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Louis Hayes: Still Moving Straight Ahead


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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."

You wouldn't think that drummers can be so resilient. It's such a physical instrument. In the pantheon of music, you look at the drummers, Elvin Jones, Blakey, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, Louis. When he's playing, it's like he's 25, and he's always been like that. Jazz musicians of a certain age are a lot more resilient than rock n roll musicians. There's a wear and tear that happens on the road and of lot of people can't handle all the travel, the pace. It's just a second nature type of thing; learning how to be present and resilient for a performance. What I'm saying is, drummers outlast all the other instrumentalists."

Hayes still does the occasional Master Class for conservatory students, and tells them: "Playing music is living your life. Who knows what's gonna happen as you grow in this world? Starting out I had some help from my father who started me out on the drums, and I had a cousin who was a great help. He knew a lot about the instrument. And I worked it out myself, cause that's what you have to do. It's up to you to put it together. Nobody can teach you. They can only show you. You have to do it yourself after that. If you have a dream, sometimes your dreams comes true and sometimes your program has to change. So you can just live your life, and there's a few things that has to happen. You try to stay healthy and be able to function and provide for yourself after you get out of college. Those things you have to figure out how to do and I guess, to know who you are as far as possible." He didn't plan on playing music his whole life. "I wanted to do it for a certain period, but who knows what's going to happen? I started feeling like that when I was 15, at home with the family. But I'd get these jobs that just came up. I didn't know it was gonna happen like that and then I got a call from Horace Silver, who asked me to come to New York at the young age of 19, and I was right where I wanted to be."

When I ask Hayes how he paces himself at this stage of the game, he replies: "When I have a job to do, I practice, I warm up. When I'm not working, sometimes I'm relaxing with my family." These days he seems to be continually working. After returning stateside, he had a few days off before the next gig at the Baltimore Museum of Art, then two nights back in New York City for a Dexter Gordon Tribute at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. He also leads the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band and the Jazz Communicators. As is typical for him, both his bands have seen more than their share of members who have been dubbed "rising stars," among them saxophonists Vincent Herring and Abraham Burton, bassist Dezron Douglas and trumpeter Pelt.

Still another pending CD release is a unique tribute album dedicated to the music of Hayes' uncle John Nelson, the father of Prince, who was Hayes cousin. "My mother and Prince's father John were brother and sister,' he explains, without clarifying the considerable age difference. "Prince's sister Sharon asked me to put a group together to play her father's music as jazz and record it at Paisley Park. Working there was a very unique experience, like going to the great Pyramid, the final tomb." It was produced and arranged by Sharon Nelson, and features Hayes with Jeremy Pelt, Vincent Herring, Dezron Douglas and pianist Rick Germanson.

Jeremy Pelt describes spending a couple of days recording at Prince's compound in Minnesota as "kind of a weird atmosphere—everything was top secret, and we adhered to the rules. Playbacks weren't an option. It was literally music we hadn't seen or heard before we got there and it wasn't a real relaxed situation, but we got the work done and it was cool. After playing Cannonball for so long, it was refreshing because we weren't playing our normal repertoire. It was nothing we'd ever seen before." Universal had originally set a May release date, but it seems to be still pending.

The month of May will conclude on a festive note when Hayes returns to Dizzy's for three dates (29-31) to celebrate his 80th birthday as well as to launch his Blue Note CD, Serenade for Horace, with saxophonist Abraham Burton, trumpeter Josh Evans, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, pianist David Bryant, and bassist Dezron Douglas. The album is a tribute to the pianist and composer with whom Hayes first made his name during the mid-to-late 1950s before joining Cannonball and recording with John Coltrane, and countless others. Hayes was a recent transplant to New York City from his native Detroit, when he joined the Horace Silver Quintet—first appearing on the 1957 album 6 Pieces of Silver, which yielded a hit single, "Señor Blues." In his modest manner, Hayes quietly concludes: "I was close with Horace and his family. After his passing, they gave me their blessing to do a tribute album, which I've just completed on Blue Note, and I feel very good about that." With some gigs lined up for the summer, I wonder if he has other plans, to which he responds: "I'm gonna see what happens with this project. I don't feel like stopping right now. This is the best job in the world. And it's what I want to do."

Photo credit: Dave Kaufman

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