Eight Ball, Side Pocket

The winning sound of Roy Haynes, father of modern jazz drumming

One reason Roy Haynes is frequently regarded as jazz's most accomplished and adept drummer is that he keeps time in places his percussionist peers can't locate. Like the pianist Thelonious Monk, Haynes seems to create and then confound expectations for a song, playing off the assumptions of listeners as if they were part of the ensemble. He might land his hardest accent in the middle of a triplet of notes, or rustle the snare and tom-tom drums with his sticks the way others brush the ride and high-hat cymbals. Or he might pause on the first beat of a chorus and then vary the time by rushing the fourth beat of the same passage when the chorus returns.

Other drummers ostensibly do this, of course--it's organic to their creative role in the band. But somehow, Haynes's improvisational gambits are more surprising, engendering greater excitement without sacrificing control. For the listener, it's like having a thrill-seeker for a chaperone--but no one gets lost.

This man played with Louis Armstrong! While Louis Armstrong was alive! Almost-octogenarian drummer Roy Haynes
Courtesy of Dreyfus Records
This man played with Louis Armstrong! While Louis Armstrong was alive! Almost-octogenarian drummer Roy Haynes

Or, as Monk himself once said, Haynes's drumming is like "an eight ball right in the side pocket."

Haynes played with Monk during the late '50s. In fact, he has played with nearly all of the jazz giants from the black-and-white picture books, including Louis Armstrong, Lester Young (who referred to him as the "Royal of Haynes" in a manner akin to Young's sobriquets for the "Duke of Ellington" and the "Count of Basie"), Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sarah Vaughan. By now something of a giant himself, Haynes remains a dynamic performer and busy tourer. When he arrives at the Artists' Quarter for a series of gigs this Friday through Sunday, the owners of the club are planning a week-early celebration of his 79th birthday.

Among Haynes's most remarkable traits is that his approach to jazz has not changed significantly during a career that has spanned more than half a century. For this, he is belatedly regarded as the genre's first avant-garde timekeeper, or, as guitarist Pat Metheny puts it, "the father of modern drumming." For the most part, the pioneering style he calls "hard swing" is intuitive and self-taught.

"In the early days, the older guys always used to say I was a 'natural drummer,' and I guess I am," Haynes says by phone from his home in New York. "I was always drumming with my knives and forks, and banging on my desk with my hands at school, dreaming about the drums rather than school work."

After some teenage seasoning as an underage union musician around Boston, where he grew up, Haynes landed in New York and played with bebop progenitors such as Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, just as this "new jazz" was crystallizing into a dazzling scene in brownstone basement clubs like the Three Deuces, the Spotlight, and the Onyx Club along 52nd Street.

There isn't enough room to chronicle all the other occasions Haynes has intersected with cardinal moments of jazz history. Besides, it's more germane to consider Fountain of Youth, the name of Haynes's scintillating new disc on Dreyfus, recorded live at Birdland in New York, and also the moniker for the ensemble of young tyros the master will goad and guide this weekend at the AQ.

On "Greensleeves," the traditional ballad popularized by Coltrane, Haynes counterbalances Marcus Strickland's rich bass clarinet tone with a brittle informality. He raps his sticks together, then taps his cymbals in a way that recalls the playing knives and forks on the kitchen table. The snare drum takes precedence as the piano enters; tom-toms come in when the sax solo begins. As these textures emerge and dissolve, Haynes escalates the song's intensity.

Throughout the disc, Haynes creates dramatic tension simply by dropping out for a bar or two and letting spirited soloists like Strickland and pianist Martin Bejerano have their way. The drummer also is fond of concluding a passage with the sort of sharp beat that jazz listeners commonly connect with a song's climax, only to pause slightly and then pivot into another headlong rush of music. This is especially effective on "Twinkle Trinkle" and a blazing rendition of Monk's "Green Chimneys."

Haynes himself is perhaps most fond of the band's take on Pat Metheny's "Question and Answer," in which his dancing cymbals and rumbling tom-tom accents play against Bejerano's resonant chords and Strickland's airy soprano sax lines.

So how does Haynes explain his ability to inspire an ensemble whose ages only collectively approximate his own? "I guess it's like Muhammad Ali said, 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,'" Haynes says. "I know Ali watched films of [former middleweight champion boxer] Sugar Ray Robinson. I remember when I bought my first automobile, a 1950 convertible, and the drummer Jo Jones and I went up to Sugar Ray's training camp to watch him train. He was like a dancer. Maybe Muhammad, Sugar Ray, and I were related in that way."

 
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