Roy Haynes is the greatest drummer alive, period. Don't take my word for it - Gary Giddins, the greatest jazz writer alive, said it first. With Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins and Philly Joe Jones gone, Haynes alone is the keeper of the flame. For over 60 years he's been playing the bejezus out of bop in all its glory - bebop, hard-bop, post-bop and fusion. At 82 he's still on top of his game. The Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Quartet brings its swing to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, June 7 - a stunning headliner for this year's Isthmus Jazz Festival.
Nicknamed "Snap Crackle" for his punchy snare and cymbal patterns, Haynes has had a phenomenal impact on jazz drumming. But his out-of-the box creativity went underappreciated for decades. That he spent much of his early career as a sideman rather than a leader contributed, no doubt, to his low-ish profile, though nine of the 30-some albums he fronts were recorded in the '50s and '60s.
These days Haynes only plays his own dates, and the awards he didn't accrue sooner are coming in. To name a few, he was inducted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame in 2004, received the Downbeat Critics Poll Drummer of the Year award in '05 and picked up the Jazz Journalists Association Lifetime Achievement Award in '06. Last year the box set A Life in Time - a neat three-CD capsule of jazz history spanning 57 years of Haynes' historic career - was released to rave reviews.
Haynes' story begins in bean Town, where he was born in 1925. "There was always music at my house," he says. "My father played organ and sang in church. My older brother played trumpet. He studied at the New England Conservatory, but he didn't go professional. He knew all the musicians, and he had a lot of records. One of my other brothers was in drum corps. He had a pair of sticks in the house. I picked them up, I think I was 7 or 8, and I've been drumming ever since."
Boston had swing in the '30s and '40s. "All the big bands came through," Haynes says. "The Playmore was the big ballroom, and the Southland Café. I heard a lot of music - Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Count Basie. George Wein [founder of the Newport Jazz Festival] is from Boston. He played piano - we played gigs together when we were teens."
In 1945, bandleader Luis Russell invited the young, largely self-taught Haynes to join his big band for a gig at Harlem's legendary Savoy Ballroom. "I've lived in New York ever since," Haynes says.
As the swing era faded and the darker, experimental, small-combo idiom of bebop reached its golden age in the late '40s and '50s, Haynes, working with Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, set his dance beats free. But he never, ever lost that swing. To this day he calls his style "hard swing." You can hear its origins on the box set: the up-tempo foxtrot "Bouncin' With Bud" (with Powell on keys and Sonny Rollins on sax); Charlie Parker's "Little Suede Shoes," with Machito's percussionists in the rhythm lineup, as bebop cha.
Also in the '50s, Haynes toured extensively with Sarah Vaughan. "I didn't work steady with my own project back then," he says. "I had a mortgage, automobiles and young children. I enjoyed playing with Sarah Vaughan."
In the '60s Haynes worked regularly with Stan Getz. Always eclectic, he played with Count Basie's big band on the studio sessions for Ray Charles' 1961 Genius+Soul=Jazz. And he appeared with the full pantheon of hard-bop/post-bop deities. Some of the box set's tastiest tracks come from this period. Haynes plays slinky 'n' quiet on the laid-back "Stolen Moments" off Oliver Nelson's brilliant album Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961); he pops and swings on pianist Andrew Hill's groovy "Black Fire" (1963), with Madison's own Richard Davis on bass.
Famously, Haynes replaced John Coltrane's regular drummer, Elvin Jones, on various occasions in the mid-'60s. Two Coltrane cuts are on the box set: the lush "After the Rain," from the relatively obscure studio album Dear Old Stockholm, and the classic "My Favorite Things" from Newport '63.
What was it like, working with Coltrane? "I've said many times that playing with John Coltrane was like a beautiful nightmare. My niece always says, 'Uncle, how can a nightmare be beautiful?' But you can't put it in words.
"Ever go to a Pentecostal church when they get happy and speak in tongues? When I was with Coltrane he was young. Listen to Trane in that period. People aren't gonna understand what it was like playing with Coltrane unless they're very spiritual - you can't put that into words. The closest I can come is the Pentecostal church, and I went to one growing up."
But there's much more to haynes' story than the sideman gigs. Some of his best work as a leader dates to the '50s and '60s. We Three, recorded in '58 with the troubled, talented Phineas Newborn on piano and Paul Chambers on bass, is the sheer blues essence of jazz. Out of the Afternoon, a '62 release with Roland Kirk on reeds, includes Haynes' dynamic signature tune "Snap Crackle." "That was one of my biggest records," Haynes says. "I still get royalties from it."
Haynes also fronted plenty of club gigs, from regular Monday nights at the Five Spot in the heart of Manhattan's East Village in '58 to a long '65 stint at Slugs, in the grittier Alphabet City, with Wayne Shorter and Cecil McBee. "That was a hot band. We were there for weeks. It was crazy, Wayne used to carry a knife."
Despite the mean streets, Slugs doesn't entirely deserve its bad rap. It was a little Mad City meeting spot in the late '60s, and I cocktail waitressed there for a while in my starving-artist days. But hard-bop trumpet king Lee Morgan's wife shot him dead at Slugs in '72, which pretty much put an end to the scene. So many jazz musicians walked on the wrong side - how did Haynes survive?
"Are you kidding?" he asks. "Only the strong survive. I joined Charlie Parker's band in '49. The first time I ever heard the word junkie somebody was talking about Charlie. He was like that way back, before it was fashionable. I was determined [to avoid drugs]. Plus, I didn't come up like that. But those were the good times - the best music, the best of a lot of things. Those were my wild days, driving fast cars and hangin' out. Clothes and food were better. You could buy a quart of milk in the '40s and it would be milk, not watered down.
"There's a lot of watered-down music these days, and clubs aren't the same, either. Slugs was funky and exciting. Today it's a whole different thing. They have early shows - people don't stay out so late any more. A lot of the younger musicians are more educated and know more about the business than we did, and the crowds are good, but it's still a little synthetic."
When electric rock met jazz-no matter what anybody says, the kickoff was Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower: Live in Monterey (1966) - Haynes jumped on the new sound, putting together his own fusion band, the Hip Ensemble.
"One of the things that started happening in '69 or '70 was a gig at a club in West Paterson, New Jersey," he says. "We'd do several sets a night and the club owner started complaining that the younger people weren't drinking. That's how I knew we were drawing a younger crowd. People would go out and smoke a joint between sets and come back in. Plus the older ladies would come in and say, 'Hey, there's younger people coming to check you out."
The Hip Ensemble's live energy didn't always translate to vinyl. None of its seven '70s albums enjoyed the commercial success of, say, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew or Chick Corea's Return to Forever albums. Haynes' group featured an ever-shifting cast of interesting musicians, but the discs (some are in rerelease) have taken their share of mixed press, not entirely without reason. "I'm So High," off Equipoise (1970), is a hodgepodge of dance groove and free jazz that doesn't make sense; the electric tango "Bullfight," on Thank You Thank You (1977), misses the mark. But there's a satisfying pair of tracks from Vistalite (1978) on the Haynes box set. The title tune, with Joe Henderson's shiny sax, really rocks, and "Water Children" has a good-natured West Coast groove.
If Haynes worked more as a leader than a sideman in the '70s, he also commanded the kit for a rising generation's fusion kings like Corea and Jack DeJohnette. And if the '70s weren't jazz's finest hour, the sterile Reagan '80s were worse. Tellingly, there's nothing on the box set from that unfortunate decade. Haynes spent time in Europe playing with Corea and others.
In the '90s Haynes came roaring back, with often-changing crews of younger musicians. Since '92 he's put out nine albums, all on the French label Dreyfus Jazz. There's a lot to listen to. Try Pat Metheny's guitar fusion tune "James" from Te Vou (1994); the straight-ahead version of Charlie Parker's "Little Suede Shoes" (Praise, 1998); Miles Davis' "Sippin' at Bells" off The Roy Haynes Trio featuring Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci. The repertory's rangy, but it's all classic Haynes hard swing.
"I'm old school," Haynes explains, "with a hip attitude."
Two Grammy nominations have come Haynes' way in the new century, for Birds of a Feather: A Tribute to Charlie Parker (2001) and the virtuoso "Hippidy Hop" - the first drum solo ever nominated, Haynes says - on Whereas (2006), with his Fountain of Youth Quartet. Haynes doesn't have a gilded gramophone yet. "But I'm happy to still be in the game," he says. "Every day is Thanksgiving when you're in the midst of younger players coming up. Young people are coming to my gigs. People my age are taking their meds, but if they can, they come see me, too."
The Fountain of Youth lineup coming to Madison would have knocked Ponce de Leon's socks off - red-hot new-generation players Martin Bejerano on piano, David Wong on bass and saxman Jaleel Shaw. "Shaw's bad," Haynes says.
Is music Haynes' fountain of youth? "I just play it, I don't analyze it," he says. "It's like playing standards. The tune might be old, but it always changes. There's always a statement to be made that has to do with what I'm seeing and hearing right then. So music is one of the things that keeps me going. Yeah."