By 1982, Roy Haynes had been playing drums professionally for close to 40 years. That December, during a concert at the White House with pianist Chick Corea and bassist Miroslav Vitous, he showed that he was still operating on the cutting edge of jazz.
Instead of playing it safe and running through a couple familiar tunes, the group presented an unusual medley, based on a concept documented on its then-recent ECM album Trio Music. That LP featured a novel structure: half searching free improvisations, half swinging renditions of pieces by Thelonious Monk. At the White House, the band offered one totally spontaneous piece, which flowed seamlessly into the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” and from there into Monk’s uptempo romp “Rhythm-a-Ning” (a number that Haynes had played live with its composer back in 1958). Throughout the performance, whether Haynes is punctuating the free piece with ear-catching clicks on the rim of the snare, playing dazzling one-handed fills on “Autumn Leaves,” or laying down a relentless high-speed ride-cymbal rhythm on the Monk, he sounds completely in command. In just under 10 minutes, the performance shows how the drummer — who turns 95 today — has remained perennially modern during his astonishing 75-year musical journey.
In the early decades of Haynes’ career, he played with the undisputed masters of various jazz eras and styles: swing-era saxophone giant Lester Young in the Forties, bebop innovator Charlie Parker and vocal legend Sarah Vaughan in the Fifties, and avant-garde trailblazer John Coltrane in the Sixties. He would later connect every bit as deeply with younger musicians who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies, from Corea — who, after teaming up with the drummer for 1968’s classic Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, worked with him consistently into the 21st century — to guitarist Pat Metheny, Haynes’ frequent collaborator since the Eighties, and Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez.
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Asked to comment on Haynes during a 2001 interview with Jazziz, Metheny called the drummer his “number one hero on earth.” He continued, “Roy is the human manifestation of whatever it is that the word ‘hip’ was supposed to mean before it just became a word. Always in the moment, always in this time, eternal and classic and at the same time totally nonchalant about it.”
In recent years, Haynes has barely slowed down. He’s gigged consistently with his own bands, including the long-running Fountain of Youth — which even turned up on Letterman in 2011 — and made time to connect with admirers like Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste. (Unfortunately Haynes’ annual birthday run at the Blue Note, slated for March 19th through the 22nd, has been canceled.)
In a 2006 interview for Jazziz, recalling a performance at Montreal’s Drumfest with many fellow drummers in attendance, Haynes spoke about his determination to always remain one step ahead. “Now, if I played rudiments and all that shit, they’re hip to that shit,” he said. “So I come up with the Roy Haynes shit, man, and it blew all of their minds.”