A 1970 Live Album Offers a New Perspective on Roy Brooks’s Jazz

“I remember being a kid, watching him solo, and being scared to death,” Brooks’s son Raheem Brooks said in an interview. “Like, ‘Is he going to have a heart attack?’ So much force would go into it — you know, when he solos, he goes in.”

Brooks pushed himself to the limits onstage and off, and as the decades passed, he struggled to manage his mental illness.

“You read some of the stuff, and I’ve seen stuff like, ‘The Wild Man on the Drums,’ or something like that,” Raheem Brooks said of how he’d seen his father described. “It really paints a picture that’s negative.” But Brooks recalls his father as a tireless, disciplined artist, whose passion for music was all-consuming.

“He was always working out things,” Raheem said. “I could be watching ‘Twilight Zone’ or something, and he’s behind me playing steel drums, working out something. Where he lived, it was instruments all over the house. Something come to mind, and he’ll work it out on the marimba, or work it out on the steel drums. Work it out on the balafon, even.”

Brooks’s drive to play endured for decades. Mark Stryker, who wrote part of the liner notes for “Understanding” as well as the 2019 book “Jazz from Detroit,” said he saw Brooks give a transcendent performance in the ’90s.

“When I saw him play, you felt as if you were in the presence of a spirit,” Stryker said. “There was a shamanistic quality to Roy’s presence and his playing. You absolutely felt that. There was something beyond music happening with Roy.”

The promise of great jazz bands, he added, is “that you can have the same players playing the same tunes in the same place and for some reason, there’s this extra jolt of energy and electricity and creativity that pushes the music into a higher plane of invention.” On “Understanding,” he said, “I think that that happened.”

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