Roy Haynes in His Own Hip Way

Catching up with the most influential living drummer in jazz

Ornette_coleman_christian_mcbride_roy_haynes_sonny_rollins_by_john_abbott_depth1
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Ornette Coleman, Christian McBride, Roy Haynes and Sonny Rollins
By John Abbott

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Roy Haynes was an ace cutup one recent Friday night at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, an imperious jester playing the crowd. “Should I sing something?” he polled the room, knowing the answer he’d receive. Then he asked for requests, sauntering over to the piano, the spotlight trailing him closely enough to catch a gleam off his white satin suit.

“’Round Midnight,” somebody shouted. He cocked an eyebrow, waited a beat. “It begins to telllll,” he sang, using Bernie Hanighen’s lyrics to the Thelonious Monk song. His pianist, David Kikoski, hesitated a moment, unsure of the key. Haynes grinned wolfishly. Then he resumed singing, but he’d moved on to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” with half-baked gag lyrics made up on the spot. Laughing, he tried one more non sequitur, this time into “The Gambler,” the country tune made famous by Kenny Rogers:

You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run

He did a little soft-shoe as he sang this chorus, savoring the absurdity. But then at some point amid this odd display of stagecraft, he began tapping the microphone with the palm of one hand, in a syncopated pattern. The audience caught on, clapping along, until Haynes made his way back to his drum kit, transferring the pulse to hi-hat, bass and snare. And with that, his Fountain of Youth band—Jaleel Shaw on saxophones, David Wong on bass and Kikoski, filling in for Martin Bejerano, on piano—lurched into “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” a signature tune. And things got very serious, very fast.

There are several hoary jazz truisms about Roy Haynes, all of them no less hoary for being true. Yes, he is an astonishing fireball of energy, especially given his age. (He turned 86 this year.) Yes, he’s a flamboyant clotheshorse, proud as a peacock in full resplendence. (See: white satin suit, above.) And yes, he is a jazz legend of unsurpassed scope and unmistakable sound, an agent of forward thrust for more than 60 years.

That last idea is the one that matters, even if it’s actually inextricable from the others. It’s the factor that naturally stands out on Roy-alty, the insistently vital album Haynes released on Dreyfus Jazz in September, featuring Fountain of Youth and guest turns by trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Chick Corea. On that recent evening, as Haynes tore into “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”—slashing and jabbing, breaking up the flow, often planting his left foot on the base of his snare-drum stand—it was also the factor that stood out at Dizzy’s Club, in a way that seized attention yet faithfully served the music.

Haynes is, without question, the most influential living drummer in jazz. He’s also one of its most important elders, among other things. “I really don’t think it is an exaggeration to call Roy the father of modern jazz drumming,” writes guitarist Pat Metheny, one of his many enthusiastic collaborators, in a recent e-mail. But what is it exactly that has made Haynes so compelling an artist for so long? What’s at the heart of his style, and how, if at all, has it changed? Why does his playing sound as improbably fresh today as it did behind Charlie Parker half a century ago? This is what we should talk about when we talk about Roy Haynes, though it isn’t always easy when we try.

For one thing, the man himself isn’t much inclined toward analytic discussion of his actions behind the kit. Backstage before the set at Dizzy’s, over a bowl of beef minestrone soup, he described those actions as intuitive, and maybe largely unconscious. “Sometimes,” he admits, “I don’t even realize what I’m doing. But the main thing with me is ding-dinga-ding—that feeling, like an old-time swing drummer. In a hip way.”

I play for the benefit of the band. And when I change like that, something else [is] comin’—something different. And it’s got to be different, ’cause I’ve changed it. And you can feel a change. Even if you don’t hear it, you can feel it.—Baby Dodds

On the subject of old-time swing drummers, Haynes knows whereof he speaks. He was born and raised in Roxbury, Mass., at the right time to experience swing as an unfolding mystery. From as early as he can recall he wanted to be a drummer, and had his own ideas of how to go about it. “I never had anyone from the beginning tell me, it should go this way, it should go that way,” he said at Dizzy’s, while his son Craig Haynes, also a drummer, tended to messages on his phone. “I took lessons from a man who lived right on the same street that I lived on. His name was Herbert Wright. In fact, they had a few drummers who lived on that same street; I was one of the youngest I knew of.”

Along with Wright—a former member of James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Hellfighters band, and the man who reportedly, in 1919, fatally stabbed Europe in the neck—there was indirect tutelage from the bands of the day, one in particular. “I was listening to the Basie band a lot,” Haynes recalled. “Other bands too, but Papa Jo [Jones] was in the Basie band and that’s the guy that really intrigued me, especially playing the cymbals, the hi-hat, his sound on the drums. And he wasn’t a rudimental-sounding drummer, even when he played the solos. I sort of grasped some of that.”

Haynes has never been stingy with his admiration of Jones; for more illumination on that point, see Ben Ratliff’s 2008 book The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (Times Books/Henry Holt). The Roy Haynes chapter begins with Jones and moves on through several other touchstones, including one that Haynes brought up unprompted backstage at Dizzy’s. “I had this record by one of the great old drummers,” he said, referring to Baby Dodds, the New Orleans drummer best known for his work with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. “We’d get together in some of the hotel rooms when we were out of town, and we’d all listen to that. I’d listen to it over and over again, like I’d never heard it before. He says, ‘A drummer can ruin a band.’ I mean, he talks some stuff on that! You know, with his old, broken-English, Southern style.” Haynes whistles appreciatively. “He said, ‘But the drummer, he’s the one.’”

The grapevine brought Haynes his earliest professional breaks. “In Boston they had a drummer by the name of Joe Booker, could swing his butt off. I knew him as a teenager; I had to replace him, working for [pianist] Sabby Lewis. And when I had to replace him, there were no drum parts. But I could swing. I could swing. People would say, ‘There’s a little guy in Boston. Get him!’ That’s how I got the gig with [pianist] Luis Russell, man. Somebody told Luis Russell about me, and before I know it, this cat wrote me a letter, a special delivery letter, to join his band.”

He moved to New York to play with Russell’s outfit, a big band, and stayed for a few years, quitting at one point in the middle to chase after bebop. On 52nd Street and uptown at Minton’s, he fell in with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Miles Davis, soon joining Max Roach at the forefront of bop’s rhythm brigade. But before making his mark with Powell and Parker, he was enlisted by Lester Young, the great mellifluous tenor saxophonist and former Basie-band star. That Haynes could work mightily in either setting, cruising through “Lester Leaps In” or dropping bombs on “Ornithology,” says as much about his versatility as it does about the exaggerated schism between swing and bebop. It also may be one of the keys to understanding Haynes’ playing today.

Now every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep
—“The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers (by Don Schlitz)

In an attempt to describe the rhythmic effect of Roy Haynes’ drumming, I once used the phrase “a marriage of chop and flow,” imagining an ocean at roil. Presented with this image backstage, Haynes chuckled and said nothing, lifting a spoonful of soup to his mouth. He wasn’t much more inclined to get analytical about the forward tilt of his ride cymbal, or the way he parcels out phrases around the drum kit, or the defibrillator thump of his bass drum, or the distinctive chatter of his snare. What about his hi-hat, which he uses with such expressive freedom? He’s not known for stomping the clutch on two and four. “Never did,” he fires back. “Never did. Maybe for some records, because it was becoming popular and a lot of musicians wanted to hear that, and felt good with that. But I never really liked to do that. First of all, I can’t think that way. I can’t think with the left foot playing two and four anyhow. I do it for a little while and then it confuses me.”

Listen to some of the earlier recordings from Haynes’ career, in bands led by Parker, Thelonious Monk or even Young, and it’s striking how much of his present-day musical self is already more or less intact. “Roy’s concept seemed completed and finished early on,” suggests Corea, who made one of the most celebrated piano trio albums of the postbop era, the 1968 Blue Note release Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Haynes on drums. “He got what he wanted and then kept that and just applied it to every situation he played in and just went ahead and created music—great music.”

One way to understand what made Haynes distinct early in the game is to launch a comparison with some of his peers. Max Roach had a more fastidiously upright sense of time, and while he could be just as whimsical, he favored permutations of rudiments, airtight and precise. Art Blakey had a broader, bigger sound and a steamrolling sense of propulsion, enveloping and deep. And Elvin Jones was all about churn, creating gyres of rhythm, often in earthy polyrhythmic layers. Haynes incorporated certain of all these characteristics, but his trademark was a sharpness and clarity that set him in a category of his own. “Snap, Crackle” was the nickname famously affixed to him in the 1950s, and it may be one of the few jazz sobriquets that makes musical sense. “One of the reasons he got that nickname is that he’s so tremendously articulate on his instrument,” says bassist Christian McBride, an on-again, off-again rhythm partner to Haynes for 20 years now. “His snare drum, it pops, it cracks, almost sounds like a pistol. His bass drum has a nice beefy punch. He really hits the drums right in the place where you can hear it the best. Not loud, but he gets such a full sound out of the drums. His cymbals are very clean and articulate; you can hear his ride cymbal pattern so clearly.”

We have ample evidence of Haynes and his fellow drum masters visiting one another’s natural habitats, but none is more striking than when he filled in for Elvin Jones with the John Coltrane Quartet, especially at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. The freshness of his hookup with the band is palpable, and it creates an altogether different atmosphere. Gary Giddins has observed that “where Jones superimposes three over two, Haynes thinks two even when he’s playing three, and he varies the triple-meter rhythm with unflagging energy.” The Coltrane Quartet with Haynes is more pugnacious, and less of a whorl.

And yet. “I would apply a word to him that I’ve heard a lot of historians apply to Elvin Jones, and that word is ‘elasticity,’” says McBride. “It’s sort of a moving target. The rhythm is not always exactly in perfect time. It’s phrases—certain musical things that he does, even when he’s just keeping time, he’s always creating phrases. Sometimes it might be a little behind the beat, sometimes it might be on top. It might be a combination of both. But there’s a breathing quality.”

Haynes’ slippery way of articulating time may be the great unsolvable riddle at the heart of his mastery, and for some of his most vocal admirers, it’s a source of deep attraction. “To me, Roy has a way of internalizing the beat within himself that is so powerful that he can express what it is to him in a wide variety of ways depending on the situation,” writes Metheny. “Although he has an identifiable vocabulary, he can conjure a kind of infinity within it. That goes also for the ‘where’ of where he decides to place the beat.”

Metheny continues: “I have heard him play where a few limbs are on top [the ride and snare], and he is kind of laying back with the bass drum and hi-hat, and a wide range of variations thereof. The main thing is that it always feels so good in such an original and unique way. I think that wins over everything.”

That notion of simultaneously pushing the beat and hanging back sounds strange, but it has been a part of Haynes’ playbook for ages, at least since Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. “There’s a certain lick that he plays often when he solos, and this totally exemplifies what we’re talking about,” says McBride. “He’ll be keeping time on the cymbal, ting-tinga-ting. And then he’ll do something on the snare drum that’s almost late. You look at him like, ‘What?’ And then he’ll answer it with the bass drum and that’ll be a little late also. But the ride cymbal is going.”

In any case, it’s a concept that you can trace from Haynes through some of his more celebrated successors, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. Haynes got there first, and he still does it his way. “I wouldn’t say that he is instantly easy to play with for everyone,” says Metheny, though he himself belongs in that category, with an album to show for it. “The first track [‘Solar’] on the first record we made together, [1990’s] Question and Answer, literally is the first take of the first time that he and [bassist] Dave [Holland] and I had played together, and you can hear that right away we were all able to pretty much do the things we do best with a lot of freedom to take it anywhere, which is always a great feeling. Roy sets a stage where if you can hang and he senses that he can push and pull, displace things, move bar lines around, etc., and if he trusts that the guys there are capable of responding to that, he really goes. It is such an exciting musical atmosphere to be around.”

Roy-alty isn’t the only major September jazz release in which Haynes plays a key role. He’s also on one much ballyhooed track of Road Shows Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy), the latest from tenor saxophone giant Sonny Rollins. The track is “Sonnymoon for Two,” recorded at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York. At root it’s a saxophone trio number, with McBride and Haynes in fine brawny form. Then Ornette Coleman, the great alto saxophonist and walking jazz enigma, joins the party. The moment was historic—Coleman and Rollins, longtime mutual admirers, had never played together for an audience—even if the musical result comes across as a little raw.

Haynes, having made more than his share of history, has little to say about that moment, just as he has little to say about the Jazz at Lincoln Center concert presented in honor of his 85th birthday last year, with some of his more celebrated recent collaborators: Holland, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, pianist Danilo Pérez. (The artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis, was also onboard.) This is in keeping with his style: At one point in The Jazz Ear, Ratliff asks him what the drummers from his grandson’s generation are doing differently from his own. He hedges a bit, tries not to answer and, when pressed, finally suggests that they talk about their music a lot more.

He ceded no new ground on the subject at Dizzy’s, though he granted that his grandson, Marcus Gilmore, was part of a vibrant crop of young drummers making their own way. Did he hear his influence on those players? “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think about it too much. But I can talk to a drummer, maybe I hear him play and never thought that he really listened to a lot of stuff that I’ve done until he starts talking.”

I later reached Gilmore by phone in mid-September, during the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in Washington, D.C. “He’s definitely very important for all of us,” he said, referring to his generation. “Some people have checked him out to different degrees, but whether it’s direct or being filtered through somebody else, the influence is there, and it’s prevalent, I think.” (For what it’s worth, Gilmore received his first drum kit, and plenty of encouragement, from Haynes—but never got any private lessons.)

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Marcus Strickland, a former member of the Fountain of Youth Band, corroborated the point. “Today’s hippest drummers have many other uses of the hi-hat than as a rigid crutch on beat two and beat four, and it’s all because of Roy Haynes,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The overall level of interaction within the band from today’s drummers is something I attribute to Roy too.” (Strickland’s twin brother, E.J. Strickland, is a drummer.)

Justin Brown, another of the busier young drummer on today’s scene, added his voice to the chorus, citing Haynes as a major influence. “His time keeping is truly unique because he mastered forward momentum with extreme facility,” Brown said. “No matter how broken the pattern, with his articulated precision he was able to keep time steady, centered and driven around the ride cymbal.”

That much was certainly true of the set at Dizzy’s, which Haynes turned into a casual tour de force when he wasn’t toying with the audience’s expectations. At one point during a long, instructional call-and-response, a woman in the crowd piped up: “We want to hear you play!” At this Haynes straightened, reminded of a time when Lorraine Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard, asked him to scale back on the stage patter. “I told her, ‘It’s all music, Lorraine,’” he said, and then smiled. And sang, again: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em...”

Haynes began leading bands in the 1950s and has released dozens of albums since, including at least two veritable classics: We Three, a Prestige trio date with pianist Phineas Newborn and bassist Paul Chambers, and Out of the Afternoon, an Impulse! title with Roland Kirk on reeds, Tommy Flanagan on piano and Henry Grimes on bass.

His Hip Ensemble came later; Fountain of Youth later still. And at this point it seems obvious to say he has been a mentor to generations of younger players, though that reputation hasn’t stuck to him the same way that it did to, say, Blakey. Haynes himself may be the main reason for this. “One of the things that I like is not to have to say anything, or make any rules,” he said. “It just flows. When I can do that, when that type of understanding is understood, you can do anything you want to do. They understand without having to say or talk. I like that type of thing. It can’t happen with just anybody.”

Jaleel Shaw, the resourceful saxophonist in Fountain of Youth, said the mentorship was more implied than stated, but a strong force nonetheless: “The first thing I noticed when I started playing with Roy, after the first gig, I remember going backstage and him saying to the band, ‘Don’t lean on me. I’m not here to give you time. You’ve got to have that time yourself.’ He says, all the time, ‘It’s all about having your own beat.’ He talks about Trane, he says, ‘Man, what was amazing about Trane and Bird is that they had that beat in them. I could play whatever I wanted behind them and they would still go.’”

Strickland puts it this way: “Whether he consciously means to do so or not, simply playing with him is the best tutelage that anyone can receive in music.” Haynes, he adds, has “contributed a vast amount of invaluable knowledge to a vast number of musicians, and whether it is called an academy or not does not matter.”

And that seems to be the bottom line: Haynes is as Haynes does, and it’s up to the rest of us to extract our lessons, of which there are many. Watching him lead the band onstage, I’m still pondering his answer to one of my questions about the mechanics of his art. “I think most of it is just about feel,” he said. “Naturally. That’s probably why I can still do it at this older age. Maybe, I don’t know. It’s coming from inside.”

Originally published in November 2011

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