Don Alias was a versatile and influential jazz percussionist, who played with some of the biggest names in the genre, such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Joni Mitchell. He was also a pioneer of jazz fusion, blending elements of rock, funk, and world music with his congas and other hand drums. But how did Don Alias die, and what was his cause of death?
A Mysterious Death at Home
Don Alias died on March 28, 2006, at his home in Manhattan. He was 66 years old. His death was announced by his companion, Melanie Futorian, who said the cause was under investigation. She did not reveal any details about his condition or symptoms, but said he had been feeling unwell for a few days before his death.
Don Alias’s death was sudden and unexpected, as he had been active and busy until the end. He had just returned from a tour with the saxophonist David Sanborn, and was scheduled to perform with the pianist Eliane Elias at the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He had also been working on a new album with his band Stone Alliance, a fusion project he co-founded in the 1970s.
A Career Spanning Five Decades
Don Alias was born Charles Donald Alias on December 25, 1939, in New York City, to Caribbean parents. He grew up in Harlem, where he learned percussion from the street musicians of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent. He also studied biology in college, but decided to pursue music as a career after playing with the singer Eartha Kitt and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Don Alias made his mark in the jazz scene in the late 1960s, when he joined the singer Nina Simone as her drummer and musical director. He also caught the attention of Miles Davis, who hired him as a percussionist for his groundbreaking album Bitches Brew (1970). Don Alias played a key role in creating the rhythmic texture of the album, and also played the drum kit on one track, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”.
Don Alias continued to work with Miles Davis throughout the 1970s, and also collaborated with other jazz luminaries, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, and Jaco Pastorius. He was also a member of the jazz-rock band Weather Report, and the jazz-funk group The Headhunters. He also formed his own band, Stone Alliance, with the bassist Gene Perla and the saxophonist Steve Grossman, which explored the fusion of jazz, rock, funk, and Latin music.
Don Alias was also in demand as a session musician and a sideman for many pop and rock artists, such as Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Michael Franks, and Dan Fogelberg. He was especially close with Joni Mitchell, who featured him on several of her albums, and invited him to join her on a 1979 tour with a stellar band that included Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, and Michael Brecker. A live recording from the tour, Shadows and Light, showcases Don Alias’s versatility and creativity as a percussionist.
Don Alias remained active and relevant in the jazz scene until his death, working with artists such as David Sanborn, Eliane Elias, Bill Frisell, and Jack DeJohnette. He also reunited with Stone Alliance in the 2000s, and released three live albums with the band. He was also a mentor and a teacher to many young percussionists, who admired his skill and style.
A Tribute to a Legend
Don Alias’s death was mourned by his family, friends, fans, and fellow musicians, who paid tribute to him on social media and in memorial concerts. His former collaborators, such as David Sanborn, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Brecker, expressed their sadness and gratitude for working with him. His legacy was also celebrated in documentaries, such as Don Alias: The Man Behind the Drums (2008), and Stone Alliance: Live in Amsterdam (2010).
Don Alias was a legend in the jazz world, a percussion master who could play any style and any instrument with ease and flair. He was also a pioneer of jazz fusion, who brought new sounds and influences to the genre. He left behind a rich and diverse body of work, and a loyal and loving fan base. Don Alias cause of death was unknown, but his spirit lives on in his music and in his fans.