Alphonse Mouzon, Weather Report’s first drummer, has passed away. He was 68 years old. In September he was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Carcinoma, a rare form of cancer, and began treatment in late November. Although his prognosis was dire, he remained hopeful and upbeat throughout. My understanding is that he suffered a massive heart attack on Christmas day. I last spoke with Alphonse in April 2015. The first thing I remember about it was his voice: He had a rich, broadcaster’s voice, like he belong on radio.
Alphonse was one of those people who was born to be a drummer. He started banging on things when he was a toddler in Charleston, South Carolina. His family didn’t have much money, so he made his own drums out of boxes and tin cans. He used to tap dance on the front porch and play his homemade drums, earning pocket change. “People would throw nickels and dimes,” he recalled. “I never got any quarters!” In high school, he won the South Carolina state scholastic drum competition four years running, earning a scholarship to Florida A&M University. But he elected to forgo A&M in favor of New York City, partially on the recommendation of one of his idols, Cannonball Adderley. Arriving in the Big Apple at the age of 17, he quickly got his own place and found work with the Ross Carnegie Orchestra. He also studied medical technology at Manhattan Medical School and worked as a hospital orderly. Alphonse was a determined young man.
Shortly after moving into his own flat, he knocked on the basement door of the building across the street, where he heard a big band rehearsing. It was the Ross Carnegie Orchestra, a society band in which musicians from the best known jazz bands of the day moonlighted. Alphonse managed to sit in for a tune, and Carnegie was so enamored of his funky groove that he hired him as “second drummer” and roadie. From there, is career advanced rapidly. He took lessons from Bobby Thomas, whom he heard one night with pianist Billy Taylor. He managed to sit in on a tune with him, too. “I remember playing with him and calling my mom and saying, ‘I played with Billy Taylor! I played with Billy Taylor!'” His relationship with Thomas later landed him the gig as the pit band drummer for the show Promises, Promises.
“I guess I was playing in a place called Small’s, a jazz club in New York, and Bobby came to see me along with Harold Wheeler, who’s now the music director with Dancing With The Stars. Harold was 25, I was 19, and they introduced me to him, and they said, oh, they want me to do this show. Bobby was the drummer for Promises, Promises, but he wanted to go across the street to a TV show with David Frost, so they needed a replacement. So he brought Harold Wheeler to my gig. And that’s when I got that job at 19 years old. I was the youngest kid at that time on Broadway.”
Bobby Thomas was also a childhood friend of Wayne Shorter’s, and it was through Thomas that Alphonse got the call to record on Wayne’s album, Odyssey Of Iska, in 1970, which led to him being Weather Report’s first drummer.
After Weather Report, he played with McCoy Tyner, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, and recorded his own funk-rock albums, including Mind Transplant with guitarist Tommy Bolin. He eventually played with or recorded with a virtual who’s who of the music industry. He also made an appearance in the Tom Hanks film, That Thing You Do. He was known for his extravagant clothing, especially in the seventies. “I was Mr. Fashionisto,” he told me. “Because Miles Davis was a fashion statement, a Fashionisto. Also, Roy Haynes. All the cats. So I had my own stuff, too, with my leathers and stuff, and platform shoes. I took it more rock.”
A gofundme campaign has been set up Alphonse’s children to help defray funeral expenses.
RIP, Alphonse. We will miss you. Here’s a clip from 1971 in which Weather Report performs “Seventh Arrow” and “Umbrellas” from their self-titled debut album.