July 12, 2024

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Origins and echoes of Vernel Fournier’s classic beat with Idris Muhammad, Ahmad Jamal and others: Videos, Photos

This essay is a sort of prologue to the series of articles I’m preparing about the great mid-century drummers from New Orleans.

I explicate a simple musical connection between the brass bands of New Orleans, a beloved hit from 1957, a stone-cold jazz classic, an era-defining Sixties song, and an immortal pop/R&B track. The connection is a New Orleans parade beat, which, thanks to drummers Earl Palmer, Vernel Fournier, and Idris Muhammad, brings these disparate strands together.

The song “Poinciana”, with music by Nat Simon and lyrics by Buddy Bernier, comes to us originally from Glenn Miller, but I don’t know anyone who associates the tune with Miller. Since the late Fifties, “Poinciana” has belonged to pianist Ahmad Jamal.

Based on a Cuban folk tune called “La Canción del Árbol” (“The Song of the Tree”), “Poinciana” was introduced in 1936, and by the early Forties was widely adopted by the Swing Era orchestras, a bit of island flavor tucked away in their band books for occasional use.

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“Poinciana’s” Cuban origin is key, but it took drummer Vernel Fournier, born in New Orleans in 1928, to bring out the song’s deep alignment with Afro-Cuban and African American rhythms.

Ahmad Jamal included the song on his At The Pershing: But Not For Me album, which featured Fournier alongside bassist Israel Crosby. An edited version of the eight-minute cut became a radio and jukebox hit in 1958. It’s been a favorite ever since, and “Poinciana” became Jamal’s signature song.

Fournier’s beat is, I’m sure, the foundation for the track’s enduring popularity. When I first encountered it, I was transported. The mix of the sophisticated yet funky drums and bass with Jamal’s on-the-beat phrasing and grandeur is a combination that can’t be beat.

So where did that beat come from?

As Fournier explained time and again, it was a version of a common rhythm played by the bass drummer in New Orleans brass bands: “Right. Just like [a bass drummer] in New Orleans. The only thing different was that the bass drummer couldn’t make the rim shots…..Ahmad started playing “Poinciana”, so I just sat down and figured something out, and it evolved. All it is, is New Orleans beats. You’ve seen the drummers in New Orleans with the bass drum and the cymbal on top, that’s all it is.”

I like a recording from 1958 (coincidentally, the same year as Jamal’s “Poinciana”) by the Eureka Brass Band of New Orleans, still available from Smithsonian Folkways. Eureka’s version of “Lord Lord Lord”, a public-domain hymn (the lyrics begin “Lord Lord Lord/you sure been good to me”) features two drummers, one playing bass drum/cymbal, another playing snare drum. At 0:20, there it is— the exact rhythm upon which Fournier built his immortal “Poinciana” beat.

Though it was recorded long after the beat had become an established convention, “Lord Lord Lord” is as good an example as any of the “Poinciana” beat in something like its original form. Here’s a handwritten version of what’s played at 0:20 (another similar version is played at 2:05):

 

On “Poinciana”, Fournier doesn’t stick to his initial beat, the one closest to the street beat on “Lord Lord Lord”. Here it is handwritten again:

Instead, he plays a new variation for each chorus, four variations for all four choruses of Jamal’s solo.

R&B bands with deep roots in the recording studio— the Meters, Booker T and MG’s, Stuff— have long known that a backing track, played with conviction, is a finished song.

Viewed from one perspective, “Poinciana” is an early example of the funky instrumental, along the lines of “Green Onions” and “Cissy Strut”. By replacing the ‘narrative’ solo with riffs, melodic fragments, and space, and grafting them precisely on a Black American and Afro-Cuban ur-rhythm, Jamal, Crosby, and Fournier created a massive hit and jazz masterpiece.

Ambient. Mood music. Hypnotic. Beautiful and dreamy.


Three other hit songs feature the “Poinciana” beat; taken together, they almost sum up the story of the drums and rhythm in American music.

First up is Fats Domino, who Elvis Presley, time and again, called the “real king of rock and roll”. Domino’s “I’m Walkin”, recorded and released in 1957 on Imperial Records, one year before Jamal’s “Poinciana”, was a bestseller, topping both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts.

On “I’m Walkin”, Domino, with Mr. Earl Palmer, one of the inventors of rock and R&B drumming, drop ancient African wisdom (the eighth note implying both two and three) and a major piece of Afro-Cuban insight (the accent on beat four, the beat where Fats sings “I’m”) into a hit song.

Assisted by Herb Hardesty and Lee Allen on saxophone (Hardesty takes the solo), Walter Nelson on guitar, and Frank Fields on bass, “I’m Walkin” mostly features Palmer playing a comparsa-style snare drum pattern, similar to what drummer John Bordeaux later played with Professor Longhair on “Go To The Mardi Gras”, and originating, of course, in brass bands.

But listen to that intro, featuring hand claps and Palmer’s bass drum:

 

There’s the street beat that became “Poinciana”.

Palmer and Fournier are New Orleans drummers, coming from the same tradition, and applying what they know of that tradition in a similar way. Tellingly, both “I’m Walkin” and “Poinciana” were huge hits. This rhythm has some magic in it.

The drummer in the original Broadway production of Hair, the Sixties musical written by Gerome Ragni, Galt McDermott, and James Redo, was Leo Morris, a recent New Orleans transplant. Morris was already known for playing with Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, and was just beginning his jazz career when he got the Hair gig, playing on Blue Note and A&M dates led by Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, and George Benson. Most know him today as Idris Muhammad.

On the original cast recording of “Aquarius”, made nearly a year before the song became a hit for the 5th Dimension, Muhammad plays the same basic street beat which undergirded Fournier’s “Poinciana”.

Unlike “Lord Lord Lord” or “I’m Walkin”, this example requires no explanation. Muhammad doesn’t play the full version of the beat until the chorus, at about 1:04. But there it is, plain as day, the street beat that became “Poinciana” applied to a defining Broadway show and popular song of the era.

Truly, Idris Muhammad is a drummer to whom no known category of musician applies. It would be accurate to describe him as a studio player, R&B drummer, soul jazz specialist, bandleader and recording artist, straight-ahead jazz drummer, avant-garde avatar, Broadway professional, and New Orleans elder statesmen.

Only Idris Muhammad could play the “Poinciana” beat on “Aquarius”, ushering in a new era of culture to the beat of New Orleans, and then, in the midst of his career as a solo recording artist, releasing epoch-defining funk/jazz classics like Power of Soul (Kudu, 1974) and Turn This Mutha Out (Kudu, 1977), play the same beat on Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love”.

“Feel Like Makin’ Love”, released as a single in 1975, was written by Gene McDaniels, a well-known songwriter and performer with a long pedigree in both R&B and jazz. Like “Aquarius”, Muhammad plays the street beat unvarnished.

Go ahead and click on the link to “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, then sit back and enjoy. This time, “Poinciana” and New Orleans wisdom provide the sexy heartbeat for a pop/R&B masterpiece.

I love how much space Muhammad leaves, blending with the percussion and rhythm guitar to cradle Flack’s vocal. Thanks to them, Roberta’s masterful performance shines through; every word pops, every vocal inflection has weight.

No wonder this was a hit.

So there it is, an iconic beat, coming directly from the parade bands and fueling no less than four chart-topping jazz and pop classics. That more or less summarizes the story of the drums and drummers in the US, and highlights the centrality of New Orleans in this story.

Tracing that street beat shows how American music is one experience, endlessly permutable, always ready to adapt and morph to suit the needs of the musicians and listeners.

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