In 1945, a teenager from Roxbury, Massachusetts, moved to New York City and helped revolutionize the sound of jazz. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And drummer Roy Haynes is still going strong at age 88.
It would be easier to list the giants that Haynes hasn’t collaborated with than those he has. Quick—name the greatest saxophonists: Charlie Parker…Lester Young…John Coltrane…Sonny Rollins. Haynes worked with all of them. Trumpeters? He gigged with Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Pianists? Haynes appears on crucial recordings by Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and Chick Corea. He accompanied Billie Holiday and was Sarah Vaughan’s longtime drummer.

Born to Barbadian immigrant parents in 1925, Haynes started drumming at an early age. “I don’t know why I was drawn to the drums,” he says, speaking from his New York City home. “It’s just something I felt very early in my life. I was a natural drummer from day one.”

Haynes started gigging as a young teen. “The owners of one club in Boston had to get permission from the Boston school board for me to play in a club where they served alcohol,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Haynes came of age at a volatile point in jazz history. Big-band swing was on the wane. Small combos were replacing jazz orchestras. Players experimented with harmony, rhythm, and musical structure, forging a sound that would become known as “bebop”. Along with drummers Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Art Blakey, Haynes pioneered a bold new style that shifted timekeeping duties away from the bass drum, permitting drummers to play more freely.

For Haynes, this new style wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply instinct. “In my case,” he says, “the style just happened naturally. It was just the feelings that came to my mind and body. Of course I was influenced by my environment, listening to drummers like Papa Joe Jones, Sid Catlett, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa. My ears were open to everything. But it was a just a natural thing to play with the approach that I was lucky enough to have.”

By 1947, Haynes was playing with Lester Young, the era’s most influential saxophonist. During that time, Haynes switched from using the large 26-inch bass drum favored by most players to a tighter-sounding 20-inch model. Young promptly dubbed the drum “Princess Wee Wee,” after a popular early 20th-century vaudeville performer of short stature.

Two years later, Haynes was gigging with Charlie Parker, arguably the most important saxophonist of the postwar generation. His bandmates included Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Haynes was a fixture in the clubs lining Manhattan’s 52nd Street.


That 52nd Street scene has no equivalent in today’s world. Imagine many of the world’s greatest musical minds, all gigging nightly within several city blocks. The Charlie Parker Quintet might share the bill with piano titan Art Tatum, while Billie Holiday sang across the street. “It’s hard to put into words what it was like,” says Haynes. “At my young age, it was like a dream. Every night was exciting. To be a teenager coming up with this new style, this new approach to music, was something I was very happy to be involved in.”

If Haynes had stopped playing in 1950, we’d still be talking about him. But as music evolved, so did he. He recorded a number of albums as a leader. His long stint with Sarah Vaughan resulted in some of the finest jazz vocal recordings ever made. Meanwhile, he cultivated a personal style almost as cool as his music. In 1960, Esquire magazine cited him as one of the best-dressed men in America, alongside Miles Davis, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable. “That’s just according to a magazine,” Haynes laughs. “You can’t go by that. Who knows—I may have been even more stylish than they said!”

Like the postwar era, the 1960s were a time of explosive musical change, and once more Haynes was part of the avant-garde. He often filled in for Elvin Jones with John Coltrane’s group, and in 1968 he collaborated with two young innovators who would define the jazz fusion movement: pianist Chick Corea and bassist Miroslav Vitous. The resulting album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, is considered one of the decade’s most important jazz recordings.

For the past three decades Haynes has been a Yamaha drum endorser. He plays a Yamaha maple-shell kit, with a snare drum he helped Yamaha create: the Roy Haynes Signature, a [hand-hammered] copper-shelled, 14.5 " x 5" model.

Haynes remains an active touring and recording artist, often performing with family members (t   he day we spoke to him, he was hanging out with his son, Craig Haynes, and grandson, Marcus Gilmore—both drummers of note). Is he still as passionate about music as he was in the 1940s?

“Are you kidding me?” he practically shouts. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here! The party would be over. There has to be inspiration there. It has to come through the veins in my arms, through my fingers. It’s life. It’s real. I’m just glad to still be here talking about it. The beat goes on, as the song says. The journey continues.”