Roy Brooks

Tasteful jazz drummer


Roy Brooks, drummer and percussionist: born Detroit 3 September 1938; married (one son); died Detroit 16 November 2005.

Detroit probably ranks with New Orleans and Chicago as one of the leading sources of jazz musicians. The Jones Family - Hank, Thad and drummer Elvin - head an impressive list of those who came from the city in the Fifties and Sixties. The drummer Roy Brooks was on that list but, unlike the others, he returned to the city (in 1977) and devoted the rest of his life to its music.

Brooks was a tasteful musician who was a disciple of both Elvin Jones and of Miles Davis. He recalled,

Miles told me, "The drummer is the leader in my band. I just pay him a salary." That made me think of my role in playing drums. You don't have to be obtrusive, but there's a way in which you project yourself that should guide the band. You're not only the pulse, you're the conductor. You make things breathe and stop and go.

The pianist Horace Silver had already had three Detroit musicians in his quintet when one of them, the drummer Louis Hayes, decided to leave. Hayes and the other two Detroiters gave Brooks such a powerful recommendation that Silver telephoned Brooks from New York and hired him without ever having heard him play.

Brooks stayed with Silver for five years, working concurrently with other New York-based leaders. It was during his time with Silver that musicians began to notice the symptoms - erratic and violent outbursts - of the bipolar disorder that was to destroy much of his future life. In 1967 he married his wife Hermine, who didn't encounter his bizarre behaviour until some time later. "I'd be getting up early because I had a nine-to-five job and he would still be up, walking the floor, talking and talking with nobody around, or he would be on the phone," she says:

I got up one morning and Thelonious Monk and his Baroness, the woman who supported him for so many years, were there. It was so strange. Roy was in the kitchen making one of his teas with all those herbs. Nobody was talking but Roy. And Monk was, like, with his eyes wide open, saying, "This man is crazier than me!"

In 1972 Brooks joined the band of the turbulent bassist and composer Charlie Mingus. Mingus and Brooks were dismayed at the way the public was being, as they thought, hoodwinked by the contemporary vogue for avant-garde jazz. In 1965 they decided to do a bit of hoodwinking themselves.

The Mingus band was playing at New York's Village Vanguard when Mingus announced to the audience that he was to present a new avant-garde band put together by Roy Brooks. Brooks and the rhythm section appeared, playing conventionally, before a curtain. From behind the curtain came a fashionable cacophony of screeches and honks. "We'd told the people we were going to do a thing about Selma in Alabama," Brooks said. "The people were listening intently."

After the set, the curtain went up to reveal three small children with a trumpet and two clarinets. Even after the revelation, some of the audience weren't aware that it had been a hoax.

Brooks toured Europe as a member of Mingus's band in 1972 and stayed with the bassist for more than a year. Before his final return to Detroit he played and recorded with many of the top jazz musicians from Coleman Hawkins to Chet Baker. In 1970 he became a founder member of Max Roach's band M'Boom Repercussion.

He was very active on his return to Detroit, setting up a centre for teaching jazz to young people and running his Aboriginal Percussion Choir. He became deeply involved in education with his organisation Music (Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture) and played and recorded with Artistic Truth, a group dedicated to "redeveloping the dying arts of African-American music, dance and poetry".

Brooks's illness continued to haunt him. His wife tried to help him during the frequent attacks and incarcerations in mental health hospitals. But the drummer increasingly refused the medicine that controlled his aggression but made him lethargic and unable to play well. Eventually, in 1980 his wife left him and took their son Raheem and moved back to New York.

Concerned for his welfare, she kept in touch and visited Brooks whenever she could. In the meantime he first tried to turn part of the house they had bought into a kind of community centre, but soon neglected it so badly that it became a ruin. He still tried to tour, but the musicians that he played with realised he was unstable and both they and the music promoters kept their distance.

During the Nineties, still based in Detroit, he toured with Max Roach's band when he was well enough to and gave concerts in Detroit which incorporated a variety of percussion sounds, including a musical saw, a dribbled basketball and an African talking drum.

In 2000 Brooks was jailed for breaking probation orders and for violent assault. "I'm not sad," he said whilst in prison:

I'm somewhere between happy and sad. I'm glad I'm still alive. I think a lot about when I am able to play again. I have a lot of hope. I know I'm in here for a reason.

Steve Voce

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