I have been told by Muhal Richard Abrams that I’m an honorary member of the AACM, even though I’m not from Chicago!

AL: Did they take you under their wing?

PA: Well, I also had a group of people who were like them in Detroit, but I wasn’t playing music at the time. This organization was called Strata West. They produced shows, so I went to see the Elvin Jones experience when I was not yet 20. Needless to say that made a big impression on my cranium.

JN: So what was the political dimension to the music of that time? When you were performing, was that present in your mind?

PA: Well, there are two ways to do what you want to do in music and performance. They both have to do with intention.

One, you don’t have anything to do with it. You’re part of a whole and you’re a fluent vessel for all these things to come through you.

And then there’s the other one, when you go into meditation with Quest. As opposed to being just a blade of grass waving in the wind, you’re a blade of grass looking in a particular focused direction in order for the wind to blow you that way!

Or, blades of grass grow toward the sun. So how are we going to draw forward the best that we can, to become manifest? And that’s a completely different way to perform.

One of my newest references is thinking of current and voltage. Transmitting voltage, you want to understand what the reception level of the current is! Sometimes that happens with energy, people, sounds, references, cliches, bombastics… And sometimes it happens in acoustics. What does it remind you of if you keep letting your voice resonate?

So there are all these ways of deciding what’s important for the sound environment over time… Over time you feel like you can see into the 5th dimension… Did I say 5th? I meant the 4th… Maybe I meant 5th! Since I’m so used to the 4th. [laughs]

That’s one of my favorite things, just to be able to visualize the past (where we are) and take us to someplace that exists already and is full of glee.

AL: Do you think about that when you’re composing?

PA: Lately, my composing happens because of a deadline… So I’d like to say I compose from the drums more. And I’m not really trying to be visual and project when I’m composing, I’m trying to interpret stuff that’s coming to me. That’s a little different than what I’m doing in performance when I’m measuring how to emote. So that’s pretty strenuous… Sometimes I do say, I need the orange song, a deep minor groove. That’s about as technical as I’ll get.

JN: When did the east come in?

PA: The far east came in in 1977. That period in New Haven, there was so much magic in the air, it’s hard to describe… It was as if the age of aquarius had come! I mentioned the 5th dimension earlier, so now I’ll round it out with Aquarius. My first trip to Europe was in 1977, too.

That’s when I changed my name. I changed my name because of my spiritual parents that I met right there in New Haven. They were a couple, the man an Egyptologist, the woman an Astrologist. Brother Ade and Sister Akouah. They were both ministers, they were both psychic.

Most people didn’t want to hang out with them, but I would sit there and listen to them a lot. They used to call me all these wonderful things, and I thought it might be cool to take that on. But I also thought I would need to live up to it as best I could, so I never really talked about it. People asked me for years why I changed my name and what it means, but it wasn’t because I found a religion like many guys did in the jazz tradition (or Muhammad Ali). It really was because all these people starting calling me that name.

So Brother Ade kept saying, “I keep seeing Asia in your future.” And I’m thinking, I’m 20 years old, I don’t know what this guy is talking about! “Yeah sure Brother Ade whatever!” I mean that’s not what I said, I was probably quiet and we were probably meditating on concepts of Ptah the El Dauod…

They both had a huge influence on me. They allowed me to believe that it was okay to do all the weird things and think all the weird thoughts, and in addition study a lot of different things that had to do with history, and the physical evolution of mankind, and the metaphysical evolution of angelkind. So we were constantly going up and down the scale of different states of beings. They were my precursor to the quantum theory, folks!

AL: Was it stuff you felt you couldn’t learn from other musicians? Did you reach outside the musical community?

PA: That’s exactly it. It started early. I knew there was something more. I needed to keep in touch with the values of why I was doing it. When I first moved to New York, I went to museums and talked to painters. I didn’t go to jazz clubs. I had a couple little jobs and I’d run back and forth to New Haven to teach and I had a job in Anthony and Oliver [Lake]’s band, and by ‘76 with Threadgill. So I had enough musicians! I wanted to expose myself to other arts, the languages that they used, and the philosophies that they took on. So I was an early member of The Studio Museum of Harlem for that reason, and I got to meet some really interesting people. Great painters and sculptors.

JN: In our lessons we were always talking about the past. Ancient tradition and modern tradition. You’ve played with Cecil Taylor. I think about the way he pushes forward with new language but is also very much rooted in tradition. What do you feel like that relationship is? How do you push the language forward and honor tradition?

PA: I have one huge prayer that I start with,­ purely Forgiveness. I start with Forgiveness. First of all, I can’t be and do and give if I’m stinking. So I must first ask for Forgiveness (and Gratitude!) to just be in a position to be this messenger.

That puts me in a position of not even knowing where I might fit in the lineage, but it does make me smile… The fact that I played with Andrew Hill, I mean, I couldn’t even remember to tell him all the important things I’d heard of his music when I was younger! Because he himself was so humble and always thinking about the moment, that just made me feel so comfortable. I was only thinking about now, what are we doing now? And he wouldn’t always be the one who wanted to define it. He was so curious about his environment, as brilliant of a mind as he was.

So let’s put it this way. Let’s get bibliographical. Let’s get biblical. I’m from Detroit and there’s nobody around 50 or 60 playing drums in New York that’s from Detroit is there? I dunno. I might be the only one around from my area that’s 60… Doug Hammond is in Germany. I came right after him. He used to play with Kirk Lightsey and James Blood Ulmer. Ricky Lawson went to LA, we’re the same age. I took his place in the Ebony Set when he left actually.

So after Ricky moved to LA to become a star, I got the gig. I go to New York, Ricky goes to LA. I get to play with Cecil Taylor, he gets to play with Michael Jackson! So that’s where I fit in the genealogy [laughing]. How do you like that?? I was listening to Sun Ra when he was listening to Diana Ross.

AL: I’m curious about coming to New York and joining all these bands, Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Cecil. Do you consider the guys from that scene to be your mentors and your community? Or just a period of time?

PA: Well, it’s definitely the latter. It is not my immediate community, because I’ve expanded. Those guys sort of catapulted me out into the world. When they look at me they’re looking at a kaleidoscope. They put me in a position of being able to be hopefully as inspirational as they were to me. I can see in each of them’s eyes right now, the most important things they’ve said to me, and how that’s helped me stay the course. Which is not easy in the performance world with all the traps and holes you can fall into…

They’re like the beginning planets, and now I’m busting around the universe with all these other satellites, meteorites, and asteroids. But I must speak their language, because every now and then people want to know, “What did you just say? What does that mean?” And then I realize I have to explain all the layers of this to other people.

AL: Is that why you wanted to be a band leader?

PA: No, I only want to do that because no one else is going to let me do the weird things that I like to do! For example, the latest band I have is called Dear Freedom Suite. So I have all these weird ways of talking about freedom, honor, and closeness, all in one title. With this band I can play like I’m in nature, or in a jazz or fusion band. There are different genre-based elements that can pop up from time to time, and there’s also just the all­-out emoting about the way you feel for the instrument and the company.

I did a solo concert once in Nagano in a temple. And I realized there was a pretty wide range of things on the program, including my vocalizing, and saying my poetry that nobody understood, but it was an opportunity for me to express myself. That was in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For me it was a significant day and peace concert, for that particular energy.

So there are reasons that I want to do accompaniment, or be a leader, or do things as a solo artist. When I did my solo oratorio it was inspired by Bush’s declaration of war in 2003. I did it for that reason. I called it “W Can’t Win.” I said, I wonder what W stands for?

So by incorporating many of these ways of discussing the emotional truths we have to face as humans on the planet and how we treat each other, the political element does pop up. Or what is called political, or what is lived as political, or what we accept as political. I’m not sure what those parameters are, but I’m not in the box! I might be on the box, but I’m not in it.

JN: Could you talk about Japan and how that happened?

PA: Well it started because of Brother Ade’s predictions, but it didn’t officially happen until 1988. It only took 10 years for his prediction to come through! He was probably working on it from the heavens.

I started working with Yosuke Yamashita in ‘88, and this is our 25th anniversary tour coming up. I’d go back with other people too, I did a tour there with Mal Waldron, one with my own band. Each time there’s so much history built up, because Yamashita is a magnanimous artist and a national treasure, so the people I met were all great, both in stature and goodness.

That’s how I started the book I’m working on now. I thought, somebody needs to know about these guys. It’s a very interesting group of people. Most of us think that jazz in Japan only goes back to the war, but it goes back way deeper.

So I probably have about as many unusual stories as you can imagine. To take it up a notch, I’d been going to Japan a few years. A buddy of mine, a director, starts doing a film on doubles, kids born during the war. They don’t call them half and half, they call them doubles because they have both cultures. So he’s doing this film and he asks Yamashita to do the score.

Then I have a gig in Toronto and I take my dad. We’re sitting in the hotel room and I tell him that we’re doing the film score about mixed children born in Japan during the war. He says oh yea? Well you know your Uncle George… I said, what do you mean? You never told me about my Uncle George having a child in Japan! Am I supposed to be angry with him? Then he tries to scrape together a story, maybe my mother has a picture of the kid in the house… And I’m freaking out! Do you know how many times I could have passed this guy related to me? My first cousin? It’s kind of out to lunch…

That story put in me in a state. So I was over in Yokohama, poking around historical records, and Yamashita put an ad in the local newspaper… So that’s been an interesting thing to think about in addition to everything else.

We played at the Chicken George in Kobei, and the next year the earthquake came. And I was looking around for people then, too. There’s only one or two guys I haven’t heard from since then… So there are some ups and downs, but mostly ups.

JN: You just got back from tour there…

PA: Believe it or not, the best performance was probably the one where the typhoon stopped everyone from coming. I was playing some strange drum set that wasn’t mine. But, fortunately, we were in a temple. It was my first time coming into this temple. Something that was more unique about this temple ­ not only were my drums set up at the altar, so going to the drumset I’m facing the Buddha and have to make my necessary humility get utilized again (sometimes I do it with a bow). But as the priest was leaving, he left from a certain line, which I followed coming in. It’s kind of a small thing, but it’s a very large thing too. I’m trying to find my way into the sacred geometry of the space. That’s what I’m challenged with, in addition to coming up with a good concert.

But the other thing about this particular temple is that the priest himself does a little drum and metal stuff. And they all have different ways of opening the evening. It was very interesting to hear what he was doing.

So we get set up, we know many people are not coming. So we had 1,5­20 people where there could have been 150. But it was really special. And a lot of the reason why is because we focused more on who’s there, not who’s not there, and if the who’s there is small they’re getting a huge concentration of stuff. So it can be really personal. So that was really compelling, in addition to having to start out on your knees and end up on your knees at the same time. Plus I had to play with no shoes on!

The two temples we played were a real blessing.

JN:  Tonight you’ll be playing in another sacred space, the Flushing Town Hall. They have a poster for Frederick Douglass’ speech here right on the sidewalk. Often you find yourself playing in these sacred spaces… How do you communicate sacred things by playing drums?

PA: I’ll take you back to when I was your age [25]. I had a gig with Wadada Leo Smith in a Church on 12th street and 5th Ave. Right down there in the older part of Manhattan. An old Church. I was playing in the sanctuary area of the church with Wadada. After the performance a woman came up to me and said, you know, that was a great performance. But I have to tell you whenever you play that drum [points toward the floor tom], I had this incredible terrifying feeling in my stomach…

So I took it to mean, as I did many things in that time, that somehow the vibration of that drum triggered something in this being. Because of the space, not me necessarily, though she could’ve been scared as hell of me! The fact that it happened and she told me, set the whole thing in motion again.

That is, it reinforced whatever ghost that was, it reinforced my belief that I’m reaching people in some way, whatever way that may be, maybe it was my one time to be Lakota and speak through the drum, maybe one of the ancient Arawaks was standing in that same spot 400 years ago and saying Let this woman know what I think about this subject!! I don’t know. But that gave me a kind of confidence and an exclamation point. Yes, this does go beyond you, which is why you can’t think of yourself as the generator. You can tap in and take your ride, move mountains if you have to, or get rolled over by the train, whichever way it is, but it’s all in service of a bigger thing. Especially using the vibrations of music.

The thing about the concert tonight, you’ll hear music from the 1920s and 30s. So we’re young people trying to give a strong vibration of those elders who did their thing. So we’re trying to translate that message and give our own presentation of it.

JN: My first connection to you was the student/­teacher relationship. In our lessons we often talked about technique, posture, and breathing. Those were some of my most memorable lessons with you. In other lessons we would just sit, talking like this, and those are also some of the most memorable! When you’re approaching teaching music and the drums, what are those ideas that aren’t specific to rudiments, or being an expert? What are those values that you’re bringing to the table?

PA: I focus on those other things primarily because I’m teaching the person in front of me. I’m not methodical in teaching. I’m methodical only in that I want you to have a balanced diet. That comes from more than just playing the instrument, it comes from many places.

It would make us better if we begin by listening. Listening is the most important thing, that’s difficult to teach. Getting someone to hear what is possible to be heard. And I say possible not preferred, which is an important distinction… Sometimes discussions can bring that out.

But what I don’t want to end up saying is, “you want to do this in order to get to this.” There’s nothing wrong with saying that. You want to keep time in order to keep your job! So sometimes you have to bear down and deal with a very fundamental bit of fundamentals. But the reason I enjoy teaching is because I enjoy teaching the individual. I didn’t talk to other people about the same things that you and I talked about. Everyone has their own plate.

Our teaching situation is most rare because we’re in a room for an hour together. It’s not a like a lecture. So it’s unbelievably exposing. Not everyone can handle that. All kinds of things can rise up to get in the way of the person learning to be themselves around the instrument, find music in the instrument, and find enjoyment enough to work and practice things.

Every now and again I find myself in a unique situation, and that makes it necessary to be unconventional in my teaching style. From where we are now, undergraduate music instrument learning is one of the best things people can do.

Alex Lewis is an independent radio producer and musician living in Philadelphia. 

Jake Nussbaum is a musician and writer. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT. 

Expandable Sound is a documentary project by Nussbaum and Lewis, exploring the ways knowledge is produced and communicated through jazz and improvisational music.

Category Pheeroan akLaff