I first encountered Roy Haynes 26 years ago as a high school freshman sitting in a darkened auditorium next to my Dad. The occasion was a special concert featuring the jazz ensembles of our town's two high schools. My two incredibly hip instrumental music teachers, both professional jazz musicians, had arranged for a guest artist to perform with an all-star group of students. I was not yet good enough to play in the concert, nor did I know anything about our guest artist, Roy Haynes.
What I do remember from that evening was a display of physicality and rhythmic excitement more common in a boxing ring than a high school auditorium. Mr. Haynes' bass drum pulsed with the ferocity of a summer rainstorm hitting a metal roof or a nervous soldier emptying a machine gun. The tales of the young drummer who let Haynes use his Ludwigs only to return to the horrific scene of a hit-and-run drummer are the stuff of school legend. Haynes and the kid's birthday present were engaged in an epic struggle. The drums were defeated.
At 14, it was great to be in the presence of someone great, even if I didn't really appreciate how great they were or why. I don't remember anything about mitosis or slope intercept form, but I do remember how Roy Haynes made me feel. I remember how to play in a group. To leave space. To strive to be better.
Mentoring Young Players
As I studied music, aspired to be a musician and then abandoned that dream, I learned more about Haynes through recordings and occasional live performances. Roy Haynes played with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Chick Corea... Within him resides the entire history of American music. I've seen and heard a lot of fantastic jazz over the years, but it was not until my 30s that I came to truly appreciate Roy Haynes.
Roy Haynes shares his genius with the audience while mentoring young players. This gift of generosity ensures that America's indigenous art form, jazz, continues to grow and endure. Great teachers embrace their responsibility to the next generation. I do my part to sustain his legacy by flying cross-country for an hour of musical bliss--drinking $7 cokes on tiny uncomfortable chairs. I continue his educational outreach by dragging reluctant friends to Haynes performances.
Like any master teacher, Haynes teaches by example and through collaboration with those on stage and in the audience. He nudges, kicks and supports band members through collective improvisation. Sometimes he hits them on the head with a mallet. He gives the audience so much to think about--his remarkable athleticism, musicality, precision, humor, intensity and snappy attire. Like any great work of art, a Roy Haynes performance offers a lifetime worth of beauty, complexity and wisdom to consider. When you tire of thinking, just tap your foot. He'll swing you into bad health.
In the past few years, I seized every opportunity to sit under Roy Haynes' cymbals. I've seen him with a who's who of jazz greats and he somehow always inspires them to be even greater.
Life Long Learner
Haynes' current Fountain of Youth band is comprised of fine young men in their early twenties. You can hear them improve every night under the maestro's tutelage. Haynes not only teaches them to play better through their collective improvisation, he imparts lessons about class, culture, citizenship, history and manhood on the bandstand. When an elderly singer sitting in with the band forgot a few lyrics to a Gershwin standard, the young man on piano discretely mouthed the words to him until the end of the song. That demonstrated enormous grace, professionalism and respect for an elder and a colleague.
Haynes is 79 but many listeners say he is playing better than ever before. Haynes is a student of the music that came after him--a life long learner.
What will happen to a generation of children who have never heard a tasteful song sung in tune or are uninitiated to likes of Roy Haynes? To the educators fighting every day to bring beauty and expression to the lives of American kids, I say, "Keep swinging!"
Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Univ.