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Louis Hayes: Still Moving Straight Ahead

Joan Gannij By

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Louis Hayes will turn 80 on May 31 (2017), but the party is still goin' hearty. He started celebrating this milestone back in February with an 18-day tour that began in Barcelona and concluded in Amsterdam. It was mostly one-nighters with three nights in Athens, two in Paris and London appearances at the usual places, like Fasching in Stockholm, the Sunset Club and Ronnie Scott's. I caught the Detroit native during his final concert at the Bimhuis in the Dutch capital, and in his lowkey way, he confirmed that he ''had a great time playing the music that we chose to play. The "we" being Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, bassist Dezron Douglas and Danny Grissett on piano. The two sets included a mixed bag of classics like Billy Taylor's "Easy Walk," Henry Mancini's "Mr. Lucky Theme," "Bookie's Bossa," "Bohemia After Dark," and Michel Le Grand's "I Will Wait for You."

The quartet was tight, energetic and Hayes functioned seamlessly as leader and musician. The Bimhuis was sold out and there were many musicians who came to pay homage, gathered in the Standing section. Dutch drum legend John Engels, who turned 80 last year and has played with all the top cats from Ray Brown to Chet Baker, had only accolades for his peer. "How did I like it? It was fantastic! Louis Hayes is a personality, a great musician. The music was so open, and breathing! I was impressed by the respect between the musicians. He was playing my old Sonor drum kit (note: Hayes travels light, only with cymbals and sticks) and I felt like I was home again. I heard all the blue notes. They told a story, and they mean what they say, that's the most important thing."

Gerry Teekens, CEO of Criss Cross and a longtime drummer also concurred. "His style is not derived from anyone else; he's like Philly Joe, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke in that sense. I've always admired him going back to the time with Horace Silver, and later during that great period with Cannonball and Sam Jones. He still has it and plays great, notwithstanding the fact that he's turning 80 years old. He hits everything on the right time and he listens to his musicians. As a leader, he's a quiet guy. As a player and a leader, he has something nobody else has, and that's his own thing."

During the break, the players sat down for a quick meal, while Hayes refrained from eating and waited patiently for a glass of red wine, reflecting about the tour and the new projects ahead. "I've done it so long, been dedicated so long, I don't need to say I'm the leader. The musicians realize that. At this time of my life, I'm not playing like I'm 22, but I'm still me. I play like I always have. The music keeps changing, which is a good thing. It does influence me a little bit, but I stay the same. My ability has changed because I'm older now. All the things I've done in my life have made me this person, made the history. That's what puts me in this position today. I'm not the teacher. I'm just the oldest person and they wanted to dedicate the time to me. The guys have treated me royally. It's been marvelous."

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt confirms that "it was a rare case of every gig just being better than the last. We had tremendous turnouts at every venue, which is a testament to the person that we're celebrating. We started on a high level in Barcelona and kept up the momentum until the last night in Amsterdam. A lot of things can happen on a tour but we were there to support and pay tribute to Louis, and the spirit was very light. I'd already been on the road with Lou. This is certainly nothing new to him and everybody knew how to handle it, to keep the music moving to new heights. We know how special this gentleman is. We had 18 days with no time off and 6am wake up calls. It was a celebration on many different levels, with our fearless leader, who is the complete personification of professionalism. We learned life lessons, not just on this tour, but every occasion."

Pelt says this is the first tour he did with Hayes "where we weren't concentrated on playing the music of Cannonball Adderley." He was just 20 when he crossed paths with Hayes nearly twenty years ago, and recalls that "Louis was interested in doing a Cannonball Adderley project. I'd moved to NY in 1998—I was playing with the Mingus Big Band and met Vincent Herring—he and Louis were very tight. Vincent organized a session where we would all play together, but Louis had another trumpet player in mind. He looked at me in his inimitable way, over his glasses, and said, 'Me and you are cool,' and that was the beginning. He's taken me under his wing and shown me a world of music I might have never known. I see those 20 years when I wake up and look in the mirror. But Lou looks exactly the same."

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