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Jazzed About Roy Haynes

A robust 78, one of the greatest drummers of all time still riffs up a storm and wows fellow musicians

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You may not have heard of Roy Haynes, but you have almost certainly heard him. In nearly 60 years as a jazz drummer, Haynes has appeared on some 600 recordings, many of them classics. With Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on 1951’s stirring “Night in Tunisia,” that’s Haynes popping the drums, cymbals and metal rims. With Sarah Vaughan on “He’s My Guy,” Haynes’ nimble swing complements her satiny voice. With Thelonious Monk on “ ’Round Midnight,” with John Coltrane on “Dear Old Stockholm,” with Lester Young, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ray Charles and Chick Corea—on one historic recording after another, Haynes propels the music with an incomparable blend of spontaneous expression and sympathetic restraint. He is the “father of modern drumming,” says the guitarist Pat Metheny. Haynes, says Corea, is a “national treasure.”

But he’s no relic. Now 78, Haynes has averaged more than 50 live performances a year over the past three years, playing in Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Istanbul, Madrid and many U.S. cities. He released a new compact disc this year, Love Letters, which Village Voice critic Gary Giddins described as “borderline miraculous,” marked by “heedless joy” and “unbridled enthusiasm.” Even Haynes is a bit surprised by all his energy. “When I was in my 20s,” he tells me, “I couldn’t even imagine that I’d be 78 years old and still playing, performing and innovating like this. I read something recently where somebody said I was pushing 80 years old. I stepped back and said, 80? It’s hard for me to believe.”

Though Haynes has played with legends, and their music was often revolutionary, he remains largely unknown outside the jazz community. That is partly because of America’s curious taste for celebrities and fads, but also because of the way jazz history emphasizes stars and frontmen and overlooks sidemen, especially drummers and bassists. Then there’s the appealing myth of the solitary artist, which Haynes does not fit. He may play in four-limbed flurries with more activity and intricacy than any drummer before him, but his real art is communication. “The thing that sets Roy apart from other musicians is that he listens so well,” says the pianist McCoy Tyner, who played with Haynes in bands led by Coltrane in the early 1960s. “He teaches you to listen carefully and to respond accordingly, to put things in perspective, not to simply go out for yourself. He can do this in a quiet fashion accompanying singers or with those loose, powerful polyrhythms of his that are so magnificent.”

These days Haynes works primarily with two bands. One has stars in their 30s and 40s such as trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. The other has four up-and-comers in their 20s. One night at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, after the young quartet played a blistering version of the Parker tune “Diverse,” Haynes staggered up to the microphone in a faux daze. “Daaaaaamn!” he exclaimed to the cheering crowd. “These guys are hot, aren’t they?” The musicians grinned. Haynes pointed to a wall-size poster of Parker (who died in 1955 at age 34) behind the stage and said, “You know, if Charlie Parker were to walk into this club right now and see me here playing with these guys who are 50 years younger than me, I think he’d smile. He’d dig it.”

Haynes, who has a shaved head and is not tall, has the lean, muscular body of a flyweight boxer and looks decades younger than he is. When he walks, he springs forward on his toes, and standing or sitting, he sways, shifts and squirms, restless as a kid. His laugh is robust and warm, and his mind is quick and can be challenging.

One July day, my friend Ward Hendon and I drove Haynes in our rented Taurus from Albany, New York, to a jazz festival 30 miles away in Saratoga Springs, where he would perform. Hendon, a New York City attorney who doesn’t usually hang out with musicians, attempted small talk while we were loading the car, asking Haynes if he’d remembered to bring his drumsticks. Haynes seemed flabbergasted: “What? Do I have my drumsticks? What do you mean? Would a painter forget his paintbrushes? I don’t understand?” He muttered in mock disgust at his decision to ride with us, and for the next half-hour ribbed Hendon. “Jeez, man, come on, can’t you come up with anything better than that? Did I remember my drumsticks?” Finally, Hendon blurted out, “Look, man, rookie mistake!” Haynes roared with laughter, satisfied that he’d at last provoked an honest expression.

That night, after Haynes walked off the stage to a standing ovation, he approached Hendon. “Nooooow you know where my drumsticks are,” he said with a wide grin.

Haynes’ directness is of a piece with his art. “Roy stays on the edge and that keeps him young,” says bassist Ed Howard, 43, who played with Haynes for 15 years until 1997. “He never lets up. He’s always pushing boundaries, challenging you, liv- ing in the moment. He changes you musically and personally. He strips away your self-consciousness and makes you comfortable with possible embarrassment. He prepares you for anything that might happen. Some nights onstage he’ll just take the microphone and give it to you and tell you to talk to the audience. You have to always be on alert.”

Haynes is one of the few musicians still performing whose origins touch the very roots of jazz. Growing up in the Boston area, he played in bands as a teenager before landing his first major gig in 1945 at age 20, in New York City, with Luis Russell’s big band. Russell had worked with the jazz pioneers King Oliver in the 1920s and Louis Armstrong in the 1930s. “Luis seemed impressed, and he believed in me,” says Haynes. “I’ll never forget one thing he told me. He said, ‘Anytime you get lost, just roll.’ That’s when I learned there isn’t a definite time with the music, just space. You didn’t have to play only time signatures, you didn’t have to hit the high-hat [cymbals] on two’s and four’s every time. You could be looser with the rhythms. But I also learned you had to have control and swing. Luis had a 17-, 18-piece band, and I had to have control to keep the band together.”

Roy Owen Haynes was born in the Roxbury section of Boston in 1925, the third of Gustavus and Edna Haynes’ four children, all sons. His parents had moved to the area from Barbados in the West Indies. His father worked for Standard Oil Company and liked to tinker with cars. His mother was a deeply religious churchgoer who did not allow secular music in the house on Sundays. Haynes’ oldest brother, Douglas, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and died less than a decade after coming home. Another older brother, Vincent, who was a photographer, football coach and civic leader in Roxbury, died this past June at age 82. Haynes’ surviving brother, Michael, 76, has been senior minister at Roxbury’s landmark Twelfth Baptist Church since 1964 and served three terms in the Massachusetts state legislature.

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