Gary James' Interview With The Percussionist For
Jimi Hendix's Gypsy Sun And Rainbows
Juma Sultan had the rare honor of being the percussionist for Jimi Hendrix when Hendrix performed on that very last day of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Juma Sultan was not only Jimi Hendrix's percussionist, he was friends with Hendrix. And so, we spoke to Juma Sultan about that special friendship with the greatest guitarist the world has ever seen, Mr. Jimi Hendix.
Q - Did you move in the mid-1960s from New York City to Monrovia, California?
A - No. I was born in Monrovia, California. I moved around. I took art classes at U.C.L.A. I moved to Topanga Canyon and then from Topanga Canyon to Venice and moved up North to the North Bay area. San Francisco, Berkeley, Piedmont. Then I came to New York early part of 1967.
Q - Wait a minute. Wasn't California more of the happening place to be in 1967?
A - At that time I was bi-coastal. I would spend time here (New York) and I would go back because I was involved with the Be-Ins and Haight Ashbury. In fact, I saw Jimi at the Pan Handle in San Francisco, perform.
Q - You first met Jimi in New York City?
A - Yeah. I saw him up town at Fat Jack's, a place on 116th Street. Then I saw him later down in the Village. At that time I was drumming right at Washington Square, just briefly.
Q - You were working as a Jazz musician in New York?
A - Yeah. In the '60s, around '62, I was in Topanga Canyon. That's when I dropped out of Art School and picked up the bass and the subsequent years I went up North and worked in Jazz clubs around San Francisco, building up my chops. Then I came to New York right after that.
Q - Was there a lot of work for a Jazz musician then?
A - No. We played in parks, on the beach. I'd go to the Straw Plaza in Berkeley and play bass. There were six to eight conga players. Things of that nature. In Haight Ashbury there were about five clubs that you could go around. There were after hours clubs you could sit in and get your chops up and there were a couple in Oakland also where you could play Jazz basically.
Q - Was New York City any better for Jazz?
A - No. In New York City there were very few places unless you were in the mainstream where you could play Jazz. This is why musician started creating their own outlets and venues.
Q - In 1969, you were doing African Drum Circles on Sundays on Woodstock's Village Green?
A - Yes, that is true. In 1968 and 1969 we used to start at the Village Green Cinema and then we'd have afternoon concerts and basically jam sessions. All different guys from all different venues. There were so many eclectic mixes at that time.
Q - What is an African Drum Circle?
A - An African Drum Circle is basically, it only takes two or three to start a circle. What it is, to get everyone involved into rhythm. If you don't have an instrument you can sing or you can dance or you can listen. The musicians objectivity is community and to get people involved, up off their feet and get the heart, the body, and spirit moving.
Q - Was it at one of these African Drum Circles that once again you met Jimi Hendrix?
A - No. Michael Jeffery had brought him up for a couple of days to Woodstock for a retreat. He was staying in a hotel in New York. I happen to be on a bench there at the Square and he said, "I know you." I wasn't playing a note. I didn't have a drum. We started talking and we just refreshed our memory. He said, "Why don't you come up to the house and jam?" And that was the beginning of The Gypsy Sun And Rainbows, him and I, a couple of days at Jeffery's house in Woodstock.
Q - You and Jimi weren't just talking about music, were you?
A - Jimi was a very eclectic person and so when you see a persona onstage you can't imagine his real personality because not only was he brilliant in terms of music, but his concepts and his ideas were pretty advanced I would say.
Q - How many people did Jimi play to at Woodstock? I've heard the figure 10,000. Was it more than that?
A - I'm gonna say it was more than 10,000. When we got there at midnight the place was like as far as the eye could see. People with candles all the way over the hill. It was more than 10,000.
Q - Towards the end of Jimi's life, he was having problems with his management. They were telling him what he could and could not do. Why didn't he fire them? Wasn't he the boss?
A - No. It all started out when he had the deal with Chas Chandler, who was a very fair, straight-up guy, and then Chas went into partnership with Michael Jeffery and Jeffery was a whole other character. He wasn't interested in the music. He was interested in the money. The whole thing changed. I don't want to go into a tirade, so I'll keep it brief. There was always a problem with management. There was always a problem with Jimi producing his own material because of the time he took in the studio. That's why the concept of Electric Lady came into being. I'll just give you a point blank. Jimi once told me, "I don't own Electric Lady. I just pay for it. It belongs to Jeffery." So basically that is a truism. He had problems with the management from the beginning, but they controlled all of his finances in terms of a bank account. His money went off-shore to the Cayman Islands through all the different sources and they tried to use the motive that he was broke to keep him on the road. All Jimi wanted to do was sit back and create and do music. He was way ahead of the time about sending videos and things around the world instead of him being on the road so much. He was kind of real burnt out in that respect.
Q - Is it true that Hendix's management didn't like Eddie Kramer and Alan Douglas?
A - Well, first of all, Eddie Kramer was in camp with Michael Jeffery. So, I don't believe that they didn't like Eddie Kramer, okay? Alan Douglas was more of a desperado, a renegade. Online, Douglas had his own label. Alan had his hand in a lot of pies and his thoughts were different. He wasn't thinking as management. See, the management wanted to keep everything as it was. The million dollar baby was Jimi, Mitch and Noel, okay? You change that chemistry and you change the whole equation. And Jimi was thinking the opposite. He just wanted to sit back and be more creative and have "a different sound", as he called it, that was developing. It was only a fledgling sound. There weren't any rehearsals in between before the Woodstock Festival with that particular band, but his concept was coming forward and changes. And so the management did not want him to change, to the extent they offered me a contract and in the contract they said I can't ever play with Jimi. So, I never signed it. There was sabotage all over the place. They were just about control, controlling Jimi. Jimi was starting to think more independently. He basically didn't have his own bank account. Any time he wanted something he had to go through the office. Simple as that.
Q - Strange as it may seem, I've heard this same story about other musicians I've interviewed.
A - Because of the way they handled Jimi's money, they kept insisting that he was broke in order to keep him on the road and keep him touring and he didn't want to tour for awhile. He wanted a break. Simple.
Q - Did you say that in the movie Woodstock, when Jimi is playing "The Star Spangled Banner", there was actually a band playing behind him, but the band's instruments were turned down so we only heard Jimi's guitar?
A - It wasn't even in the movie. Eddie Kramer was in the trailer, controlling the sound with Mike Jeffery and what they did is they turned off the mics on everybody. There was feed. There's a bootleg going around. It was not a solo. It turned out beautifully. It's exemplary. It set a precedent, but it wasn't a solo. The musicians were playing with him on that. Everybody was turned down.
Q - So, if I had been in the audience, I would have heard what?
A - You would have heard something, but you wouldn't have heard what it should have been. But that's the beauty of creativity. It turned out great as far as I'm concerned.
Q - So, you're saying that somewhere out there a bootleg tape exists that would allow people to hear the whole band playing behind Jimi Hendrix as he's playing "The Star Spangled Banner"?
A - You could hear it. It's there. Exactly. It was floated around. Somebody reached out to me few years back and it's there, where you can hear the board. As things move through situations how things got placed, I don't know. There is a bootleg with the full board track with the other instruments.
Q - You knew there was something special about Jimi Hendrix long before the public caught on, didn't you?
A - Of course I knew he was special. I saw a parallel between what he was playing and what we youngsters were playing at the time, which was so-called new music, avant-garde Jazz. You had everybody from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Albert Eyelet. You had different people that the young guys were incorporating. Jimi was in that vein, although he wasn't a trained musician playing in all keys or other aspects of music. But he was just as highly creative at what he knew and how he used it.
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