Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis

(Oiginally posted January 2008. Don’t miss Mark Stryker’s article on Louis Hayes, reprinted in full at the bottom. In 2010 I rediscovered Martin Williams’s appraisal of Oscar Peterson, “Four Pianists: Four Minority Views” reprinted in Jazz ChangesThe similarities are striking: perhaps I subconsciously remembered Williams when working on my own essay.)

The great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson died at 82 on December 24 last year. Many of the obits mentioned the negative appraisal of Peterson by his most famous critic, Miles Davis, often with the Davis quote, “Oscar makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.”

Davis is not always right when he criticizes people and sometimes he is just mean-spirited. Out of context, his comment that Peterson had to “learn” to play the blues shows Davis at his worst.

The whole passage where Davis talks about Peterson is quite specific and ultimately less harsh than this pull quote implies. It’s from a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff in the The Jazz Review, later reprinted in co-editor Martin Williams’s collection Jazz Panorama. Thanks to Larry Kart for helping me find the source.

Davis’ comments are in direct response to hearing a performance of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” by Oscar Peterson’s most-celebrated trio with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar.


Oscar makes me sick because he copies everybody.  He even had to learn how to play the blues.  Everybody knows that if you flat a third, you’re going to get that blues sound.  He learned that and runs it into the ground worse than Billy Taylor.  You don’t have to do that.

Now take the way he plays that song.  That’s not what Clifford meant.  He passes right over what can be done with the chords.  It’s much prettier if you get into it and heard the chords weaving in and out like Bill Evans and Red Garland could do – instead of being so heavy.  Oscar is jazzy; he jazzes up the tune.  And he sure has devices, like certain scale patterns, that he plays all the time.

Does he swing hard like some people say? I don’t know what they mean when they say ‘swing hard’ anyway.  Nearly everything he plays, he plays with the same degree of force.  He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.  The only thing I ever heard him play that I liked was his first record of “Tenderly.”

I love Ray Brown.  As for Herb Ellis, I don’t like that kind of thing with guitar on every beat – unless you play it like Freddie Green does now.  You listen and you’ll hear how much Green has lightened his sound through the years.  If you want to see how it feels with a heavy guitar, get up to play sometimes with one of them behind you.  He’ll drive you nuts.

Back to Oscar.  He plays pretty good when he plays in an Art Tatum form of ballad approach.  And I heard him once play some blues once at a medium tempo that sounded pretty good.  But for playing like that with a guitar, I prefer Nat Cole.  I feel though that it’s a waste to use a guitar this way.  If you take the guitar and have him play lines – lines like George Russell, or Gil Evans or John Lewis could make – then a trio can sound wonderful.


This Davis quote is a good opportunity to try to unpack some of the aesthetics of jazz in a serious way.

Davis begins, “Oscar makes me sick because he copies everybody.” This is not really true: Peterson’s language was perhaps not truly innovative, but it certainly is distinctive. Major elements of his style include a precisely calibrated piano touch that executed both swing and bebop phraseology with crystalline clarity, a rigorous insistence on the blues, a left hand that could play nearly as fast as his right, exceptionally large voicings (his hands were enormous) and complicated small ensemble arrangements. His phrasing when improvising is breathless, with very little space.

After all, the track that Davis is listening to is a really easy blindfold test, as is the rest of Peterson’s output.

Davis continues with the real money quote, “He even had to learn how to play the blues.” Ouch! Peterson can’t play the blues? He wasn’t born to play them? Is he too Canadian or something? Wait: the full quote ends with “I heard him once play some blues once at a medium tempo that sounded pretty good.” There is obviously something complex that Davis is trying to communicate here.

The next sentence makes it clearer.  “Everybody knows that if you flat a third, you’re going to get blues sound.  He learned that and runs it into the ground…” In other words, Davis seems to be saying that Peterson can’t stop playing the blues.

The Peterson recording of “Joy Spring” starts off in an intriguingly slow tempo and a surprising key. So far, so good. But, wow, look at what happens at the end of the first A section (circa 31 seconds in): a huge hunk of funk intrudes in the arrangement. Not only that, but during his three-chorus improvisation Peterson continues to play a steady stream of funky blues licks.

Of course, Peterson’s solo on “Joy Spring” also has some wonderful sizzling moments of bebop piano prestidigitation. I love hearing Peterson light it up with virtuosity and play the impossible. It is so important to have these gladiators who are determined to put in the requisite hours practicing to transcend the natural physics of their instrument.

This virtuosity enabled Peterson to play boogie-woogie and blues piano very well; in fact, it was performing in the boogie-woogie style that first won him acclaim in his hometown. Davis notes that he doesn’t object to Peterson using this vocabulary on an actual blues. “I heard him play some blues once at a medium tempo that sounded pretty good.”

However, “Joy Spring” is not a blues or even bluesy in nature: rather, it is a serious modern jazz composition that seeks to burst the confines of the standard AABA form by exploring an unusually diverse array of key centers. When soloing, the improviser has to thread those distant keys together. Since blues licks stay in one key, making it funky is not going to help you thread. This is what Davis is getting at when he says: “That’s not what Clifford meant. He passes right over what can be done with the chords.  It’s much prettier if you get into it and heard the chords weaving in and out like Bill Evans and Red Garland could do—instead of being so heavy.”

Indeed, often the first lesson taught in Jazz Education 101 is the so-called “blues scale,” giving a novice six notes that can be rolled around over any set of blues (or blues-related) changes. When Davis derides someone for “learning” the blues, the image that comes to my mind is a classroom full of student horn players, all honking out the six-note blues scale in any order and rhythm with no emotional connection to any real form 0f American music…and all now thinking they are playing the blues.

This superficial blues appropriation exists everywhere, not just in classrooms. Every time a proficient show tune pianist plays Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night” and adds a sloppy Avery Parrish lick they revert to this same Jazz Education 101 level (i.e. “thinking you own what you play but actually haven’t the faintest idea of what you are doing”). The blues material then becomes a kind of kitsch. Avery Parrish—the progenitor of slick piano blues via the 1940 jukebox hit “After Hours” with Erskine Hawkins, who tragically lost the ability to play a year later after a nightclub knife fight—is not kitsch, but all too many of his non-professsional imitators are.

By that standard, the legendary Oscar Peterson—with his great time and feel—is not kitsch. I am sure Davis would agree. Oscar always owns the blues with authenticity, even when using boogie-woogie/blues licks within a non-blues like “Joy Spring.” Peterson’s approach seems kitschy only when compared to the work of another jazz master—like the composer of “Joy Spring,” Clifford Brown.

Brown’s classic two-chorus solo on “Joy Spring” is a patient journey of melodic discovery. Since Brown is an authentic jazz player, he naturally does use some scattered blues moments: there are a squeezes and shakes, and his second chorus starts with a lovely one-note ride on a “blue note.” But those blues moments are there to keep the solo in the correct genre. Harmonic and linear discovery is what drives the content.

Side by side, Peterson’s solo seems like only so much blather in comparison to Brown.

Furthermore, Peterson ends “Joy Spring” with a showy cabaret glissando down the whole piano. Why in the world would anyone want to do this to a Clifford Brown composition?Hey, if you are playing the striptease number “Night Train” (the title song of a famous Peterson album) so be it: gliss away. But on a Clifford Brown composition? A glissando down the length of the keyboard is easiest effect to produce at the instrument; it’s the staple of any Las Vegas floor show that has a piano. This effect surely is kitsch, and therefore helps back-announce the rest of the performance as kitschy too.

As we can hear on the same track, Peterson had an authentic jazz beat, a pearly, sovereign touch at the keyboard, and the ability to execute brilliant double-time runs as precisely as any jazz player in history.

Because he could play the piano so well, Peterson’s constant celebration of non-specific kitsch and near-kitsch like glissandos and blues licks is really strange.

Besides the blues, there is something about Peterson’s swing and relationship to the rhythm section that bothers Davis. This part of the interview has also been repeated out-of-context: “Does he swing hard like some people say? I don’t know what they mean when they say ‘swing hard’ anyway.  Nearly everything he plays, he plays with the same degree of force.  He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.”

Well, Peterson unquestionably swings, and swings hard. Davis is really alluding to a larger issue, and one that isn’t always understood.

For example, the Wikipedia entry on Peterson (accessed on January 29, 2008) dismisses the sentences “Nearly everything he plays, he plays with the same degree of force.  He leaves no holes for the rhythm section” with the comment, “But this merely describes the difference between the two players; Davis did not have Peterson’s powerful technique, and found a different kind of expression.”

This is mistaken; the issue is not either player’s technique. The issue is something else entirely: the drums.

The drum set could symbolize the African diaspora as interpreted by Americans. Since the invention of bebop in the mid-Forties, small group jazz had been seeking a way to bring the drums (i.e.  the African diaspora) to further prominence in the ensemble. Kenny Clarke and Max Roach were the trailblazers, followed quickly by Art Blakey and Roy Haynes.

The 1955 quintet of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones was considered the benchmark modern jazz group by many of their contemporaries. Indeed, to this day, “straight-ahead jazz” is defined by this quintet’s language. It is not just the drums that were freed: in any mature Davis band, the bass and piano have an unprecedented amount of harmonic control. Still, Davis considered the African diaspora to be of supreme importance.

This is the context that needs to be understood when reading Davis’s comment, “Nearly everything he plays, he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.”

Most of Oscar Peterson’s best music was made without any drummer at all, in trios with just bass and guitar (the instrumentation of “Joy Spring”). In that kind of group, the guitar often plays four beats to the bar, and the really relevant rhythmic information comes straight from the swing era: Count Basie, Duke Ellington and (especially) Nat King Cole, whose famous trio had the same instrumentation.

Davis the innovator and style-setter clearly regards this instrumentation as verging on anachronistic. “As for Herb Ellis, I don’t like that kind of thing with guitar on every beat—unless you play it like Freddie Green does now. You listen and you’ll hear how much Green has lightened his sound through the years. If you want to see how it feels with a heavy guitar, get up to play sometimes with one of them behind you. He’ll drive you nuts.” 

I freely admit to absolutely no expertise in the area of rhythm guitar, but I strongly suspect that A) those who enjoy this style think Ellis is great at it and B) Davis wouldn’t ever want Green (an essential part of all of Count Basie’s ensembles) in any of his bands, either.

At any rate, if Peterson only made records without drums, Davis probably wouldn’t have thought to comment about him in a rhythm section, since you really need the African diaspora to be present to call it a “rhythm section.” But Davis certainly would have heard some of the Norman Granz jam-session discs of this band plus a drummer. These dates are often held back by Peterson’s presence.

Peterson’s piano solos aren’t the problem, but Peterson participating in a rhythm section is: behind the horn solos, the piano comping (short for “accompaniment”) is incessant. It begins to feel quite nervous and jittery after a while. A good example is the Peterson trio backing Lester Young with little-known but totally solid J.C. Heard on drums. Peterson cannot stop playing the piano for even a second. (“He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.”)

A good comparison to make is between this ensemble’s version of the quintessential standard “Just You, Just Me” and Lester Young’s earlier recording of the same song featuring Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, and Sid Catlett. Guarnieri’s comping, while still quite busy, is far more spacious and swinging than Peterson’s.

Again, when there are no drums, there is not really the same problem. One of the celebrated Granz pairings is Peterson with Stan Getz. While working on this post, I checked out a couple of their famous albums together, and found their relationship interesting and quite valid. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio is a good record. There are no drums, and the propulsion of the band is really in the pocket but relaxed. Getz is silky and bluesy in turns, and Peterson’s solos are among the best of his that I’ve heard.

An even more classic Getz-Peterson disc is Stan Getz and J.J.  Johnson at the Opera House.  Intriguingly, Oscar Peterson doesn’t solo. More importantly, his incessant comping is far back in the mix. What you can hear instead is Connie Kay’s vicious, crackling, swinging ride cymbal.

Even though he’s down in the mix, though, if you listen carefully, you can discern Peterson trying to take control from Kay. (He doesn’t succeed.  Kay ignores him.)

It seems like Peterson wanted total control over the beat, which is why he is best without a drummer.

In an interview with Len Lyons, there is this revealing exchange:

Lyons: Why did you replace your guitarist with drummer Ed Thigpen in 1959?

Peterson: I admit part of it was an ego trip for me.  There was a lot of talk about my virtuosity on the instrument, and some people were saying, “Oh, he can play that way with guitar because it has that light fast sound, but he couldn’t pull off those lines with a drummer burnin’ up back there.” I wanted to prove it could be done.  We chose Ed Thigpen because of his brushwork and sensitivity in general.

I don’t mean to disparage Thigpen or other drummers who played with Peterson—every musician who worked with Peterson was a pro, and all his drummers could swing—but Peterson made sure that any drummer he hired was not “burnin’ it up back there.”

In fact, he only ever hired one drummer who is part of the modern jazz canon as a major player: Louis Hayes.

Mark Stryker’s profile on Hayes (full piece reproduced at the end of page) has some insight into the unlikely Peterson-Hayes relationship:

Hayes left Adderley in 1965 when the band took a more commercial turn.  In retrospect, Hayes says that he and [Sam] Jones should have started their own group.  Instead, both ended up joining Oscar Peterson’s trio.  Hayes liked Peterson personally, and the pianist’s celebrity meant that Hayes’ salary nearly doubled.

But Peterson’s scripted concept was like a train that ran on just one track, and Hayes felt stifled.  He chafed under the restrictions, and Peterson often had to lecture him.  Sometimes Hayes would go to a party, have a couple of drinks and lecture Peterson, who would respond by firing him – for a day.  This happened a dozen times, Hayes recalls.

On Peterson’s album Blues Etude, there’s no doubt that Hayes has to hold back. Compare him here—almost always on brushes, of course—with his genuinely burning playing on any Cannonball record, Cedar Walton’s Naima, Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming, or McCoy Tyner’s Just Feeling.

Blues Etude is a pretty good listen, though, especially for getting to hear two wonderful bassists, Ray Brown and Sam Jones, back to back on different tracks.

In the interview, Davis doesn’t say much about Ray Brown except that he loves him. The Peterson trios with either guitar or drums always had room for brilliant bass playing in a way there never was for brilliant drumming.

At the heart of the classic Miles Davis rhythm section, there is give and take. That give and take is one of the beauties of modern jazz and arguably Davis’s greatest legacy. Peterson’s language is a full-scale disavowal of that kind of give and take.

Doug Ramsey claims that “Peterson was an inspiration to virtually every jazz pianist who followed him, his influence equaled only by his slightly younger contemporary Bill Evans.” This may be true. But those who are influenced by Peterson have needed to be careful, since his language is outside the mainstream of the music, a mainstream that was created in large part by Davis.

Herbie Hancock, who admires both Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, understood this. You can always hear the influence of Evans in Hancock’s playing, but the only Peterson traces I know of are on his earliest trio track, “Like Someone in Love” (with Cleveland Eaton and Teddy Robinson, included on the VGM bootleg Miles in Saint Louis). If Hancock had continued to use the Peterson style, it would have hindered him from revolutionizing the music with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in the great Miles Davis band of the Sixties.

Recently, posterity was given the chance to hear Peterson with a Miles Davis band. It’s on YouTube: Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb play an informal version of a Monk tune during a 1960 tour of Europe that featured Getz and Peterson playing alongside the Miles Davis quintet.

John Coltrane enthusiasts know this tour well. The most famous record is Miles in Stockholm, and to be honest, it shows that Wynton Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb can’t really keep up with the astounding saxophone playing. Apparently Coltrane was even quite distant personally with the other members of the band during this tour; he was ready to move on and be a leader himself.

There’s no way any pianist in 1960 could have immediately dealt with comping for John Coltrane. (Even McCoy Tyner would take a minute to get up to speed.) There was, however, the option, popularized by various Davis ensembles, of stopping comping, or “laying out.” Kelly stopped comping behind Coltrane frequently on that 1960 tour, which was a good decision. (Give and take: if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.)

Did Peterson ever “lay out” once behind a tenor player? It seems unlikely, given how he unrelentingly comps in every measure behind both Coltrane and Getz. When Coltrane’s solo heats up the music gets truly bizarre: while Coltrane is seeking to break everything apart Peterson keeps insisting, “Here’s the blues, Trane!”

The unspoken implication of this performance is that it is a tenor battle. Thanks to the pianist, some think Getz wins, since his solo is so relaxed and sensible in comparison.  (Not in this corner, but I’ve heard it said.) That is a rather heavy thing to have as part of your legacy: “I ALMOST ENABLED STAN GETZ TO SOUND BETTER THAN JOHN COLTRANE ONE NIGHT.”

Davis did have a few positive things to say about Peterson: “The only thing I ever heard him play that I liked was his first record of ‘Tenderly’… [Oscar] plays pretty good when he plays in an Art Tatum form of ballad approach.” “Tenderly,” Peterson’s minor hit from the early Fifties, is a lovely sprawl that most pianists could only dream of executing.

It’s true that Peterson could always get a luminous tone in a ballad. This beautiful tone is featured on a wonderful version of “Wave” that apparently even Antonio Carlos Jobim considered to be definitive. It’s from Motions and Emotions, an album arranged by mood-music master Claus Ogerman. Peterson overdubbed the whole session, so he didn’t have to interface with the drums or anything else! (Both “Tenderly” and “Wave” are on iTunes.)

It’s important to remember that Miles Davis’s comments about Peterson are from 1958, during the time when he was in ascent as the epitome of “cool” in American life. He might have changed his mind about Peterson in later years, long after that particular culture war had shaken out firmly in Davis’s favor. At least he should have been able to appreciate Peterson as an ambassador for jazz.

I am too distant from the 1950s (the last decade when jazz was in any sense a popular music) to make any kind of really informed comment about what jazz and jazz musicians needed back then. But I imagine that there were still a lot of high-brows who didn’t think that jazz, blues, and black music were to be taken seriously. Davis’s golden horn might not have been enough to impress those who judged everything by the limited standard of European classical music. But when Oscar Peterson played the piano, all but the most prejudiced would have to conclude that jazz was a virtuosos’ arena. This meant a lot to his peers and elders.

From Count Basie’s autobiography (assisted by Albert Murray), Good Morning Blues:

Norman Granz has had Oscar’s group and my band do quite a few things together, and as a special little novelty after Oscar’s segment of the program, Norman has brought the two of us out, and we used to do three things together.  We’d play a few bars each, and he’d play a chorus, and I would stumble through one, and he’d catch me stumbling along and pick me up and help me.  He was wonderful.

But some nights he’d forget, and I’d have to hit the piano real hard to let him know I was still there, so cut it out, and don’t get carried away.  He was wonderful.  But he was also terrible.  Sometimes I’d just think about how I was going to have to be with that monster that evening, and my whole day was ruined.

Yet I am always very happy every time Norman has us on the bill together.  I’m right out there in the wings, listening to him, because he’s impossible.  He’s got a special piano he plays.  It cost sixty thousand dollars or something like that a few years ago – no telling what it costs today – and they send that piano wherever he plays.

If Davis taught the world what cool meant, Peterson taught the world what respecting a black virtuoso meant. Miles Davis surely would have appreciated what it took and what had to be overcome for a black jazz musician to demand—and get—his own Bösendorfer Imperial Grand wherever he played.

Thanks to Mark Stryker for letting DTM reprint his 2002 Detroit Free Press profile of Louis Hayes below.

Louis Hayes

It’s almost impossible to look hip behind the wheel of a rented Ford Windstar.  But nobody makes the scene quite like Louis Hayes, a leading drummer in jazz since arriving in New York 46 summers ago as a 19-year-old Detroiter with quick hands, sharp ears and a driving cymbal beat that would become his trademark.

On this sweltering July Fourth, Hayes wears a stylish muscle shirt, linen pants and oversized designer glasses.  Riding shotgun is his wife, Nisha, a Manhattan real estate agent.  Hayes performs in Atlantic City on the boardwalk in 9 hours.  It’s little more than a 2-hour trip from Manhattan, but Hayes has insisted on an early start because he follows a strict pre-performance regimen of practice, rest and concentration.

“He’s always on a schedule,” says Nisha.  “I went to Paris with him, and he’s been 50 times and had never seen the Eiffel Tower.  I had to drag him there.”

Hayes heads for the Lincoln Tunnel.  Nisha points out the correct lane, but Hayes – who is not as attentive a driver as he is a drummer – comes within a few feet of merging into a bus.  Nisha looks horrified: “Louis, he doesn’t care that you play the drums!”

Hayes barely raises an eyebrow.

At 65, Hayes returns home to Detroit this week – fortunately, on an airplane – as a headliner at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival.  He’ll appear Friday with a veteran quintet, the Legends of the Bandstand, with tenor saxophonist David (Fathead) Newman, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Earl May and trombonist and native Detroiter Curtis Fuller, a running buddy of Hayes’ since 1955.

Turning heads

Hayes’ resume is a monument to his stature.  He anchored two of the defining bands of East Coast hard bop, leaving Detroit in 1956 to join Horace Silver’s Quintet, then jumping to the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1959.  Hayes played with Oscar Peterson for three years in the mid-’60s and by the end of the decade was coleading a group with peers Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson.

In the 1970s, Hayes led a series of artistically vital if financially challenged groups.  In the ’80s, with a daughter entering college, he returned to a sideman role with pianist McCoy Tyner.  Since 1989, he has worked and recorded steadily with his own groups.

Hayes has appeared on hundreds of records.  The late ’50s and early ’60s, when independent labels like Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige and Savoy might call Hayes two or three times a week, were an especially fertile period.

“I was so fortunate,” Hayes says.  “I came to New York with a job and worked straight through with a major group all the way up until 1968.  I wasn’t written about all that much, and I had some tricky times later on in the ’70s.  But the major thing is being creative and making history.  That’s still the way I look at things.”

Hayes came of age in an era saturated with great drummers, but he quickly took his place near the top of the pecking order.  He was a stylist who corralled his influences into a recognizable voice that married powerful swing with a graceful touch and a hipster’s wit.

Though not an innovator, Hayes has influenced drummers of several generations, including the late Tony Williams.  Before he reshaped jazz drumming in the 1960s, Williams would take the train from Boston to New York just to hang out with Hayes on weekends.

The heart of Hayes’ style is the unique way he phrases the ride cymbal beat – the ding-dinga-ding rhythm at the core of modern jazz.  The cymbal beat is like a drummer’s DNA; no two will be exactly alike.  Hayes plays with a crisp but elusive quality, like a hummingbird.  He places his beat just ahead of the basic pulse, never committing the sin of rushing, but generating the forward momentum of a downhill skier.

“Louis is the kind of a guy, even to this day, if you were to handcuff his left hand to the drum stool and just have him play time on the cymbal, it would swing just as much,” says drummer Kenny Washington, 44, a Hayes protege.

Hayes also turned heads in New York with his quick reflexes and the clever way he would accent a melody or respond to a soloist with a sleight-of-hand rhythm.  He mastered the art of “tippin’ ” – swinging with fierce intensity but soft-shoe elegance.  Washington notes that Hayes also was the first drummer to smooth out ultra-fast tempos into a continuous wave of rhythm.

A mellow fella

The night before his Atlantic City gig, Hayes talked about his life at his home in Riverdale, a leafy neighborhood in the northwest corner of the Bronx.  The Hayeses own a 10th-floor co-op with a spectacular view of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge.  The apartment is decorated with African masks and sculptures, vaguely Afro-centric paintings and photos of family and friends.

Hayes is a compact man, in good shape save a slight paunch, looking 15 years younger than he is.  He walks with a streetwise gait and slight shoulder hunch that gives the impression of a coiled spring.  To beat the heat on this sultry New York night, he wears shorts with no shirt; his forearms are as toned as a boxer’s.

In conversation, he stares at you intensely, with his eyes wide open and a blank expression on his face.  He responds in discursive fragments, and if he agrees with you, he’ll nod his head and exclaim, “That’s mellow-D!” or “You’re right on it!”

“Louis deals with everyone the same way,” says Rick Germanson, a young pianist who often works with Hayes.  “He doesn’t put on an act around younger or older musicians or critics or record producers.  He’s always himself.”

Trombonist Fuller warns not to be fooled by Hayes’ laid-back demeanor: “He’s very knowledgeable, even if he doesn’t seem like it.  He’ll stand back in reserve and appraise the situation, and then make his comment.”

Fundamental lessons

Hayes grew up on Detroit’s west side.  Both parents were avocational musicians; His father, an autoworker, played drums, while his mother, who waited tables and eventually owned her own diner, played piano.  Hayes started on the piano at 5 and the drums at 10.

The key influence in Hayes’ early development was his cousin Clarence Stamps, an accomplished drummer who grounded Hayes in technical fundamentals and taught him lessons that have stuck for life.

Hayes remembers, “He’d say, ‘If anything in the band goes wrong, it’s your fault.  When you’re playing and you look out into the audience and you don’t see anyone pattin’ their feet, then you’re not playing (expletive).  And you can’t just play the drums and not know where you are in the tune.  You have to be in control of the band, and you have to make music out of the drums.’ ”

By the time he was 15, Hayes was spending all day in the basement practicing, memorizing Charlie Parker solos and dabbling on piano and vibes.  At 18, in 1955, he leapt into Detroit’s major leagues, joining Yusef Lateef’s quintet, along with Fuller, at Klein’s Show Bar.

At the same time, bassist Ernie Farrow introduced Hayes to the records of Kenny Clarke, the bebop pioneer who first moved the pulse from the bass drum to the ride cymbal.  Hayes would spend hours listening to Clarke’s pristine cymbal beat and hours more practicing his own version.

Meanwhile, in New York, gutsy hard bop – an alliance of bebop and bluesy roots influences – was brewing in the seminal bands of Art Blakey and Horace Silver.  When the latter needed a drummer, the Detroit-born bassist Doug Watkins had a recommendation: “Get the baby boy out of Detroit,” he told Silver.

Hayes was now working with one of the most influential pianists, composers and bandleaders in jazz.  Silver’s formally sophisticated compositions were girded by a finger-poppin’ beat, a combination ideally suited to Hayes’ strengths.  The money wasn’t great – $125 a week.  But Hayes was young, with no responsibilities other than music.

Hayes made five classic albums with Silver before leaving in 1959 to join alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s newly formed quintet, which mixed soul-jazz hits like “Work Song” and “Jive Samba” with more substantial hard bop.  The combination proved as audience-friendly as a backyard barbecue.

Hayes and bassist Sam Jones formed a dynamic duo at the heart of Adderley’s band, and as their reputation soared, the pair began to show up on countless record dates together as sidemen.

“Sam and I had this great rapport on and off stage,” says Hayes.

“We were so similar in the way we thought about time and the way we felt the beat.  He was Mr.  Dependable.  The sound of Sam and I playing together just laid out this red carpet for anyone who played with us.”

Hayes left Adderley in 1965 when the band took a more commercial turn.  In retrospect, Hayes says that he and Jones should have started their own group.  Instead, both ended up joining Oscar Peterson’s trio.  Hayes liked Peterson personally, and the pianist’s celebrity meant that Hayes’ salary nearly doubled.

But Peterson’s scripted concept was like a train that ran on just one track, and Hayes felt stifled.  He chafed under the restrictions, and Peterson often had to lecture him.  Sometimes Hayes would go to a party, have a couple of drinks and lecture Peterson, who would respond by firing him – for a day.  This happened a dozen times, Hayes recalls.  Since then, Hayes has generally led his own bands.

Practice, then performance

Around 2 p.m., Hayes navigates the Windstar down Atlantic Avenue to the Trump Taj Mahal, a 1,250-room hotel roughly the size of Rhode Island, with an Ali Baba decor that redefines the meaning of kitsch.  A few hours later, Hayes is deep into his preconcert routine.
Hayes is sitting in an overstuffed purple chair with a practice pad propped up in front of him.  His right hand is a blur of motion, and it takes a moment to realize that he is playing his cymbal beat at a racehorse tempo.  The TV is tuned to CNN, and Hayes also answers questions as the calisthenics continue.  He plays nonstop for 20 minutes, takes a 30-second break for water and then goes back to work.

Hayes practices far more today than when he was on the road 40 years ago.

“The older you get, the harder things get,” he says.  “I could do things when I was younger that now I really have to practice to even attempt to be able to do.  My peak was when I was about 40 – I was liable to do anything.  ”

A few hours later, Hayes is setting up his drums at the amphitheater at the south end of the boardwalk near Chicken Bone Beach, a once-segregated playground frequented by the African-American elite before the civil rights movement.  Hayes has changed into loose-fitting pale-yellow pants and shirt and a necklace adorned by a large earth-colored stone.

“Wow, he sure looks good,” a middle-aged woman says as she watches nearby.  “How old is he?”


“Mmm.  Mmm.”

The group is Hayes’ Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band, a relatively new venture for him, devoted to the saxophonist’s repertoire.  Hayes enjoys the old tunes and is mindful that he is the sole survivor of Adderley’s original 1959 group.  The other members of the Legacy band, including the exciting alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, are about 30 years younger than Hayes.

The group tears through a 75-minute set, with Hayes firing on all cylinders, playing with greater precision than he sometimes reveals in other settings these days; his style grew splashier during the ’70s and ’80s.

Hayes’ right hand swarms over the cymbal; his left-hand pops snare drum accents like a pistol.  As fiercely as he plays, Hayes is not flashy.  His limbs stay close to his body.  His head sways a little, but there are no histrionics.

Hayes solos sparingly, and he doesn’t even trade phrases with the horns until the fourth tune.  After the set, he fields congratulations while packing his gear, stopping to shake hands, pose for pictures and chat when older fans tell tales of hearing him as a kid in Philly or New York.  As the line winds down, the journalists who have been tailing him step in to say farewell.

“We’re sure looking forward to hearing you at the Detroit festival,” says one.

Hayes pauses before breaking into a wide grin.  “OK, that’s mellow-D!”

by Mark Stryker