The beat master

Beacon drummer Jeff Haynes finds his rhythm on and off the stage

Author: Mary Ann Ebner
Posted: Monday, April 28, 2008

“My girls are here!” Jeff Haynes says, as students arrive and take their places. “Good morning, sweetie!”
 Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh comes alive with eager learners, comfortably clad to keep the beat. Professional drumming with artistic rhythms rings through the 19th century classical setting at the Desmond Estate in Balmville, an annex to the college’s main campus.
The students, mostly women, make the end of the baby boom generation look like kids. These mature college commuters travel from all over the region to connect through music with their teacher, Jeff Haynes, whose African name, Komunyaka Kenyata, means passionate musician. Haynes, a youthful 50-year-old Beacon resident, is the youngest among his drummers in this free course offered to the 55 and older community.
Before each drum class, Haynes walks out the classroom’s terrace doors and quietly prays as he looks out over the Hudson Valley. He’s happy to be playing the part of teacher, and able to spend time with his wife, Donna, and their two sons Dirani and Oji, ages six and nine, and 14-year-old daughter Valerie when he’s not teaching or recording. It’s a long journey from his days on the road, working with artists like Pat Metheny, Harry Belafonte and Cyndi Lauper, but he’s making himself at home.
“There were times when I was away from my family for nine months,” he says. “Right now, we’ve been blessed to touch other people’s lives. It’s where God is leading me. All I know is, I wake up every day and follow the lead. The higher powers are moving me and I walk through the door that is open.”
For the last 15 years, Haynes has spent more time on the road than around his own dining room table. But in the past year, he has taken a break from touring to plant himself in the Hudson Valley. Nearly five years ago, he moved his family from New York City to Beacon. “Being in the city offers culture but I love the mountains, nature and being able to pull into my driveway,” Haynes says. “It represents something for our family.”

He may savor the life of a celebrity on the music circuit, but to his wife and children, he’s Jeff, he’s Dad – now able to cheer at little league games and lead hikes on the family’s Hudson Valley property dubbed “Haynes Park.” And he’s sharing his talent and musical vision with the community. He encourages his students to play and live with passion.
Rosemarie Hallenback of Wappingers Falls not only gives his drum class her full attention, she practices drumming at home on her countertop. “It took me a while, but if I relax,” she said, “I let it flow. I’m learning to just enjoy life – Jeff’s so full of life himself. He’s very dedicated.”
In the stately Desmond classroom embellished with many percussion instruments from his private collection – Djembes, bongos, congas, cymbals, wood blocks, the calabash – Haynes adds a force of artistic integrity and natural energy. “I feel good, don’t you feel good?” he asks the class. “I know you’re ready, family!”
Some students have celebrated 55, some 65, while some have already seen 75. But Haynes hears young, tender souls when he listens to their drumming, the whole of their playing. He finds fulfillment in helping people close to 80 put their hearts into the drum. 
“The spirit you’re bringing in this room is amazing,” he cheers in his vibrant tempo. But the spirit of the room also emanates from him, as he crosses cultures with his musical gifts.

The day the music started
Born in Manhattan, Haynes grew up in Brooklyn, spending summers to age 16 in Barbados, where he shared his youth with extended family. His West Indian parents, who settled in Brooklyn and later Long Island, made sure their children learned their family ancestry and Jeff, in the process, experienced a cross-cultural upbringing. He experienced life in Barbados and came away with an understanding of his parents’ culture, grounded in a tradition of respect. Island rhythms may have been among the many influences on his musical ear, but he credits Ringo Starr for igniting the fire.
“It was in 1965,” Haynes explains, “when I was inspired by The Beatles. I knew they were going to perform on TV. They were on the Ed Sullivan Show and I was seven years old. They were singing, ‘She loves you, yah, yah, yah’ . . . Whhhhooooooo!” His eyes dance with a newborn sensation when he recalls the fateful moment.
The Beatles had invaded the American landscape and the Haynes household where little Jeff literally embraced the British music stars. “My older brother and my sister and I were all in the room and I got so excited,” he laughs, “that I pulled the TV set down. My parents came running mad!”
His mother still jokes about the day Ringo captured Jeff’s attention. “That was it,” he says. “It was Ringo.”
Soon after Ringo’s inspiration, Jeff’s mother pieced together her son’s first used drum set and he started to play.

Years later, his passion for drum beats remained. He majored in communications and minored in music at Suffolk County Community College. While working at European American Bank, Haynes toiled in technology ahead of the times, moving money around the world electronically in banking. But after hours, he played music on weekends, at weddings and small clubs. And when performing on Long Island 19 years ago, he met his future wife.
“Donna would come to my shows,” Haynes says, “and she thought I was better than everyone I was playing with.” With encouragement from Donna, he moved up in the professional arena and his friendship with her blossomed.
“We were dating and we were good friends,” says Donna, now group tour manager with Dutchess County Tourism. “I don’t know if we were even in love yet. I asked him if he wanted to do music or what! He was so passionate.” The couple married in 1993.
With urging from Donna, he started playing more gigs in the City, at pop, R&B and jazz clubs. Then, he went on tour with accomplished musician and jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson followed by a tour with R&B balladeer Peabo Bryson in 1991. To tour with Peabo Bryson, he took a leave of absence from his bank position. Eventually, Haynes took that leap and made a permanent career change to pursue his music.
“My life keeps changing and evolving,” Haynes says. “I loved playing with Cassandra Wilson, Al Jarreau and Pat Metheny. Those are amazing times in my life. But even now, being at Mount Saint Mary’s with the seniors, and working with children in schools, I’m grateful.”
Though he speaks casually of his cool connections, it takes talent and dedication to make the cut with recording artists like Pat Metheny and Al Jarreau.
“When I got the gig with Pat Metheny,” Haynes explains, “Donna and I had just been talking about him. We were sitting around in our kitchen saying we’d love to catch one of his shows. Then a short while later I got a call at home when I was recording. [Metheny] had seen me and wanted me to go out on tour.”
And on tour is where Haynes truly shines. Donna recognizes a difference in Jeff when he’s on stage.
“I went to see Jeff in Paris when he was with Pat Metheny,” she says. “He said, ‘Sure, baby, we’ll go see the Eiffel Tower, but I’ve got a sound check at three o’clock.’ When he’s working, he’s dead on. And when you see him on stage, that’s when you see this amazing light.”
He agrees. “Anytime I walk on stage,” Haynes says, “my whole personality changes. It’s almost like getting in character. I’m spirit-led. It’s my God-given gift and I’m a very prideful person when it comes to that.”
He misses a part of that touring spirit, but Haynes knows the road is open and waiting for him when he and his family are ready. And he’s still lighting up the local stage.

To a standing room only crowd at Mount Saint Mary College, Haynes performs on a Saturday night. Families, college students, adults of all ages and his senior drummers connect with the fusion of life, peace and harmony that Jeff creates with the sound he generates as he moves his powerful hands across his drums. While working musically with kids at risk, another passion, or cultivating an appreciation of music with seniors on their percussive journey through the rhythms of Brazil, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond, Haynes doesn’t miss a beat.
“I am the drum, you are the drum,” he says, “and that’s where the heart’s gotta be.”
Mary Ann Ebner is a freelance writer and music student living in Orange County.

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