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Roy Haynes: I’m Not a Metronome

Roy Haynes
Christian McBride with Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes

Mr. Roy Haynes has always represented the hippest of the hip and the coolest of the cool. Appropriately, he once had a band called the Hip Ensemble. Now, at a somewhat freaky 30-ish 82 years of age, he somehow defies even Mother Nature herself. He speaks on and off the drums with a clarity that seems nothing short of a mad scientist’s successful experiment. I was 19 years old the first time I got to play with Roy Haynes in a band with McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson-talk about being raked over the coals! I’m very honored to have had such a close musical relationship with this man ever since. I was thrilled when I was asked to interview Mr. Haynes at a panel sponsored by NARAS-the Grammy people-at the International Association for Jazz Education Conference earlier this year. What follows is just an excerpt of our conversation there, but I hope you’ll learn something about the one-of-kind Mr. Roy Haynes.

Christian McBride: You were born and raised in Boston. Tell us about how you got started and discovered the drums.

Roy Haynes: I think the drums discovered me. I lived in the Roxbury section of Boston. On the street that I lived on there was a drummer that had played with that band. His name was Herbert Wright. The other end of the street was another drummer named Bobby Donaldson, and I was surrounded by all of these drummers. I have had a feeling ever since I could remember to want to play drums. I was always [playing] with my hands in school. In fact, they pulled me out of school once for playing on the desk. I had the whole class in the palm of my hands and the teacher didn’t like that at all. So he sent me to the principal’s office saying that I had disturbed the class, and the principal said, “Don’t come back to the school unless you bring one of your parents with you.” I didn’t ask my father to come because my father probably would have wanted to kick the principal’s butt. But my mother came and she said when the principal spoke to her, he had his head down and didn’t look up at her at all and he talked about me and my mother said, “That couldn’t be my son!” And she talked about that for the rest of her life.

I had always wanted to play drums. I’d be playing on my mother’s dining room table and dishes and I would just be breaking up everything. I started from there. My father had introduced me to Herbert Wright and that’s when I started my first drum lessons.

We lived in front of a Jewish synagogue. It was really heavily interracial. First of all, my father bought the house when I was 2 years old and we lived in that house until I came to New York in 1945 to join Louis Russell. The Irish people lived on the left side of the house and on the right side of the house were French Canadians. Down the block where Herbert Wright lived there were a lot of black people. I know how to deal with this person and I know how to deal with that person. And that’s the way I came out and I’m sure that probably helps with the music throughout the world with different countries and different people. That’s a part of the way I started.

CM: When did you get your first drum kit?

I didn’t have a set of drums, but I started getting it piece by piece. The group of guys I hung out with, we had a name; we were called the Feather Merchants and the girls that hung out with us were called the Feather Maids. This other neighborhood, which was close to Roxbury, we would go to one of my buddies who lived in the building and I think his parents would take care of the furnace in that big building. So that’s where we would hang out, like our own club. One day this guy named Griffin, he had come into the club with a trap case with a snare drum in it and some cymbals and some drumsticks. I never to this day found out where he got it. But that was my first snare drum and cymbals. He is not living now, but he was kind of fast, so you will just have to use your own imagination where they came from.

I started getting gigs and I didn’t have my hi-hat when I started. I just had to play the cymbal with one stick and choke it and open it like a hi-hat does. I got this gig in the Borden Square section of Boston, the Italian section, and the trumpet player said, “Hey, why don’t you get a hi-hat?” I finally got a hi-hat later.

CM: Did you have the bass drum at this time?

Actually, my first gig was without a bass drum.

CM: So it’s you just stomping on the floor, huh?

[Claps like foot stomps] You know what I mean? I worked at a summer camp and I saved up my money and that’s when I bought my first bass drum. There was a war at that time and they couldn’t use the mother-of-pearl. They had to use things [made] out of wood; I think it was a William F. Ludwig bass drum. I think it was a 26-inch bass, which was considered small. Herbie Wright and all of these guys had a 28-inch bass drum. They’d come down the street with that big bass drum.

CM: When you were doing your first gigs on your Frankenstein kit, had you been checking out other drummers on records at that time?

During that early period, I was hearing a lot of stuff on the radio-they had good radio stations in Boston at that time-and naturally I was checking out the Basie band, because my older brother was very hip. In fact, Papa Jo [Jones] told me that my brother brought me to him. I was still in school. He said, “You had your schoolbooks!” There was a club on downtown Warrington Street; I think that is where the Basie band had played. Papa Jo was one of the first guys I was into. People told me I looked like him. That really made me feel good.

CM: So you graduate from high school and you’re gigging around Boston…

I didn’t graduate. They threw me out. That’s why I didn’t go back. I didn’t want to go. I was making money playing the drum. I knew where I wanted to go.

CM: Now you hit with Louie Russell’s band before you got with Lester Young. How did you get with that gig?

I had a summer gig in 1945, in Martha’s Vineyard. We were playing with a band, with stock arrangements playing for people dancing. And while I was there for that whole summer, I got a special delivery letter from New York and it went to the Boston local [union], which was 535, so they sent it special delivery to where I was. I opened this letter, and I had wanted to go to New York with a big band anyhow. [Russell] told me how much he would pay me and he told me who recommended me to the band and he had never heard me. He told me I would probably start playing at the Apollo Theater or the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. It’s 1945 and the war was just supposedly over in that period. He sent me a one-way train ticket and I stayed at his house for about four weeks until his wife got tired of me sleeping in the living room, hanging out on 52nd Street all night…

CM: So you jumped right into the New York scene right away and became one of the pillars of the scene.

Louis Russell was from Panama and he went to New Orleans. Very early, I think he won some kind of money or something. He played piano and he was a big-band leader. He played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. In fact, Louis Russell had this big band and Louis Armstrong would use that big band and say it was his band and front that band. Russell was very hip; we would rehearse up in Harlem in one of those brownstones at 131st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.

CM: How long did you stay in that band before you went with Prez? And how did you get that gig from Prez?

First of all, I stayed with Louis Russell’s [band] one year and I quit. I gave him my two weeks notice, because I was hanging down 52nd Street every night listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Then Louis Russell got this young singer by the name of Lee Richardson from Washington, D.C. He had a voice; I mean this guy could sing. He made a record called “The Very Thought of You” and he had a contract with another company so they couldn’t put his name on the record. They called [him] “Mr. X” or something like that. The record was selling. This guy was hitting high notes and low notes and all of the girls were coming. So I went back with the band for another year. I was with the Louis Russell band for two years.

CM: When you gave them your two-weeks notice, was that when you had the gig with Prez all lined up or were you just kind of freelancing around New York?

I started at the Savoy Ballroom, and I had heard that Prez was very insensitive to his drummers. But I had no problems with Prez. [I worked for] a lot of the saxophone players back in those days. I used to sit in with Don Byas and that was my thing. Pete Brown, I used to work with a lot. Somebody once said I was a saxophone player drummer-so that could be part of my thing. You know, like with Coltrane, with Bird, with Prez. I just liked the sound of a cymbal with the sax. It was cool with a trumpet, too. Back in the old days we used to play the hi-hat for trumpet players and also for the piano soloist. Now all of the guys want you up there.

CM: Did you find [Prez] or did he find you?

He had a fine drummer [who] got sick or something. Prez was the most original man I have ever met. As far as the way he spoke, the way he dressed, everything about him. After I played a couple tunes with Prez, he had a way where he wouldn’t walk; he would just float from here to there. Sat over here and the drums are there and he comes and just floats over there. His name is Prez, because he called everyone else Prez. So he said to me, “Hey, Prez, you sure are swinging. If you have eyes the gig is yours.” I stayed with him two years making a hundred dollars a week and they were taking out tax. I got maybe 92 dollars. And in those days we had to pay our own hotels. You guys today are lucky, man.

CM: So you’re playing with Lester Young now and you’re in his band for two years. After Prez, that’s when you hooked up with Bird, who had come back east. How did you hook up with Bird?

While Miles was with Bird, Max was with Bird. There was a place in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn that had opened in the summer of 1949 called Soldier Meyers. He was a soldier; he had two sons, Knobby and Walter. Knobby was the youngest one. And Soldier Meyers had a low voice, like a mafia-type feeling. And Miles had I think the first gig there with his band around 1949. Miles left Bird. Meantime, the drummer was Max Roach and he was king in Brooklyn. After Miles’ gig in Brooklyn, I go to 52nd Street with Bud Powell.

In the meantime, Max is going to get his own band at Soldier Meyers in Brooklyn. He’s playing at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street with Bird and I’m playing across the street with Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt is on alto, and everybody’s hanging out where we are. Max comes over one night, told me he’s leaving Bird and he wants me to replace him. I’m having such a good time with Bud Powell and everybody, I don’t give him an answer. But he gets disturbed; he says, “Well, if I don’t get you I’m going to get Kansas Field.” After a few nights go by, Charlie Parker comes over himself and asks me to join him. And I said yes. One time much later, we were doing something for children and Elvin’s there, Louie Bellson, Max and myself, and we are all talking. When Max Roach’s turn to talk comes, he comes up and says [yelling], “Roy Haynes took my gig, and he never gave it back!” And I said, “I was supposed to give it back?” I never knew that.

CM: He said it wasn’t your fault he wanted to start his own band, right?

When I first joined Bird, Red Rodney was there, because Miles had already left. I couldn’t play like Max, you know. I had to play like Roy Haynes, of course. But there was something about the way I [played] that Bird really liked, evidently. Because he told Red Rodney, “That’s my favorite drummer.” And I remember going to Bird’s funeral and [Bird’s widow] Chan said, “You know, you were Bird’s favorite drummer.”

CM: You stayed with Bird for how long?

With Bird we didn’t work steady. You know, Bird had a lot of problems. I remember going to your hometown, playing in Philadelphia with Bird. We would open up on Monday for the matinee. It would start at like 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the place was packed. Our last night would be Saturday. We would wait to get our money and there wouldn’t be no road manager-it was Charlie Parker. The union man would always be there because Bird would commute. He knew that if he stayed in Philadelphia he would get busted. That’s what Billie Holiday got busted for.

CM: ‘Cause Billie was treacherous at that time.

They knew who was doing what. We would stay in the club and maybe stop playing at midnight. Bird would owe money and by the time it came to pay the band, he ain’t got no money. We were there all morning, while they’re trying to figure out who gets this and that. It’s what would happen in Philadelphia. But Bird, he’d be playing some nights and it was memorable stuff.

CM: Playing behind Bird, dropping those bombs and playing all that slick stuff on the snare drum. There was Max and there was you. It’s like you two cats played like boxers. I know Miles used to say that about both of you, you had that jab or stick-and-move thing happening. I can only assume you’ve always played like that. I think it was also around this time that you were playing with Bird that you did that gig with Ella Fitzgerald. This was I think before you joined Sarah Vaughan’s band or was this after you joined Sarah?

First of all, I would like to say that I played with the greatest singers ever. We were playing in Providence, Rhode Island. I think it was 1952. Hank Jones was the pianist. Nelson Boyd, who played with Miles-you know “Half Nelson” was dedicated to Nelson Boyd. We’re playing with Ella for that whole season at this club in Providence. Organ trios were very popular in those days. We’re doing a repertoire with Ella, and then on the weekend, they bring in this organ trio and they’re burning … they’re really burning … I forget who the drummer was. Ella gets mad at us-me, Hank Jones and Nelson-and she says, “You mf’ers aren’t swinging. What’s up?” So being a drummer, I had attitude. I’m playing with Hank Jones and Nelson Boyd and I ain’t swinging? You get a whole lot of things when you deal with singers, but Ella could swing. That lady could swing.

CM: I guess when you hear an organ trio like that, getting the crowd all jumping and hollering. Now when did you join Sarah Vaughan’s group?

1953. I had always liked Sarah. Sarah made a record with Dizzy-I don’t know if Bird was on it. I first heard Sarah with Earl Hines. And when I was with Prez, we would play a place called the Blue Note in Chicago and they would hire Sarah and Lester Young so I had to accompany her.

CM: Did she send you a telegram or did she come and snatch you off of Bird’s gig?

Well, we sort of knew each other then. Her husband and manager was George Treadwell. I was playing a gig somewhere. Joe Benjamin was playing bass. She snatched both of us, which was 1953. The time I played with Ella Fitzgerald was the whole summer of 1952.

CM: Ella and Sarah-back to back. Talk a little more about Sarah Vaughan.

Sarah Vaughan … she could really hang out. I joined her in Philadelphia and the opening night the pianist got the wrong date so we opened without a piano at a place called the Rendezvous-one of those downtown speakeasies. She accompanied herself that night. She’s a very good pianist and at the end of the night she wanted to go hang out so we go to South Philadelphia. I think there was an after-hours place called Pies. I was driving that night. I had my car, the first automobile I had bought, a convertible, and we hung out in that car. She was drinking Gordon’s Gin-this is not a commercial-during that time. Every time she ordered one, she would say, “Give him one, too,” and I was driving.

First of all, they didn’t want to let us in because they didn’t know who we were-me, a buddy of mine and Sarah. She kept nudging me, saying, “Tell them who I am.” So I said, “This is Sarah Vaughan.” And they looked at us and said, ” Uh, yeah right.” So they had to go get somebody who they thought knew Sarah Vaughan. We got into this place drinking Gordon’s Gin and stayed until 10 o’clock the next morning. That was my first night playing with her-1953. This was the first time I had a hangover. We played at Birdland-we’d do four or five sets a night-we’d start out at 10 and play until 4 in the morning. Like on a Saturday night, we would get off and drive to Atlantic City and hang out all night. They had something called the breakfast show at Club Harlem. Then we’d get in the car and drive back to do the Sunday show. Those were beautiful days.

CM: You played with her from ’53 to ’58. I want to move us up two years. In 1960, Esquire voted Roy Haynes one of the best-dressed men of the year. Now people are getting to know you not just for being hip on the drums but also being hip off the drums, as well. He has been known as one of the slickest, most in-demand style counselors of all time and I’ve done my best to pay tribute to Mr. Haynes today. I didn’t have any cowboy boots, but I pulled these out for you [Christian shows off fancy boots, laughs].

Go ahead. Can I ask you a question? Can you play bass with those shoes on?

CM: Yeah, but it hurts after a while. The first time I saw Roy Haynes with the hat and the boots-looking sharp, playing hip-I said, that’s me right there, I want to be like him.

I still have that magazine. There were only two young guys listed in there-only two brothers. Me and Miles Davis. All the rest were Walter Pidgeon, Fred Astaire. [The article] was called “The Art of Wearing Clothes” and it was written by George Frazier. He also did liner notes for Miles. The only reason I was in there was because we went to the same tailor. In those days I was wearing suits, really dressing up. I dress down now. During that period I was getting more play for that than for playing the drums. When I would go to Philadelphia, the young hipsters would come to see [what I was wearing]. In the old days, they had some people up in Harlem, who didn’t even play instruments, who would try to out-dress each other. That was a big thing in Harlem. Then the rock thing started happening. Then the jeans started happening. Now guys come to play a gig with sneakers on. That was unheard of then.

CM: Talk about your time playing with John Coltrane.

That was serious. That was really serious. Coltrane would play a ballad, and talk about intensity. And he was a young kid. After playing slow and nice with Sarah Vaughan. Wow. That was over. [Demonstrates driving beat on his chest]

CM: Tell me about meeting Mingus.

Mingus was playing with Red Norvo and Tal Farlow. Ray Brown took me. Ray said, “Let’s go over to the Embers on the East side. We’d leave Birdland from Broadway on the West side. He introduces me to Mingus and Ray tells me that the first time he met Mingus in California, somebody was having a fight and before you know it Mingus was in the damn fight too. He jumped right in the fight. Ray Brown was something. We had a gig in Europe and they lost my luggage. Ray said, ‘Roy Haynes, that’s the first time I ever seen you look funky, wearing those funky clothes.’

CM: How did you wind up playing with Monk?

Monk was very hip to me from a long time ago from playing with Bud Powell. And I met Monk when he came to Boston with Coleman Hawkins. So I met him early. During that period in New York, there weren’t as many musicians. So if a young guy comes into town, everybody’s going to know him. We were closer together in the ’40s and ’50s then now. Now, a youngster like yourself comes in from another city and gets a manager and right away you’re big time. Then you had to work and pay your dues. There wasn’t a lot of work and money, but there was a lot of love and closeness.

In Harlem, you’d bump into anybody. One day I’m standing there, at 126th Street and 8th Avenue, which was the Mecca for us. It was October 1946. I’m just standing there. Louis Armstrong’s band is getting ready to do a tour through the South. The bus is sitting there. Armstrong says, “Roy Haynes! Our drummer is sick. We need a drummer.” I lived on 149th Street. I got the bus and went and got my bag. He said, “You don’t need your drums.” I went with Louis Armstrong down South for six concerts in a bus. We weren’t flying. The drummer in the big band was always tight with the lead trumpet player. You would sit next to him. They didn’t have no drum parts. He would tell me everything. Don’t forget that. Roy Haynes played with Louis Armstrong! Put that in your book.

CM: Can you tell me about Jazz at the Philharmonic and Buddy Rich?

That’s a heavy one, because here’s what would happen. Charlie Parker told me this more than once. Lots of time he would get ready to do a record date and Norman Granz would ask who he was going to use and Parker would say this guy and that guy and when it come to the drums, Bird would say, “I’m going to use Roy Haynes,” and Granz would say, “What? You’d rather use Roy Haynes than Buddy Rich?” I saw Norman Granz in London much later and asked him about that, and he said that Charlie Parker was lying. So who am I going to believe?

In 1950, when Jazz at the Philharmonic was going to play, they would always do two concerts in one night. They’d open in Newark at the Mosque Theatre at 8 p.m. and a later one at midnight at Carnegie Hall in New York. The next day they were going to go to Washington, D.C. Sunday morning I get a knock on my hotel door. And it’s the roadie for Charlie Parker saying, “You got to come to Washington, because Buddy Rich isn’t playing.” I didn’t have my drums. Buddy’s drums are sitting there. I got to go on first with Charlie Parker. I don’t know what happened between him and Buddy Rich, but Charlie Parker sent for me. I get to the gig and I get up to the drums. I learned something that day. You never sit at someone else’s instrument and adjust things. Buddy is standing there. He said, “Roy, as they are!” His exact words. And he meant, don’t change anything, don’t move them, don’t tune them, play them as they are. He was a little uptight. We had some words that day, Buddy and I. And we became so close later. I remember one time I was driving on the West Side Highway in my car, a convertible with the top down, and somebody comes zooming past me, yelling, “Roy Haynes!” It was Buddy Rich, vroom.

CM: Didn’t you and Miles do some drag racing in my hometown Philadelphia?

Yeah, but that was in New York-by Central Park late at night. We learned that from Coleman Hawkins and Billy Eckstine. Me and Miles, we looked up to those guys. Hawkins and Eckstine were into driving and automobiles. They’d be driving through Central Park doing 90 miles an hour. On the curb! You hit one light, you jumped one light and then make all the rest. Then later, Tony Williams got a little car and he was doing it. Boom, the fast lane. Those days are over, man.

CM: You got that right. A few years after working with John Coltrane, you made another album of legendary stature, very influential on a lot of us, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Chick Corea. How did you meet Chick? You guys played together with Stan Getz.

I knew Chick’s father. His father was a musician in the Boston area. We got closer when we played with Stan. I had some gigs where I hired Chick. In fact, when I started the Hip Ensemble, which would have been late 1969 or early 1970, we rehearsed at Chick’s house. He lived in Queens. We were playing at this acid-rock place called the Scene on 46th Street. I had George Adams on tenor and Charles Sullivan on trumpet in the band. Chick said, “Man, you really know how to put a band together.” We had to accompany some singer singing Beatles tunes. Richie Havens came by to see us. Jimi Hendrix came on our last night and brought us a bottle of champagne and came up onstage. That’s when I was wearing shoes like yours. Back then. Acid rock. Everything was there. The sky’s the limit.

CM: Now we get to the ’80s. You won your first Grammy for the tribute to John Coltrane. You gave the acceptance speech.

Yeah, David Murray was there, but he was up in the balcony, and by the time he got down I had already spoken. I was surprised that it won.

Audience Member 1: Is there anybody you’d like to play with that you haven’t played with?

Ornette Coleman and I jammed together when he first came to NYC at the Five Spot. We haven’t played together since. I think that could be interesting. Something was scheduled at Carnegie Hall last year, but it didn’t happen. I thought we could have hooked up then. He’s a Pisces, too.

Audience Member 1: The world is ready for that. You and Ornette together, Lord have mercy.

Audience Member 2: Did you have a favorite bass player from when you were coming up?

People ask me that, but it’s hard. Paul Chambers would be one of them. He’s someone who doesn’t get much credit. A lot of writers and critics are always saying who is [this] and who is that. That can turn me off. They can only go so far. That’s why I’m so proud to be up here with Christian today, because we played together and we know-the feeling in a bass player that’s so real. With my concept, sometimes I’m not really on the one or it’s floating. I’m a dreamer, I’m thinking. One time I’m on the stand with Coltrane and McCoy in Chicago. Trane didn’t count off tunes or give cues, he’d just start playing, and I had the nerve to get lost. But once I found out where it really was, hey, leave me alone. I’m going to hold onto it. I’m not a metronome. Let it hang loose.

Audience Member 2: I’ve always thought what has separated you from the rest of the pack is that you’ve always managed to stay so modern. I know so many jazz artists that always talk about staying modern, but it’s almost as if they have to talk themselves into doing that. You just do that, you just smile, you laugh, you have fun and you’re always on top of everything that’s happening. I’ve heard you play funk, and then you played the hippest, greatest swing, still. How do you do it?

That’s hard to answer. Well, seeing that it’s on the left side, it’s right at the heart and the drum is the heartbeat. And I just go from there, from feeling.

Audience Member 2: It just amazes me that [you’re 82]. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know any other people in your age bracket that can hit with Pat Metheny and really kick it. Whatever it is that you have, I sure hope that we all out here can have it when we reach 82.

People ask me, “What is your secret?” I never thought of things as being really a secret as far as approaching the drums and so-called jazz. I play from feeling as you can tell. I didn’t try to have a lot of sharps particularly. A lot of it is the street-the sounds of some bugles or drum rolls and stuff like marching down the street in the ghetto. I play from feeling.

Audience Member 2: That’s important, that street element. A lot of cats are scared of the street.

That’s why those rappers are so hip and making so much money!

Interview used with permission of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the Grammy Foundation (

Originally Published