Roy Haynes is one of the most inventive and adaptable musicians ever to sit behind a drum kit. From his ten-gallon straw hat to his snake-skin boots, Haynes is a non-stop dynamo of rhythm. He doesn't just "accompany" soloists, he interacts with his associates, prodding them with a strong, yet light, touch that always enhances, never overshadows, the overall performance. Breaking up the beat in irregular, unpredictable patterns, his complex polyrhythms bridge bebop and free jazz. Haynes' time, like his flamboyant attire, is thoroughly hip and always swinging.

For all that he has accomplished over a long, prolific, versatile career, Haynes does not like looking back. Questions in the "past tense" make him impatient. But Haynes is a surviving, and still thriving, eyewitness to so much of this music's rich history, and he does realize and appreciate his unique vantage point. So when asked, he will talk about his days with Pres and Bird and Sarah, even if under mild protest. But you have to respect his determination to keep moving forward, looking ahead to each new day. And why not? He enjoys every one of them.

When did you start playing the drums?

Since I can remember. In fact, at this party last night, Cecil Taylor was there, and he went to New England Conservatory with my brother. I didn't realize he knew my oldest brother. He's been deceased for quite a while. He had a pair of drum sticks around the house, my oldest brother. He wasn't a drummer. Maybe he was in a bugle and drum corps or something. I don't know. That was the first drum sticks I saw.

What did he play?

He was playing trumpet and studying theory of music and all that stuff. He knew all about music. He took me to Count Basie's band, Duke, the whole thing. Introduced me to Jo Jones when I was very young. And Jo Jones always remembered it and always reminded me of it. He said, "Your brother brought you to the club where I was playing with your school books." He always reminded me of that.

I suppose Jo Jones was an important influence on your playing.

Definitely. Yeah.

Who else?

Well, a lot of guys from that period. Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole. And then naturally some of the younger guys, Shadow Wilson, Art Blakey, Max [Roach], Kenny Clarke.

Did you listen to Chick Webb?

Chick Webb I heard on records, but I had never seen him in person. But I had the record, "Liza," when I was a teenager. I dug that man - his feeling and all that shit. He'd be playing into the next bar. He had a cowbell, I know that, on his set. On "Liza" you can hear that "ding, ding, ding."

I'd like to hear about some of your early gigs. How did you hook up the great trumpeter Frankie Newton?

Whether you're young or whether you're old, when you're good, people know about you. Evidently I was good, man. A lot of bands would come from New York to Boston, they'd need a drummer.

One of the gigs I didn't get was with Basie when something happened to Jo Jones at one point. (It may not have even been Jo Jones, it may have been Shadow Wilson or somebody). There was another drummer who could swing like crazy. He used to play with Sabby Lewis, Joe Booker. He got the gig to play with Basie. This was the early '40s we're talking about.

So I don't know. Frankie used to come to Boston. He used to play at the Savoy Ballroom. That's the first place that I heard him. Then he used to play at the Cat Club, and somebody asked me to join him there. [Trombonist] Vic Dickenson was in the band then. "Horsecollar" [Floyd Williams] was playing alto. There were three horns and three rhythm.

And then you joined Luis Russell's big band.

Luis Russell was in 1945, yeah.

Was that was your first trip to New York?

Not the first trip. The first trip to work. I used to come to New York in 1944 with my other brother, who was stationed in New Jersey somewhere, to see him and we'd go down to 52nd Street. Luis Russell had never heard me. But Charlie Holmes, the altoist - he had played with Louis Armstrong, all these guys - he told Luis Russell about me 'cause we played together in New London, Connecticut, in 1944, I think.

So Luis Russell believed this guy and sent me a special delivery letter asking me if I would join his band. At that time I was working with a band in Martha's Vineyard. I sent him a telegram and told him I was interested in joining the band, but I couldn't until my gig ended after Labor Day.

Even though Lester Young claimed he didn't like bebop, you worked with him for about two years in the late '40s.

I joined him in 1947, when Sadik Hakim was playing piano. In fact, that's the guy, I think, who got me in the band. But don't forget, I was known in those days. It always used to get on my wife's nerves, every time there would be something about me it would say, "the tasty drummer, Roy Haynes."

I knew Pres was sensitive to all that stuff, and I played about three tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom. That was my first gig. After we played a couple of tunes, man, he thought I was swinging and he told me. He said, "You got it." I stayed with him two years.

OK, I promise not to refer to you as "tasty" in this article. Still, you've always been known as a melodic drummer, so maybe that's what Pres liked in your playing.

Well, it also has to do with here [points to his heart], here [points to his head], here [extends his hand]. That's where I got most of my thing. I'm just saying now that I'm much older, it wasn't only the melodic thing.

You really attracted a lot of attention when you replaced Max Roach with Charlie Parker.

1949. I was with Miles Davis before I went with Bird. Miles had left Bird before Max. But after one gig he didn't have any really long jobs. Some jobs were kind of long, but you go into a place, stay a couple of weeks, then you're out. Then if you're in a rhythm section you're gonna go to someplace else. Someone else is gonna want you. So that's how that came about.

But Bird, he knew of me probably from when I was with Lester Young. Max was getting ready to leave Bird and I'm playing across the street from the Three Deuces at the Onyx. It was called the Orchard at that time, the Orchard Room. Max came over and asked me, he said, "I want you to go with Bird," or, "Would you like to go with Bird?" I didn't respond immediately. Then Charlie Parker came over himself a couple nights after that and that was it.

Why didn't you respond right away?

I'll tell you why. During that period I was getting ready to go back to Boston and just cool out a while. I had already been with a big band, played one-nighters all over the country, all through the South, and traveled in the bus. Did that for two years.

When I was with Lester Young I went to California, where I had never even been before, and places like that. So I was getting my fill. I was growing and it was great, and I dug Bird and that whole thing, but I don't know. You have certain things in your mind.

Duke wanted me, too, when I was with Bird. And Duke would always see me somewhere, at a party or something, at a restaurant, and he would always mention that, always. But to go with a big band? I had already done that for two years.

And a lot of the older guys, you know - the young guys were trying to play something different and maybe these older guys would give you a hard time. And I knew that was gonna happen. I knew Duke was dynamite. He probably could deal with the new inventions you're trying to do, but I figured I would have problems with some of the other guys, not calling any names or nothing. So why would I go there? I know another drummer that got big, went there. I wouldn't call his name, but he went there, and it didn't happen. It wasn't a happy situation. He didn't stay. That's why.

You played with Sarah Vaughan for five years in the 1950s. Some people might think that working that long behind a singer could get to be a drag for a creative musician.

But it wasn't just any singer. I played with Ella Fitzgerald before that, for the whole summer of 1951. I wouldn't have gone with someone else, maybe, and stayed. But Sarah had played with Bird and Diz. You know, she came up in that era.

And I like things. You see a couple of automobiles outside, and I got another one. I liked all those things then and I wanted things, and Bird had his problems. I don't know if I thought of it that way at the time, but that's a long time ago. (Why are we staying in the past tense so long? Jesus Christ, there are so many other more pleasant things.)

And it was pleasant with her. I mean, when I left, [bassist] Richard Davis was there, [pianist] Jimmy Jones was there. When I joined, John Malachi was on piano. A lot of drummers went after me. Jimmy Cobb stayed longer than I did.

But you once told Down Beat that, looking back, you felt like you might have stayed too long with Sarah.

I said, "I stayed too long at the fair." I think that was what I said. Well, according to their way of thinking, and the way a lot of people were looking at it, I was probably finished or something, you know, musically or creatively. But that's been proven wrong, so when we go back there and lean on that, that's just putting poison in some younger people's minds. Then they get hold of it, like you got hold of it out of Down Beat. To keep going and hashing shit over and over, that's not necessarily pleasant.

You don't seem to play as frequently now as you used to. Is that by choice?

Lately, yeah, in the last few years. Because you gotta travel, you gotta continuously go and go and go, and then it becomes like a job. When I play now, man, every place I play, I enjoy the shit out of it. It's like a holiday. I love it. And I'm a dreamer. I got grandchildren, I got a lot of them. I got a lot of friends and I enjoy life.

I mean, years ago, I played all the time. I was always packing my bag. If you do it all the time, when you stop, it's over. You die. I mean, like Art Blakey, the way Art Blakey was working. When you get sick, man, it's over. Duke, Basie, any of these guys that have done it continuously, it's in your blood, to just go, go, go, go, go. And I like to take time and be around people.

Do you feel that you've been overlooked by either the critics or the public?

Maybe. But the word, "overlooked," I think someone else could say that. If I was overlooked I wouldn't have played the choice gigs like I've played, and the way I've done it.

But I don't know. No, I couldn't have been overlooked. A funny thing, just for an example. When I used to go California a lot, it was probably with Sarah or with Bud Powell, with the Birdland show, Eric Dolphy would be there. And he would come and hang out with me and play the tapes from Birdland with Dizzy Gillespie and Bird. In fact, Eric at that time was playing like Bird. I couldn't get rid of the guy.

So when he had come to New York he was to do his first date, and he's got me on it. And they're building him up, and right away he becomes a little disappointed. He says, "Roy, I think they take you for granted here." And he always used to say after that, "They take you for granted." So maybe that's a better word than overlooked. Maybe then, but not now.

I've never been a poll winner. A lot of the guys that win the polls are no better, so it never bothered me. It seems to bother other people more than me. They bring it up to me sometimes, and I don't want to hear that shit now. 'Cause the musicians that they brag about seem to think that I'm one of the baddest motherfuckers ever did it.

What is it about your playing that has allowed you to fit into so many different contexts?

I don't try to analyze it. I was reading something that Arthur Taylor wrote in 1972 when he was writing his book [Notes and Tones], the questions and the answers I was giving him. And I was checking out my answers and some of the shit I said. Oh man, it was something like what you're asking now as far as, "What do I do? Do I do anything different when I play with this guy or when I play with that guy?" I just listen a lot.

And another thing that was so great, a lot of guys that work with me, throughout the years they're always willing to come back. And I read some of the things that they say, like [saxophonist] George Adams. George Adams said he got his master's degree with Roy Haynes. He would say that in a paper in Atlanta, Georgia, and my niece would get hold of it and send it to me.

The way you interact with a soloist, it seems more like a duet, or a conversation, than accompaniment. Is that the reason you don't take a lot of solos?

That's probably true. I play solos when I want to with my band. I don't play fours on every tune. I play sixes with my bass player when we play the blues. On a lot of tunes I go by with none. And that's the way I like to play. Now if I'm playing with someone else and they want me to play a solo, I may not be up for playing a solo.

You did a lot of recording work at one time, but now you don't seem to take as many sideman dates.

I'm not interested in making record dates. You'd be surprised at the people that call me, newer, younger people. At one time I wanted to make all of them, but now I don't. It doesn't really mean that much to me.

But you did do one not long ago with David Murray.

You know what that situation was? That thing there came from something Bob Thiele produced, that Grammy-winning thing [Blues for Coltrane]. Well, Bob did that thing for Impulse. So when he started his own label he would call me up. I did a couple dates.

OK, first of all, the sound that the engineers got was horrible. So the next time he called for me a date or something, I asked for some more money. I think it was when he used McCoy [Tyner]. I don't know if they called it McCoy's date.

Then he called me up again, he said, "OK, I got a date and it's gonna be with Arthur Blythe. You'll get the money you asked for." I went to the studio and my roadie went upstairs and he says, "I don't think the date is gonna be with Arthur Blythe." And Bob didn't even tell me. It was David Murray's name on it.

So that's the kind of shit that happens. That is what you should write, because that's what happened. He gave me the money I wanted, but then it's David Murray's date. He didn't tell me it was David Murray's date. That's kind of tricky, man.

And then [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave happened to come in with somebody, so he got on one of the tracks. So it went down in history that I made a date with David Murray. That's bullshit. And the world don't know and the critics evidently don't know, or the writers, I should say, that kind of shit happens. But I don't care to make any more dates with Bob because I don't like the sound of the drums that they get. You can't really hear them.

I made a date at the Power Station with Pat Metheny, Question and Answer, and it won an award for the drum sound. The world doesn't know anything about that. I think it was in Modern Drummer, maybe. Usually rock records get that shit.

Do you like the sound of the drums on the recordings that Bob Thiele produced with you and Coltrane in the 1960s?

Yeah. See, that was at Rudy van Gelder's [studio]. At van Gelder's there was a live sound. I'm talking about the cathedral ceiling, the wood, and you're not surrounded with a whole bunch of shit around the drums. But now for Bob, that's the sound.

That's another reason I don't like to go into the studio, because most of these younger guys, they're geared towards the rock sound. The bass drum is not gonna get that feeling. It's a whole different thing, now.

The group that you have now has been together for quite a while. It's unusual to have a stable working band these days.

That's one of the things I was saying before. These guys are always willing to come back. And that's another thing about me not keeping them on a rigid working thing. They go after what they want to do and they can't wait to get back, man. They're always willing. And that's one of the greatest compliments. You don't have to wait to get a compliment from somebody writing something, you're getting it from the artists. That's enough to keep you filled up, man.

The group you had in the '70s, Roy Haynes' Hip Ensemble, is sometimes credited with bringing rock elements into jazz. I've wondered what you thought about that.

I've heard that, but I wasn't thinking like that. I would use a Fender bass. I would use two basses, though. It wouldn't be just Fender. Well, one of the reasons, traveling to Europe, it was always easier to travel with a Fender bass. Sometimes I used electric piano in other places. We played a little funk. I wouldn't necessarily call it "rock," but we played a little funk mixed in.

I was enjoying it. We had some pleasant gigs. In fact, one time we did part of what was called the Newport Festival. We did Carnegie Hall. I know it was Weather Report, Archie Shepp, Tony Williams' Lifetime, the Hip Ensemble. I think there was one other group. In fact we did a world tour that year. I used to get a lot of work with the Hip Ensemble, 'cause when I started it I was still paying a mortgage and all that stuff, so my kids were very young. And a couple of agents told me that I was their competition 'cause I would get my own gigs. I wasn't waiting for agents to get them.

One gig I'll never forget, somebody from William Morris Agency had booked me in Detroit at a placed called the Drome. They had a bowling alley, they had a club, they had everything there. I think I drove to Detroit from here. I drove my car, took the whole band. When I got to Detroit I checked in the hotel, and there was something Luis Russell used to always do. When he would get to a town with the bus he would buy a newspaper to see if there was an ad for the gig.

I bought a newspaper and I didn't see any ads about my appearance at this club. So I called down the club. The owner said, "Didn't they tell you the gig was canceled?" And this is one of the biggest booking agents, the William Morris Agency, on Madison Avenue at that time! And if I wasn't as sharp as I was, I wouldn't have known. I went and had a meeting with the guy and we arranged to do the weekend anyhow. I went to the printer and had some stuff made up myself. Went to the different parts of town where record stores were and gave out these things, and at the barbershops. And we made it.

I was a good businessman and I could get gigs for my band. And if it wasn't paying too much, which a lot of those gigs weren't, you'd drive out there. That was with my quartet, before the Hip Ensemble.

Let's talk a little about the Jazzpar Prize from Denmark.

I once got an award called - I can't think of the title of the damn thing - but I got it in Washington at the Smithsonian. It was supposed to be like a big thing, you know, black tie, but this country is so lax on the arts and it didn't mean nothin'.

That's what's so great about that thing, the Jazzpar, because they make it mean something. They sent it all over the world, the announcement, in July [1993]. I don't get it until March [1994], on my birthday. Shit, that's one of the biggest things, as sad as it may seem, that happened in my career, man. I got congratulations from people all over, man. "Yeah, yeah, it's about time!" Do you think I'm overlooked, like you mentioned? I don't.

Neither do I. I was asking if you felt that way. I think jazz in general is overlooked.

Well, yeah. People like Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, these are people I idolized. I used to say, "Well goddamn, if you think I'm underrated or something, what happened with them?" They didn't get shit!

A lot of people do complain and get bitter about shit. Like Mingus. Shit, he was a bitter motherfucker. And they gave him a lot of attention. I don't see what was so original about his writing or his playing. Not me. Played like [Jimmy] Blanton and his writing was Duke, mostly. Duke, maybe a little Monk. Monk, now there's somebody original.

And as far as the drummers, all the drummers that they're saying are so bad, man, them motherfuckers are always peeking around the corner to see what the fuck I'm doing, so to speak. So it don't bother me, man. If nobody would say anything, maybe I'd say, "Well goddamn, I must not be playing shit," or "I must not have done shit." But it's not that way at all, man.

And like I was trying to get you to talk about before, you have played with all the top artists in jazz.

It's the way I played with them, too. I feel good, man. It's been a wonderful career. Really.

And it continues to be?

Well, yeah. It still is. The picture is beautiful, man.

* * *

The year after he received Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, Roy Haynes, in January 1995, received a National Endowment for the Arts' American Jazz Masters Award. Maybe he's not so overlooked at that.

Bob Bernotas, 1993; revised 2009. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.

Photo: Carol Steuer

ED BEACH (1923-2009)

This jazz site is part of