During a 2006 show quoted on the Web site JazzAvenues.com, he said: “Clifford Brown, the last time that the band recorded — It was a week before Clifford and Richie Powell and [Powell’s] wife’s untimely deaths — in Norfolk, Virginia, and it was the first and only time Clifford played ‘Just One of Those Things.’ ”
Muhammad came by his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz the hard way. He was an aspiring saxophonist who gave it up, convinced he’d never be good enough. But the music wouldn’t let him go. Instead, he became an obsessive fan and follower of jazz, a habitué of its environs, a victim of its temptations and, then, by its grace, and with the passage of time, a collector and a teacher of its lore.
Born Phillip White on Aug. 5, 1934, in Washington, Muhammad was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. He discovered jazz by age 13, when a neighbor’s older brother would bring the newest records home to find Muhammad waiting outside his door. Soon, Muhammad was hanging out at the Howard and Lincoln theaters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the musicians.
“U Street was where, when we were little, where you got dressed up on Sundays,” recalled Muhammad during a 2002 NPR interview. “... If you were really into something, you ate at Harrington’s, that was very bourgy, and then you’d catch the streetcar and you ride back up to ... the further part of U Street. And you might go to the Lincoln or the Republic ... or the Booker T, and you’d be all dressed up.”
“I didn’t know [D.C.] was segregated until I went in the Navy, because I didn’t give a d--- about downtown,” he said. “Everything I liked was ... right uptown.”
Muhammad enlisted in the Navy after high school. He spent his first furlough at Birdland, the club in Manhattan named for Charlie Parker. When Muhammad’s hitch in the Navy was up, he stayed in New York and saw performances by such legends as Art Blakey, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
“He fell in love with Birdland,” said his second wife and widow, Phyllis Freeman-Muhammad. “He walked away from everything in Washington.”
Muhammad never mastered the saxophone to his satisfaction. In one account, he quit after a frustrating jam session with Illinois Jacquet. In another, he gave away his sax after hearing a live performance by Parker.
Some details of his New York years have been obscured by the passage of time and, perhaps, by the reticence of friends. But even those friends acknowledge that he struggled with heroin addiction for years and spent time in jail for petty crimes, such as forgery, to support his habit. Along the way, Muhammad became involved with the Nation of Islam, which helped in his eventual recovery.