Roy Brooks, drumist and composer, discusses his relationship to Detroit music and innovative career in this Community Jazz History Series video interview.
Not a drummer, but a drumist
Growing up in a Detroit with pianos in every house, Roy Brooks found the beginnings of his self-described purpose: to create a musical truth. Though Brooks received guidance from several of his more well-known contemporaries — Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane among them — he chose to forge his own path. The “Mystical Afro-naut” took pride in avoiding guitars and horns, instead focusing on the use of percussion. From steel drums to saws to his own creations, Brooks marked his place in Detroit history as both an innovator and an artist.
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Transcript of Interview with Larry Gabriel (1989)
Larry Gabriel [Interviewer]: What do you call that?
Roy Brooks [Interviewee]: What did I say? Oh, a gong harp. [Laughs] You never seen one before, have you?
Brooks: Well, it’s a gong harp.
Brooks: The instrument is called the breath-a-tone.
Gabriel: And how does it work?
Brooks: Well, you blow air in it, you know. And… [demonstrates instrument]
Gabriel: So you attach it to the drum, you blow air into the drum and tighten the skin.
Gabriel: Where did it come from?
Brooks: Me! [Laughs] It’s my invention.
Gabriel: And what led you to do that?
Brooks: Well, I was working with Yusef Lateef at the time and he happened to mention the concept to me. And I took it and dealt with it and I’ve been using it ever since.
Gabriel: And on that other drum you had a foot pedal that stretched —
Brooks: Yeah, this is called a temp-tom. The set was invented in Italy. And I was endorsing the drums.
Gabriel: A little more range than your standard set.
Brooks: Yeah, as we called him in Detroit. [?] He was such a great, such a grand musician and performer. He struck the average person. The greatness was there — you know, to me — a great person, you know what I’m saying? And that’s what I said, “I wanna be like him.” You know. Although I’m a drummer, I wanted to project music like him on that level that he did.
Gabriel: What did you do to go about that?
Brooks: Well, I studied. I’ve been playing drums, really, since I was three years old. And I studied, I followed the masters. The first live drummer that I saw was Lionel Hampton. And he played the vibraphone, which we thought was the xylophone. But he was a drummer also and he would drum on a tom tom a littler bigger than this, and he’d get up on that drum and dance. Now I’ve never seen too many people dance on a drum. He may be the only drummer I’ve seen dance on a drum. But he’d do a jig on a drum, sometimes he’d fall through and jump up out. He was really something. He was really my first influence in seeing what a drummer — you know, I had his records — but to see what he’s doing, you know.
Gabriel: And who were some of these other masters you studied or listened to?
Brooks: Well, Elvin Jones. He was right here in Detroit. He was really the first man close-up that I could see. Foot pedals and everything, and the way he was playing those drums, drama. You know, the play on words: drama, drummer.
Brooks: How much drama he was putting into his music. So he was really my second influence. Then came Cloak and Max [Roach], Art Blakey. Elvin Jones’ style was so complex that I had to get on to something, and I jumped on Art Blakey, who I call my father on my drums. He calls me my son. So these are the guys with Philly Joe, Papa Jo Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes, Billy Higgins… the list just goes on and on. J. C. Heard. All have influenced me.
Brooks: It wasn’t the fact that we wanted to be different — we were, right? And we were outstanding in high school because, you know, we were in tune to the jazz movement of that time, which was Bird [Charlie Parker] on the west coast, it was Gerry Mulligan and [?] and those cats. But we were up on all of it. So, the difference was we weren’t really trying to be different, we were following the music, and that made us different.
Brooks: This cast iron menagerie [?] is called a M’jumbe-phone. M’jumbe is my spiritual name. That’s M-apostrophe-J-U-M-B-E. There aren’t too many M’jumbes around. Over there or over here. So, M’jumbe, right? Okay. And I found a guy by the name of Bob who is a metallurgist, made this and gave it to me. Now, these are tits – excuse me – that stick out her on its end, and you play a tune with these hammers, right?
Brooks: The Artistic Truth was formed in August – uh, February, of 1970. And it’s a group like the Jazz Messengers. That’s what I had in mind, something that would last. A great deal of the fine musicians of our time have gone through the Artistic Truth and performed with the Artistic Truth. The late, great Eddie Jefferson. Woody Shaw. Just so many great musicians have participated in the group.
An Aboriginal Percussion Choir has been in existence since 1976, and it’s got some of the finest percussionists in the Detroit area. And they have grown, we’ve all grown – doing with the music.
I’m also doing a video – a jazz video – and a novel called, “The Drumist.” That’s with one “M.” A drumist is like a pianist or a bassist… saxophonist… [?] It’s a combination of a drummer and a percussionist. Most people when they say “percussionist,” they think of a guy that rings bells and plays conga drums. That’s not necessarily so. As you can see, all these instruments, anything that you strike to make a musical note is a percussion instrument. Including the piano. It can be also a percussion instrument.
Brooks: There’s always room for growth, you know what I’m saying? There’s always another way. And quote, unquote, we’re talking about a certain idiom. It’s hard for people to say, “Oh, that’s jazz!” with percussion music. Or R&B, you know. It shouldn’t be that way, although we take it into the area of improvisation. That’s what may be called jazz.
Gabriel: Improvised music.
Brooks: Yeah, improvised music. That’s good enough.
Gabriel: What about your involvement with M’Boom?
Brooks: I’ve also been with M’Boom since 1970, and we have grown under the direction of Max Roach, who called all us together. We aren’t sidemen – the six of us originally – we’re partners. So it makes a little difference… might have something to do with why the reason we’re still together this long.
Gabriel: Tell me, what is – what’s M’Boom? What’s the sound of M’Boom?
Brooks: That’s it. It’s called – that’s an onomatopoeia. In other words, that’s a sound that sounds like what it is. M’boom. Like “meow.” You know. “Bow-wow.” That kind of thing, you know what I mean? So “M’Boom” is like a “Oomm-boom,” you know what I mean? You can almost hear it.
[Demonstrates “M’Boom” sound on drums]
Brooks: You know. So that’s what the word means, “M’Boom.”
Gabriel: And, I mean, the sound of the band. What’s the band trying to do?
Brooks: Well, we’re dealing with arrangements, musical arrangements, and improvisation. You understand? I mean, everybody’s contributing composition wise. It’s automatically different. You had to be different. Tried to be different. It’s automatically different ‘cause there’s no guitars, no horns… It’s the mallet instruments, the timpani, the multiple percussion set… no guitars. All percussion. So it’s gotta be different. No –
The Artistic Truth is a way of life. You can say I’m something like the father of our country, George Washington. He said, “I can not tell a lie.” Well, that goes with the concept of the music. You deliver the music in the form of what we call “edutainment.” That’s “education” and “entertainment” – [claps hands] – together. That way you gotta learn something. If I wanna tell a story artistically, I’m gonna do it so someday listening has gotta say, “Whoa, did he really mean that?” You know what I’m saying? I’m not saying orally or verbally, I’m doing it – I’m transmitting it through the instrument.
Brooks: Oh yeah, these are called steel drums. Or steel piano. Or the nickname is pans, cause they look like pans, right? They were invented in Trinidad in the West Indies in the early 1940s. In Detroit, we hand pianos in every house – you’d go to a house, a friend’s house, you had a piano. Might not even have a record player but everybody had a piano. Somebody in the house could play piano.
So, with the oil trade – dealing with oil and everything – the oil drums, or the oil cans became this instrument here. You see how each one has the same kind of… There’s 16 notes on each drum, on these, the double tenors. It’s a solo instrument. It’s amazing how it’s made, really. But this is the premier instrument of the 20th century – bar none – electronically or whatever. This is the instrument.
Gabriel: How did you get started playing the saw?
Brooks: Well, a friend of mine bought this in Copenhagen. And when I went back to Vienna I bought four more. This is a musical saw, incidentally. This is a Sand Viking Stradivarius. And I purchased four of them in Vienna, Austria in 1972. This is tuned to the key of C so it makes it a “C” saw.
Gabriel: When you started playing this, what kind of stuff were you doing?
Brooks: I was working with James Moody and I started – my first tune was “Last Train From Overbrook,” that he plays. One of his compositions is in the key of G, and he let me do it. Then I worked with Charles Mingus right after him, and I was playing “All The Things You Are.” And a blues called – he named – called “Blues for the Carpenter’s Saw.” And going on from there, I’m playing standards now, you know. Old folk, body and soul, you know… still stick to my blues. I might be one of the few blues sawists! [Laughs] You wouldn’t call me a “sawyer,” would you?
Brooks: You know, a sawist. Like drumist. Bassist. You know. Pianist.
Gabriel: It does got a different reading to it, doesn’t it?
Brooks: Yeah, put you up in another line. So this is, really, a musical saw. I bought this at a music store. This is a cross cut. You could cut some wood. [Laughs] If you have to. But it seems like in New York, when I go to New York, I threaten all the street musicians. I put my saw out and they say, “Oh, no! Not that! Not that!” [Laughs] You know, I’ll cut ‘em literally. [Laughs]
This is very old. It happens here in Appalachia, you know, right now. People usually play with a bow. And it’s played in the church, you know, accompanying the choir. You have a sawist who’s usually – he might be the minister of music or something, you know. Incidentally, I am a minister of music. I might as well come out the closet and let you know. That’s what the Artistic Truth is about, you know. Believe it or not.
You’ve heard of a minister of music, right?
Brooks: Oh, okay. I know most negro churches have them, you know. You don’t mind that word “negro,” do you?
Gabriel: No, no.
Brooks: I don’t either. [Laughs] In fact, if you ever spelled it backwards you’d see what it means.
Gabriel: What does [?] ?
Brooks: I go up to the corner to peep in the corner bar, and there was some guys in there playing, you know. And I didn’t even know who they were ‘til today. But they were playing music live, four o’clock in the daytime. People getting home from work.
Gabriel: Mm-hm. Who were some of the bands around then?
Brooks: Oh, you had the Blue Bird band. We used to hang out every night. They have a house band, right? Elvin Jones, Barry Harris, Jimmy Richardson on bass, Miles [Davis]… and then Wardell Gray. They’d just come to Detroit to hit, you know what I mean? We’d stand outside, then you’d have Pepper Adams, Yusef Lateef would be there. Thad Jones. That was the place. And it was right down the street from my house. So we’d go up and knock on the window, and that meant that Elvin Jones would open the blinds cause he’s close to the window, so we could see. So I could see his feet and his hands, you know, peeking in and tip-toeing.
And it was just so much music. Everywhere there’s guys blowing, I mean, high quality. In those days, musicians that came out of town they had to sharpen up. When they come to Detroit, they get into shape because cats here was just laying, you know. And I just thought this was it. I thought this was gonna be like this forever.
Then I went to New York, and it was there on another scale. You got guys from all over the country, all over the world, right? And it’s me right in that hub there. So you’ve got the baddest dudes ever, you know. I talked to ‘Trane [John Coltrane]. ‘Trane used to talk to me, you understand? In fact, ‘Trane called me Reverend. That’s why I even went on into divinity, you know, on the musical side.
And Miles [Davis], you know, he said, “Why don’t you do so-and-so?” And I said, “Oh wow, I never thought of that.” You know what I mean? But he’s interested in the drums, and a drummer. So he would give me some relative information.
Dizzy [Gillespie]. All those guys. I mean, you rubbing elbows with them is like you’re on another planet.
Gabriel: So you left Detroit and went to New York. Who were you working with?
Brooks: I went, unheard of, with a – on a recommendation of Louis Hayes with Horace Silver, and I lasted for four and a half years. That was a marriage. A love affair. It was beautiful. And there’s so much in that love in just dealing with that, you know.
Gabriel: And after Horace?
Brooks: Well, after Horace, a series of Yusef Lateef – I worked with him again, I was working with him at the Westin Hotel here in Detroit. Wes Montgomery. Just a host of, you know, a lot of musicians in that period of time. Charles Mingus, I worked with him for a couple years. That was another thing all together.
Brooks: In 1970 when M’Boom was formed… I’ve always had knowledge of the keyboard, the piano and whatnot, right? But when Max called us together, these instruments weren’t strange but I had to learn how to play ‘em! You understanding me? So I had to dedicate myself to these instruments and, even farther, I went into the steel drums which is a whole different layout, you know. Same notes and whatnot, but it’s… I had to learn how to perform on these instruments. And that’s where I’m at now. That’s why I call myself a drumist, because I’m more than just a drummer, you know. If all I played were the drums, I would be a drummer. But I’m a drumist, you know. That’s with one “M.”
Gabriel: One “M.” Yeah, you let us know that.
So, like, when you were young and playing and jazz was happening at all the clubs, it was the popular music back then.
Gabriel: So you became – started off as a pop musician, so to speak.
Brooks: So to speak, yeah.
Gabriel: Okay. How come you’re not doing rap or punk or something like that now you’re…
Brooks: Well, that wasn’t the style I wanted to deal with. Rhythm and blues has been around all the time, you know. And that’s what we used to play of that day, that was the pop music of that day. That rhythm and blues of that day. The bird groups. And I’d get that, and the horn honkers. We had little groups. We used to play the Emancipation [?] over in Canada, you know. It was something more exquisite than that, that I was reaching for. And when I heard Charlie Parker, that was the move. For me, that was it.
And it happened with a lot of musicians of that day. Mostly on his own instrument. But I was influenced by his playing. In fact, I was shy, dancing, until I heard his music. I’d just grab me a lady and stick out on the floor, you know what I mean? It was so inspirational, the music. And the women of that day – today, we call it “touch dancing” – but it was the social. And it was done to bebop music. It was nothing lost. In fact, it was such a mental telepathy between the male and the female, you wouldn’t even believe it! It was beautiful.
And the music! The Bird played uptempo. And people say, “Well how can you dance to that?” You cut time. You cut it in half, and then slower than what the tempo is and it fit. SO that’s one of the things missing in our music, that we call jazz.
People don’t know they can dance to it, you know. It’s more of a freer dance but it’s together – also, I didn’t mean to deviate from the question, but I thought I’d throw that in. We need that, and people need to know they can dance to jazz. ‘Cause the people get tired, they go to the club and order a drink, and the guys play.
One guy would take 15-minute solo by itself. I mean, c’mon. You know what I mean? People could stay at home and look at their VCR’s and look at some porno or something.
People wanna dance, basically. They wanna be able to feel that they can dance to this music, they don’t know they can dance to jazz. But that’s how I came up, dancing to jazz. Through Charlie Parker and the people – we called it progressive jazz at that time. You know, we knew what bebop was, but it was progressive jazz. Stan Kenton, with his miraculous arrangements and everything at that time. We were listening to it all. But Charlie Parker was the master of that time. He was a prophet of modern jazz.
Brooks: There’s certain nuances in the music that you can throw over to the people, right? And some would say, “Funk, blues.” See the blues is the basis of all this. Blues is the basis of gospel music. Blues and jazz is before gospel. Gospel is the earliest music except for reggae, you understanding me? On this continent, I’m speaking of, right?
So those nuances that we did there, it was normal. It was normal. We might play a little slicker riff or something. But basically the rhythm… people could dance to it. There was no question about them dancing to the music. It was no question – from the Lindy Hop, I’m starting. The Lindy Hop was so uptempo these kids now – I don’t know if they could deal with it. Have you ever seen a Lindy Hop?
Gabriel: I’ve seen a little bit of it.
Brooks: Okay, well you know how uptempo they was throwing. This was the predecessor to the Jitterbug, when the guy would throw the lady all over his shoulders and she’d flip all over – Boop! Bap! – and the tempo was hitting – aw man, that was something.
And so the bebop with Charlie Parker and new guys, they was playing dances and this time all over the country. They played for ballrooms, the Graystone Ballroom, you understanding me? He was there playing. I mean, people – the floor was packed! They didn’t care how fast he played! But if the floor was packed, he had some inspiration. All these people, when the dance stopped, they said, “Ohhhhhh.” You know, waiting for the next dance. It was really a terrific era.
Gabriel: Mystical Afronaut, what’s that all about?
Brooks: Well, Mystical Afronaut is me. ‘Cause believe it or not, it ain’t no nigger astronaut.
Brooks: I couldn’t say I’m glad… so that’s why I use that term. So I take my trips through music, you know what I mean? And my vehicle is the musical, magic carpet. That’s what that means. That what the Mystical Afronaut means.
Gabriel: And, you usually do your Mystical Afronaut shows as a solo.
Brooks: Solo, that’s what it is, a solo performance. I have different ones that I do over and over. One is called, “I’d rather duet [‘do it’] myself.” I have different things. To be able to solo, really… Max Roach is the greatest soloist to me. Not only on the drums, but I mean, next to him and Dizzy, they great as Bird, to me. As far as soloists – alone. Max would a whole set just on the drum set and nobody get bored – I mean there wouldn’t be no boredom like, [mimics interrupting cough]. Ain’t none of that.
And so I devised my thing to do solo – I move around on these different instruments – ‘cause I feel trapped just trying to play the traps.
You know what I mean? So I’m trying to be an extension of him, and being with him, and things he says. Sometimes I might not understand for six months. He might say something and I’d say, “What did he mean by that?” Pap! In my head, and that’s it, you know. It comes out to – not that we deal with parables all the time – but sometimes we don’t understand, that’s why we tried to listen with an attentive year cause we take things for granted. “Oh, he’s talking, so what?” And we don’t really hear what we supposed to hear, you know. As is a human thought, I guess.
Gabriel: But what do you, what do you really want to do musically?
Brooks: I’m doing it, man. [Laughs]
Gabriel: What’s that?
Brooks: Well, I’m performing. I’m creating on a very high level. And this is what I wanna do. I mean, there’s nothing else I wanna do, I mean, in life. I’ve done it and I’m doing it. That’s the artistic truth, that’s all I can tell you is the truth. That’s the way I feel. I feel that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in my life.
Transcription Daniel Rayzel (2017)