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Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

By Published: April 11, 2006

BH: No, not with that band, but I played with Frank Foster's band. I decided I wanted, I needed, to do that. When I first moved to New York, Sam Rivers had a big band with baritonist Hamiet Bluiett. I rehearsed that music a lot. After I left Stan Getz, I was in Gerry Mulligan's band. And that was very important if you look at Birth of the Cool, or the fact that the original Mel Lewis-Thad Jones band was originally the Gerry Mulligan Dream Band. All those guys were in that band—Clark Terry and all those guys, and then it became the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones band. I joined Gerry Mulligan's band. I did some big band stuff with Clark Terry. But the main big band stuff was Frank Foster.

AAJ: Do you find that playing in a big band maybe doesn't offer as much freedom as playing with smaller ensembles for a drummer?

BH: Well, it depends on who you are, and how well you know that language. That's a language. That's a historical traditional language. Buddy Rich didn't seem to have any trouble getting around a big band. Sonny Payne, Davey Tough, you know what I mean? No. Just knowing the language...Louie Bellson. Those guys. There's a language there that just takes some study, and certainly being in it...

AAJ: Certainly one of your greatest strengths is your versatility.

BH: Well, do you see how lucky I was? To be in DC, not only for the beginning of what we take for granted. Funk, rock—I was there while it was being innovated. I knew the innovators. I could tell you the names of the guys who innovated that stuff. The Motown, Stax, Chess in Chicago—I was part of all that. I saw all of that. Then there was the Brazilian stuff. If I lacked anything, it was really the Cuban stuff because that's just resurging now. The original Cuban stuff was in the '40s with Dizzy and Bird and those guys, which is really Art Blakey, Max, AT [Art Taylor], Philly Joe [Jones], all those guys were a product of that kind of thing. I sort of missed that. I sort of got it from them but I didn't see the authenticity. I got the authenticity with the Brazilian stuff. Now I'm going back to that. But yeah, I've just been so lucky to have been there to have seen all of that.

AAJ: Talk about Quest, and how you met up with Dave Liebman and how that came about?

BH: OK. I do On The Corner. [Steve] Grossman was the saxophonist. Miles used to have family spats with these guys. And as mean or strong as Miles seemed to be, he was soft in some areas because the guys would get fed up with him and just leave, not show up or whatever. And he would take them back. So, this particular day, Grossman didn't show up, so they called Liebman. So Liebman's on On The Corner, and Liebman ends up in Miles' band.

AAJ: That's the first time you played with Liebman?

BH: I think so. Yeah, I didn't know him. I was on a whole other scene. I wasn't on the New York scene, you know that scene: the Michael Brecker-Bob Mintzer-Bob Berg-Chick Corea-Keith Jarrett scene. I meet him and then Beirach, because they had a band which was basically Beirach and Liebman a lot, and Al [Foster]. Al had played with Miles. Somehow, something happened, we were on a gig together with Pat Metheny, that thing outside of Denver, a ski resort I can't think of the name right now. And they heard me play for the first time and they realized I would fit their program. They liked me; they knew me. But liking, that's a whole different story. They had a Japanese tour, at the last minute Al couldn't make it. Miles came up with something. So they called me. Al was busy with Miles, so they just decided to stick with me. And of course, that was right up my alley: Coltrane, Miles, and Ornette, and Albert Ayler, just contemporary everything, everything! That's it! Outside of Herbie, that's the happiest I've ever been musically. And Richie Beirach, like me, is an unsung hero.

AAJ: He lives in Germany?

BH: He does now. If you think harmonically, he's as advanced as Herbie, Chick, Keith, Paul Bley, McCoy, he's all of that. Solo piano, advanced harmonic harmony—Webern, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Stockhausen. He's got this whole thing and certainly Liebman is 12-toned, and Ornette and later-Coltrane. Nobody wants to touch Coltrane after A Love Supreme, and he's into Meditations suite! Here we go—that's right up my alley! If nothing else, they saw how happy they made me. And that lasted for twelve or thirteen years. We made five or six records.

AAJ: So when was the last time you guys got together?

BH: Fifteen years ago!

AAJ: Fifteen?!

BH: It's hard to believe it's been that much time.

AAJ: So, whose suggestion was it to get back together? [the group played a special reunion gig in September 2005 at Birdland in New York]

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