Roy Haynes percolating on drums is like Ali dancing on the tips of his toes, jabbin', snapping heads back, which is why they call him "Snap Crackle," for the way Haynes pops the pulse, the groove. He doesn't just keep time rudimentally — he plays with time, listens oh so closely to his younger band mates and responds with empathy. Whenever you see him, he's always clean, dressed to the nines; in fact, back in the 1960s he was one of Esquire magazine's best-dressed men. He has a taste for vintage cars, but it's his tasty drumming style that really sets him apart and through which he's made his mark.
In the first several decades of his career, Haynes on the regular played with the icons of jazz: Pops, Prez, Bird, Diz, Monk, Miles, Mary Lou, Getz, Coltrane, Billie, Sarah, Ella, to name a bunch. Nowadays, he's a great-grandfather whose aptly named Fountain of Youth Band travels the world summoning wonder. Very recently, Haynes made an impromptu appearance at Sonny Rollins' 80th-birthday concert and threw down the gauntlet of pleasure with Rollins, Christian McBride and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.
The Root chatted with Haynes by phone a few days after that concert.
The Root: You're 85 and playing as masterfully as ever. Those who see you, onstage or off, are amazed by your energy and drive, creativity and flair. Along with the music, what allows you to maintain the energy of youth while being in your 80s?
Roy Haynes: [laughter] I'm getting that question all over the world now, man, especially females coming up to me.
TR: Uh-oh, watch out!
RH: I'm serious! It's beginning to amaze me! You know, 'cause I'm not thinking about that. Every day, man, when I wake up and I see the sun, I'm just … ready for it. I never even thought I'd be living this long, let alone trying to play. It's a very exciting period, man.
TR: All over the globe, you're one of the most beloved and celebrated jazz musicians. Tell us some of the places you've recently traveled to.
RH: France has always been good to me; Paris, you know? We did a lot in Italy, some in Spain. And oh, man, one of the last most exciting ones was Israel. I've been there a couple of times before, but this time, man, oooh.
TR: What was special about this time in Israel?
RH: The audience! The way they received the music. Like the audience the other night with Sonny Rollins [Sept. 10, 2010, at the Beacon Theatre in New York City]. Man, they were hot.
TR: Oh, yes, I was there.
RH: So you were in there? So you saw what happened. Man, you just come out, and the audience is ready for you. Man, that's a helluva feeling: to get welcomed like that.
TR: What are some of the groups you're playing with currently?
RH: The Freedom Band, with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Chick [Corea]. The Fountain of Youth Band is my own project. Jaleel Shaw is playing alto and soprano sax, and he's kicking butt. Then Martin Bejerano, on piano, is from Miami. He's been with me the longest. And on bass is David Wong; David's been with me for a few years, and he's the youngest in the band. These guys are hot, and it feels good.
TR: Jazz at Lincoln Center is launching its season on Sept. 25 with a show featuring you with your Fountain of Youth Band in the first half, and special guests Dave Holland, Danilo Perez, Kenny Garrett and Wynton Marsalis in the second. Do you know what you cats will be playing in the second half?
RH: Oh, yes … you want to be surprised? [laughter] We're going to do some things they like to do. We've been talking about the tunes these last few days.
TR: Might you play any tunes from your album dedicated to Charlie Parker, Birds of a Feather?
RH: Yes, that tune is one of the tracks we're gonna do.
TR: Great. For the sake of ancestry and lineage, what's the roll call of drummers who most influenced you as a drummer and a musician?
RH: That influenced me? Well, first you got Papa Jo Jones, with the Count Basie band. He was one of the main ones. In fact, when I was a teenager, they told me I looked like him. That was in Boston; that's before I came to New York. And Cozy Cole, who played with Cab Calloway's band. There's Big Sid Catlett. Those were the guys that I was into.
I met Art Blakey when he was with Fletcher Henderson. I looked so young [that] he used to call me his son! He decided to stay in my hometown of Boston, and we became very close. And Max Roach was only a year older than me, and we were like brothers. He made a heck of an impact upon a lot of drummers. He recommended me to Charlie Parker when he was leaving Bird's band [to do his own thing]. That was in 1949.
TR: The fundamentals, or basics, are essential to any craft or art. But how does your playing so transcend the rudimental while not forgetting them?
RH: I was never a rudimental drummer. At least as I call it. If I was, I probably could have played things easier. But I had to make up my own form. Rudimental means certain book things that you do a certain way. I could never do 'em that way, so I had to do things my way. Which ended up giving me my own style, so to speak. I was influenced by many of the great drummers who I just named, but I did it my way, as Sinatra would say.
TR: [laughter] But early on you studied the basics, like paradiddles?
RH: Paradiddles were part of that rudimental thing. I couldn't do that too good. I just had to do it the way I felt it, which I still do. I just try to create, I just go by feeling, and try to tell a story, paint a picture, that whole thing. That's part of my concept, yes.
TR: How would you further describe your concept or style? Didn't bassist and composer Charles Mingus say that you "suggest the beat"?
RH: Yes, he said that "Roy Haynes doesn't particularly play the beat, he suggests the beat." You know, I do play the beat as well, but sometimes I'm playing around the beat. I don't try to describe it. I just try, like Old Man River, to keep rollin' along.
TR: [laughter] I presume you took lessons early on?
RH: I studied a little bit, and I'm still studying. As I play along.
TR: What does it mean to "play in the pocket"?
RH: [soft laughter] It's a phrase used by some of the artists. Playing in the pocket means playing right inside of what you're doing. Right in it. In the pocket means not off the beat somewhere, it's right in the pocket. When you have to describe things to an artist, or even some of the listeners, they can imagine what that would be like: in the pocket. That means you've got it right in the palm of your hand. When two artists get in the pocket, you know, that's serious. It's a serious affair. You know what I mean?
RH: But I'm not much into trying to describe things. I just try to play the music, play the drums. And the people can feel that. When you play, and somebody can smile or shake or dance, they're understanding what you're doing. There are ways for people to understand without you explaining it to them. You ask some hard questions.
TR: I'm just trying to prod you to get to some stuff where the people will feel your words like they feel your playing.
RH: Ahh, beautiful.
TR: How would you describe the values of jazz?
RH: [softly] I don't know. It's something that you feel inside your body that makes you feel good. To me it's a medicine. That'll make you smile. Somebody singing some low-down blues, you can feel it. It's like a religion.
I don't get all wrapped up in the word "jazz." Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. Jazz, that's an old word from a long time ago. Some say they hear that jazz is dying. Then why do they call all these festivals, all over the world, jazz festivals? And some of them don't even have jazz music; they have a bunch of other [styles of] music.
I don't like categorizing things. I also play with people who are not particularly jazz players. But I love it. And the instrument I play, the drums, that's the heartbeat. That's the heartbeat, and if your heart stops beating … you're dead.
That's a good way to end it. Man, it's been nice chatting with you.
Greg Thomas is a jazz writer, producer, curator and educator.