Roy Haynes

As pivotal as 1942 was in world history – with World War II raging across Europe and the Pacific, the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction being demonstrated at the University of Chicago and the invention of both duct tape and super glue – it was also a landmark year in entertainment, with Casablanca winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, “White Christmas” winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston going up in flames, killing 492 people.

Less well known but equally historic to drummers and the wider jazz community, that was also the year that an 18-year old from Roxbury, Massachusetts, made his debut as a professional drummer, starting a star-studded journey that’s earned him the title “the father of modern drumming” and has lasted for 80 years. 

Born in 1925, a first-generation American whose parents were from Barbados, Roy Haynes’ profound influence on next-generation jazz-drumming masters – including New Englanders Tony Williams and Terri Lynn Carrington – is immeasurable. His earliest exposure to music was through his older brother – a trumpet player who went to the New England Conservatory of Music – who was “always listening to the radio” and “was my main connection to jazz,” Haynes says. He introduced seven-year old Roy to the music of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Count Basie, whose drummer, Jo Jones – known as Papa Jo Jones to distinguish him from the younger Philly Jo Jones – Haynes cites as his first major influence.

In addition to his jazz-crazy brother, Haynes’ neighbors played a significant role in piquing his musical interest. As he recalled to Modern Drummer magazine 2004, “In Roxbury, an Irish family lived on one side of us and a French-Canadian lady lived on the other. She played the piano every Sunday – Gershwin, Broadway tunes. Across the street, there was a synagogue. I heard them blow the ram’s horn and also sing religious music – chanting after a funeral.”

Most auspiciously, Haynes’ brother always kept a pair of drumsticks around the house and as soon as Haynes picked them up, he was sure about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “I just knew I was a drummer,” he says. “I was banging on everything in the house.” At age eight, he began taking lessons from Herbie White, who lived across the street from Haynes and played with ragtime- and jazz-band leader James Reese Europe’s 369th Infantry Regiment Band. During his two and a half years at Roxbury Memorial High – Haynes left school midway  through his junior year at age 17 – he played in the orchestra, the jazz band, and briefly with the drum and bugle corps before deciding that style wasn’t for him. “I was never a rudimental drummer,” he explains, “I think my sound comes from my mind more than my hands.” 

In 1942, following one semester at the Boston Conservatory, Hayes made his professional debut in regular gigs with jazz and Dixieland saxophonist-clarinetist Sidney Bechet at the Savoy Café on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Over the next two years he would also play with trumpeter Frankie Newton, saxophonist Pete Brown, the wildly popular Sabby Lewis Band and, for a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, with Phil Edmond, a New Bedford native and a pioneering Creole-swing bandleader.

In 1945, Haynes’ moved to New York to join Panamanian pianist Luis Russell’s orchestra, making his debut at the historic Savoy Ballroom. The next year, while still working with Russell, Haynes joined Louis Armstrong on a three-week tour of the South, which he calls “a period of invaluable experience.” From 1947 to 1949, Haynes played with Lester Young – known as “the president of the saxophone” – before joining Danish-born trombonist Kai Winding’s sextet and eventually working up and down 52nd Street and in the world’s most prestigious studios with Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins before doing an extended run with Sarah Vaughan from 1953 to 1957, playing on three of her albums.

In 1958 and 1959, Haynes was as busy as any drummer has ever been, playing on three Thelonious Monk albums in addition to making records with Sonny Rollins, trumpeter Art Farmer, drummer Art Blakey, harpist Dorothy Ashby, saxophonists Sonny Stitt and John Handy, pianists George Shearing, Randy Weston, and Phineas Newborn, and guitarist Kenny Burrell while also releasing his first solo album, We Three, accompanied by Newborn on piano and bassist Paul Chambers. In the early 1960s – by which time he had the nickname “Snap Crackle” for his expressive, multi-accented sound – Haynes began sitting in regularly for Elvin Jones of The John Coltrane Quartet, and some of his most impassioned, inspiring work appears on Coltrane’s live albums Impressions and Newport ’63. 

Through the rest of the 1960s and well into the 2000s Haynes worked with who’s who of celebrated artists as diverse as Ray Charles and avant-garde saxophone virtuoso Eric Dolphy, and his work with Chick Corea on his 1968 release Now He Sings, Now He Sobs – on which his mesmerizingly melodic soloing is placed at the forefront – is widely viewed as having set the gold standard for post-bop drumming. His most recent recordings with others have been Pat Metheny’s Question and Answer (1990), Kenny Barron’s Wanton Spirit (1994), Michel Petrucciani & Stephane Grappelli’s Flamingo (1996) and Corea’s Remembering Bud Powell (1997).

Haynes has received a plethora of awards, including honorary doctorates from the Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1999, he was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, followed in 2004 by his induction into DownBeat‘s. In 2001, his album Birds of a Feather: A Tribute to Charlie Parker was nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, in 2010 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2019 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America.

Since releasing his solo debut in 1958, Haynes has recorded over 30 more albums as leader or co-leader of groups including The Hip Ensemble and The Fountain of Youth Band, with which he still performs. Known for celebrating his birthday on stage, in 2020 his 95th birthday celebration at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Age seems to have just passed him by,” said Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones in 2006. “He’s 83 and he was just voted Best Contemporary Jazz Drummer [in a Modern Drummer readers’ poll]. How amazing.”

(by D.S. Monahan – May 2022)

Published on December 28, 2012

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