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Steal This Drummer

I’m scheduled to speak with Roy Haynes by phone from his Long Island home, but have trouble getting through. Reaching him on my third attempt, I suggest perhaps this isn’t a good time. “Let’s get it on,” he says. “How much time you gonna need?” To cover a half-century-plus career? Um, half an hour? “Jesus Christ,” he says, laughing. “Let’s try to get it shorter than that.”

At 78, Roy Haynes is, with the recent retirement of Max Roach from live performance, arguably the most accomplished drummer working. Yet the man who cut his teeth with Lester Young, spent four years in Charlie Parker’s traps chair, logged another five with Sarah Vaughan and, from 1961 to 1965, subbed regularly with John Coltrane’s landmark quartet still seems surprised by the attention he receives. Though affable, he tends toward answers that are brief and self-deprecating. “I’m just an old-time player,” he says. “I just try to do it through the music.”

Haynes has been doing it through the music since at least 1944, when he started working with swing bands around Boston. A special-delivery letter from bandleader Luis Russell took him to New York the following summer: “Russell hadn’t met me, he hadn’t even heard me, but he heard about me. He sent me a one-way train ticket, which I never will forget.”

In New York, gigs with Young, Kai Winding and Miles Davis came quick, and Haynes never left. “I joined Bird in ’49. Miles used to say that Bird stole his drummer.” As did Thelonious Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and just about every other major jazz figure since. Is there anyone he didn’t play with? “There must be someone, but when you get this age, I don’t think you want to be naming people.”

A remarkably intuitive and flexible timekeeper, Haynes has excelled in every genre from swing to bop to free. He’s self-taught, “more or less. Everything else I picked up from the giants around that period when I was coming up. I was supposedly a swing drummer, because I was listening to Jonathan ‘Jo’ Jones, Sid Catlett.” Catlett in particular was a big influence, “whether I realized it or not. He was the main guy. He could swing. And swing then, it wasn’t just a word, it had a meaning. Swing was something that came from the bottom of your heart, from your soul, a feeling you were giving in the music. And part of that is still in me, even with all this new crap that’s happening.” Crap? “[Jazz is] like a lot of other things in the world. It seems to be a little confused. Everybody’s trying to state this and state that. The bottom line is — I don’t know what the hell the bottom line is. But I do know, different places I go all over the world, people, younger people, they want to see Roy Haynes, they want to hear Roy Haynes, and find out more about him.”

Haynes has a terrific new disc out, Love Letters. Recorded last year with two separate world-class quartets, it’s drawn critical raves and has raised his visibility another notch.

“I’m in a very unique position, if I may brag about it.” Please. “I don’t want to say everybody wants to play with me, but it almost feels that way. If somebody gets a record date, and the record company calls different artists — you know, the guys are all excited.” He sounds genuinely amazed. “I’m talking about [guitarist John] Scofield. Scofield played with Miles, you know! And he calls me up the other day, and he’s thanking me. It’s a real — it’s something that you can’t even put into words.”

While big names line up for his time, Haynes in his paterfamilias years remains unstinting in his devotion to younger players. His band members this week — saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Martin Bejerano and bassist John Sullivan — are all in their 20s. “To keep going yourself, you gotta do it,” he says. And he still looks to other drummers for inspiration. “You continue on. I don’t listen to them like I did when I was younger, but I hear what they have to say, and keep on steppin’.”

One last question: Any up-and-coming skinsmen he’s especially interested in? Typically, Haynes demurs. “Let’s just say my ears are continually open. Why don’t we leave it at that?”

The Roy Haynes Quartet plays the Playboy Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 15.


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