Craig Harris Finds Inspiration in Muhammad Ali’s Athleticism


Craig Harris gathered footage of Muhammad Ali boxing, turned off the sound and watched him move. The result is the trombonist’s recent Brown Butterfly (Afro Future Concept).

(Photo: Ehab Omar)

Trombonist and composer Craig Harris might have released his digital-only album, Brown Butterfly (Afro Future Concept) earlier this year, but its origins date back more than a decade. As an homage to iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, Brown Butterfly began as a multimedia collaboration between Harris, and dancer and choreographer Marlies Yearby. The 2003 Bessie Award-winning production, involving Harris’ ensemble and eight dancers, afforded him the great opportunity to rehearse the music for a considerable amount of time.

“I was on the road with them for four or five weeks, six or seven hours a day. That’s rare. You usually don’t get that kind of luxury to work musicians like that in these hard economic times,” Harris said over the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s working on a collaboration with visual artist Carrie Mae Weems. “Then we started playing the music without the dancers. I was very fortunate that most of the musicians who performed Brown Butterfly in its first incarnation with the dancers are on the recording—all of them except for one.”

Some of those musicians include trumpeter Eddie Allen, bassist Calvin Jones, keyboardist Adam Klipple, saxophonist Jay Rodriguez and drummer Tony Lewis.

The music on Brown Butterfly still is riveting, even beyond the original multimedia confines. Harris’ soulful and kinetic compositions evoke cinematic works as they underscore various pivotal moments in Ali’s life and career. From the hip-hop centric “Road Work” and the Afro-Cuban bounce of “Rumble In The Land Of Lumumba” to the drum-and-bass driven “Ali Shuffle Interpolations” and melancholy ballad “Parkinson’s—Ali The Finale,” Brown Butterfly is a triumph.

Recently, Harris offered DownBeat fond recollections of watching Ali and explained how his athleticism informed the music on Brown Butterfly.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk about the first time you saw Ali and why you’re in awe of his athleticism.

I must have been 9 years old when I first saw him on the living room black-and-white television. ABC had this show, The Wide World of Sports. I remember seeing this young man talking and signifying; I just said, “Who is this?”

When I saw Muhammad Ali flight, he didn’t just signify, he could back it up. That was what separated him from people who just talked a lot of shit. At the time, his outspokenness on national television seemed like it came out of nowhere. A lot of African Americans didn’t like this man in the beginning, because they thought it was a pretty boy who was arrogant and who talked a lot.

How did Ali’s boxing inspire you to write the music on Brown Butterfly?

Just watching his evolution as a human being inspired the music. Watching him refuse to go to the Vietnam War was the pinnacle for me. He transcended being an athlete. He informs people like Colin Kaepernick to this day. Just the idea that he stood up against the United States government, he became a historic figure in the same vein as people like Angela Davis.

Did you ever box as a kid?

I boxed for about 15 minutes. [laughs] I got into the boxing ring, put on the gloves, and the guy hit me upside my head a couple times. I just took the gloves off and said, “This ain’t my thing.”

Did you try to incorporate some of the rhythmic athleticism of Ali’s footwork and boxing technique into the music?

I was involved in sports—I played football, lacrosse and I wrestled. So, I had this understanding of being an athlete. The original idea was to do a piece about Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Tina Turner. I was going to write a trilogy of ballets for these three people, but I eventually just focused on Muhammad Ali.

The way that athletes move is incredible. You have people who are about 300 pounds who are running 48/40s—that’s incredible. And that sort of performance is something that African Americans have always done. We defy European logic—large people moving with so much grace and innovation; people like Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving. Look at the dancing singers like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, the way these people would move. It just goes to one of Ali’s famous quotes: “Impossible is temporary.”

You can equate the same thing to the way J.J. Johnson played trombone or Gene Ammons played the tenor saxophone or how the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Sun Ra Arkestra blended so many things. We are constantly taking the “can’t” and making it a “can,” and defying all expectations. That was the inspiration for me.

So, I got all of Ali’s footage together and cut the sound off and just watched his movements. A very important fight for Muhammad Ali was the Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams fight. That’s the one that really established Ali and put him into another space. They were both the same size and they moved around the boxing ring as if the fight was a ballet. I would watch Ali’s footwork and the rhythms, and just put it to music. His force and energy inspired me to write the music.

Muhammad Ali’s boxing was very unorthodox. Early in his career, everyone thought that he would get knocked out because boxers then didn’t move backwards. You were supposed to move into the punch, not backwards. His unorthodox technique was the brilliance of him and his trainer, Angelo Dundee. Angelo left Ali alone instead trying to make him box “correctly.” DB

  • Herb_Alpert_-_Press_Photo_01_%28credit_Dewey_Nicks%29_copy.jpg

    “I like to just click on songs that touched me and see if I could do them in a personal way — especially if it’s a well-known song,” Alpert said about selecting material for his new album.

  • Les_McCann_by_C_Andrew_Hovan_copy.jpg

    McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

  • 1_Black_Men_of_Labor_Second_Line_Parade_copy.jpg

    The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

  • image002_copy.jpg

    ​The Blue Note Quintet includes Gerald Clayton, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer. The all-star collective embarks on a North American tour this month.

  • 24_Emmet_Cohen_GABRIELAGABRIELAA_copy_2.JPG

    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.