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Louis Hayes

Marcia Hillman By

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You never know how you're going to sound until you hit the stage and start playing...
Influenced by Philly Joe Jones and mentored by Papa Jo Jones, drummer Louis Hayes is a jazz survivor and a swinging one at that. The one-time Detroit musician grew up listening to and eventually playing with such legendary performers as Yusef Lateef, Sam Jones, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and so many others from that prosperous golden age of jazz in the Motor City. His longtime associations with many a jazz legend—including Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson—have solidified Hayes' living legend status at age 68, though he keeps as busy a playing schedule as he always has had.

All About Jazz: You've been around working at it for around 50 years... Why drums and why jazz?

Louis Hayes: I was introduced to this art form by my father—Louis Hayes, Sr.—(who) played drums and piano, though not professionally. So drums and piano were in the home; my mother also played piano and I had a cousin—another early teacher—who was a postman and a drummer. He and my father both led me toward this art form jazz: bebop. My father listened to this art form, so as a kid coming up I heard it all the time, (especially) the big bands.

I heard the music that he was playing on the radio. And people in the neighborhood, they were playing various instruments and were playing this art form. I was really listening and I had some other compadres in the neighborhood that played different instruments and we were doing things together. So I started doing this as a kid. I was into sports but by the time I was, well when I was ten—I got started playing pretty good. When I was in my early teens, 13 or something, I started really listening to the music more.

After I first heard Charlie Parker, he got my attention at an early age. Then one day my mother sent me over to one of her friend's homes to help her wash windows and her husband was part owner or managed this club. We skipped the washing windows that day and we started talking about music, I was maybe 16. And he asked me to bring a group into his club, a teenage club at the time. So that's what I did. That's when I had my first group, about 1953. I got started like that; I just played at street dances for a period of time.

AAJ: This was all still in Detroit?

LH: Yes...Then I went into another teenage club called The Tropicana in Detroit, playing with my little buddies. In Detroit there were so many older musicians that I saw that could really play this art form at a high level: Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, the bassist Paul Chambers, Milt Jackson and Yusef Lateef. There were just so many. And we had a place called The World Stage. I was playing little clubs and leaving town for places surrounding Detroit—places like Ann Arbor, Michigan—and going different places. I might go to some place and stay for a month, as I did some traveling...I was playing in little clubs up to a certain point but then I started playing in real clubs, but I was too young to be in them. You were supposed to be 21; I was maybe 18 at this point, but I got away with it pretty good.

Then I got this job with Lateef because I was appearing in this place with an organ trio. When Yusef was going to take over the leader's spot, the owner said to him, "You can have your job, but I would like for you to keep Louis Hayes . Naturally, I was aware of Yusef, but he wasn't aware of me. So he came over to my mother's home and said to me that I could have the job, but he would give me six weeks trial. Well, marvelous, six weeks and (trombonist) Curtis Fuller. I mean, this was a great band. So I was with them for a period of time until they found out I was 18 and that's when I lost that job!

But it prepared me pretty good, playing every night with musicians that played so well. It kind of prepared me because right after that Horace Silver called me...I was in an after hours place in Detroit. Kenny Burrell and Doug Watkins who were already living here but were home for some reason and I had an opportunity to sit in and play with them that night. And when he got back to New York, he decided to disband and do some other things. So Art Blakey got the name Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver put his own group together. This was in 1956. So Doug Watkins was appearing with the Messengers and he was going on with Horace. So he asked Horace to get the "baby boy out of Detroit. So Horace called me. Oh, boy, what a telephone call. It changed my whole life.

AAJ: I'll bet it did.

LH: Horace called me and I immediately told my mother what was happening and came to New York. I think it was August 1956. My life changed—it started from there. I was recording my first record, recording with Horace—Six Pieces of Silver. And at that time, I did about five of his recordings, from '56 to '59. Also, I was here (in New York), so I was recording with a lot of different people, with John Coltrane several times (and) a lot of different people.

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