Badal Roy: From Busboy To Jazz Hero
About 35 years ago, Miles Davis assembled an eclectic group of players, including John McLaughlin on guitar, Michael Henderson on bass, and an unknown Indian percussionist named Badal Roy on tablas. The session produced the 1972 album On The Corner, the foundation for a sound later dubbed “world jazz.” Miles … From India, a set on Times Square Records coproduced by Louiz Banks and Davis enthusiast Bob Belden, pays homage to the multi-cultural grooves Davis pioneered on that album. It pairs Indian jazz musicians with some of those same Davis sidemen, including Badal Roy, the first Indian jazz percussionist.
“I went into the studio with Adam [Holtzman, keys], Mike [Henderson, bass], and Pete [Cosey, guitar] and did what I usually do,” Roy says. “I found a groove for [Holtzman’s arrangement of] ’Ife’ from the Big Fun album and we improvised. I was going to play on other tracks, but the session went long and I had to catch a plane for a gig in Uruguay with [pianist] Rodrigo Gonzalez-Pahlen.” On “Ife,” Roy complements Henderson’s dark bass line by laying down a bayam (bass drum)-heavy rhythm on his unique tabla setup. “I have four tabla to my right, each tuned to a different note, two bayam on the left, and a couple of small tabla with a high-pitched sound,” Roy explains. “I don’t know the proper name for the smaller drums because I never had any formal training in drumming or [Indian] classical music.”
Badal Roy onstage with Miles Davis shortly after the 1972 release of On The Corner.
Roy is known for his sinuous groove and free-flowing rhythms, but tabla was only a hobby for him. He came to New York in 1968 planning to complete a PhD in statistics. “I was staying at the YMCA for $2.50 a night,” Roy recalls. “I met an Indian who had a restaurant. He asked me to accompany a sitar player for $16 a night and food.” The first week Roy played, a customer named John McLaughlin asked if he could sit in on guitar. After they played together, he asked Roy if he’d like to make a record. “The album was My Goal’s Beyond,” Roy says. “It’s still my favorite album. I played with Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham. I’d never heard of them at that time.”
Roy went from making $40 a week as a busboy to $4,000 a week as a professional musician. McLaughlin introduced him to Miles Davis who invited Roy to the sessions that became On The Corner. “I asked him what to play and he said, ’Just start a groove.’ When Herbie [Hancock], Jack [DeJohnette], and Carlos [Garnett] came in, I thought it was total chaos. I asked myself what I was doing there. When Miles said I was ’bad,’ I didn’t know he meant I was good. I thought I’d lost the gig.
“Years later, in 1999, my son came home with a CD of On The Corner,” Roy says laughing. “He said, ’Dad, you’re on this CD! All the hip-hop guys are sampling it. You must be famous.’ I listened to the album again and I couldn’t believe how much I loved it.”