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Roy Haynes: Snap Crackle

Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes in 1985
Roy Haynes in 1968, recording Jack DeJohnette's debut, "The DeJohnette Complex"
Roy Haynes with son Graham in 1978
Roy Haynes in 1956
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes is slightly surprised by the comment. Of course there’s an erotic charge in the way he plays drums. “I’ve been noticing in the last 10 or 15 years, a lot of ladies come up after my performances,” he says. “Some of them say they never heard a drummer play like that.”

Youthful swagger and confidence still comes easily to the man who hit 80 this past March. Haynes talks it, walks it and wears it. His fashion sense, like his crisp and energetic drum work, has been part of his signature for decades-bassist Al McKibbon didn’t dub him “Snap Crackle” for nothing. “He’s the most stylish person in the room, at all times,” says Jeff “Tain” Watts. “He’s been that way for a long time. I read this stuff about him being in Esquire magazine back in the ’60s. Yeah-‘Snap Crackle,’ that says a lot.”

Like a well-tailored suit, the nickname Haynes has worn since the ’50s continues to fit him well. With a two-stick snare shot, Haynes can still bring a packed nightclub to immediate attention. It’s a trick he’s been using a lot this year while on the road with his Fountain of Youth band, one of today’s most exciting quartets. But if there’s one thing that can break Haynes’ cool-briefly-it’s his sudden status as an octogenarian.

“Eight zero? Man that’s unheard of,” he shakes his head with mock seriousness. “I didn’t know I would ever turn 80. But here it is. Just crept up on me.”

Of course, most of the jazz world has been ready, impatient even, to help mark Haynes’ milestone. Almost every Haynes gig in 2005 has involved a toast and a drum-shaped cake. “Even before my birthday,” the drummer recalls of his hometown, “the mayor in Boston made it ‘Roy Haynes Day.'”

On March 16, the day he turned 80, old friends like Chick Corea-and younger ones like Watts-flew to the Bay Area to celebrate with Haynes at Yoshi’s. Soon after, in New York City, the drummer had a week’s run at the Village Vanguard, and on its Sunday close Haynes’ fellow stickmen Jimmy Cobb, Ben Riley, Louis Hayes, Billy Hart and Kenny Washington all dropped by between sets. In New Orleans a few weeks later, Haynes stepped out from behind his kit with microphone in hand-a set-ending move he’s become known for-and acknowledged the cheers of the capacity JazzFest crowd. Back in New York City in mid-June, the Jazz Journalists Association declared him drummer of the year.

“It’s been pretty good,” Haynes says, “but I tell you, I try to take each day at a time. I dream a lot. I think a lot.” Snap Crackle chuckles for a moment and adds, “I just like to get on the bandstand and play.”

Roy Owen Haynes is old-school hip. He likes to use the term “too tough” in place of “very much.” In conversation, he can take charge, leading it in the direction he chooses, preferring the give-and-take of a good chat to an interview-an exercise he approaches guardedly. “Who’s this for?” he wants to be reminded before we speak. “What are we talking about?”

Haynes has been approached by “too many people out there who just want to know stuff. They got their questions, they get their answers, but they can’t get beyond that. You know I’m good when I’m performing late in the evening, when I’m into my instrument, I can have answers. If they have good ears and good imagination they can get it while I’m serving it. I don’t have to talk about it.”

One can understand the awe that must strike many who get a moment with the man. He is the legend who backed legends, a direct link back to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. As a leader, his albums are few, but most have become classics: Cymbalism, Out of the Afternoon, We Three. Over a celebrated 60-year career, he has become an ageless, energetic presence, continues to front lineups bursting with young talent and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995. That year marked the 50th anniversary of his arrival on the national jazz scene, when the Roxbury, Mass.-born native first played in New York City. It’s a story he never tires of telling.

“It was a Savoy-ballroom gig in September, 1945. I was playing in New England, Martha’s Vineyard to be exact, with a small band from around Boston. I got a special-delivery letter that came from [big band pioneer] Luis Russell, whom I had never met but he was hearing about me. I responded by sending a telegram telling him I was interested in joining the band but couldn’t join until after Labor Day. That was the start.”

World War II had just ended. The economy was jumping, and so was uptown.

“Harlem was roaring in those days. I had been to New York before because my brother was in the Army. We would come, my father and his wife, and spend time with him and go down to 52nd Street and that whole thing. But [in ’45] I was my own man and excited as heck!”

Before the decade ended Haynes became drummer of choice for large and small groups, joining headliners like Lester Young in ’47 and, two years later, Charlie Parker. “I was playing this so-called bebop, but I was a swing drummer and people were dancing while I was playing with Bird, for a little while, anyhow,” Haynes says. “From then to now, they’re not dancing too tough when I play. But just last summer or the summer before, I was in Harlem at the Charlie Parker festival. We were doing a ballad-something slow-and there was a guy out there dancing to it, making a lot of sense.”

It also makes sense Haynes focuses on dance as a way of measuring the progress of his career. Even as he left the ballrooms behind to play behind beboppers like Miles Davis, Kai Winding and Bud Powell, he maintained a giddy, dance-floor effect in his style. It’s there on many recordings from the early ’50s: I mention two piano-drum jump-ups-“Little Willie Leaps” and “Woody N’You”-on Powell’s Inner Fires LP, a live trio gig from ’53 that features the drummer and the pianist with Charles Mingus. Haynes recalls the date and his friend in his prime, before mental-health problems started dogging Powell.

“During that period Bud was in an institution. Sometimes he would go to the bridge several times-a lot of weird stuff. But I knew him before, in ’45, ’46, when we were all 20, 21 years old, before they had given him that shock treatment. That was a whole different Bud Powell. We used to play together a lot at Minton’s. I used to go by his house on 141st and St. Nicholas Avenue, and he’d play-he’d play. He was mucho fuego then, on fire!”

As the ’50s rolled on, Haynes honed his style. He became known for a melodic sense more associated with the timbales than a trap kit, and for a distinct, self-assured sound. Charles Mingus lauded him for his ability to suggest, rather than state, a beat. Tain Watts says Haynes “has a thing, playing over the time, where it feels like it’s free but it’s also grooving at the same time-like he has an internal clave or an African clock inside of him that makes it feel rooted. I’d say his fingerprints are definitely the cymbal beat-always pretty and relaxed, yet swinging very, very hard-and the sound of his snare drum, always crisp and high and dry, crackling and exciting.”

That sound has proved versatile, too. Haynes worked with Sarah Vaughan for five years, then joined Thelonious Monk from ’57 to ’59. By ’63 he began filling in for Elvin Jones in John Coltrane’s quartet, praised by the saxophonist for the way he “stretched the rhythm.”

“I just tried to fit in,” Haynes says. “One thing about all these different people, they were familiar with me, so I could just go in and do my thing, while listening all the time to what’s happening. I can’t really describe what I did too tough. I still just go by feeling.”

Through the ’60s, Haynes added his liberated approach to bands led by George Shearing, Kenny Burrell and Stan Getz, in whose lineup he first met a young pianist named Chick Corea, with whom he would repeatedly team up over the years. Asked to list his favorite sideman recordings, Haynes offers the tunes that others repeatedly mention.

“The one I hear about a lot is that ‘Shulie a Bop’ with Sarah Vaughan, which was in [1954]-where she introduces the trio in the song, and just before she says my name I say, “Bap!” And she says “Roy!” I say “Bap-bap-bap!” “Haynes!” That’s one of the ones. Then there’s one with Chick Corea, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” that people still talk about all over the world. I was just in Paris a few days ago doing a master class, and naturally somebody brought the record with them. Then there would be 1963 at Newport: “My Favorite Things” with Coltrane, the 18-minute version. I didn’t even know that was going to be recorded at the time!”

Of his own favorite recordings as a leader, Haynes is quick to cite 1962’s “Out of the Afternoon, the one with [saxophonist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk, [pianist] Tommy Flanagan and [bassist] Henry Grimes. In fact, I got a royalty [payment] just today for it and went to the bank.”

Among Afternoon’s seven spirited tracks, a standout is “Long Wharf,” featuring Haynes vigorously skipping through a brisk set of changes and jaw-dropping breaks. Mention of the tune elicits a warm chuckle: “That’s one of my compositions, something I had developed with my group on the bandstand,” Haynes says. “Like the tune ‘Snap Crackle’ that’s on there, too. Other musicians called me that, and I always thought it’d be a good title, and I decided to do an introduction like ‘Shulie a Bop.’ That’s Tommy saying ‘Roy!’ and ‘Haynes!’ We tried it first with Rahsaan, but for some reason he was sort of spaced,” Haynes laughs.

Afternoon was a one-off album for Impulse, inspired by some club jamming.

“During that period I was playing at the Five Spot a lot,” Haynes says. “Rahsaan had recently come from Ohio or Chicago or someplace, and he had his own group on the same bill, and we were jamming a little. Henry worked with me quite a bit then and Tommy too. Those guys were kicking butt! We got excited about the idea of doing something together, so I took it to [Impulse head] Bob Thiele, and we did it. [Engineer] Rudy Van Gelder is a big part of that album as well; he got that great drum sound at his studio in New Jersey.”

Despite the satisfaction he found in his recordings as a leader, Haynes has balanced his sideman role with that of a headliner through most of his career. In 1970, he established his Hip Ensemble: a rotating, modernist lineup that often featured an electric keyboardist (like Stanley Cowell) or guitarist (Hannibal Peterson, Kevin Eubanks) and usually a saxophonist under the spell of Coltrane (John Klemmer, Ralph Moore, George Adams). As the ’80s arrived, he took on another project-forming the lean, hard-charging group the Trio with Chick Corea and Miroslav Vitous-and before the decade ended, served as big-name sideman behind Pat Metheny.

But it’s Haynes’ inclination to lead that has defined his career in recent years:

“I played with everybody,” he says. “But when I was trying to make them sound good, a lot of things I had in mind I didn’t do. I think it has a lot to do with me having my own project. Now I do anything I want to do with my own groups.”

In 2000 Haynes formed a trio with pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci and recorded material for The Roy Haynes Trio (Verve) that drew from all phases of his varied career, including “Shulie a Bop.” A year later, he recruited an all-star lineup-trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and pianist Dave Kikoski-for his Charlie Parker tribute, Birds of a Feather (Dreyfus). And in 2002 there was a stunning session, ultimately released on Columbia/Eighty-Eight’s as Love Letters, that featured guitarist John Scofield, tenor Joshua Redman and, alternately, pianists Kikoski or Kenny Barron and bassists Holland or Christian McBride.

But Haynes is most interested in talking about his current working quartet, Fountain of Youth, with saxman Marcus Strickland, pianist Martin Bejerano and bassist John Sullivan.

“I never expected the record Fountain of Youth on Dreyfus to be nominated for a Grammy,” he says. “They only nominate five-that’s a pretty great compliment. All the guys when we did the record were in their 20s. I was in my late 70s at the time. But when we get onstage we all become the same age.”

The band began to come together a few years ago, with Strickland’s self-introduction an important first step.

“I was at the Blue Note in New York one time when Milt Jackson had a big band there [in the late ’90s] and I was at the bar,” Haynes says. “Marcus comes in with these horns over his shoulders; he was only filling in for a player with Milt at the time. He came right up to me and said, ‘Roy Haynes, I want to play with you’-many years before we played together. I don’t usually have rules for getting into my band. Then Marcus recommended Martin-they’re both from Miami-and he recommended John on bass. That’s the connection there.”

The band has garnered a loyal and enthusiastic following in its short time together, often calling out for favorites like the group’s sly, shadowy reworking of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

“I did that same tune with the Birds of a Feather band, only in the studio and then didn’t play it much,” Haynes says. “I decided we would start playing it, and every place we go it goes over. Even the ladies in Europe knew the title of it, and they knew the melody. I had them singing at the end of it at one point!”

There are moments of surprise and satisfaction in any Haynes performance, but especially with his current ensemble. The drummer leads the way, directing the shape and flow of a tune through his drum kit. “I’m like driving up there. I can feel it, and everyone is listening, seriously. I try to describe what I would like to hear with the instrument, not with words.”

“I am what I play,” he said at the close of a week-ending set at the Vanguard. Asked to expand on that thought, Haynes says, “I can’t describe that. I mean, if it’s true, if you’re really playing the truth, it’s you. There are a lot of people now who want to be drummers and they just go to school, but that’s not the drummer I know too much about. If you’ve been doing this thing as long as I’ve been doing it-man, it’s second nature! It’s my religion, it’s my life.”


Over the years, Haynes has played a traditional set of Ludwigs and sat behind a set of see-through Vistalites. He has been known to play a simple five-piece kit as well as an expanded set-up with a selection of pitched tom-toms, an array of temple blocks, percussion gadgets and a gong. These days, the master drummer leans toward a leaner kit-though the gong is still behind him.

Yamaha Maple Nouveau drums: 5 1/2 x 14 Roy Haynes Signature copper snare drum; 7 1/2 x 10 and 8 x 12 toms; 14 x 14 and 16 x 16 floor tom; 16 x 18 bass drum

Zildjian cymbals: 14-inch A Custom hi-hats; 18-inch A Custom crash; 20-inch K crash ride; 18-inch Custom flat-top ride; 17-inch K Dark Thin crash

Sticks: Zildjian Roy Haynes Artist Series wood tip Originally Published

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.