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Roy Haynes, Master Jazz Drummer, Still Going Strong at 86


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I seem to be on a roll lately with getting bone fide living legends on the phone. This time around, I caught up with Roy Haynes on the eve of his 86th birthday—and just after he won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys— at his home on New York's Long Island. To study Haynes' résumé is to basically see the story of jazz unfold before your very eyes. His first gig after leaving Boston at age 19 was with Luis Russell (father of vocalist Catherine Russell) after Russell had taken over King Oliver's band.

He saw the birth and emergence of bebop from the back of the bandstand, playing drums for Bud Powell, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. He went on to become the timekeeper for Sarah Vaughan throughout much of the '50s. He played with John Coltrane in the early '60s when Elvin Jones wasn't able to make it. He did gigs with Lennie Tristano, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, Stan Getz and modern-day heroes like Chick Corea, Roy Hargrove, Dave Holland and Pat Metheny.

Haynes has also led a number of bands over the years, and these days he heads up the aptly named Fountain of Youth Band, which will have a yet-to-be named album out in fall 2011. He can still be found upon occasion behind the drums, playing his ferociously hard-hitting style that has enough energy to light a city block.

I talked to Sonny Rollins a few weeks ago and he thought the Carnegie Hall show you did with him went OK, which is a thumbs up from him. How did you feel it went?

I thought it went great. It was sold out. I remember walking out onstage before I played and they gave me such a warm reception. It was almost unbelievable. It was a great night.

When did you meet him?

In 1949, when he was still a teenager. We did recording with Bud Powell that summer, but we knew each other before that because we lived up in same neighborhood—I moved to Sugar Hill [in Harlem], where he lived, when I came to New York. So, we've known each other a long time, even though he's younger than me. It's almost like we were family.

Where did you develop your unique style?

I'm still doing that, developing a style. [Laughs] I was what the older people used to call “a natural drummer." Ever since I can remember, I've had the rhythm. I wanted to play. In fact, when I was in high school I used to drum on the desk with my fingers, mainly my two thumbs. Back in the '40s, desks had a hollow sound, so it sounded good. In fact, a teacher sent me to the principal's office one day because the other students were paying more attention to me than they were the teacher. The principal told me to not come back without my parents and I brought my mother. I didn't go back to school much after that. I was playing drums then in an Italian section of Boston called Bowdoin Square. There was a war on then, and there were a lot of women of the night and servicemen coming into the clubs back then. That was my start of working.

When was your first recording session?

My first one was in Boston. I don't know what they did with that. That would have been in 1944. Then, in 1945, I joined Luis Russel's band. He sent me a one way ticket to come down and join his band in the summer. I suppose you know who Luis Russell is?

Ummm ...

He used to play with King Oliver.

Right, right. OK. He was Catherine Russell's father.

Right. It took Catherine Russell to get to Luis Russell?

I apologize for my ignorance! I still have much to learn.


Well, I'm also trying to keep up with jazz in the here and now, so it's hard to find time to take it all in.

I understand that thoroughly. Being active since the '40s 'ill now is pretty cool. It's pretty interesting.

You've seen it all happen.

I've seen a lot and played a lot. It's never-ending, seemingly.

Is there someone you wished you'd played with but didn't get the chance?

I've been very fortunate. I've played with a lot of the great older people and a lot of the great younger people as well. It's been a hell of a career. To play with the man who played with King Oliver to playing with Chick Corea or Pat Metheny, both of whom I've played with and recorded with. Chick played on a couple of tracks on my latest album, which will be out sometime this summer. I think it's going to be called 'Royalty.'

Do you enjoy the studio?

I don't go out of my way to do it because the drums sit someplace else. They are miked. I usually have on headphones, which are not the most comfortable things to play with, but I deal with it.

Is it different if you are doing sideman work, maybe not as stressful?

I don't do sideman work. In fact, I don't like the word sideman. Jesus, it sounds like you are bringing me back. If I do anything like that now, it is more of an all-star thing. The word/term is very old. [Laughs]

So do you still have the car on the cover of 'Praise'?

The Gullwing? It's sitting in my carport right now. People ask me if I've started it lately and I haven't since the weather has been bad. I'm also gone a lot.

You are famous for your stylish wardrobe. Have you always been a snappy dresser?

Well, it's been a hobby of mine for a long time. “Snappy dresser," that's good. In the late '50s, there was a writer named George Frazier who went to the same tailor as I did in Cambridge, Mass. He wrote an article in Esquire magazine called 'The Art of Wearing Clothes.' He had a lot of the older movie guys like Walter Pidgeon. I was having a lot of my stuff made at the Andover Shop in Cambridge. For a while, people were dressing down, rock artists started wearing jeans. Back then we would never wear jeans on the bandstand. Then I started having jeans made, in the styles I wanted. Some people wouldn't even be interested in jazz, but they'd want to come to see what the guy was wearing. Back when I was in my 20s, people in Philadelphia would come to the gig just to see what the brother was wearing.

This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz @ Spinner.
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