Born: 1934 Primary Instrument: Congas
Big Black - congas, percussion
The master musician, percussionist and hand drummer, known as Big Black, was born Daniel Ray in Georgia in 1934, and grew up as a child in the Carolinas. Big Black first heard drum and percussion rhythms while listening to a radio broadcast from Cuba and was mesmerized by the sounds of congas and bongos. He started playing percussion in Miami in the 50's and performed with various salsa and calypso bands until he moved to New York in the 60's. He got connected with various Bebop artists and bands there and soon was a regular percussionist for Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Randy Weston. He was dubbed The king of Congas and is highly regarded institute of the African culture in Harlem.
He began tapping out his own rhythms with his hands and feet, while lying on his back on the front porch or tapping on the kitchen table, creating musical passages this way, for nine years, until at last he acquired his first drum. Relocating to Miami in the ‘50’s and working at odd jobs, until he could purchase his first set of bongos, he was self taught, but was inspired by his older brother, and other musicians during the Calypso era. He moved on to the congas and created a style of his own, compatible with all genres of music, in particular jazz.
The Calypso era, found Big Black working with Lord Fish Ray, and Johnny” Slick” Engraham, his true mentors. He often performed with Calypso Eddy and Sam Rolle receiving national recognition, “Calypsomania” had captured the nation, according to Time Magazine, as the popular medium.
The Sixties Cultural Revolution would be a godsend for Big Black as he was positioned at the right place in time to take full advantage of the musical renaissance of the period.
His musical talents and connections led to a recording contract with UNI/MCA, with whom he released “Message to our Ancestors,” (’67) “Elements of Now,” (’68) “Lion Walk,” (’68) and “Big Black and the Blues in 1972. These musical statements introduced collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Hugh Masekela and Freddie Hubbard with Art Blakey on the collectors, essential recording, “Night of the Cookers.”
Big Blacks’ recording and acting careers soared afterwards, to even greater heights. The next two decades would prove to be truly eventful, on the theatrical level as well, as a musician in international films such as, Dizzy Gillespies’ Havana Bop, and When We Were Kings, at the Zaire Music Festival, prior to the Muhammad Ali Fight in 1974. It was Big Black on congas in Ali’s corner that night to open the fight’s festivities. It was a historic night for all of us who witnessed it.
His performances were afterwards requested, at The Montreal, Monterey, Newport and The Playboy Jazz and Music Festivals. Big Black kept advancing musically, he then signed a contract with 1750 Arch Records, to record the renown, “Ethnic Fusion” (’83) project with Anthony Wheaton, the classical guitarist. The collaboration is brilliant and demonstrates his originality and creativity. His technique, may be considered unorthodox for a drummer, because he prefers to set out and approach the drums as a pianist would approach their instrument, left hand being bass or lower keys and the right hand, treble or the high keys. When Big Black is accompanying a pianist the tonal exchanges, reminds one of listening to mallets being played on the piano strings. These musical transitions, unlike most drummers, invite him to experiment with the octaves. His drums are tuned in a Dorian Mode. Dorian being the note D, the three of them, are tuned in D, G, F, respectively, and his vocal keys are D, B, G and A. Music critics and serious listeners, often comment, that there are moments when the drum ,instruments and sometimes the voice are difficult to tell apart. This distinctive feel of melody and harmony, is what distinguishes Big Black from all other hand drummers and percussionist.
Big Black was present and has participated in the many variations and mutations of jazz and African drum influenced music over the past fifty years, and should be recognized for his contribution and achievements in the musical representation.
- PAXTON WHITEHEAD
Source: Paxton Whitehead