When I first met and spoke with drummer Roy Haynes a few weeks ago, I was thunderstruck by how fit and youthful he is. For someone who has played and recorded with nearly every major jazz artist of the post-war era, Roy's physique and outlook are downright Twilight Zone. He looks strong, sounds impossibly young and has enormous energy, making me wonder how this groundbreaking time-keeper could possibly be 83 years old.
Between 1945 and 1960 alone, Roy played with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Billie Holiday, Kenny Burrell, Phineas Newborn Jr. and many others. Roy not only is one of the strongest drummers in modern jazz history, he's also one of the art form's most sensitive players. From his taut bass and snare drum figures on Bouncin' With Bud to his playful tags behind Vaughan and brush taunts on Sonny Rollins' Cutie, Roy is aggressive and intuitive. And he's done it all—tastefully driving swing, bop, cool, Third Stream, spiritual, free jazz and fusion artists. [Photo above of Charlie Parker with Roy Haynes on drums in 1953 by Bob Parent/Getty Images]
In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Roy, the legendary drummer talks about how he got his start, his big break with Luis Russell's band in 1945, Lester Young's novel nickname for his bass drum, and mastering the fine art of listening:
JazzWax: Is it tough being Roy Haynes?
Roy Haynes: [laughing] By the time I wake up every day, there’s so much I have to do and get done. Recently it has been crazy. Houses, automobiles, my god, there’s never a dull moment. And still be a drummer. I didn’t even realize I was going to be living this long and playing and having great-grandchildren.
JW: How do you stay so young? Is it a diet and workout thing?
RH: No, no, there’s no secret. I work out mentally. I always watch what I eat. And I have a 10-speed bike that I haven’t had time to ride as much as I’d like. I don’t’ eat pork. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.
JW: Are fellow musicians shocked?
RH: [laughs] I recently played with bassist Stanley Clarke [pictured] in Manhattan. We hadn’t seen each other in some time. He was holding a private sound-check on the afternoon before our performance. Nobody else was supposed to come in. But I had to go check the drums they had for me. I had to bogart my way in. Stanley saw me there from afar and later told me I blew his mind. He said I looked like I was 30. He said I had on this tank top on and these muscles. [laughing]
JW: What was it like growing up in Boston in the 1930s?
RH: It was beautiful. The house we lived in, my father bought it when I was about 2 years old. Boston [pictured in 1940] was heavily Irish at the time. We had an Irish family on one side of our home, French-Canadians on the other and a synagogue in front of our house. It was great growing up with all different kinds of kids. My brother, who’s 81, always talks about how much fun it was growing up there. My parents were wonderful people. They were from Barbados.
JW: How did you come to the drums?
RH: The drums were always with me, ever since I can remember, man. I always wanted to be a drummer. My brother had drumsticks around the house, and those were the first sticks I picked up. The feeling and beat were always there, as long as I can remember.
JW: Did your parents encourage you?
RH: My father would come see me wherever I played. He even traveled to New York. My mother never came. She was a very religious woman. But one time when I was playing at a small club in the Roxbury section of Boston, I saw her standing at the door smiling and laughing while I played. That felt beautiful.
JW: What did your dad do for a living?
RH: He worked for Standard Oil. When the depression came, that screwed him up financially. Fortunately we had that house he had bought so we had a place to live.
JW: One of your first big gigs was in 1945 with Luis Russell, a legendary New Orleans pianist and bandleader.
RH: That’s right. Luis Russell [pictured] had played with King Oliver. He was a great pianist and musician. He used to front Louis Armstrong’s band, and Louis used Russell’s band back in the 1930s. But by 1945, Russell was fronting a swing band. He had heard about me from saxophonist Charlie Holmes. Charlie was in a band I had played with in New London, CT, during the war. Back then, there was a naval base there, and anytime soldiers and sailors are together, there's always music, women and dancing. When Luis heard about me from Charlie, he sent a special delivery letter to Boston Local 535. There were two musicians union locals in Boston then—Local 9 and Local 535. I don’t have to tell you which was which. I was pretty popular during that period so the Local knew that I was playing drums for the summer on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. Luis Russell believed in me even before he heard me, and that gave me enormous confidence.
JW: Some of your earliest dates with Russell were at the Savoy Ballroom in New York. What was that place like in the mid-1940s?
RH: Oh man, that was my first gig in New York. The energy level was great there. People were always dancing. They called the Savoy the “Home of Happy Feet.” The building had two floors. The ballroom was on the second floor, and you could feel that surface bounce. There were a lot of happy girls there. They had one night a week where ladies got in free, I think on Thursdays. And there were always two bands there on two bandstands, side by side.
JW: What made Luis Russell's band so special for you?
RH: Well, we played the Savoy, which of course was exciting. But even more incredible for me was that I was playing behind an 18-piece big band. You learn a lot keeping time for a big band people are dancing to, especially one that had to be on top of its game at the Savoy. I found out after I got back to Boston that I had changed the sound of that band after playing with them for more than a year. Luis didn’t tell me. Musicians had told my brother.
JW: In late 1947, you started a long run with Lester Young.
RH: Yes, I was with him for two years. He was a very humorous guy. He had his own way of talking. It was like a foreign language and unless you understood it, what he said would make little sense to you. You had to pick up on his special way of putting things to know what he meant. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know what the hell he was talking about. Thelonious Monk sort of reminded me of Lester. They both had their own way of talking.
JW: And both radically changed jazz at the time.
RH: Back then, there were people playing jazz who were so original, even more so than everyone else who played it, you know. They developed different ways of communicating in the different parts of the ghettos we lived in and hung out in. There were a lot of exceptional people and musicians in the neighborhoods who never got credit. You've never heard of them and they're all but forgotten. Lester Young was one of those special people you did hear about. But you had to have a little imagination about a lot of things to get where he was coming from.
JW: For example?
RH: I told this story to Miles back in the 1940s, and he got a kick out of it. During the period when I first came to New York, the standard size of a bass drum was 26 inches. So when I joined Lester Young in 1947, I still had that size bass drum. But it was stolen the day before or on the same day we were supposed to go to California by way of Chicago. So when I got to Chicago, Max Roach [pictured] was there. He told me there was a guy in town from Ludwig drums. Max said he'd introduce me to him. So I met the guy, and went to the factory, which was on the north side of Chicago. Joe Harris, a drummer from Pittsburgh, went with me that day. The drum I got that day was one of the first smaller, 20-inch bass drums.
JW: Was there something wrong with it?
RH: No, not at all. It was just smaller and had a slightly tighter sound. When I got the bass drum back to the Hotel Pershing [pictured below], where I was staying in Chicago, Lester took a look at it and without missing a beat nicknamed it "Princess Wee-Wee." Everything Lester Young named had a female connection, like Lady Day for Billie Holiday. He had that kind of fast mind. "Princess" was a name of affection for him. "Wee-Wee" was small, you know? It was quick. The man had a special kind of genius but you had to understand his way of thinking to get him and appreciate his way of thinking. Miles [Davis] and Max [Roach] came by the hotel before we left. They were in town the same day with Charlie Parker, who had just gotten fired for something at some club. When I told them the name Prez had come up with for the drum, they laughed because the name was so perfect.
JW: As a jazz drummer, you've always been one of the most careful listeners. What are you listening for?
RH: How do you know I’m a listener?
JW: When I listen to you play, I can hear you listening intensively behind Prez, Bird, Monk, Sonny. And I can hear you responding, sometimes feeding musicians the lines they pick up on. I also can hear you anticipating the figures they're going to play.
RH: What instrument do you play?
JW: A little piano. Mostly I do a lot of listening to recordings.
RH: You must, because that’s a hell of a statement, unless you read that someplace.
JW: No, no. It's just that I can hear your sensitivity and the conversation you're striking up on the spot with the musicians you're recording with.
RH: That’s very true. I do do a lot of listening. I recently heard a Mary Lou Williams recording on the radio from 1970 with me on drums. It was a live recording. As I listened to it recently, I could feel myself listening to what she was doing, trying to catch up with her on drums, listening to see what direction she was going in. It was the first time I had ever heard what you're talking about. Joe Fields produced it. He was supposed to send me some more money. You can put that in there. [laughing]
JW: On a Roy Haynes recording, there's the beat you're keeping and then there's that extra dimension of how you're listening and responding. True?
RH: Yes, and that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that expressed as such.
Tomorrow, Roy talks about playing with Charlie Parker in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the big difference between his and Max Roach's drum style, a passion for cars that he shared with Miles Davis, and what it was like to play behind Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins and Billie Holiday.
JazzWax tracks: The bulk of Roy Haynes' earliest recordings with Luis Russell can be found on Luis Russell: 1945-46 (Classics). You can sample it here. The album is out of print at Amazon, but you can find it at other sites. The band at the time featured George Scott, John Swan, Bernard Flood and Emery Thompson (trumpets); Nathaniel Allen, Luther Brown and Thomas Brown (trombones); Samuel Lee and Clarence Grimes (alto saxes) Esmond Samuels and Troy Stowe (tenor saxes); Howard Robertson (baritone sax); John Motley (piano); Ernest Lee Williams (guitar); Leslie Bartlett (bass); and Roy (drums), with Russell conducting.
Roy's Six Bips and a Bop recordings with bop vocal pioneer Babs Gonzales in August 1947, featuring Tony Scott on clarinet and Bobby Tucker on piano, are on Babs Gonzales: 1947-49 (Classics) here.
Roy's first recordings with Lester Young and Sarah Vaughan in November 1947 can be found on One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert here. It can be downloaded at Amazon or purchased as a CD. Roy's live sessions with Lester Young at the Royal Roost in 1949 are on Lester Leaps Again here.
Roy's June 1949 studio session with Lester Young for Savoy is on Lester Young: The Complete Savoy Recordings at iTunes and Amazon. The session included Crazy Over J-Z, Ding Dong, Blues 'n' Bells and June Bug.
The 1970 album Roy mentioned is A Grand Night for Swinging,
featuring Mary Lou Williams on piano, Ronnie Boykins on bass and Roy on drums. It was recorded at the Statler Hotel in Buffalo, N.Y. It's available here.
And A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story, a remastered retrospective of Roy's entire career, featuring two CDs and a bonus DVD, is available at iTunes and here.