Birds of a Feather

Roy Haynes, opening at the Village Vanguard two days after his 80th birthday, told me that earlier in the day a newspaper editor complained about a new photograph: "This must be old. Don't we have something recent?" Even in person, it's difficult to see evidence of nine decades. Lorraine Gordon, the club's owner, groused, "What's the big deal? I'm two years older." She looks good, too, but while running the Vanguard can't be a stroll in the park, it's not the same as playing two or three sets of drums a night, particularly with Haynes' undiminished vitality. The drummer marveled, "Playing the music all this time and I get more of a kick now than ever." Then his quartet took the stage and he asked for the house lights to be dimmed. "You're messing up my cataracts," he said.

Haynes was born on March 13. On March 12, the world rather silently mourned the 50th anniversary of Charlie Parker's death. To those of us for whom Parker was a musical monument long before we opened our ears to jazz, it's sobering to realize that if he were living he'd be only 84 (85 on August 29). Lorraine Gordon might be booking Bird's quartet, perhaps an all-star edition with his contemporaries: say, Haynes, Hank Jones and Percy Heath. He was 25 when he recorded "Koko," and 34 when he checked out, laughing-as Baroness de Koenigswarter instructed posterity-at jugglers on the Dorsey Brothers' TV show. Yet you can walk into the Vanguard or any other mainstream jazz club on most nights of any year and find evidence, sacred and profane, subtle or palpable, that it's still Parker's world and we are merely tourists.

My favorite Parker moments are often unbidden, like hearing that soaring, sweeping, preternaturally liberated and lyrical sound wafting in on a broadcast or a film score or, better still, on a new anthology or reissue that gets mixed into the CD pile. Instantly, my attention is arrested and I find myself smiling, grateful, elated. The first Parker album I ever bought was a collection of Dials, reissued on Charlie Parker Records, and it shook me up, not always pleasantly. The melodies seemed oddly jumbled and most tracks were either too fast or too slow. I listened repeatedly, but worked too hard at understanding it, never quite plugging into the tempo and relaxing. I didn't realize the degree to which the music penetrated my brain until months later when I was visiting a friend's house, and his older brother put on the same album in another part of the house and I found myself singing along with tunes and solos, agog with the revelation that, supersonic or not, Parker is pure melody-pure ravishing melody.

Shortly thereafter, I had a similar epiphany regarding Haynes. I had been listening, in short order, to Thelonious Monk's Misterioso, Stan Getz's Focus and Eric Dolphy's Out There, and in each instance grabbing the cover to see who the drummer was: Haynes, Haynes, Haynes. Then I heard Sarah Vaughan's Swingin' Easy, where he provides the bump on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and is omnipresent without being intrusive. (And that was before they added the minute-long "Linger Awhile" to the CD, virtually a vocal-drums duet.) Every record he's on is enhanced by Haynes' unmistakable presence. He monitors each measure with nanosecond reflexes and a lean efficiency that nonetheless fully employs all the skins and cymbals. He combines unerring taste and wit; did anyone ever make brushes race along with greater aplomb than Haynes on Getz's "I'm Late"? His recordings with John Coltrane are illuminating for how utterly he transforms the band in the absence of Elvin Jones. One day during a mixing session, Howard Johnson happened by and, after listening to a playback for a few seconds, said, "You can always tell when it's Roy Haynes." "How?" I asked. "He's the only drummer of that generation who knows how to play the bass drum."

Haynes joined Parker's quintet, replacing Max Roach, at Roach's recommendation, in 1949 (the same year he helped to electrify Bud Powell's Blue Note quintet session), and remained for nearly three years. The zenith of their work together is the 1951 Summit Meeting at Birdland, sadly out of print-on the amazing "Blue 'n' Boogie," he shadows Parker, dialogues with Dizzy Gillespie and practically chaperones Bud Powell. (Full disclosure: I produced the 1977 LP release for Bruce Lundvall at Columbia-no royalty, though.) Haynes' own bands have been a valuable training ground: Musicians who came through and/or achieved some of their finest work on his watch include Kenny Barron, Hannibal Peterson, George Adams, Ralph Moore, Donald Harrison, Craig Handy, Dave Kikoski, Danilo Perez, and his son, cornetist Graham Haynes. For his Birds of a Feather project (Dreyfus, 2000), Haynes recruited Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove, Dave Holland and Kikoski to pay homage to Parker.

At the Vanguard his group upheld the banner, with staunch bassist John Sullivan, virtuoso pianist Martin Bejerano (brought forward with a thematically configured, double-barreled solo fantasia on "Beautiful Love") and Marcus Strickland, whose tenor sax is full-bodied and fluent, though he also impressed with a bass clarinet cadenza and soprano sax solo on Coltrane's arrangement of "Greensleeves." On the Ellington-Strayhorn tune "U.M.M.G.," Strickland and Bejerano alternated mercurial fours and twos, surfing Haynes' crests. It was the last piece, though, that most put me in mind of Parker: "The Anniversary Waltz." You don't often hear tunes associated primarily with Al Jolson at the Vanguard; nor do many sets have two longish pieces in triple rhythm. Parker, with his love for every kind of pop, from Mario Lanza to Hank Williams, would have dug it, I think, especially when Haynes got up and conducted the entire audience in a hum-along for several lusty choruses. Bird lives. Haynes carries on.

Originally published in June 2005

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