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Before & After with Louis Hayes

The distinguished drummer and NEA Jazz Master comments on Elvin Jones, Art Farmer, Ahmad Jamal and more

Louis Hayes Birdland
Louis Hayes at Birdland, July 2012 (photo ©Alan Nahigian)

7. Elvin Jones
“Keiko’s Birthday March” (from Revival: Live at Pookie’s Pub, Blue Note). Jones, drums; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone; Billy Greene, piano; Wilbur Little, bass. Recorded in 1967.

BEFORE: Art Blakey can do this very well, but I think I hear Elvin Jones. [Laughs, listens more] Now you can really tell it’s Elvin. Elvin used to amaze me when I was young. I used to see him at the World Stage in Detroit. I was playing but I wasn’t yet 21 and too young to get in the clubs, but I would see Elvin. He came from Pontiac, Michigan but he had moved to Detroit when I saw him. I never really hung out with Elvin one-on-one for any period of time, but we had a good feeling together. 

The World Stage was a special place—the musicians ran it, and to be invited onstage you had to be of a certain caliber. The musicians that you were around knew their instruments very well. They had really practiced and studied. For every instrument, you had somebody who played it very well in Detroit during that time. You really had to know your instrument. If you didn’t they would let you know, not only the musicians but the audience. You wouldn’t get a second chance. Detroit was rough.

I had no idea of Elvin’s concept in Detroit. Elvin was playing in such a way that I wouldn’t even think about trying to figure out what he was doing. I was listening to straight time—Kenny Clarke, who was a big influence on me, and the sound he and Percy Heath got together, the direction they were going in. 

Elvin is 10 years older than I am. When he came to New York I had been here for a little period of time, and he was playing with different people in a more straight way. He could play straight if he wanted to. People didn’t hear who he really was until he got with Coltrane, I think. Then the real Elvin Jones showed up, and everybody knows him from that period of time. They don’t know him from playing with J.J. Johnson and Sweets Edison and people like that.

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“You really had to know your instrument in Detroit. If you didn’t they would let you know, not only the musicians but the audience. You wouldn’t get a second chance.”

8. Jack DeJohnette
“Alabama” (from In Movement, ECM). DeJohnette, drums; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Matt Garrison, bass. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I’m not sure who that is because it’s the Coltrane sound. Coltrane had such an effect on saxophone players. That’s not Charles Lloyd, is it? I think the drummer is great, trying to be creative and deal with what this composition is about. I enjoy playing like this but I can’t listen to it too long. To play 4/4 is one of the hardest things there is to do. There are not too many drummers that can actually play time, and make it really happen. If you play free, you don’t have to do that. Like, with Ornette Coleman, I like some things that he was doing—the melodies especially, and I really love Billy Higgins. But I like something when there’s changes involved, so you know where you are and you’re not just doing anything. I think this is a Coltrane composition.

AFTER: Oh! Jack. Yes. And Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison. That’s close to home, isn’t it? Jack is a wonderful musician. He plays piano well too. You can hear he loves what he’s doing. I like Jack. I also like Billy Hart—Jabali, they call him. Billy’s my friend. We met when I first came to New York, and I would see him when we would go to D.C. sometimes with Horace. We got to be friends during that time. There were several people like that, coming to New York City—like Tony Williams.

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I first met Tony in Boston when he was about 14. He came to the club I was at with Cannon with his father, who played tenor saxophone, and we order food and hang out. He would say to me, “Louis, I want to come to New York.” I said, “Tony, at least you should finish school.” I had never heard him play the drums but we just liked each other, and struck a groove. Later he would come from Boston all the way to Brooklyn and we would practice. He liked my cymbal beat and wanted to be around me to capture that sound. Tony was more serious about the instrument than almost anyone I’ve ever been around. Tony was so creative.

New York was like that—new players coming in. I remember when Jack first got here, but I don’t know exactly when it was. I just remember how he grew, like everyone grows and develops their sound. When you’re young you’re growing, especially if you can be around artists that can play on a high level. Then you can grow much faster. A lot depends on your mind and how much time you put in it and the company you keep, and also just luck.

But after a period of time, at least with me, I don’t do what I used to do. At 85 I’m not thinking about doing a whole lot of practicing like I used to when I was young. I’ve gotten to the point where I could just do things I know I need to do. Life changes like it should. Dreams last. I’m glad that I’m here to be able to do that because a lot of friends my age that I came up with, they’re not on the scene anymore. But being with young people who are coming up now, I’m able to have experiences and still do it, and I like it very much. I have people in my band that have kids, and it fascinates me sometimes. Damn. That’s the main thing, being able to stay out here.

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9. Oscar Peterson
“C Jam Blues” (YouTube video, live in Copenhagen). Peterson, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Ed Thigpen, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: [Immediately] I know who that is. [Laughs] I think that was the Canadian guy. Oscar, he was a teacher. He did a lot of practicing. Oscar told me when he was a kid he used to practice 16 hours a day. That’s hard to do when you’re very young, to concentrate 16 hours a day.

When I was with Cannonball, we played opposite him on some occasions, when he had Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown. Norman Granz put Ray and Oscar together. I actually didn’t have any idea about joining Oscar Peterson’s trio. The only thing I remember was that Cannonball came to me at one point and said, “I can’t pay you the money that Oscar can pay you.” That’s it. It had been arranged. Oscar heard us and wanted Sam [Jones] and myself to take Ed and Ray’s place. So I went with him for the first time in ’65 and it was a hell of an experience. He played on a high level every night. I used to say to people Oscar took me to the big stage—where we played was on another level, the places he was playing. Norman Granz was booking him along with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and we played those kind of big venues, every night. In a tuxedo.

I bet you had to get two tuxedos.
Yes. That’s right. It was a challenge. I had never played with a trio before, not on that kind of level. Oscar liked me, but you had to really follow Oscar and he had a very strong personality, so you had to be a person that could deal with all those different things. Quality doesn’t happen by itself and I could deal with that. But I was younger then and I still wanted to do some things in life, like playing with Freddie Hubbard. And he and I had a very close relationship with Joe Henderson. Also Kenny Barron. That’s what I wanted to be doing.

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So the temptation of a steady gig was not going to keep you.
You get comfortable. It wasn’t just because I was making money. I could have stayed with Oscar for a longer time and do what he wanted to do, but being the young person that I was, I wanted to be my own person and play the music that I wanted to do, so I had to change that up. Still, I was doing my own things for a few years, and then Oscar got in touch with me and asked me to come back, which I did around 1970. I was probably the only drummer that played with Oscar two different times.

10. Sangam
“Little Peace” (from Sangam, ECM). Charles Lloyd, flute; Zakir Hussain, tabla; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: I don’t know who this is. What I was thinking about when I heard the tablas is that I had the opportunity to record with Ravi Shankar when I was in L.A. and that was an experience [Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali, World Pacific, 1962]. We were out there with Cannonball and I got this call and went to the studio and it was Ravi Shankar. I wasn’t too aware of who he was at that time, but I had listened to Indian music, not thinking I would play some. Ravi was on sitar and he had two other instrumentalists, and Bud Shank on flute. I tried to figure out what time they were playing. Then I just did what I wanted to do because there was no way in the world I could figure out what they’re doing. It was a very unique experience. But I learned certain things when I was a kid. You can play 4/4 through anything. I wasn’t trying to put it together, I just was put in that situation.

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Another unique situation about the same time was John Lee Hooker. Sam and myself made a recording date on Riverside Records with John Lee Hooker about 1960 [That’s My Story]. He played a way where you definitely had to follow him, because he didn’t play with any kind of organized direction. I’m glad I had that opportunity too.

11. Philly Joe Jones
“Lori” (from Philly Joe’s Beat, Atlantic). Jones, drums; Mike Downs, cornet; Bill Barron, tenor saxophone; Walter Davis, Jr., piano; Paul Chambers, bass. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: That’s a sound like the Jazztet. I’ve never heard this. That’s not something I’m aware of. [Listens] Philly Joe.

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AFTER: Yes, that’s really something. Jimmy Garrison wrote that? That’s fantastic. Bill Barron, I’m not familiar with him at all. Philly Joe to me was one of the most clever and hippest jazz drummers around. His creativity, what he could do when I used to see him with Miles Davis—whew! He studied with Cozy Cole a little bit and Joe had a lot of facilities. He played the piano too, pretty well. He influenced me a lot, watching him play. 

I was around Joe quite a bit. When I first came to New York there was a club in the Village, Cafe Bohemia, and Joe needed to use my drums. I didn’t have a deal with a drum company then. But I gave Joe my drums, cymbals and everything, and left the club, and someone said to me, “You gave Philly Joe Jones your drums?” They thought I would never see them again. But Joe took my drums over to Coltrane’s apartment—he was on 103rd Street at the time— and told his wife what was happening. They were safe; he didn’t lose even a drumstick. I couldn’t even get them at first because Naima, [Coltrane’s then-] wife, wouldn’t let me get them. She didn’t know who I was. Philly Joe and I got to be very close after that. 

I don’t think Philly Joe made enough albums as a leader. Is there a trick to being a bandleader from behind the kit?
Well, I’ll say Joe’s personality wasn’t conducive for him to be a bandleader for any period of time. He was who he was and he lived his life the way he wanted to live it and that was Philly Joe. When I was young, I felt I wasn’t interested in being a bandleader. I was content being with the people I was appearing with at the time. With Cannonball I had the opportunity to do all kind of things on my own, like with Vee-Jay Records in Chicago, they wanted me to record as a leader [Louis Hayes, 1960]. I was about 22 and Cannon gave me his whole band and they asked me who I would like to have on saxophone, and I said Brother Yusef. 

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After that I wasn’t thinking about being bandleader until I got to the point where I had to be one because I had to keep going, and the people around me were not going to make a move, and I had a family and things to do. You have to take charge, change your life, whatever you have to do. So I started the band at that time [1968] with Junior Cook, and we called it the Louis Hayes-Junior Cook Quintet featuring Woody Shaw and started traveling. Ever since then I’ve done different things, but I’ve kept a band together off and on, most of the time.

So once a bandleader, always a bandleader?
Yeah, it gets good to you, and you get to the point where you can’t be in anyone else’s band because you’ve done more than most musicians have done. I didn’t think I had that, but I got to the point that I had the thing to be able to organize and really be a bandleader. And now I have people to help me: Maurice Montoya, my booking agent, and Maxine Gordon—who was married to Dex—she’s been my business partner for a long time. She makes sure that everything is in order. We first worked together when I had the band with Junior Cook and Woody. I feel lucky to have her working with me. I’m the only that she handles at this time.

12. Joshua Redman
“Jazz Crimes” (from Elastic, Warner Bros.). Redman, tenor saxophone; Sam Yahel, Hammond organ; Brian Blade, drums; Bashiri Johnson, percussion. Recorded in 2002.

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BEFORE: I don’t know who that is. It’s set up like Monk, but the melody is not like that. The melody is different. I think it’s good. It’s very creative and everyone there can play their instruments very well, and I enjoyed listening to it. I like everything that’s good. So I enjoyed it but, for me, to try to go back and work it out and go in this kind of direction would be a challenge for me.

AFTER: I can’t recall if I ever met Brian. It’s easier when you’re coming up to meet everyone. But I enjoyed listening to this. Speaking of Louisiana drummers, you know Idris Muhammad surprised me one day. We were together in this place and Idris asked me, “Louis, has anyone ever given you anything?” I said, “Well, on occasion.” Then he gave me his cymbals—all of them! We didn’t know each other that well, not that well. I think he was moving onto something new. But he gave me all his cymbals. I still have them at home. 

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.