Interview: Louis Hayes (Part 2)


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The more you listen to recordings by the Horace Silver Quintet in the 1950s, the more you realize that the group had two drummers: Silver's funky, rhythmic left hand on piano and Louis Hayes' sticks. As they played together, Silver and Hayes tended to feed off each other. Both kept time, but each tried to throw the other off with a double-time beat here, a cymbal shot there. Silver and Hayes together established an incredible groove, offering up a surging beat that was never static or dull. And the combined feel was the envy of many leaders at the time, including Miles Davis.

Unlike most drummers of the period, Louis didn't have a heavy hand. Instead, he focused on creating an unpredictable spray of patterns that often came as a surprise to those in the group. And that was the point. The magic of the Horace Silver Quintet rested in its harmonic riffs, tightly arranged horns and unpredictable and exotic beat-keeping. 

In Part 2 of my three-part interview, Louis talks about joining the Horace Silver Quintet in 1956 and his interactions with the composer-pianist:

JazzWax: When did you come to New York?
Louis Hayes: I had always wanted to be in New York. It was a dream. But I was too young in the early 1950s to just pick up and say, “I'm moving to New York." In 1956, bassist Doug Watkins [pictured], who had moved to New York and was with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, returned to Detroit for some reason. We played together at a club in Detroit one night, and he encouraged me to make the move. Soon after Doug returned to New York, the original Messengers broke up. Horace left, taking Doug with him, and Doug recommended me and trombonist Curtis Fuller. I moved to New York in 1956.

JW: Where did you live when you arrived in New York?
LH: At first I lived at the Hotel Alvin on 52d St. near Broadway. Horace put me up there. Then I lived on 85th St. between West End Ave. and Riverside Drive. Then Curtis and I moved to 101st St. between West End and Riverside.

JW: How did you Silver bring you into his quintet?
LH: While I was still living at home in Detroit, the phone rang. When I answered it, the voice at the other end said, “This is Horace Silver." I thought it was a buddy of mine playing a joke. Horace had to convince me it was really him [laughs]. When I finally realized it was really Horace, he asked me if I wanted to join his quintet. Of course, I did. But it wasn't a done deal. He wanted me to come to New York to see how I'd work out with the group.

JW: What did you do when you hung up?
LH: I told my mother and father. My father wasn't too aware of those guys. He was the kind of person who was leery of me leaving home to live so far away.

JW: And your mother?
LH: She was different. She was straight ahead. She said, “Louis can handle it." So I planned to leave for New York. That's when my father bought me a new set of drums. When I got off the train in New York, Horace was there to meet me. I had my drums, and he grabbed a few things and took me to the Hotel Alvin, which overlooked Birdland.

JW: How did you learn Silver's songs?
LH: Horace gave me these different records to listen to, including the one Horace and the Jazz Messengers had recorded for Columbia. There were certain tunes that he wanted me to hear. What wasn't on record he played for me up at his apartment in the 70s, on the Upper West Side. He was a composition writer, meaning there were no vamp sections—everything was written out. Horace was a gentleman and a nice guy. I was very comfortable with him.

JW: Did he give you direction?
LH: Horace never told me what to play or how to play it. He never said anything like that. He'd play things for me on his baby grand, and I'd listen and pick it up. Also, we always played gigs and rehearsed at Nola's Studio in New York before recording anything, so I knew the songs cold by the time they appeared on recordings. I always got warm with Horace's music first.

JW: How old were you when you joined the group?
LH: I was 19. I wasn't too concerned about fitting in, though. I wasn't nervous.

JW: Why not?
LH: When I came up in Detroit, it was a place where musicians' level of playing was high. I had already been around people who had played very well. New York definitely was a step up. For sure, there were major players in New York. But in Detroit, Yusef Lateef's [pictured] group was pretty tight. When guys came from New York to Detroit to jam, they'd have to deal with those guys—Yusef, Paul Chambers, and so on.

JW: But 19 is still pretty young.
LH: Oh, sure. I still had room to grow in New York but I wasn't green. There's hardly anyone who came to New York and could play on a high level right away. It's a process. But that's true of anything. If you decide to be a lawyer, you have to do it for a while and be around people who can do it better than you to you grow. Eventually, your mind grows and you develop.

JW: Did you and Silver discuss the music or your playing?
LH: No. We never really discussed things. You know inside right away if something is working or not. You really don't have to be told by anyone that things are working. The gigs just kept coming so I knew I was alright. Things weren't always perfect. There were times when I played with a more comfortable feel than at other times.

JazzWax tracks: Louis Hayes recorded six albums with the Horace Silver Quintet: 6 Pieces of Silver, The Stylings of Silver, Further Explorations, Finger Poppin,' Live at Newport '58 and Blowin' the Blues Away. All have been remastered and are available at iTunes and other online retailers.

JazzWax clip: Here's Louis Hayes on Mellow D from the Horace Silver Quintet's Finger Poppin'. Again, train your ears on the drums and listen hard to what Louis is doing here. Silver's left hand assumes the role of the bass drum, with Louis adding high-hat and cymbal figures in the most unexpected places...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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