It’s the summer of 1991. Onstage at Chene Park on the Detroit River, a dozen percussionists are laying down a gigantic, colorful, all-embracing beat. A brightly costumed figure strides the stage on impossibly tall stilts, drawing squeals from the crowd.
A whistle blows. Five kids from the Pershing High School basketball team charge onstage, running patterns and slamming their ball through a hoop at stage right. Suddenly a portly man — dressed in vaguely Oriental silk and old enough to be these boys’ father — darts into the middle and steals the ball.
He whirls! He shoots from 25 feet! It’s nothing but net!
The crowd is on its feet, cheering and whooping and whistling.
That crazy Roy Brooks — master percussionist, brilliant bandleader, richly creative composer and former high-school basketball star — has done it again.
It’s the fall of 2001. The weak northern light is fading fast from the walls of a ruddy-stoned castle studded with toothy parapets and King Arthur towers. A uniformed woman holding a key as big as a monkey wrench leads three visitors down the ancient building’s stone steps to a 20-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Her walkie-talkie crackles; the fence slides open; the four step inside. They enter a low, modern building, pass through a metal detector, and are buzzed into a bright, clinically bare room. Another buzz at a different door and an older man, walking stiffly with a cane, enters the room.
It’s Roy Brooks, inmate No. 319710 at Marquette Branch Prison, 500 lonely miles away from his hometown, Detroit. His clear but subdued eyes look out from a face that was once round and pudgy but is now long and framed with creeping tendrils of gray. Happily, he greets the first visitor he’s had since his imprisonment 14 months ago.
After decades of struggle, Brooks’ vicious bipolar disorder — aided by the inability of Michigan’s mental health system to deal with it effectively — has finally succeeded in putting him behind bars. Over the years, the disease had gradually laid waste to most of Brooks’ life — except his music. But now the monster has grabbed onto that too. Marquette has no music program; authorities won’t even allow this superb drummer a set of wood sticks to practice drumrolls on one of the prison’s infinite array of hard surfaces.
“It’s a real drag,” Brooks rasps. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from playing. I guess drumsticks are a hell of a weapon.
“When they gave me this,” he says, lifting his walking stick slightly, “they said, ‘Don’t hit nobody with that cane!’ I had never even thought of that.”
Brooks was in Hiawatha Correctional Facility for a brief turn before landing in Marquette. There the warden allowed a prison band. Brooks rehearsed and performed B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” with a group of inmates on his way through.
“They called me ‘Pops’ there,” he says. “But they discontinued the medication program there, and … they transferred me here.”
So while he gets his crucial lithium medication every day, the thing that has most sustained him throughout his 63 years is out of reach.
B-ball, bebop, beyond
When he was a student at Detroit Northwestern High School in the mid-1950s, Brooks had quite a set of reputations: lady’s man, class wit, the cat with the coolest threads, varsity basketball hero and excellent musician.
“He was so flamboyant, such a character,” recalls Herb Boyd, a high-school buddy and longtime Metro Times contributing editor now based in New York City. “I sat next to him in study hall for three years. That’s when I learned of his ability as a drummer just by watching him with pencils. He’d do paradiddles across the desk and his books. I told him he ought to get himself some drums and he said, ‘I already got four sets!’”
And Boyd remembers The Big Game — a contest for the city championship between Northwestern and Miller high schools. Northwestern was up by two points with just a few minutes left when they gave the ball to Brooks.
“He dribbled that ball right through the whole opposing team,” Boyd says, laughing at the delightful memory. “He was rolling on the floor, dribbling it behind him, through his legs, all kinds of things. The crowd went wild. He froze the ball for two minutes. We won, and Roy was the hero.”
But even an athletic scholarship from the Detroit Institute of Technology could not keep Brooks away from his music. He went to DIT for three semesters; then Yusef Lateef, the now-legendary reed master and composer, drafted him into the major-league jazz scene. By 1959, the 21-year-old was touring and recording with the hottest name in hard bop — Horace Silver. Brooks is proud of those times, but, he says, playing the leader’s big hits — tunes like “Song for My Father,” “Doodlin’,” and “Señor Blues” — “got to be the same-old, same-old.”
So, when Silver did one of his frequent personnel reshuffles in 1964, Brooks settled into a New York City jazz scene as creatively restless as he. He spent the next 11 years there working at the cutting edge of the music with Lateef, Lee Morgan, Randy Weston, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Pharoah Sanders, Dexter Gordon and Milt Jackson. Eventually modern drumming god Max Roach made Brooks a founding member of M’Boom, his ravishing percussion band that laid down deep, subtle African grooves topped with exotic, colorful melodies.
Brooks formed his own New York band, the Artistic Truth, and attracted some of the best players — trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonist Sonny Fortune, bassist Reggie Workman — even vocalese legend Eddie Jefferson. They were drawn by his fresh, tuneful, unorthodox writing, buoyant personality and ferociously interactive playing. 1974’s Roy Brooks and the Artistic Truth Live at Town Hall bears testimony to these magnificent, bluesy modernists pushing hard on bop’s boundaries, powered by Brooks’ immaculate, slick, explosive drumming.
But Brooks’ occasional, strange, emotional outbursts — some of them while he was still working with Silver — had added a wary undercurrent to the stellar rep Brooks enjoyed among his fellow jazz giants.
Roy’s great, the cats all agreed, but he is a little crazy.
Hermine Brooks knew nothing of this when she fell in love with Roy Brooks and, a year later in 1967, married him. They both lived in an apartment complex on 100th Street near Central Park West that had many musicians in residence, including Silver.
“I do know that when I met him he was just coming out of something,” she says. “He was just getting himself together again to get back out there. Nobody said anything to me. I think now that somebody did try to tell me once but I didn’t understand.”
Then, very late one night, the phone rang.
“Roy was at a club on Broadway and Sixty-something,” she says. “I don’t know if he grabbed a woman or what, but they called me. I didn’t know what was going on, I called my brother-in-law to go down there with me.”
After they took the visibly distraught drummer back to the apartment, Hermine roused a doctor in the same building who “gave him something to calm him down.” She soon realized that her husband “could be dangerous to people when he gets to a certain level. As far as I know, he still has never hurt anybody, but he could have.”
There were more outbursts, sometimes accommodated by visits to one of the city’s mental health facilities, but they were infrequent; Hermine could convince herself that the problem was going away even as she adjusted to his increasingly bizarre behavior.
“I’d be getting up early because I had a 9-to-5 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!’”
The jazz scene itself was getting a little crazy — the overt spirituality spawned by John Coltrane’s blazing innovations was being pushed aside by fusion’s commercial appeal. Meanwhile, Brooks’ mother, Katie, who now lived alone in the near-west-side house he had grown up in, was ailing badly. In 1975, Brooks, an only child, decided to move back home with his now-pregnant wife.
But the Motor City was just as frustrating as the Big Apple. Brooks felt that the local cats didn’t play quite as well and were not as punctual or as committed as his New York colleagues; gigs were even scarcer; Hermine didn’t know how to drive; Brooks’ mother died in 1979. Brooks, now father to Raheem, toured frequently with Roach and M’Boom, but such prestigious gigs were also very stressful for a man who — only half-jokingly — often thanked audiences by saying, “It’s really been a pressure.”
“He had a lot of setbacks,” Hermine says. “He’d come back from M’Boom and then they would wait for him to get better again before going back out. He’d try a medication and it would make him so sick. He’d say, ‘I can’t play, I can’t hear the music.’ It took many, many years before he found something he could work with. It turns out lithium was the only thing that worked. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe this will save his life.’”
Ultimately Hermine realized that she could not help her husband. She and Raheem moved back to New York City in 1980, although Raheem came back to Detroit frequently to visit his father.
“He was not surprised when I told him I was leaving,” she says. “It was mutual. I’ve always been the one to say, ‘Let’s see if we can work it out.’ But it didn’t, so he was fine with it.”
They are still married; Roy calls Hermine every week.
Casual fans were unaware of these Herculean struggles as Brooks re-emerged on the local scene with bright bursts of creativity. He led trios backing visiting dignitaries at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, recast his Artistic Truth band with some of the town’s top players — Ralphe Armstrong, Phil Lasley, Kenny Cox, Vincent Bowens — and started performing at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Paradise Theatre / Orchestra Hall. But while his jaw-dropping technique, conceptual boldness and uncanny ability to compose highly evocative tunes made him the talk of the town, there was also increasing talk of outrageous behavior, including a naked Brooks chasing pianist Barry Harris, one of his earliest mentors, down his street with a knife.
He teamed up with Detroit godfathers Cox, Harold McKinney and Wendell Harrison to form M.U.S.I.C.: Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture. Out of that work — teaching young percussionists-to-be from around the city in a charmless building on a bleak block of Grand River Avenue — came Brooks’ Aboriginal Percussion Choir, Brooks’ sprawling answer to Roach’s M’Boom, a jumble of snare, tom-tom and log drums, congas and bongos, steel drums, marimbas, xylophones, timbales, timpani and more.
The choir’s music was radiantly clear and pretty and beguiling. Its occasional late-night and Sunday afternoon concerts at the M.U.S.I.C. building drew small but enthusiastic crowds. Four years later they performed at the inaugural Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival. They took the place by storm.
“Anybody who can put 18 people together and have such a high degree of improvisation and have it work so well is a genius,” says Jerry LeDuff, a percussionist who played in the Percussion Choir. “I think he hears things differently than most people. And he is very, very, very intense.”
“I had never encountered anything like that in my life,” she says. “It was mesmerizing. Once you set up these patterns, it was almost like a chant. It is a marvelous concept.”
Brooks slowly turned his basement into a community center of sorts.
“He had a very eclectic musical home life,” Hayden says. “There were lots of musicians going through. I always felt really secure there. Roy was wonderful with children. Raheem was always welcome to come downstairs and hang out with us. There were never any drugs or drinking going on. It was a very uplifting and healthy situation. Others brought their children down too. It looked like a place that a person used for very intense work. Two sets of drums, two sets of vibes, marimbas, piano, music stands, timpani, a big Oriental gong. On the wall were posters from as far back as the ‘60s and ‘70s, from all over the world, with all of his different musical collaborations”
One was from the 1990 Moers Jazz Festivals in Germany, which the Aboriginal Percussion Choir played.
“We just blew them away over there,” says LeDuff.
Hard times, cruel choices
Detroit’s struggling jazz scene kept shrinking in the late 1980s and early 1990. Those with sharp business sense or good management stayed afloat; Brooks had neither. He was declared a Michigan Jazz Master in 1991, which brought in $5,000, but it hardly solved the basic problem.
Then, habitually avoiding his medication, Brooks started letting his house fall apart — inside and out. Hermine remembers visiting it once when Roy was out of town.
“I was so hurt,” she says, “by how the place looked. I kept saying, ‘Who would do this?’ Everybody loves him, but there’s a time when they just can’t look at him anymore, they don’t know how to handle it. They’d call me, traumatized by what they saw.”
Brooks’ outbursts became more public. He tagged an excellent show at the Frog Island Festival with a strange rap about “niggers.” He threw a tantrum during an otherwise successful set by the Michigan Jazz Masters band. During a nationally broadcast performance from the 1993 Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival he rambled on about supporting U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ mayoral bid. Finally, in April of 1994, he spent three weeks in the Detroit Psychiatric Institute, his first hospital stay in nearly 15 years.
But the sad unraveling continued. A trip to Africa with the Michigan Jazz Masters convinced the other band members that they could no longer work with him. Even gigs for his one-man act “The Mystical Afronaut” — an entertaining, often funny virtuoso percussion show sometimes augmented by slide shows, musical toys and electronic gizmos far afield from bebop — dried up. If his manic raps at the close of some of those shows amused audiences, they scared off promoters.
His psychiatric evaluations at the New Center Community Mental Health Services, where he’d been receiving outpatient care since 1977, noted increasing aggression, mostly over money. On June 12, 1997, in a dispute over some missing keys, Brooks threatened a neighbor with an unloaded shotgun; police arrested him for felonious assault. Declared incompetent to stand trial, he received just seven days of inpatient treatment.
At the end of that year, the court ordered him to spend 10 weeks at Northville Psychiatric Hospital followed by mandatory weekly visits to the New Center facility. But he kept missing appointments and then stopped coming completely. When he reappeared there in April, 2000, Brooks was in serious trouble. He had just spent three months in the Wayne County jail’s psychiatric unit after another felonious assault charge the previous July. This time Brooks was accused of threatening a neighbor with a bullwhip and a machete during a dispute over ownership of the vacant lot between their houses.
But by summer of 2000 New Center had lost touch with him again. Probation officers found and arrested him in September; Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kym Worthy promptly gave him from two years, eight months to four years. Brooks was whisked away to the Southeastern Michigan Correctional Facility at Jackson, and then on to three different prisons in the Upper Peninsula — Kinross Correctional Facility, Hiawatha Correctional Facility and, finally, Marquette Branch Prison. His earliest release was set at January 2003.
Cornelius Pitts, a 25-year criminal defense lawyer who knows Brooks as a “No. 1 bebopper,” tried to use his connections to keep him out of jail when he saw, too late, what was happening.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance that perhaps could have been avoided or minimized had he had proper representation,” he says. “He got some bad breaks.”
But Judge Leonard Townsend, also a Brooks fan and a colleague of Worthy who at one point extended Brooks’ probation to keep him out of jail, says Worthy had little choice, given the situation.
“If he’d gone back on the streets again like that and something terrible had happened, it would have been very bad for the community and the judge,” he says. Worthy did not return calls for comment on Brooks’ case.
Roberta Sanders, New Center’s CEO for the past 17 years, basically agrees with Townsend. She says the real problem is not the legal system.
“This is a case of mental health system failure,” says this woman who’s been a R.N. and a social worker in both residential and outpatient settings in three states. “It is hard to argue that he is not mentally ill; this has been going on since he was 24 years old. So why is he in prison? Because we don’t have any long-term mental health care in Michigan. The fastest growing mental health center in Wayne County is jail. This is the criminalization of the mentally ill. The judge is just as trapped in a Kafkaesque system as the patient.”
The saddest thing about Brooks, she says, is that his situation is so typical. And the hardest thing for outside observers to understand is why someone with bipolar disorder is so resistant to taking medications like lithium.
One answer is that the drug can have significant, uncomfortable side effects: weight gain, constipation, frequent urination and persistent dry mouth. But there’s a tougher problem: such resistance is virtually an integral part of the disease.
“Being manic is fun,” Sanders explains. “You are kind of having a good time, so you don’t want to be brought down. That’s why people with this kind of illness have to be seeing therapists daily.
“If Roy Brooks was on his medication and he was being followed every day,” she says flatly, “he would not be having these problems. There’s absolutely no way. When he’s able to stay on the medication and somebody is there to monitor him, he does just fine.”
Then, there’s one other problem: Musicians who have played with Brooks over the years say that lithium dulls both his playing and his creativity. For a man as deeply musical as Brooks, it’s the ultimate catch-22.
“A lot of hope”
It’s almost 8 p.m.; Brooks says it’s time to go get in line with perhaps 40 other Level I inmates who will be getting their nightly dose of anti-psychotics. Tomorrow he will watch still more cable TV, looking for glimpses of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and other heroes on the Ovation channel. He hasn’t bothered to get a CD player or tape player; he’s not interested in any of the prison’s extensive list of vocational training programs that might help him pass the time.
“I’m not sad,” he insists. “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’m thinking musical thoughts, new ways to create something, something different. I’m thinking about coming back, what am I going to do, which musicians. I have a lot of hope. I know I’m here for a reason. I have the feeling that by being here I am out of the way of something.”
He knows that his house is gone. Hermine sold its ruined remains to a community redevelopment group after Roy started doing time. But he also knows that his musical instruments are in safe storage and that, eventually, he will be able to play them again.
“When I get out of here, I may try to get into one of those places,” he says of the publicly funded, residential treatment centers that are now such a rarity. “They should have just reinstated my probation. Instead I lost my car, I lost my house. It’s stupid.”
Address letters to Roy Brooks, Prisoner No. 319710, Marquette Branch Prison, 1960 U.S. 41 S. Marquette, MI 49855. The Department of Corrections does not allow anything to be sent to prisoners other than money, which must be in the form of a certified cashier’s check, made out to the prisoner’s name and number.
The comeback trail: Marion Hayden, Jerry LeDuff, Ron Alpern and other “Friends of Roy” are making plans for musical events that will mark Roy’s return to the community. Anyone interested in assisting this effort should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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