We’re at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, digging Roy Haynes. It’s opening night of a week-long engagement for the octogenarian hipster and his Fountain Of Youth quartet at this plush new Manhattan nightspot located in the current home of Jazz At Lincoln Center, an impressive facility that artistic director Wynton Marsalis christened just three years ago. Marsalis affectionately refers to it as The House Of Swing. And this night, with Haynes holding court, it is indeed that. The room itself, perched five stories above Columbus Circle in the ritzy Time Warner Center, seats about 150, so it’s spacious compared to the intimate and far more casual Village Vanguard, that historic subterranean space in the heart of Greenwich Village where Haynes has played countless times since the early ’50s. He prefers the sound in the oddly triangular-shaped Vanguard, with its small stage, low ceiling, and carpeted wall directly behind the bandstand. At Dizzy’s, the stage is sprawling, the ceiling is high, and directly behind the bandstand is a glass wall providing patrons with a spectacular view of Central Park and Manhattan’s Midtown skyline all lit up at night. But no one’s looking out the window while Haynes is up there dealing. We take seats at the bar directly adjacent to his sparkling Yamaha kit with copper-colored snare, eschewing the scenic view for a clear glimpse of his hands and feet, where we can closely watch the rhythmic maestro cutting up the beat and traversing the kit with his usual flair. From this side-stage vantage point, we can see him alternately feathering the bass drum and impulsively dropping bombs on a burning rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Segment,” punching up the boppish proceedings with unpredictable accents here and there. We observe his audacious and wholly intuitive approach to the snare drum on Coltrane’s swinging “Mr. P.C.,” trying to spot some kind of pattern or system inherent in his playing. But it’s more like watching Sugar Ray Robinson bobbing and weaving and slipping punches in the ring while delivering lightning-quick jabs and intricate counterpunches. We dig Haynes tippin’ on the hi-hat with his right hand while simultaneously playing the shell of his snare with the left hand behind an alto sax solo, and we instantly appreciate his old-school values. We dig his 6/8 African feel underneath his fresh arrangement of “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” a show tune he recorded with Bird back in 1954. We watch him alternately bashing the snare and tattooing the ride cymbal on Chick Corea’s buoyantly swinging “Like This.” We catch him organically shifting from matched grip to traditional during a show-stopping solo, marveling at his masterful touch, his uncanny sense of dynamics, and the sheer command that he holds over each drum, each cymbal. We check the loose, flowing sense of independence he exhibits with all four limbs and are awe-struck by the profound depth of his drumming prowess. (For a sample of Haynes’ genius, spin his solo drum piece “Hippidy Hop” from 2006’s live, Grammy-nominated Whereas on Dreyfus Jazz — and check out the audience reaction following that seven-minute excursion.)
All accomplished drummers orchestrate from behind the kit, but watching Haynes, it becomes apparent that he’s a regular Toscanini of the skins. He shapes the sound of his band with an endless array of nuances and idiosyncratic accents, all kinds of embellishments and hip little fills that comprise the incredibly personal drum voice he has fashioned over the past 60-plus years.
Suddenly, in the midst of this crackling set with his band of young musical upstarts — Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Martin Bejerano on piano, and David Wong on bass — the truth becomes crystal clear Haynes is a tap dancer. He’s Fred Astaire on the snare, Honi Coles on the hi-hat, Jimmy Slyde on the ride, the Nicholas Brothers on toms, and Baby Laurence on the bass drum. He’s got that eternal bounce in his stroke, and at age 82 his catlike reflexes are still very much intact, as are his keen instincts on the bandstand. Hearing him lead his Fountain Of Youth band through a sizzling set at Dizzy’s, he sounds as vibrant, inspired, ineffably swinging, and teeming with a spirit of joie de vivre as he did back in the 1940s playing on 52nd Street with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell.
“We play this music from the heart, from the soul,” he tells the adoring audience, “so the world can hear it and love it and deal with it.” Everyone gets that message loud and clear. Haynes unwinds backstage after another electrifying set. “I try to save everything for the bandstand,” he says. “When I’m up there, that’s my religion, and I try to give it my all. I don’t play that often anymore. I don’t want to. But when I do, I mean it. I don’t have no beats to waste, man.”
When told that his style has been called busy, Haynes replies, “Yeah, it is busy. But it’s like what Trane said about Wayne Shorter. Somebody said Wayne sounded like scrambled eggs and Trane said, ’Yeah, but it’s the way he’s scramblin’ those eggs.’ Of course, you just can’t play that way with everybody in order to make it work. But that’s how I like to play with my band. I like to be challenged by my young guys, and I like conversing with them on stage through our instruments. That’s really my style in a nutshell. It’s like talking to somebody. You listen and you respond. You don’t talk over somebody when you’re trying to have a conversation with them. It’s the same way with musicians on the bandstand, or at least it should be.”
A few days earlier, before his triumphant opening night at Dizzy’s, Haynes graciously opens up his Long Island home to a visitor for an interview. Upon entering his plush pad, I am immediately struck by the host of awards and trophies stacked on the mantle in his living room. There’s a Grammy Award for the 1988 all-star tribute album, Blues For Coltrane, alongside two glass obelisk-shaped awards from the Jazz Journalists Association — one naming him Drummer Of The Year for 2006 and the other a Lifetime Achievement Award from 2005. There’s a National Endowment For The Arts citation naming him an NEA Jazz Master for 1995. There’s also a citation from Downbeat for entering the esteemed magazine’s Hall Of Fame in 2004 and an award for being voted the top drummer in its 2006 International Critics’ Poll. Writers and fellow musicians have always dug what Haynes has put down.
In the basement (where he keeps a set of practice drums he hardly touches) hangs a huge framed portrait of his boyhood idol, Papa Jo Jones. It’s a vintage shot of the great drummer during his heyday with the Count Basie band, looking slick in full-length coat, sharp hat, and flashing his sly, ever-present grin. On a nearby wall is a framed picture of Haynes and fellow Bostonian Tony Williams sharing a hearty laugh. On the floor are boxes and boxes of pictures, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and assorted memorabilia dating back to the ’40s. “I’m going to have to organize this stuff one of these days,” he says.
Haynes gives me a tour of the rest of the house — all but the attic. In retrospect, I suspect there is a portrait of Haynes up there that has been turning increasingly old and ugly over the years. Because like the mythical Dorian Gray, Haynes remains eternally youthful-looking and impossibly vibrant, especially when he’s behind the kit. It’s a mind-boggling feat to look and play so well at age 82. And yet, Haynes says it just comes naturally. He doesn’t attribute his miraculous condition to anything in particular — no special diet or exercise regimen, no extraordinary genes he may have inherited. “One woman said after hearing my band play at Newport last year, ’You better check Roy Haynes for steroids!’” he laughs. Not an outrageous suggestion, actually. After all, he sounds better now, a fact to which many fellow musicians and scribes will attest, than he did 20 years ago. Perhaps the music itself is his fountain of youth.