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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

“I went out back and found Roy,” Griffin goes on. “I said, ‘Roy, man, you know, this ding-a-ling-a-ding-a-ling-a. Don’t you think you might be just a bit too busy, man?’ Well, Roy just blew up on me. He went off. He said, ‘Why, I played with Charlie Parker, I played with Lester Young, I played with Bud Powell, I played with Sarah Vaughan, I played with all these cats and nobody ever complained about my playing.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, Roy. Please forget I said anything.’ ”A few nights later, Monk, Griffin, bassist Ahmed Abdul- Malik and Haynes were in the kitchen in between sets, and Monk, an oracular figure known in the jazz world as a man of few words, revisited the subject. “Thelonious started rubbing his chin whiskers like he was going to say something,” Griffin recalls. “He sat back and kept rubbing his whiskers. Then, he said, ‘Hmmmm, Johnny Griffin ain’t scared of Roy Haynes.’ That’s all he said. We all looked around at each other. Then, we all broke out hysterically laughing. It was the funniest thing.

“Once I got used to what Roy was doing, I realized how wonderful it was,” Griffin says. “He was completely different from anybody else. The slightest idea of anything on the bandstand would set him off on a different rhythmic and percussive course, but he always swung so damn hard. It was quite beautiful, and Thelonious loved it. He would say, ‘Roy is like an eight ball right in the side pocket.’ ”

“Haynes defines the Monk experience,” says Hart, recalling the live recordings that Haynes made in Monk’s band (with Griffin) in 1958, released as Monk’s albums Misterioso and Thelonious in Action. “He shared Monk’s vision for both tradition and originality. Roy’s improvisations on those records are true genius, so lyrical, so melodic, but also so advanced. It’s like he could see into the future. If you take the music he made with Monk and add the music he made with Coltrane and Chick Corea in the 1960s, you’ve got the whole range of American music history wrapped up in one man, Roy Haynes. That much genius . . . it’s hard to imagine. I normally don’t talk like this, but I mean every word of it.”

Haynes’ influence has reverberated through several generations of drummers. The novelties that confounded Johnny Griffin nearly five decades ago have been rubbed smooth by familiarity. The marvel is that the septuagenarian Haynes still wows cutting-edge musicians. In 1997, he cut short a vacation in Barbados to fill in for Tony Williams nine days after Williams died at age 51. The gig, slated for the Catalina Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, was going to be canceled. But when Haynes agreed to fill in, the trio’s other members, pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Ira Coleman, decided to play.

Jim Keltner, an L.A. session drummer for 35 years, attended the performance with Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones. “Charlie and I could not believe our eyes and ears,” says Keltner, 61. “It was magical. I was focused on Roy, and I noticed that he wasn’t playing the high-hat at all, . . . just playing ride [cymbal] and snare [drum]. It was so free, so mesmerizing, just watching him be so loose and relaxed. I’d never heard a trio play like that in my life. You wish that people who don’t know anything about jazz had been there. It was very powerful.”

“It was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life,” says Miller, 48. “I had never played with Roy before, and I was a little apprehensive, but after the first eight bars of the first tune I just smiled and said to myself, ‘This is going to be all right.’ ” Coleman, 47, adds: “It felt like we were dancing up there. I’ll never forget how visually present Roy was. He kept constant eye contact with us, as opposed to a lot of other players who close their eyes or sink into themselves. He was looking at us and smiling at us the whole time. It meant, ‘I am listening to you, I hear you.’ ”

Roy Haynes is receiving some of the acclaim due him from a wider audience. In 2002, he was honored with two nights of tribute concerts at LincolnCenter in New York City. This past March, Haynes’ 78th birthday bash was held at the Blue Note, the famed Manhattan jazz club. Flowers and gifts filled his dressing room. Many notables showed up—pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Andrew Cyrille, saxophonist Joe Lovano. Also present were Haynes’ grown children: Graham, a cornetist, Craig, a drummer, and Leslie Haynes Gilmore, a legal secretary. Her son, Marcus Gilmore, then 16, played a drum solo as his grandfather stood offstage smiling proudly. “That was my best birthday present,” Haynes says.

Musically and physically, Haynes seems to resist the passage of time. Backstage at the jazz festival in Saratoga Springs, singer Cassandra Wilson quizzed him about his diet and exercise habits, wanting to know how he stayed so fit and vibrant. Haynes, sporting a visor and dark sunglasses, only mentioned a ten-speed bicycle that he rides “once in a while.”

When I ask Haynes about his music, he is hardly more forthcoming. “My music grows, but it doesn’t change,” he says. “I try to find ways to sort of fit the atmosphere whenever I am playing. To me, music is music. I go by the feeling of what I enjoy and what I like to do. I try to stay fresh. When leaves come out on the trees each season, they are new leaves. They are the same leaves, but they are really not.” Haynes pauses. “That’s all I’ll say. I’m not the kind of person who likes to analyze, analyze, analyze. I mean, you are sitting here with a guy who has been playing this music for 60 years. Man, that’s something, you know?”

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