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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

Haynes was introduced to music early. “My father sang in a choir and played organ,” he says. “We had an organ in our house when I was growing up. As a kid I was banging on everything around the house until I got a set of drums. I also studied violin, but I was a natural drummer, as they said in those days. My older brother Douglas was not a professional musician, but he was a student of music and he knew a lot of musicians. In the late 1930s he was a roadie for Blanche Calloway, who was Cab Calloway’s sister.” Douglas introduced Haynes to one of his heroes, Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones, when he was still a teenager. “Jo’s drums on the Basie record The World is Mad turned me on. When I heard it, I really knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

In 1947, at 22, Haynes left Russell’s band and moved on to legendary saxophonist Lester Young; after two years, he briefly played with Bud Powell and also Miles Davis before joining up with Charlie “Bird” Parker, with whom he played for three years. “Roy was different,” saxophonist Sonny Rollins, 73, recalls of the early years. “He was able to accompany Parker in the most wonderful way. He had his own sound and his own methods. I remember one night in particular when they were opening at some place in Greenwich Village opposite Art Tatum. It was the great Charlie Parker and the great Art Tatum on one bill.” Haynes remembers the night. “That was at the Café Society in 1950,” he says, adding: “Billie Holiday sat in with us. Ray Bolger was there and sat in with us too. He was the Broadway dancer who played the Scarecrow in the movie The Wizard of Oz. He performed a few soft-shoe numbers while we played. Can you imagine?” Those were jazz’s golden years, before rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues splintered the audience, a period of constant innovation that gave rise to, among other things, bebop. Haynes was in the forefront. Traditionally, jazz drummers had been relegated to rote timekeeping—ding-chicka-ding-chicka-ding. But Haynes, along with other drum pioneers such as Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, helped free the drums. Haynes extracted the rhythmic qualities from melodies and created new drum and cymbal patterns—ding-chicka-pop-snap-chicka- tick-boom-ding. Rather than using the cymbals as mere decorative accents, Haynes made them central to his rhythmic approach. His unique sound earned him the nickname Snap Crackle.

Haynes’ work in the late 1940s and early ’50s—heard on tunes such as Lester Young’s “Ding Dong,” Parker’s “Anthropology,” Powell’s “Bouncing with Bud” and Davis’ “Morpheus”—inspired a generation or two of artists. “Roy may have been the first avant-garde jazz musician, in terms of his freedom with the rhythms,” says the drummer Billy Hart, 63. “He was so far in the future, way ahead of his time, but he was natural and traditionally grounded too.”

A measure of Haynes’ free-spiritedness is that in 1952 he turned down the drum chair in Duke Ellington’s band, perhaps the most influential jazz orchestra in history. “I was with Bird and we’d just finished playing a concert at Carnegie Hall, which was a double bill with Duke. I was living in the President Hotel on 48th Street, and Duke called me there. We just talked about a lot of things, my music, his music. But this new music was happening at the time, and I knew that if I went with Duke’s band, there would have been some problems with some of the older members who weren’t so hip to the new thing. Duke himself could deal with it, I’m sure, or else he wouldn’t have wanted me.

“From then on,” Haynes continues, “I would run into Duke at different parties and restaurants, and he would always remind me that I didn’t join his band. He would make a joke of it. I thought it was so beautiful that he would do that. I remember one time I saw him in Washington, D.C. back during the Johnson administration. One of Johnson’s secretaries was into jazz, and she would have these parties at her house. One night I was arriving at a party as Duke was leaving, and he mentioned it then too—that I didn’t join his band. It must have been nearly 20 years later. So, that respect and that love, I felt like I was a part of Duke Ellington’s thing, even though, you know, I wasn’t.”

Haynes joined Sarah Vaughan’s band in 1953 and stayed with her for five years. An expressive musician can sometimes be stymied accompanying a singer, but Haynes finetuned his improvisations. “Sarah sang the slowest ballads of any singer, so I had to be patient,” says Haynes. “But I also love lyrics and I love beautiful melodies, so I enjoyed listening to her while I was playing.” Haynes’ work on Vaughan’s classic 1954 albums Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown and Swingin’ Easy are masterpieces of complementary drumming. “The first thing Roy gives you is a sense of taste,” Tyner says. “Even when he’s giving you those loose, free rhythms that are so extraordinary, he’s still listening to you and being tasteful and lyrical. It’s awfully hard to describe how he achieves that balance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he learned how to do it while he was accompanying Sarah.”

During his years with Vaughan, Haynes bought a duplex in Hollis, Long Island, where he and his wife, Jesse Lee Nevels Haynes, raised two sons and a daughter. All three, now grown, still live in that same duplex with their respective families. (Haynes moved to another home on Long Island after his wife died in 1979. He has not remarried.) The middle-class nature of Haynes’ family, like that of his parents, disavows the stereotype of the tumultuous, dissipated, often tragic lifestyle that is so much a part of jazz mythology.

But Haynes has been one of the hippest cats in the suburbs. From his father he inherited a taste for fine cars and custom- made clothes. Today, he owns a 1974 Brickland, a 1990 custom El Dorado, a 1998 El Dorado and a 2001 CL500 Mercedes Benz. “My first car was a convertible Oldsmobile Ninety- Eight that I bought in the early 1950s at the same time Miles Davis bought his first car, which was a Dodge convertible,” he says. “Miles and I used to race our cars through Central Park at night with our tops down. I remember Miles used to tell girls”—he mimics Davis’ famous hoarse whisper—“‘Me and Roy Haynes, we like to race around Central Park smashing up our cars.’ It was a wild, hip time.” In 1960, Esquire ranked Haynes as one of the best-dressed men in America, along with Fred Astaire, Clark Gable and Cary Grant.

Haynes left Vaughan’s band in 1958, and his work over the next decade was documented on dozens of influential recordings. By now, he had mostly dispensed with bar lines—the musical measurements that dictate a song’s structure—and interacted with his band mates even more freely. Previously, drummers generally waited until the end of 16 bars to play a “fill,” a pattern of drum figures. But Haynes would put a fill anywhere. “Before Roy, you could always distinctly hear the break when a drummer switched from keeping time to improvising a dialogue with the other musicians,” says drummer Victor Lewis, 53. “Roy blurred the border. It was revolutionary. To be able to play as freely as Roy without disrupting the flow—while actually swinging like hell—is walking a fine line. He found a way to do it better than anybody else.” Another uncanny Haynes feat is to project his sound without being loud. His percussion seems to well up from all corners of a room. That may be difficult or impossible to hear on recordings, but seldom fails to impress musicians who share the bandstand with him or hear him live. “What Roy has as a musician is a very, very special thing,” says drummer Jack DeJohnette, 61. “The way he tunes his drums, the projection he gets out of his drums, the way he interacts with musicians onstage: it’s a rare combination of street education, high sophistication and soul.”

As it is with many innovators, the initial reception to Haynes was mixed. In the spring of 1958, while he was playing with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Cafe in Manhattan, saxophonist Johnny Griffin took Coltrane’s place in the band. Griffin, who would move to Europe in 1963, remembers his first time playing with Haynes. “The band was cookin’, but Roy was busier than most drummers back then, and I wasn’t used to it,” Griffin, 75, says on the phone from his home in France. “Coming off the stage one night, I said to Thelonious, ‘Man, your drummer here, doing that ding-aling- a-ding-a-ling-a, don’t you think your drummer is a little bit too busy back there?’ Thelonious just looked at me. Then he finally said, ‘Hmmmmm, if you don’t like it, you talk to him yourself.’ ”

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