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Roy Brooks: Hard Bop Hard Time

Roy Brooks
Roy Brooks
Roy Brooks

It’s been a long time coming, but the extraordinary jazz drummer Roy Brooks may finally be on his way back from hell. At least it seems that way on this hot July day, as bright sunshine streams through the big windows of Parnall Correctional Facility’s visitation room. Brooks, cane in hand, slowly shuffles toward the two friends who’ve driven out from Detroit to Jackson, Mich., to see him. There are warm hugs and laughter all around as the three settle into their assigned chairs for a good visit.

Imprisonment can quickly age people, and Brooks is no exception. At this point he looks older than his 64 years, his once rounded, ebullient face now longer and tired-looking. His slight stoop is more pronounced and his closely shaved hair has turned entirely gray. Yet a slight smile and a hint of liveliness lighten his penetrating gaze.

That’s a profound change. Three years ago, Brooks’ visage was terrifying, containing only rage, confusion and utter desperation. He was on the ropes-his house was falling apart, he was broke, his distraught wife had moved back to New York City, nobody would hire or work with him, he was already on parole for waving an unloaded gun at a neighbor the previous year. Then the roof fell in. Brandishing a machete and a bullwhip, he physically threatened yet another neighbor, this time over a tiny piece of lawn between their houses in the old west side Detroit neighborhood where Brooks grew up.

Justice was swift and terrible. The police arrested him; the judge cancelled his parole and threw the book at him, despite pleas from another judge and a prestigious lawyer who knew just how valuable Brooks was to the community. Before most friends had heard he was in serious trouble again, Roy Brooks was put behind bars for at least 32 months. Given Michigan’s terrible lack of long-term public health facilities for its mentally ill, the judge had little choice-for Brooks’ and the public’s safety.

Brooks got into this terrible mess because, over the years, he had often failed to take his daily dose of lithium, a highly effective remedy for bipolar disease. Brooks has struggled with the merciless mental illness, also known as manic depression, for nearly 40 years. It whips its victim’s mental state between crippling lows and maniacal highs. In the wrong circumstances-such as being an underemployed jazz musician with no health insurance and a scant family support system-it can destroy the strongest of people.

Now, with two years of jail, square meals and steady medicating behind him, Brooks is more stable than he has been in decades. Soon, he must be ready to face the real world again and try to rebuild his career. That’s one big item he and one of his visitors are talking about today. First-call Detroit bassist Marion Hayden, often a key player in Brooks’ unflaggingly colorful groups, discusses a possible “homecoming” benefit concert to help him make the extraordinarily difficult transition he faces in January. The man does not even own a car anymore.

As if on cue, Brooks interrupts their conversation and glances up at the big clock on the wall.

“Wait a minute,” he rasps. “Let’s take a break. It’s time for me to go take my medicine, OK?”

The request-which might indicate that the man actually wants to take his lithium-is music to his friends’ ears. In fact, it’s all Hayden and her companion can do to stifle an exultant cheer. Brooks gets up and shuffles out the door, promising to be right back.

By the time Roy Brooks got off the road in 1964 from his nearly five years with what was then one of the hottest acts in jazz-the Horace Silver Quintet-he had helped invent and refine hard bop. A Detroit upbringing had imbedded the great twin traditions of bebop and rhythm & blues deep in Brooks’ bones. It gave his drumming all of the finesse, subtlety and sophistication that modern jazz required, plus the sock-it-in-the-pocket backbeat of classic 1950s R&B. It fit Silver’s new thing perfectly, and when he caught wind of the then 21-year-old’s playing in 1959, the pianist immediately drafted Brooks into the big leagues.

After his successful stint with Silver, Brooks quickly settled into a New York City jazz scene as creatively restless as he was. For the next 11 years he worked at the cutting edge of the music, with fellow Detroiters Yusef Lateef and Milt Jackson, as well as with Lee Morgan, Randy Weston, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Pharoah Sanders and Dexter Gordon.

Brooks also formed his own New York band, the Artistic Truth, and attracted some of the best of his fellow young players-Woody Shaw, Sonny Fortune and Reggie Workman-as well as vocalese grandmaster Eddie Jefferson. His fresh, tuneful, unorthodox writing, buoyant personality and ferociously interactive drumming turned many a hip head. But Brooks’ occasional, strange, emotional outbursts-some of them while he was still working with Silver-had added a wary undercurrent to the stellar rep Brooks enjoyed among his fellow jazz giants: Roy’s great, the cats all agreed, but he is a little crazy.

His wife, Hermine, first met him in 1966 and, though there were subtle signs of trouble, she missed them.

“I do know that when I met him he was coming off of something,” she recalls. “He was just getting himself together again to get back out there. I think now that somebody did try to tell me once, but I didn’t understand.”

Maybe there was no way she could have understood-at least not when she and Roy were so immersed in the wide-open, cutting-edge atmosphere of New York City’s modern jazz scene. Many players engaged in what the straight world would consider bizarre or outrageous behavior. The scene was a jumble of late-night hours and alcohol, hand-to-mouth finances, ever-shifting employment, constant travel, fleeting stardom and staunchly antiestablishment attitudes on sex, drugs and art. Sorting out the merely eccentric from the truly mentally ill and the first cousins that often mask it-drug and alcohol addiction-was difficult.

Brooks, back from his pill break, says that’s how he remembers it.

“That was the norm among musicians-to be out,” he says, his voice rising slightly above the happy conversational hum slowly building around him in Parnall’s now nearly full visitation room. “I never saw anybody be put down for being out. The farther out they were, the more people would migrate to it. Especially in New York, where there is so much going on. If a guy would act weird, it was like he fit in more!”

Author and critic Gary Giddins agrees that most everyone on the scene was at that time “accepting of a much wider range of characters. There was a very thin line between being eccentric and being truly ill. Charles Mingus, for instance, was completely outrageous much of the time, but people around him didn’t care so much because he was so gifted.”

Mingus used his battles for his sanity in creative ways. Once, when he naively checked himself into a mental institution to cool out for a while, he was shocked to discover that he was not allowed to leave. This inspired one of his wildest tunes, “Lock ‘Em Up.” Years later, when he wrote his epic autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus often used the voice of a man talking to his psychiatrist-something he actually did in real life.

Charlie Parker is the classic example of someone who lived the life his celebrity cult demanded, inadvertently transforming his drug and alcohol addiction into a myth about how drugs can propel someone to great artistic heights. He, too, memorialized one of his stays in a mental hospital with a tune, “Relaxing at Camarillo.” Near the end of his troubled life, he twice attempted suicide and committed himself to Bellevue Hospital.

“He ought to be a case history,” according to longtime author and jazz activist Nat Hentoff. “He was incredible. I’d see him and talk to him and there were always different Birds. In Boston, all he was doing was looking at a magazine and grunting. Then, next time, he was full of enthusiasm, analyzing a Bartók work. I don’t even know how to diagnose that. I saw him once, late at night, at Birdland, and there were tears streaming down his face and he was saying to me, ‘I’ve got to talk to you.'”

But, Hentoff says, the conversation never occurred.

Writer Ira Gitler, on the other hand, doesn’t think Parker was actually “crazy, but he was at the mercy of his habits. You would talk to him, and he seemed perfectly normal. He has been called a sociopath, but that depends on your definition. He did steal horns and kind of beat people for money, but that’s only because he needed a fix. He went off at different times, but I don’t think he was clinically crazy.”

Giddins ticks off a list of other jazz artists whose self-destructive behavior likely stemmed from serious mental illnesses. Bill Evans, he notes, used heroin or methadone for essentially his entire professional career. Was it because of profound depression? Chet Baker’s obsession with an incredible range of drugs-excruciatingly detailed in the documentary Let’s Get Lost-verged on psychopathic behavior. It ravaged his stunning good looks, ruined his career and eventually led to his mysterious death, which was probably a drug deal gone bad, according to James Gavin’s new book about Baker, Deep in a Dream.

Susannah McCorkle offers a more recent, perhaps even more shocking example, Giddins says. This singer with a tirelessly sunny persona killed herself when, at about the same time she stopped taking her antidepressants, she lost both her best and steadiest gig and her long-running record label affiliation.

Depression also killed Thelonious Monk, though in far less spectacular, slow-motion fashion. Monk was always extremely eccentric-famous for oblique remarks, funny little on-stage dances, an often haunted look, frequently unconventional dress and startlingly unorthodox compositional and performance styles.

But was he mentally ill?

Gitler remembers Monk as “a very strange person, but it was chemically induced. He used to take a lot of pills. He was very difficult to talk to. He went into a real depression at the end of his life. The only time he would come out of his room at the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s house was when Barry Harris would play. Then he wouldn’t even come out of his room for that.”

Bud Powell’s story is especially tragic. His drinking problem became much more complicated when, the story goes, he intervened as police were accosting Monk and one cop brutally clubbed Powell on the head and damaged his brain. Soon there were horrible headaches and increasingly desperate measures to quell them-including electroshock therapy and long incarcerations in mental hospitals. Nothing worked; his drinking and depression only grew heavier and eventually killed him.

Jaco Pastorius’ fate offers a chilling reminder of just how quickly bipolar disease can kill. His illness probably led to the confrontation and resultant brawl that killed him in a Fort Lauderdale bar a few months before his 36th birthday. This certainly could have happened to Brooks if, say, any of the people he threatened over the years had been packing a pistol. Is this what happened to Albert Ayler or Henry Grimes? Both suffered from mental illness and met with untimely, mysterious deaths.

Trumpeter Tom Harrell is the exception who has proved the rule. He has managed to be incredibly productive despite his more than 30-year battle with schizophrenia, which he controls using psychotropic drugs that give him tremors, among other side effects.

One of the great, ironic tragedies of creativity is that some sort of madness frequently accompanies it. Not everyone who is highly creative is bipolar or paranoid or horribly depressed or addicted or schizophrenic, and most people who suffer such severe illnesses are not artists. But those who live in the world where creativity and madness meet are often the ones who give us truly visionary art.

Kay Redfield Jamison makes that point in her 1993 book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Jamison, a professor of psychiatry who’s authored a definitive medical text on bipolar disease, investigated the lives of a number of mentally disturbed poets, authors and composers. William Blake, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Herman Melville, William and Henry James, Robert Schumann, Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf were creative geniuses who suffered tremendously from mental illness.

Noting that the ancient Greeks thought madness to be a necessary condition for priests and poets to communicate with the gods, Jamison traces the possessed, artistic temperament through the Renaissance, the Romantic era and the 20th century. While her anecdotes about early masters are convincing, it’s her summary of modern scientific research that clinches the case that, as Byron put it, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”

Jamison cites formal, biographical studies which indicate that between one-quarter and one-half of artists are mentally ill-two to five times above the “normal” rate of the general population. She quotes a clinical study that found forced psychiatric hospitalization rates among modern-day artists, writers and composers to be six to seven times that of a control group. And she presents genealogical studies that find madness and creativity clustering within families: quite frequently, close relatives of artists with mental diseases are also markedly creative and more frequently mentally ill than the general population.

Jamison says creativity and mental turmoil often go hand-in-hand because as great artists plumb their own deepest emotions, they release repressed thoughts and feelings that are typically illogical and dark. Blending these strong, loaded impulses with the discipline of an artistic form invokes sharp changes of mood, thinking and perception that also are nearly textbook definitions of certain mental illnesses. She concludes that madness and creativity are frequently both cognitively and emotionally similar.

Roy Brooks moved back to Detroit from New York City with Hermine in 1975. She says Roy, an only child, was quite concerned about his ailing mother; they shared the big old house with her and awaited the birth of their child, Raheem. Back in Detroit, he kept in touch with some of his New York colleagues, particularly Max Roach. He toured frequently with that legend’s gorgeous percussion band, M’Boom, but, increasingly, his illness interfered.

“He had a lot of setbacks,” Hermine recalls. “He’d come back from M’Boom and then they would wait for him to get better again before going back out. He’d try a medication and it would make him so sick. He’d say, ‘I can’t play, I can’t hear the music.’ It took many, many years before he found something he could work with. It turns out lithium was the only thing that worked. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe this will save his life.'”

Even as these Herculean struggles continued, Brooks reemerged on the Detroit scene with bright bursts of creativity. He recast his Artistic Truth band with a formidable, all-Detroit lineup and quickly established it as one of the region’s top groups. He teamed with established local jazz godfathers such as Kenny Cox, Wendell Harrison and the late Harold McKinney to form M.U.S.I.C., Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture. He began teaching young percussionists in a charmless building on a bleak block of downtown Detroit, and spawned his riotously colorful Aboriginal Percussion Choir there. It was M’Boom on steroids-a huge group that worked simple percussive and melodic riffs into joyful, barely controlled, musical hurricanes, accompanied by everything from tap dancers to basketball games. He played “All Blues” on a carpenter’s saw and developed his one-man “Mystical Afronaut” extravaganza, complete with wind-up toys and electronic gizmos.

He quickly became one of the city scene’s godfathers; his basement practice room grew into a sort of community center.

“There were lots of musicians going through,” bassist Hayden recalls. “I always felt really secure there. Raheem was always welcome to come downstairs and hang out with us. Roy was wonderful with children; there was never any drugs or drinking going on. It was a very uplifting and healthy situation; others brought their children down too. On the wall were posters from all over the world, with all of his different musical collaborations.”

One was from the 1990 Moers Jazz Festival in Germany, which the Aboriginal Choir played.

“We just blew them away over there,” says Choir member Jerry LeDuff. Whenever they played in Detroit, they did exactly the same thing.

But artistic success doesn’t always equal financial security, particularly in hard times Detroit. A terrible lack of money may have been the main reason Brooks became both more erratic and less faithful about taking his lithium over the next two decades. His outbursts and other strange behavior became more public; by the mid-1990s he’d slipped into the steep, downward spiral that eventually led to his incarceration.

By the time he faced the judge who sent him to jail, Brooks was clearly in need of publicly funded, long-term, assisted living to survive his illness. That’s because one of bipolar disease’s most treacherous hallmarks is that it breeds a stubborn reluctance to taking the medicine that controls it. Brooks also faced another, potentially huge Catch 22: lithium can interfere with one’s creativity and technique.

“Being manic is fun,” explains Roberta Sanders, the director of Detroit’s publicly funded New Center Mental Health Services, which treated Brooks for nearly 20 years and tried hard, with its desperately short resources, to keep him stable. “That’s why people with this kind of illness have to be seeing therapists daily.”

That was a service level clearly beyond what New Center could provide. As with so many people who suffer from mental illness and have precious few resources to fight back with, there simply was no cavalry that could charge over the hill and save Brooks from nearly destroying his life.

Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America in New York City, has spent the last two years trying to save the lives of impoverished, uninsured jazz musicians. Her two-person nonprofit raises money and in-kind medical services for players who need temporary help with rent, medical expenses or just about anything else that gets in the way of their music-making.

“Mental illness is a problem in every creative community,” she says, “not just jazz musicians. In this country, we can’t even take care of artists in exchange for their art. We don’t give them medical insurance; we don’t support them. And often I find that when artists do get help, doctors will misdiagnose their bipolar disease as alcohol or drug addiction. No one looks to see, maybe this guy really needs help.”

Roberta Sanders agrees; she says that, even with a correct diagnosis, help is problematic when a patient is poor.

“This is a case of mental health system failure,” Sanders says of Brooks’ disaster. “This is the criminalization of the mentally ill. If he had been able to stay on his medication and was being followed every day, he would not be having these problems. There’s absolutely no way.”

Artists are hardly the only ones catching this kind of hell. But the fact that Brooks is a well-established artist in his own hometown, and that there are well-connected people there who think enough of his musical career to try to help him out of his grave jam, is the saving exception that proves the damning rule. As a recent article in the Washington Post reported, there are now nearly five times more mentally ill people in prison than in state mental hospitals.

This is the awful, unintended result of the mental health community’s de-institutionalization movement, which started in the late 1970s. Prodded by reformers, many big, impersonal, far-away state mental hospitals closed down and released thousands of patients to what were supposed to be more humane, community-based circumstances. But drastic state and federal budget funding reductions in the 1980s cut these brave efforts off at the knees and stranded many people, leading to the terrible explosion of America’s homeless population. Finding publicly supported, long-term living situations for people with chronic, debilitating mental illness has become extremely difficult throughout much of the country.

Brooks’ situation is also an extreme example of how poorly this hypercommercialized society treats its artists. Most artists don’t want to be arena-rock stars, nor do they want welfare checks. They want to work hard, earn a decent living and not be faced with utter financial ruin-or worse-if they encounter serious medical problems. Today, though, the artistic world’s severe economic stratification has reached Third World proportions-a tiny and at least comfortably wealthy upper class and a lower class that struggles just to put food on the table. “I can’t tell you how many times I go to housing court,” Oxenhorn says. “Twice this week! I think we have saved about 60 people from eviction since I’ve been here. So when it comes to something like mental illness, I’m having enough trouble just doing the regular things, like keeping our own doors open and making sure musicians have enough food and can keep their apartments.”

Around the country, other jazz activists are trying to bring medical assistance to musicians in need. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, a community-based organization in the Crescent City, offers services to players and bases its rates on an ability to pay. And in Detroit, CHIP (Creative Healing Initiative Partnership) is just getting started in its mission to help musicians heal both themselves and others. It eventually hopes to serve as a referral source for publicly available healthcare, pair musicians with doctors willing to donate services, and even create a bartering system that could trade in-hospital performances for patients by musicians for medical treatment vouchers of some sort.

But none of these efforts come close to providing the kind of help needed for players with chronic, severe mental illness. In this particular battle, the cavalry remains completely out of sight.

Roy Brooks’ saga could possibly have a happy ending. After Detroit’s Metro Times, a weekly alternative newspaper, published a cover story I wrote about Brooks last fall, many people signed up to help stage a benefit concert for him. U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.)-the man who moved the federal government to declare jazz “a national treasure” 15 years ago-has also become somewhat involved.

In fact, he may have been a key factor in getting Brooks moved late this past winter from an isolated prison in Michigan’s distant Upper Peninsula, which wouldn’t even allow Brooks a set of drumsticks, to close-by Parnall. Now Brooks has the precious opportunity to play drums and jam on the blues with some of his guitar-slinging fellow inmates, who mostly play rock ‘n’ roll.

“I had to audition to play in their band,” he says with a chuckle. “So I just sat down and played a buzz roll for them. That was it. They said, ‘OK’ right away!”

There’s a pleased grin on Brooks’ face now, as he changes from inmate to master musician.

“Now I want to put something together here with them before I leave,” he says. “Some of the cats here even know me. One guy told me, ‘I used to see you at Chene Park [a major Detroit performance venue], man! I have a fleet of trucks and I will help you move your equipment when you get out.’ And I’m getting letters from all over now.”

Brooks says he’s thinking hard about what he will perform when he gets out. He’s thinking about possible lineups for a 10-piece band and doesn’t seem worried by the possibility that some of his picks might be reluctant to be part of his next creative projects, given his past episodes.

“I can hear it,” he says to Hayden of the music playing in his head. His voice resonates with the self-assurance that has so often carried some of his most outlandish ideas all the way to at least local wild acclaim. “Some of it is stuff I was doing before. I’m rearranging it in my head.”

Hayden asks if it’s okay for her to rearrange one of his signature tunes, “Forever Mingus,” for a bass ensemble project she’s working on.

“Sure, that would be great!” he says, his grin growing even wider.

In her office in downtown Detroit, Roberta Sanders is also on Brooks’ case. She frequently phones Hermine, the only person in regular phone contact with Roy. She wants to make sure the man is buying into what will happen when he’s released smack dab in the middle of a Michigan winter.

“It won’t be smooth,” Sanders says, “but we will be able to make it work.”

Brooks’ incarceration, she says, means he will be able to move into a publicly funded dependent living facility and that New Center Mental Health Services will then oversee his medical treatment. The trick is to find a place that’s in his hometown and close to a place where he can easily and safely store, and practice on, his huge collection of percussion instruments. She hopes he will be eligible for Social Security disability payments.

But no matter the vagaries of the state and federal agencies who now have so much to say about Brooks’ daily life, one thing is clear: his ultimate success depends on the community that he has drawn together over the past 27 years of selfless, creative giving in Detroit.

“It’s got to begin with support from friends who really care about him and try to support him,” Gitler says. “It will be a big boost if he can actually still play. But whether he can or not, he is going to need a big support team.”

Brooks himself seems remarkably upbeat about his prospects and amazingly unfazed about his past misfortunes. He refuses to blame anyone-including himself-for what has happened to him.

“I’m ready to hit, I’ll tell you that,” he insists. “That’s my whole thing: January 28, 2003. I still have my purpose, what I want to do in my life. It’s not a fight, not with nobody else. This might all just be part of the plan. I am moving on if I can.”

Address letters to Roy Brooks, Prisoner No. 319710, Parnall Correctional Facility, 1790 East Parnall Road, Jackson, MI 49201. The Michigan Department of Corrections does not allow anything to be sent to prisoners other than money, which must be in the form of a certified cashier’s check, made out to the prisoner’s name and number.

Marion Hayden, Jerry LeDuff and other “Friends of Roy” continue to plan for a musical event that will mark and support Brooks’ return to the community. Persons interested in assisting should e-mail

[email protected]

Jim Dulzo is a Detroit-based freelance writer, broadcaster and concert producer.

A Roy Brooks Discography:

The Free Slave (32 Jazz) is the only Roy Brooks disc that’s widely available. It catches a live 1970 set with a band of stellar hard boppers that includes a very young Woody Shaw, plus George Coleman, Hugh Lawson and Cecil McBee. McBee and Brooks lay down a funky, intelligent groove and the band burns brightly through four extended tunes.

Duet in Detroit (Enja) is worth looking for in used bins and on the Web. It’s a collection of duets that pair Brooks with three remarkably creative and different pianists-Geri Allen, Randy Weston or Don Pullen-as well as with Shaw. This exceptionally varied, satisfying collection of duets was recorded at the Detroit Institute of Arts in the ’80s.

Bemsha Swing (Blue Note), an excellent Woody Shaw disc featuring Brooks and recorded live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, is already out of print but can sometimes be found in used CD shops and online. The double disc features Geri Allen and Robert Hurst as well; this is such a burner in no small part thanks to how hard Brooks pushes the rest of the band.

Vinyl treasures well worth the search include a number of sessions with the Artistic Truth band, including Live at Town Hall (Baystate), Ethnic Expressions (Im-Hotep), Black Survival (Im-Hotep) and The Smart Set (Baystate).

The Aboriginal Percussion Choir never released a recording, but Brooks is on two of Max Roach’s M’Boom records, clearly precursors to Brooks’ own group. Re: Percussion (Baystate) and Collage (Soul Note) offer tunes that are beguiling in their beauty and unstoppable in their understated yet powerful grooves. They, too, will have to be found used.

Brooks’ earliest work with Dollar Brand, Yusef Lateef and Horace Silver is fairly easy to find. Dollar Brand’s African Space Program (Enja) may have helped inspire Brooks to launch his one-man show, the Mystical Afronaut. Lateef’s The Blue Lateef (Atlantic) and The Man With the Big Front Yard (32 Jazz)-a compilation of four other classic 1960s albums-display the wide-ranging, exotic musical horizons that Brooks continued to explore on his own.

Three different Horace Silver albums-Horace-Scope, Silver’s Serenade and Song for My Father (Blue Note)-capture several of Silver’s polished quintets, all with Brooks at the kit. One listen to any of these demonstrates why Silver’s was the most popular band of the hard-bop era. It also reminds us of how important Brooks’ backbeat was to the development of what came to be called funky jazz.

Originally Published