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Two Beats from a Different Drum:

SS: Did you feel that the music during that time in Chicago was very different than the music in New York?

RB: Yeah. Everybody was coming here because Chicago had the most clubs. New York had the famous clubs: Bandbox, Birdland, Onyx, Three Deuces — say, about seven or eight clubs. But Chicago had clubs from downtown all the way down to 63rd Street. On State Street, there were clubs on both sides of the street, all the way down. A lot of guys started walking: They’d walk from 29th, stop at each club in the 30’s, walk down to the 40’s and hit all the clubs, and just keep going.

SS: And how many clubs do you think there were?

RB: Oh man, there was a lot of money to be made. It attracted a lot of people, a lot of nightlife. The clubs would be open from six in the afternoon until six in the morning. So anybody who was anything in New York would come play Chicago. They would have stage shows in the theaters, even in the neighborhood theaters. This was before and during the war — everything was wide open, man. There was a lot of money to be made; there was a lot of partying to be done. They had a place called the Breakfast Dance. The club opened at six o’clock in the morning and people wouldn’t even go to work. Why go to work when you can party? [Laughs] That was a good time. And if you went to St. Louis, they had the same thing down there. I started going there when I was 14, because I had a little lady there. I used to take the train down. It took about five hours. A round-trip ticket cost $7. I used to go there on Friday evening, get there before 12 or 1 am, go to the hotel, scout out and see who was where and what was going on. Ain’t nobody asleep. Those were really good times in this country, as far as music goes.
When I was six or seven years old, we’d go up to Belmont and shine shoes, but you could get into clubs. You could walk into bars, shining shoes and dancing, just listening and learning.

: Did you ever tap?

: I didn’t tap. I did sand. We’d take sand and put it down on a smooth surface. We’d be sanding like mad. We’d mess up people’s hallways, because they had the tile floors, and we’d come up there with a pocketful of sand. People would come out and yell, “Hey, get out of my hallway!”

SS: This is all before the war? Did you get called for the draft?

RB: Yeah, when I was in high school. But I didn’t go into the service. I had heard about how “Pres” [Lester Young] got out of the service. Every morning you would fall out with your rifle; he’d fall out with his saxophone! So they finally put him out. That’s where “D.B. Blues” comes from: Detention barracks blues. His early songs come out of his stint in the Army. Him and Jo Jones were in there together, and Jo Jones would fall out with his sticks. Why have some dudes like Pres and Jo Jones get killed over some nonsense. That’s all war is about. I just told them I couldn’t go. It was a bad scene anyway for me because I’m living as a second-class citizen in my own country. I told the military psychiatrist as much.

Why should I go into the service? This was when Emmett Till was killed. They were still lynching people. The psychiatrist rejected me. He said I had an abnormal personality; I was maladjusted and would be a bad influence on African-American soldiers. I told him, “Do you think I should lick the boot that kick me?” I was getting pissed off. I took my fist and hit on the desk — bam! The man got up and went to the door and wrote in big letters: “REJECTED.” He told me to go to another room. In the other room was the FBI. They told me that I could be put in jail for the duration of the war, and the war might last 20 years. I said, “I don’t know what I can do about that. You guys have the guns and the tanks.” So the dude said, “All right, well, sign this paper,” and I said, “I ain’t signing nothing. I don’t have no lawyer. I don’t know what I’m signing.” So then they finally say, “Get out and don’t come back!” And I said, “Well, I didn’t ask to come down here in the first place.”

For about a week or so afterward they followed me. They went into my neighborhood and asked the kids who were my friends, “Is he in a gang?” They even asked me, “Do you belong to a gang or an organization? Do you believe in killing?” “Yeah,” I said. “I believe in killing. If someone comes on my doorstop and shoots at me, I would fight, but I’m not going to go 3,000 miles away to fight for something when all this racist shit is still going on here.” So they didn’t bother me after that. They told me I’d never get a government job. I wasn’t planning on getting one anyway.

: Can you talk about recording with Sun Ra?

RB: I met Sun Ra when I was about 15 years old. We started talking because he lived right down the street from Bugs, a drummer I knew, and we started talking about life. He was well read. He had studied all of these different bibles. He was another prodigy. You’d go to his house, and he had a little bitty room, but it would be filled with books — wall to wall and floor to ceiling. He’d be like, “Hey, come down to the library with me.” He was working as Fletcher Henderson’s piano player at the time, and he was his arranger too. He was writing for the shows. He used to sit on his porch, and we’d all start talking. So we went up to his house and he played piano. He said, “You play drums?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, bring your drums and come on up to the house and we’ll play some.” Pat Patrick, Sun Ra and I would be up there playing all day and night. Then he went and got some singers they started playing with us — it was like four or five singers and this three-piece band. A guy sent me some of the discs. I had forgotten all about it. That had come off of a wire recorder. Sun Ra he had a wire recorder.

: And you were playing all of his music?

RB: We were playing all originals. He just let you develop. He wouldn’t give you no guidance. He’d just say, “Play what you hear.” Then when he started writing down at the Pershing, he would write heads but your solos were always your own.

SS: How long did you play with him?

RB: For a good while — from age 15 up to 22. Richard Evans was involved in the band, because Sun Ra was asking about new guys. We started getting dudes from the band at DuSable. I told him about Richard. At first, Richard and I were the rhythm section for Sun Ra. Richard left first. Then it was Ron Boykins and I. Occasionally Richard Davis would come and play, too. Everybody, it seems, did a stint: Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, his brother, George. He never had no sad players. He had people who were interested in developing their talents.

To read the interview with Avreeayl Ra,
click here


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