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Roy Brooks: Understanding (Reel to Real)

A review of an archival two-CD set taken from a 1970 Baltimore performance by the drummer and an all-star band

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Roy Brooks: Understanding
The cover of Understanding by Roy Brooks

This two-CD set comes from the archives of the Left Bank Jazz Society. From the mid-1960s into the 1980s, this organization presented Sunday concerts at the Famous Ballroom on Charles Street in Baltimore. A self-taught engineer, Vernon Welsh, recorded hundreds of shows on his Akai home tape deck. In recent years over a dozen releases on several labels have been sourced from the Welsh tapes. One of the most essential is Understanding.

Roy Brooks was from Detroit. When he died there in 2005 at 67, he had been off the jazz radar for years because of mental illness and incarceration. He was a unique, creative drummer who is remembered today (when he is remembered) for his four years with Horace Silver’s quintet in the early 1960s. Occasionally Brooks led his own bands, like the quintet that played Baltimore on November 1, 1970.

Brooks, trumpeter Woody Shaw, tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Cecil McBee light the Famous Ballroom on fire. They unleash raw passion for two hours. Shaw, at 25, with daredevil chops, was in a zone that day. On the opening “Prelude to Understanding,” for 11 minutes, his brilliant short ricochets gather into more brilliant long streaks of resolution. He is rough, reckless, and wildly exciting.

Each song overwhelms the room for 20 or 30 minutes. Garnett has the unenviable task of following Shaw. He matches Shaw’s energy if not his artistic individuality. Mabern is blocky and powerful, but in this ferocious ensemble he is the voice of reason. McBee is quick-on-quick. Brooks is relentless. Sometimes, with his explosive press rolls, he sounds like Art Blakey on steroids. But he was more than a basher; he varied his vehemence.


There are actual compositions, like Brooks’ attractive, lyrical title track, Shaw’s intriguing “Zoltan,” and an epic, over-the-top version of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce.” But the improvisations leave these starting points far behind. This is music of its turbulent time. It occupies a productive historical interval between hard bop and freedom.

The sound of a Vernon Welsh recording is far from perfect. It is harsh, glaring, and sometimes out of balance. But it puts you there, smack in the front row. When the two discs are over, you are exhilarated and exhausted, like those lucky folks who were in the Famous Ballroom on that Sunday long ago.

Learn more about Understanding on Amazon!


Roy Brooks: Hard Bop Hard Time

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.