Rashied Ali was born Robert Patterson in 1933 into a musical family in Philadelphia. He started out on piano and dabbled with trombone and trumpet before finding his way to the drums. Ali was one of the progenitors and leading exponents of the style known as "free jazz" drumming. A student of Philly Joe Jones and an admirer of Art Blakey, Ali developed a style he termed multidirectional rhythms/polytonal percussion.
Ali began his percussion career in the U.S. Army and started gigging with rhythm and blues and rock groups when he returned from the service. Apprenticing with local Philly R&B groups, such as Dick Hart & the Heartaches, Big Maybelle and Lin Holt, Ali gradually moved on to play in the local jazz scene with Lee Morgan, Don Patterson and Jimmy Smith.
By the early 1960s Ali was a fixture of the avant-garde jazz scene, working with Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Paul Bley, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon and Albert Ayler. It was during this period that Ali made his first major recording (On This Night with Archie Shepp, on the Impulse label) and began to sit in with John Coltrane's group at the Half Note and other clubs around Manhattan. In November 1965 John Coltrane decided to use a two-drummer format for a gig at the Village Gate and asked Ali to drummer alongside his then current drummer Elvin Jones. After Jones left the band, Ali spent two years working with Coltrane’s group along with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. Standing out among the recordings by Coltrane during that period is the duo record Interstellar Space.
After Coltrane's passing in 1967, Rashied Ali headed for Europe, where he worked in Denmark, Germany and Sweden before taking time to study with Philly Joe Jones in England. Returning to NYC Ali worked and recorded with Jackie McLean, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Gary Bartz, Dewey Redman and others. In response to the languishing New York jazz scene in the early 1970s, Rashied Ali opened the loft-jazz club, Ali's Alley, in 1973 and also established a companion enterprise, Survival Records. Ali's Alley began as a musical outlet for New York avant-garde but soon became a melting pot of jazz styles until its closing in 1979.
In the '80s and '90s, his presence on the scene was sporadic; he performed on occasion with bassist Jaco Pastorius, and recorded with tenor saxophonist David Murray. In 1987 he recorded and performed as a member of the group Phalanx, with guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, tenor saxophonist George Adams, and bassist Sirone. Also in that year Ali formed a group with multi-instrumentalist Arthur Rhames, saxophonist Antoine Roney, bassist Tyler Mitchell, and pianist Greg Murphy. In 1991, he made the critically acclaimed album Touchin' on Trane with bassist William Parker and tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, a group called By Any Means.
In the early ‘90s he formed a quintet with Ravi Coltrane, Matt Garrison, Greg Murphy and guitarist Gene Ess, releasing their 1992 recording No One in Particular in 2001. One tour of France with this group featured Carlos Santana and Archie Shepp. The '90s also found Ali leading the band, Prima Materia, an ensemble dedicated to interpreting the late works of Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The group toured extensively, and in 1994, 1995, and 1996, they recorded Peace On Earth, Meditations, and Bells for the Knitting Factory Works label. Ali also appeared on more than half-a-dozen discs with guitarist Tisziji Muñoz – the majority of which were recorded in Rashied’s own Survival Studios.
In 2003 Rashied formed The Rashied Ali Quintet. In 2005 they released two CDs – Judgment Day Vol. 1 and Judgment Day Vol. 2, both of which received significant national airplay and critical acclaim. In 2009 Live In Europe by the Rashied Ali Quintet was released on the Survival Records label. This group, which Jazz Times critic Bill Milkowski calls “…one of the more potent working quintets in jazz today,” developed a style that combined modern post-bop with Ali's trademark free jazz. This group toured frequently, with their final performances taking place at The Art of Jazz festival in Toronto in June and at the Zinc Bar in NYC in July of 2009. Rashied Ali died in August 2009 of a heart attack.