In Room 219, at Madonna Nursing Center in Detroit, drummer Roy Brooks sits in a wheelchair. He wears a black satin skullcap and a brown winter coat over his hospital gown. Brooks looks frail. His hands are in his lap and look as though they’re locked; his arthritis is so bad he can barely move. Taped to the wall over his unmade bed is a newspaper photograph of the drummer in better days, surrounded by electronic keyboards and a variety of percussion instruments. Next to the bed stands an electronic keyboard that drummer Clifford Sykes brought so Brooks can compose when he gets the urge. There’s a recent copy of Downbeat magazine on a table, along with a stack of fliers for an upcoming concert to honor and benefit Brooks.
The past four years have been hell for the drummer, whose career took him from Detroit to high-profile New York gigs and around the world. He played with Horace Silver and Charles Mingus, collaborated with drummer Max Roach in founding the all-percussion M’Boom ensaemble, and, on returning to Detroit almost 30 years ago, became a pillar of the jazz community as a performer, teacher and organizer.
But in 2000, Brooks — who suffers from bipolar disorder and can behave erratically — was convicted of felonious assault for threatening a neighbor with a bullwhip and a machete during an argument. He spent three years in Marquette Branch Prison and a year in the Department of Corrections’ Duane L. Waters Hospital in Jackson. He lost his home, his car, his priceless collection of instruments and a good deal of his health. Since his release in May, he’s been in this depressing nursing home that smells of musty sheets.
“The guy is in bad shape. Mentally he’s sound. But I doubt if he will ever play again,” says saxophonist Donald Walden, who’s organizing the tribute and benefit concert. A cavalcade of Detroit and former Detroit musicians are slated to play, including James Carter, Geri Allen, Kenn Cox, Rodney Whitaker, Marion Hayden, Marcus Belgrave, Dwight Adams, Martha Reeves and Walden’s Detroit Jazz Orchestra.
On a recent Sunday, Sykes, a former Brooks student who lives in Pontiac, drops by to visit. Brooks talks about playing with Horace Silver in the late ’50s and early ’60s. That’s Brooks playing drums with Silver on “Song for My Father,” one of the hit jazz tracks of the era.
“Horace’s music was very heavy. I’ve been studying him lately. Going back in retrospect, the brother was really heavy. His compositions were awesome. I struggled through them for the four years that I was with him. It took me four years to get it together,” Brooks says.
Sykes tells Brooks that Beat, Brooks’ first recording as a leader, has recently been reissued. At first, Brooks is elated. Then he reminds Sykes that he never received any royalties.
“I come to see him as often as I can. Roy is my teacher, my percussive father. So I make sure that I let him know that I’m grateful,” Sykes says.
Brooks excitedly gives Sykes a flier for the upcoming concert. But he explains that he doesn’t want people thinking he’s finished creating music, doesn’t want to be labeled a legend or master either.
“I don’t want to be a legend. That means that you are done or dead. I really, really plan to play again. And most masters don’t go around calling themselves masters,” Brooks says, with an optimistic emphasis on playing again.
Brooks grew up on the West Side of Detroit. He started playing drums in the first grade at Sampson Elementary School, and he recalls using his mother’s hatboxes for drums. As a teen, Brooks attended Northwestern High School, a bebop hotbed in those days. He soaked up the styles of established drummers such as Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones and J.C. Heard, the latter a former Detroiter who had gone on to fame.
Brooks got a big break at age 21 in 1959. Former Detroiter Louis Hayes was leaving pianist Horace Silver’s band to drum for alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Hayes recommended Brooks as a replacement.
Brooks admits that he used to mess up so badly that his embarrassed bandmates — saxophonist Junior Cook, bassist Eugene Taylor and trumpeter Blue Mitchell — wouldn’t talk to him. But he wouldn’t quit.
“No! Man, I didn’t want to go back home to Detroit. I didn’t want people to say, ‘What is Roy Brooks doing back in town?’” he says.
Brooks recalls an intermission episode at the Five Spot, a legendary Big Apple jazz spot, when Silver’s group was playing opposite Ornette Coleman’s.
“So here I am in my second week in my sojourn in New York with Horace, and I’m stumbling through his tunes. One Friday night, I was standing at the bar alone because the other cats didn’t even want to talk to me. Horace came up to me and said, ‘Miles Davis is over at the table. He told me to tell you that if I didn’t keep you in the band that he would hire you and would have two drummers in his band.’ That night Miles never said anything to me. Man, Horace telling me that Miles felt that way about my playing really mellowed me. Miles saw something in my playing that I couldn’t even see.”
In 1963, Brooks returned to Detroit with some members of Silver’s band. At the Motown studio, Brooks recorded Beat. It was also the first time that he recorded one of his original compositions, Passin’ the Buck.
He returned to New York as a freelancer and played with James Moody, Pharoah Sanders and Coleman Hawkins, just to name some of the saxophonists. He played on at least 50 albums, including ones by trumpeter Chet Baker, organist Shirley Scott and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. He returned to Detroit in 1975, and sometimes seemed like a one-man scene. He performed multimedia solo shows as the Mystical Afronaut and staged musical spectacles — involving tap dancers, African drummers, steel drummers and more — with his Aboriginal Percussion Choir. He played with old New York friends like Randy Weston and boosted young Detroit musicians like Geri Allen. He formed Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture with Wendell Harrison, Kenn Cox and the late Harold McKinney to push the notion of self-determination for musicians.
Self-determined, in fact, is a fitting description for Brooks, who has always searched for interesting ways to play and to teach the music. As a former student, Sykes recalls how demanding Brooks could be — and how supportive too.
“What Roy was talking about how Miles and Horace lifted him up, he did the same thing for me and other musicians. Roy is the only person ever to get up in the middle of a tune and hand me the drumsticks. He told me not to drop the tempo. I considered that a tremendous honor. I will revere that for the rest of my life,” Sykes says. “It’s about time that he receives a tribute.”
Musicians United to Save Indigenous Culture presents a tribute to Roy Brooks at 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12, at Bert’s Marketplace (2727 Russell, Detroit; 313-567-2030). Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]