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The pandemic has weighed heavily on the mind of Louis Hayes. It’s no accident that the 84-year-old drummer and session vet named his recent quintet album Crisis (Savant), nor that it contains tunes titled “Creeping Crud” and “Oxygen.” However, he says, a lovely read of “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over,” movingly sung by Camille Thurman, has nothing to do with the ubiquitous face coverings of the past couple of years and everything to do with tipping a cap to Nancy Wilson and Hayes’ former boss, Cannonball Adderley, who performed the standard on their revered 1962 team-up album (with Hayes on drums).
Dig beneath the surface of many of these tunes — played with muscular hard-bop vigor by Hayes and a band of regular collaborators — and you can trace a remarkable career that found the drummer at the nexus of the jazz world during a vibrant time in the music’s history. For example, he took the title of “Creeping Crud,” a jaunty, swinging original composition driven by Hayes’ lively sticking, from a phrase used by bassist Doug Watkins. Watkins was responsible for bringing a 19-year-old Hayes to New York in 1956 to play with Horace Silver’s band. A chance meeting at a jam session set events in motion.
“Doug Watkins and [trumpeter] Donald Byrd, who were appearing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, are from Detroit, and they came home for whatever reason,” Hayes recalls, conversing by phone from his home in Riverdale, the Bronx, in December. “I was aware of them, and they were less aware of me at the time. But we got together at a place called The West End, which was on the outskirts of Detroit, and we tuned in [to each other’s playing] that evening. And when they got back to New York, the [Jazz Messengers] was disbanding, and Horace was getting his own quintet together. They told Horace to get me out of Detroit. And that’s what happened. The timing was perfect.”
Hayes and Watkins became close friends. In the liner notes to Crisis, the drummer remembers the two of them going to the top of the Empire State Building, watching the lights of the city blinking on and perhaps contemplating what the future had in store. For Watkins, that future was short: He died in a car accident in 1962 at age 27. But for Hayes, the vistas were wide open. It was another bassist, Sam Jones, who engineered the next big move in his storied career. Following a session at Birdland, Jones laid a bombshell on Hayes and pianist Bobby Timmons: Cannonball Adderley was leaving Miles Davis’ quintet to form his own band. Would they “have eyes” for that? They did. (In his autobiography, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, Silver says Adderley offered the drummer more money, something he couldn’t match without giving raises to the other members of his band. “This I could not afford to do at the time,” he writes.) “Horace was magnificent,” says Hayes, who played on seminal albums such as Six Pieces of Silver and Blowin’ the Blues Away, and in 2017 released the tribute album Serenade for Horace. “We got along so well. But with Cannon, it was a real family affair for the six years that I was appearing in the group.”
Adderley’s generosity extended to lending his young drummer the band for his eponymous 1960 debut recording as a leader. Chicago DJ Sid McCoy had approached Hayes about cutting an album for Vee-Jay, and the label must have been ecstatic to learn that cornetist Nat Adderley, pianist Barry Harris and bassist Jones were part of the package. When asked whom he wanted on saxophone, Hayes requested Yusef Lateef, with whose band he had played in Detroit. Fourteen years would pass before Hayes released another album under his name. The explanation is simple: “I was really enjoying myself,” he says. “I was very lucky. I was with Horace for three years, with Cannon for six, and [then] I went straight to Oscar Peterson. And I wasn’t that interested in being a leader during that period of time, but I was working all the time, recording dates with a lot of people.”
One of those people was Hubbard, his upstairs neighbor in Brooklyn. Around the same age, the two became good friends, recording frequently together over the years and even touring Europe with their band The Jazz Communicators. Hayes didn’t play on Ready for Freddie, the 1962 Hubbard album that featured the explosive “Crisis,” but he offers a sizzling rendition on his new album, capturing the anxious energy of the original.
Other tracks bring other memories. Hayes and company deliver an exuberant read of Lee Morgan’s “Desert Moonlight,” featuring stellar ensemble work from tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton and vibraphonist Steve Nelson and the lock-tight rhythm section of pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Dezron Douglas and the ever-effervescent Hayes. Morgan had been a good pal, another fresh arrival to the Big Apple (from Philadelphia), who established himself among the young lions of the jazz scene. (In fact, Morgan and Hayes recorded an album titled The Young Lions in 1961, with other burgeoning talents such as Timmons and Wayne Shorter.) Like Watkins, Morgan’s life was tragically cut short.
The Crisis band also digs in on a winsome version of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Roses Poses,” and though Hayes and the vibraphonist never recorded together, they did play gigs in Europe and California. Hayes seems to have a penchant for vibes. Over the years, he’s recorded with Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson and Nelson, the latter of whom he’s included on albums going back more than a dozen years. He chuckles at the question of whether he ever picked up the mallets himself. “I had a set of vibes when I was a teenager,” he says. “But that’s a different story. No, it didn’t take.”
Not that it’s held him back. Sixty-five years after he came to New York, Hayes continues to ignite the fuse on any given session. While he used the pandemic lockdown as an opportunity to rest, he was clearly excited to be back in the studio in January 2021, making music with his compadres. “We’re friends,” he says, noting his long relationships with Nelson, Burton and Hazeltine, and citing bassist Douglas, who penned the aforementioned “Oxygen,” as “very important to help me put this recording date together.”
Hayes is quick to correct the misperception that his bandmates take their cues from him, although he allows that eye contact is critical on stage and in the studio. “We take our cues from each other,” he says. “Everyone plays a part and you listen to each other … When you like making this art form with whoever you’re dealing with, you just play together in a way that’s comfortable, and it makes everyone feel good. You inspire each other. Some musicians play very well together because that’s the choice, they like each other’s playing; sometimes it’s compatible, sometimes it’s a little more difficult. I’ve been fortunate in my life to record with a whole lot of people that we were compatible together.” - Bob Weinberg https://open.spotify.com/album/7o5IIz8owZgw0EDf7MDPO2?si=JHSf_0_gT8ekUjoyr8dtJw
Featured photo by Anna Yatskevich.