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Roxbury native Haynes to be honored by Harvard

Kevin T. Cox | 4/15/2009, 6:27 a.m.
Legendary jazz drummer Roy Haynes celebrates his 84th birthday at the Union United Methodist Church, on Saturday, March 14, 2009. Haynes will be honored this week as the 2009 Jazz Master in Residence at Harvard University. Lolita Parker Jr.

No question about it: Roy Haynes, the drummer once proclaimed by Billboard magazine as “one of the seven wonders of modern jazz,” is a Roxbury man.

He was born there in 1925.

“I grew up … around Ruggles Street,” Haynes recalls. “I went to the William Bacon School on Vernon Street, then to the Dudley School, then to a new school called the James P. Timilty — that was the school I loved the most. They had drum corps and bands and all of that.

“From there, I went to Roxbury Memorial [High School],” he continues. “I didn’t finish at Roxbury Memorial — at that point, I was already working in Scollay Square and Bowdoin Square with different bands.”

Haynes’ reputation among his peers quickly grew and spread to New York, where bandleader Louis Russell sent for him.

“I was playing a gig at Oak Bluffs one summer in 1945, and I received a letter from Russell asking if I was interested in coming to New York,” Haynes says.

He was.

Haynes soon arrived in New York, living in Harlem and playing at the world famous Savoy Ballroom.

“Oh, man,” he laughs. “I was in heaven!”

And the rest is jazz history.

This week, Haynes will make history again when he is honored as the 2009 Jazz Master in Residence at Harvard University.

His residency, which will run April 15-18, is scheduled to include rehearsals with students, a visit to Boston Latin School, and an interview with radio host Steve Schwartz on his WGBH 89.7 FM show, “Jazz From Studio Four.”

Haynes has played with a who’s who of jazz legends: Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan and John Coltrane, just to name a few.

 “In each instance,” notes Harvard Bands Director Tom Everett, “Haynes was able to integrate his own unique voice into the ensemble while fostering the musical intent and design of the leader. His tightly tuned drums create a crispness and clarity that is his signature sound.”

Still going strong, Haynes has already won two Grammy awards, and has earned nominations for each of his last three albums. Well into his 80s, he still appears at or near the top of jazz critics’ polls.

Haynes recently returned from Paris, where he received France’s highest artistic honor, Commander of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters).

Returning to the Boston area to be honored is especially thrilling for Haynes.

“Sometimes me and my brother Mike” — the Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes, pastor emeritus of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury — “used to walk on Sundays from Roxbury to Cambridge to visit our relatives,” Haynes recalls. “But I never imagined — never even dreamed of — ever being honored over there.”

Always thrilled to play in this area, Haynes is nonetheless disappointed by what he sees as a decline in interest in jazz, particularly in the African American community.

“Some of the people still remember me from Roxbury, or their children do, so there’s still a connection when I come to play in Boston, but ordinarily you don’t see too many black people in the audiences throughout the world,” he said. “… No attention is paid to it in the black community. At one time we had it in our neighborhoods, so the youngsters could hear it, but now they know nothing about it.