Roy Haynes

Jazz Legend Still Goin’ Strong

I remember being slightly nervous about meeting Roy Haynes. He and I had spoken with each other on the telephone a few times and I’d just seen him perform the week before at a Long Island jazz club. It was an interesting format. Roy Haynes on drums, Marcus Fiorello on guitar, and Dave Jackson on bass. I’d seen the same trio a year before in the same club and they were incredible. Their music ran the gamut of emotions and it was always swinging. There was Roy Haynes sitting through it all, eyes closed, head tilted upwards behind a five-piece set of red Vistalite drums. Relaxed concentration.
At Roy’s home we sat at the kitchen table and discussed the interview. He handed me a souvenir booklet printed by the Boston Jazz Society entitled, “A Tribute to Percussionist Roy Haynes.” The occasion was Roy Haynes Day held in Boston. I opened the cover and read: “Roy Haynes’ contribution to music, for more than 30 years, can best be illustrated by mentioning the many jazz artists who chose Roy to accompany them in the development of modern music- Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins and Kenny Burrell. In addition to these, many other renowned musicians have collaborated with Roy to make recordings now considered classics. During recent years, Roy has created an even larger following through world-wide appearances and recordings with his own musical group.
“I asked Roy if he’d begin by telling me something about how he first got interested in drums.
“I am a natural drummer, first of all,” he said. “There are some people born and whatever gift they have from God, it’s natural. Ever since I can remember I was beating out rhythms. In my mother’s dining room I used to pick up the forks and spoons and drum on the dishes,” he laughed. Roy’s parents were from Barbados. I started asking if he had any formal lessons as a child. Roy caught me mid-sentence and said, “No. That’s what I mean by being natural. I was playing all over the walls in my house. I remember finding a pair of drumsticks in the house when I was 7 or 8. They had belonged to my older brother Douglas. He’s not living now, but he graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music. He had genius-like qualities. I won’t say he was a genius, but he fooled around with guitar, ukulele and trumpet, and had all the instruments. I think when I found the sticks they were already taped up. In those days when you broke a stick you would tape it up. I remember drumming with the sticks all over everything. I had never had a drum or anything at that time so I just kept going from that.”
As a young man, Haynes worked the New England area in numerous clubs and with a variety of people, among them Phil Edmond, who led an 8 or 9 piece combo that played ‘shows and shake dances.’
“In the summer of 1945, I was working at Martha’s Vineyard, I got a special delivery letter from Luis Russell (bandleader) that was sent to the black musician’s union. In those days, they had a black union and a white union in Boston. He asked me to join his band. I sent Luis Russell back a telegram stating that I was interested in joining his band, but I couldn’t join until after Labor Day. He said I’d be playing places like the Apollo Theater, The Savoy Ballroom and different theaters throughout different cities in the U.S.”
Roy recalled, “I used to go to New York before I joined Luis Russell. My brother Vincent got drafted and he was coming from New Jersey for a leave. I don’t remember exactly what year. That may have been 1943 or 1944. My father and I, and my brother’s wife would go to New York to see him. The first thing I did was go to 52nd Street and when I got there, I saw so many people! Ben Webster! Art Tatum! Billie Holiday! Don Byas! I flipped out. I had never seen anything like that. So, I fell in love with 52nd Street. Some of the people had known me because groups used to go to Boston from New York in need of a drummer, and most of the time they found me. I knew people like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas a little. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to them. But, 52nd Street was like a dream.”
Roy worked with Luis Russell from 1945 to 1947 when he quit to join Lester Young. Some time after that, Lester Young was hired by Norman Granz to go on tour with his Jazz At The Philharmonic series. The JATP was very popular in the 40’s and 50’s for showcasing some of the best jazz artists. One of the shortcomings of the JATP was that Granz would hire musicians who were primarily from the Swing Era and musicians pioneering bop and do a mix and match with musicians. For instance even though Lester Young had his own band, the band was not hired. Young would be hired and be expected to use a rhythm section made up of other JATP musicians. The drummers were primarily Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson.
While Lester Young was gone, Roy freelanced extensively.
“When Lester Young started his group back after his thing with Philharmonic, I didn’t go back with him. I was too busy. I was making record dates with a lot of the cats and the Fall of 1949 was when Miles Davis started his first group and I was part of that!”
Musicians that were fortunate enough to have been on the scene when 52nd Street was in full blossom always have fond memories of the jam sessions that used to go on after hours. Although they were sometimes referred to as “cutting contests,” Roy stressed two points. First, that it was rare for two drummers to be on stage at the same time for a number of reasons. One of them, he said, was because it wasn’t uncommon to find that two drummers didn’t even have two full sets of drums to play on! So, the “cutting” was usually done by horn or reed players. Second, Roy stressed that there was always a lot of love on the bandstand. Jam sessions gave young musicians especially the chance to play with great musicians and the opportunity to master their craft in a trial by fire situation.
“I used to sit in a lot,” Roy said. “But they would have to know you, or know if you could play. Anyone couldn’t just come and sit in. If you did, it would probably be pretty embarrassing because in those days they had things that they would put you through. If you played a horn they would play a song and take it through all the different keys. If you didn’t know your horn or you couldn’t deal with it, you’d have to get up, leave, or be embarrassed, or they’d just blow you off the stand! If you were a drummer would play fast or play a slick arrangement.”
Two of Roy’s earliest influences were still very active when he came to New York. They were Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett.
“As a teenager, when I started I was into Jo Jones. That was automatic. In fact, the Boston Jazz Society asked me about different people that I wanted to be there for Roy Haynes Day. The first one I named was Jo Jones. Jonathan “Jo” Jones, and he was there which really made me feel good.
“Sid Catlett I loved because he was of that same feeling. Probably a Kansas City feeling. I met Sid when I arrived in New York. I had seen him in Boston, but really got to know him around 1950. I remember I bought my first car and had the privilege of driving Sid Catlett home one night.”
Besides a “natural” ability to play drums, Roy Haynes has a multi-faceted foundation. That talent may have always been there but Roy has played drums in some surprising musical situations. We were tossing around different styles of playing and I asked if he had any Dixieland experience.
“I had played with Dixieland cats in Boston before I went to New York, Barney Bigard and Art Hodos. So, I was very familiar with that. They had the Harvard Jazz Society in Boston and they were involved with a lot of Dixieland music. I use to play gigs with them. Maybe two “allstars” would come in from New York and they would get the rhythm section in Boston. People were always looking for me so I had sort of a head start.
“Then I got that big band experience by playing with Phil Edmond. We were playing a lot of shows and he had a lot of hard music. I could read music better then than I can now. I learned to read music at the Boston Conservatory. What I learned wasn’t called ‘reading’ music. It was called ‘spelling.’ We could spell certain phrases. Certain things we’d look at and know what they would mean. A certain beat, or certain rests. I’d know how much to fill in that particular rest and lead up to the syncopated rhythm that was written. These things I could just tell and then I would feel them out. And, I had very good ears. So, between the two I was a good big band drummer.
We spoke a little bit about Roy’s gigs with Charlie Parker, but he said he was saving a lot of his memories for a book he plans to write. He spoke a little about what it was like working in those days.
“You didn’t get a gig for a weekend, like two days at The Gate. It wasn’t like that. We’d stay at a place a week to three weeks, sometimes seven nights a week and five sets a night! At least four or five. Sometimes if the music was so good we were playing after 4:00 am and the people would still be there! Another thing was that musicians really didn’t work steady. When I was with Bird, he would go to Chicago, Detroit or somewhere else for a week. That next week, we didn’t necessarily go. The band would come back home until Bird got another gig. So, I started working with other people in between Bird’s gigs.”
I thought about all of the great drummers that came out of that era, like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke—and I asked if there was much of an exchange of ideas between them.
“Well, I guess there was a certain amount of that. I knew Art when I was a teenager before I went to New York. I didn’t know Max well, but we became pretty close.” Roy paused for a minute in thought, then continued, “First of all, in those days there were less drummers! There were less of us. I remember in 1950 they were trying to draft me into the
Korean War. I was playing at Birdland with Charlie Parker and I had just bought a new car. People were telling me later that when I had to go down to the draft board, there was one drummer saying, “Well, If he goes in the Army I’ll take his car.’ Another drummer said, ‘Well, I’ll take his gig with Bird.’ None of the guys you named though,” he cautioned. “Those others were younger players. But, there was a lot of love. We were closer together. We saw more of each other in those days.
“There was a lot of love on the bandstand. A closeness, because in those days there was less money too. Sometimes that has a tendency to make you stick together. But, money wasn’t our concern. Our concern was music. Around that time a lot of musicians were leaving the big bands to try to stay around New York. Naturally, they wouldn’t make as much money, but they wanted to sacrifice just to get with their instrument and play with different people. Today it’s vice versa. A lot of people want to get with a band so they can go on the road!
“The guys that lived in California wanted to go to New York. That’s vice versa now. The challenge and the charis ma have always been in New York. The excitement. Okay, you get out to Califor nia and you get your paved streets, pink homes, green lawns and it’s beautiful. Then maybe you can just get lazy. Less inventive. Out here you get the challenge that is gonna kick you right in the behind and constantly keep you young.”
After Bird, Roy worked with Sarah Vaughan from 1953 until 1958. In 1958 he was a member of the Thelonious Monk Quartet which included tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. The mainstay for the band was the legendary Five Spot in Manhattan.
“The longest period I ever stayed at the Five Spot was with Monk,” Roy said. “We’d do like 18 weeks at a time. It was beautiful. Very interesting. I left Sarah Vaughan and went with Monk, but it wasn’t for the money. How much money could we make at the Five Spot? But, I loved every minute of it. It was a challenge. You know it’s different to play with Monk. You can’t play with Monk the way you can play with a lot of other people, a lot of other pianists. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. A lot of artists think you can go anywhere and play the same.”
Did Haynes have to drastically alter his drum style?
“On some tunes, in some instances, yes,” he nodded. “I never changed my whole concept. I’d just make adjustments, because if I changed my whole concept I don’t think they would have wanted me then. That’s why they hired me! A lot of people try that. They take you somewhere and you do a record date and they want you to do something all the way through that has nothing to do with you.”
In an interview I did for Modern Drummer two years ago, Mel Lewis told me that he recalled Roy Haynes talking about drum concepts in the 1940’s that Elvin Jones was using in the I960’s. “Roy was the first ‘out’ drummer,” Lewis said. For instance, a characteristic of Haynes’ style is the elimination of the hi-hat playing steady 2 and 4. All limbs become equally independent.
I mentioned Mel’s comment and asked Roy about the traditional timekeeping role of the hi-hat. “I never really got into that,” he laughed. “Sometime you would make a date with somebody that was used to that and it becomes very uneasy. I mean, a lot of people get restless. They don’t want to be around you because you’re not being a slave for them. Dig?
“Mingus use to say the damndest thing about me years ago,” he continued. “He’d say, ‘Well, Roy Haynes. You don’t always play the beat, you suggest the beat!’ Roy smiled then said, “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. But I know that the beat is supposed to be there. If I leave out a beat, it’s still there. If I’m playing 8 or 12 bar fills and I play four and a half bars then leave out a bar and a half, that doesn’t mean I don’t want it to sound like that! But if I’ m playing with a horn player sometimes they may get confused. They get hung up because I didn’t fill in that bar and a half.
“You’ve got to use a little imagination in there,” Roy explained. “That bar and a half still counts. I’ll come out in the right place, where it should be to make the fill even, and the other players are somewhere else at that point. I didn’t always play the beat, which I thought was very good. You don’t always have to say ding ding-da ding ding-da ding, you know. It’s there! So, if one of those saxophone players has to depend on that, then you know he’s not right.
“You’ve got to have that ding-ding-dading within yourself. Coltrane had it! Pres had it. Miles has it. So, it’s beautiful to play with them, but there are so many other people who don’t have that thing and you’ve got to carry them. How you gonna be inventive and create when you’re trying to lift them up?”
Regarding his friend Elvin Jones, Roy said, “I always loved Elvin’s concept.” The two men have known each other since the early 50’s and there was a club in Detroit where Elvin used to play. When possible Roy would sit in and said that there was always a tape recorder running at the club. “It was Elvin’s gig, and I know they had a tape recorder there, so he knew something about me. Now leave me alone,” Roy laughed, and that was all that he would say about who influenced who.
It was fitting that John Coltrane chose Roy to replace Elvin Jones both in live performances and on record whenever Elvin was not available. Between 1961 and 1965 Roy Haynes made some classic recordings with the John Coltrane Quartet which have just been released on a Coltrane record called, “To The Beat of A Different Drum.” In the notes Coltrane said, “Roy Haynes is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with. I always tried to get him when Elvin Jones wasn’t able to make it. There’s a difference between them. Elvin’s feeling was a driving force. Roy’s was more of a spreading, a permeating. Well, they both have a way of spreading the rhythm, but they’re different. They’re both very accomplished. You can feel what they’re doing and get with it.”
Haynes shared some of his feelings about working with the Coltrane Quartet. “Even on a ballad, when they played, the intensity was up, up there. I liked that feeling. Everyone was doing their thing. No one was dependent on one person, the way it could happen with some groups. A lot of people depend on the drummer. There, it was equally distributed. Even though you couldn’t always hear Garrison (bassist) the way you should, don’t let him stop playing because you would definitely miss him. The feeling was there. The intensity of McCoy and Trane, that was really a love supreme.”
Elvin Jones is quoted as saying that what made the Coltrane Quartet so special is that they were all friends. Haynes agreed. “It was there on that bandstand. I felt it. And, it was no easy thing at that point to replace Elvin. At that point it was not easy. It was easy in a sense to play with Trane, but that whole group as one thing, each one of ’em was so important, and to step in there, it was a serious thing. It was probably one of the most serious projects I was involved with at that point.
“Another thing, about Trane. He set it up where a lot of drummers could sound good, but they might not make him feel comfortable. I get that feeling with certain bands that Basie had. When Thad Jones and all those guys were with the band, (mid 50’s) that band could play without a drummer! Trane could play without a drummer. Miles could. Gene Ammons could play without a drummer and they could all make it happen! I could name a lot of people that can’t and they’re supposed to be great. That’s what jazz is to me. If you want to use the word ‘jazz.’ There’s not too many jazz players around today. Very few.”
Roy mentioned earlier in the conversation that he was saving certain things for his book. I asked him if he was serious about writing it. “I have to do a book,” he said. “I’m of the age where I’ve been involved. I played with Louis Armstrong! Billie Holiday! I played with so many different people.” At the beginning of this interview I mentioned some of the more traditional names that Roy performed with. Others were very surprising, showing that Roy Haynes is extremely versatile and open-minded. For instance, he played with Ike and Tina Turner. Another time he recorded with Ray Charles and later B. B. King. I asked Roy if he’d like to play a straight ahead Blues gig.
“I would like to, but I did that in the 40’s in Boston. There was a place called Little Dixie in Boston. We had some nights where we had somebody on the show and that’s what they were about. That’s what I had to do. I had to play the backbeat. And with Luis Russell. You ever hard of those Doo Wop groups? Each one of them had a name: The Ravens, The Falcons, The Orioles. We use to call them the ‘bird, bird groups.’ I played with the first one of them, The Ravens. And then it was the backbeat. I mean, heavy on the 2 and 4. That’s where rock came from.”
Roy sat spinning a foreign coin on the table top. “Do you want to talk about drum technique?” I asked him. “I don’t know anything about technique,” he replied. I countered. “You mean you have no idea what you’re doing at the drum set?” He smiled. “I probably could play something that they don’t have a name for. But society as it is today is always quick to name something. I never was involved with that. I don’t even like the way the name sounds! Double triplet or ratamacue,” he scoffed. “I never liked that. Maybe I play them. I probably play a lot of them. I don’t care. I told you I was a natural from the start.
“One time I was at a clinic and somebody said something about the matched grip. We were doing that before they had a name for it, in the 40’s. To my knowledge they didn’t call it anything. I’m not involved with the English language and that’s all it is. I go by sound. I go by feeling.”
How does Haynes feel about drummers who want to go to school to study drumming?
“Well, that’s good,” he said. “They probably know and they’ll probably make more money than people like myself. I can name some already and they know all the terms. I never was interested in the titles and terms. You know, that’s a newer thing. Years ago we just felt comfortable trying to play some good music. But then we were playing mostly saloons and clubs and a lot of the newer players don’t even want to play around with things like that. But, I came up with that.”
Roy is a clinician for the Ludwig Drum Company and is a favorite at symposiums. He explained to me how he bridged the gap of explaining technical material without being technical. “People are hungry for the naturalness of music. There are some people coming up today that don’t even want to hear words. They don’t even want to relate to having something written on the board. They want you to tell them and show them how you do what you do. There are some clinics, where they’d rather have you play than talk. There are also the other clinics that are not real. They’d rather talk about drums rather than display it.”
I asked Haynes, “Suppose you’re giving a demonstration and some kid asks you what you just played. What would you tell him?”
Roy answered with, “You don’t have to give them a name for it. Whatever it was, you can just show them! Everything doesn’t have a name. Especially if you’re creative. If you’re going to play the same thing over and over again, and you play only things you have a name for, you’re going to be limited. But, if you’re going to create while you are doing that, that’s gonna blow their mind. The real people. Even if they’re not real, they’re gonna feel so much in what you play that they have to say, ‘Oh man. He’s incredible.’ A lot of people fight the truth and the truth will always outlive
Haynes explained that in the classroom, “I’ll tell students right from the beginning that my classes are going to be different from any other classes. They’re gonna be relaxed and we’re gonna get into the instrument. I let a lot of them come up and play. I had a thing where I was letting them do 4 bars of silence and 4 bars of playing to see who could really feel it and it took off into such a thing. Nobody teaches like that. ‘Do 4 bars of silence’. Even if you have a few bars of silence you still count that. And that’s my conception. What I just told you is a lesson in itself.
“I try to be truthful. I like to be able to look at my kids like this!” Roy gave me a hard piercing stare across the table and held it on me as he continued speaking. “I like to be able to look at anybody like that when I say something. Stan Getz used to say I looked an audience dead in the eye. I say ‘Well, how do you feel? How do you all feel out there? Not saying I’m the most truthful cat in the world. I’m not saying that. But that’s the way I feel and I feel good.”
Haynes has been leading his own band for several years and has two recent albums out on Galaxy Records. We spoke about the responsibilities involved in leading a band and about the business involved. “Speaking from a business perspective you’re not gonna do that much of it. You’re either going to have somebody do it or you’re not going to do that much of it. It’s hard to really do both successfully. It’s not that easy. You should know as much about the business as possible, unless you’re just so relaxed, or you’re so much of an idiot that you have to have someone take care of everything for you. You’ve got to know as much as you can. It depends on where you want to go. If I go somewhere and play there has to be a purpose. It’s something that I feel. I don’t want to be out there night after night, week after week,” Roy confessed. “I wanna have time to relax and breath and think and then play in between.
“I didn’t want to be constantly out there years ago when I was just a plain sideman. So, there has to be some understanding with the musicians I’m with. I’ve been very fortunate. A lot of people want to play with me. So, maybe that’s in my favor.”
Over the past ten years especially, Roy Haynes has been working with many of the younger generation musicians who have emerged as top players of the 1970’s. People like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Burton. It occurred to me that Roy might be feeling like somewhat of an older statesman of jazz.
“Not necessarily,” he chuckled. “Especially the guys you mentioned. They’re pretty established now. If you had asked that maybe some years ago, but still, you can’t tell the way anyone looks at you. I’ve had people I’ve recorded with come back to me years later and tell me how nervous they were then. It really makes you stop and think. Sometimes some of the younger guys call me up and ask, ‘Well, how do you feel?’ or they tell me ‘Take care of yourself.’ That makes you stop and think, ‘Well, what’s happening to me? Am I dying or something?’ ” Roy laughed.
Roy doesn’t have a practice routine per se. He keeps a small 4 piece teak Ludwig set in his basement, but sometimes he doesn’t even look at them.
“I leave them all the time,” he told me. “Constantly. More than I ever did. In the last five years or so I play less than I used to. Sometimes I don’t even want to look at them, but they’re constantly inside, all the time.” Haynes tapped his chest. “Right here, man. You talk about love! I have it in my heart, man. The heart beat. That’s the drum! I’m drumming while I’m eating, or when I’m sitting on a plane flying somewhere, or when I’m riding in my car listening to sounds. I’m constantly playing.
“I listen to everything. I listen to sounds. I don’t just make it a point to listen to all drummers. I listen to music. I get so tired listening to the supposed jazz stations. I like to turn on some very relaxed stations and listen to some relaxed stuff.”
The first time I saw Roy play he was using a 5-piece set of Red Vistalite drums. Now he uses a single headed bass drum, six single head mounted toms, one floor tom, an array of cymbals, a gong, woodblocks, and a variety of gadgets.
According to Haynes, “It’s interesting. The set I have now, the see thru drums—people love them. And somebody will come into a club and they’ll get wrapped up with the drums right away. Even before you play you got it made! I read a review about myself in some paper and the reviewer wrote, ‘Roy Haynes’ drums look better than they sound.’ That’s the worse thing I’ve ever seen written about myself.”
About the added percussion, Haynes explained it by simply saying, “I like sounds. It adds rather than just hitting the drums seeing how great and fast you are.”
Finally, Roy talked about the care and tuning of drums, and also about studio conditions versus live performances.
“I spend a lot of time with them anywhere, anytime. But, in a studio, naturally you spend more time with them. They have to be just so. The engineer has to get a certain sound and you have to work together. You’ve got to try to get a sound that you’re going to enjoy.
“In the club the drums are as is. You want to satisfy yourself first. But in a studio, when they start mixing it, you’re going to lose certain things and add others. I could go into Van Gelders years ago and just set my drums up and Van Gelder would take care of it. Today, it’s not like that. An engineer will give you a sound that you don’t know you’re getting. You have some control but he may think that you’re going to like what he’s doing. If someone hires you for a date, you’re supposed to have control of your sound anyway. You can speak to the engineer and the people in charge. I do! It doesn’t always come off the way I want it to but I say something.”
It was late. Roy Haynes is the kind of man you could talk to for weeks and still feel like there’s an untapped well of knowledge within. I thanked Roy for his time and knowledge, and started to pack up. He walked over to the kitchen counter and started eating out of a pan. “I bet you don’t know what this is,” he challenged. It looked like mushrooms. “No,” he laughed. I tried to see through the tomato sauce and guessed again. Chicken? “Yeah. Want some? It might be too spicy for you,” he laughed again. It wasn’t. Roy gave me some great closing words that I thought a lot about on the way home. He said, “You just tell them that imagination is the greatest thing in the world.” I hope he writes his book.