Making Fun of Drummers

Listening to Roy Haynes will cure you of this habit.

Roy Haynes

Recently, Roy Haynes proved himself the last of the grand master jazz drummers standing at full power. He celebrated his 81st birthday at the Village Vanguard and made his listeners witness to what can only be described as an aesthetic miracle. His every stroke had the wisdom of nuance one would expect from a professional who has performed and recorded in New York since 1945—that was hardly the miraculous part. Haynes, however, created a signal experience by somehow performing every tune as though he had just turned 40. We expect—and get—so much “less” when the oldest of our masters appear in public performance. While they may have made their reputations by meeting grueling demands of imposing magnitude, in their twilight years, their audience thankfully settles for subtle authority instead of an artistry full of muscular fireworks. The late concerts of Vladimir Horowitz constitute a prime example.

So, no one really expected what was heard, but crowds filled the house each set because the word went out that something extraordinary was taking place in the literal underground of that most famous of jazz basements. The audiences responded with ovations to sets that were sometimes 90 minutes long because Haynes, filled with the steam of empathetic inspiration, seemed intent on swing-swang-swinging until the cows came home. The cheering throughout the week was affirmative proof that pure music, free of tricks and grandstanding, can touch everyone when pulled out of the air with the authority of an unpredictable master.

Haynes is one of the geniuses of American feeling who arrive in small packages. At 5 feet 4 inches tall, he reminds us that Louis Armstrong and a good number of the giants of this most American of music were compact men. The aesthetic size and sensitivity of his talent evolved through his work with Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, and John Coltrane. One can hear the essences of all of those bandstands, concert jobs, dances, parties, and jam sessions in the freedom of his beat and command of tempo. With Charlie Parker, one could play as fast as possible; with Sarah Vaughan one might have to keep a tempo so slow that the beats seemed three blocks apart; with Thelonious Monk, the music demanded uncommon speeds that fell between the regular versions of fast, medium, and slow. The drummer absorbed it all.

As a mastermind of the trap set, Haynes plays an assemblage of cymbals and drums that was invented in the 20th century so that the jazz drummer could use all of his limbs to create the sound of an ensemble. The idea was to imitate the resources available to the pit drummers in movie theaters, who had an array of percussion devices to create drum parts and sound effects for shows, jugglers, dancers, and silent films. The fusion of marching band and theatrical percussion developed from the teens until World War II, with drummers, however well they played, forced to listen to the same line over and over: “We’re a band of 11 musicians and a drummer.”

Impressively, Haynes invented a style that has expanded while never becoming dated. In the 1940s—following the innovations of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach—Art Blakey and Haynes became the next two originals in the new style of bebop, which was built upon a looser approach to the rhythm. It was a motion away from the rudimental figures that had defined jazz drumming from the start. Haynes’ drumming reached its first peak of influence through his loose beat and his crisp way of creating a dialogue with the soloist by deftly using a range of cymbals and drums. Haynes has a unique degree of independent coordination of hands and feet, and the result was an extremely intricate way of swinging. Syncopation, or accenting unexpected beats, was only the beginning of what Haynes did. For all their originality, both Elvin Jones with John Coltrane and Tony Williams with the Miles Davis group were deeply affected by his novel conceptions.

What kept Haynes in an enviable position throughout his career was the fact that he gave more than constant variety to the two-bar, eight-beat cycle of 4/4 jazz swing. The rhythmic motives of each eight-bar section were improvised on as attentively as a pianist or a bassist toyed with chords. The upshot is that Haynes made the sound of the form—its dominant rhythmic motives—part of the color of the percussion accompaniment. Add the fact that Haynes inflects the flow of his drumming to complement the rhythmic identity of the featured soloist, and you have a fully conceived expression that arrives in every bar. No matter the style of the individual, this is the most advanced way to play the drums, which is to say the most musical, and is surely part of the reason why Roy Haynes has no date on the way he plays. It is and was always contemporary.