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Antonio Hart: Educator and Monster Player

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It's not about being famous or the flavor of the week, which I've experienced. It's about longevity.
—Antonio Hart
The Queens Jazz Orchestra took the stage at Flushing Town Hall, a historic building in the New York City borough dedicated to the arts, for an annual jazz concert celebrating the music of Charlie Parker and the career and life of Phil Schaap, a longtime Big Apple radio personality who hosted a show devoted to Parker for some 52 years.

The man leading the top-notch band was Antonio Hart, director of jazz studies at Queens College's Aaron Copland School of Music and director of QJO. The gentleman—and he is all of that—also plays the saxophone. Plays the hell out of it.

Since his emergence from Berklee College of Music where he was close friends with and later a longtime band mate of Roy Hargrove. Hart has played with a long list of greats. He is also a first-rate educator, the career he envisioned a kid in Baltimore. But he's a monster player. His stints with Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Holland, the Charles Mingus tribute bands, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Terence Blanchard, Wallace Roney and others attest to that. He also leads his own group and has 10 recordings to his name. His 1997 release, Here I Stand (Naim) earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.

QJO was formed by the great Jimmy Heath, a mentor to Hart. That torch passing is important to Hart. It's also the reason the "Bird Flight" concert in Queens also included a healthy dose of Heath compositions.

"He's my mentor. When I went to graduate school he was my professor," Hart says from his new Westchester County home north of New York. "We built a 30-year connection where he became like a father figure as well as my musical mentor."

The concert in Westchester kicked off with "Yardbird Suite," a tribute to Parker, but the arrangement was by Heath—or "Master Heath" as Hart most often refers to him.

"He was incredible. One of the smartest people I've ever met. One of the most talented people I've ever met. The most compassionate person I've met," says Hart of the iconic saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator. "A spiritual person. Really good for me in my life. All our interactions were very personal and very uplifting. And he was always there for me in almost every facet of life. I miss him."

"The Song Is You" brought Hart's first blistering solo of the concert, full of bebop fire and brimstone. He played in a more stately fashion showing a softer side on "Without You, No Me," and the band bounced into a Latin feel on Heath's well-known "Gingerbread Boy" that featured solos from all six saxophonists followed by unison harmony lines. The same then went for for all four trombonists, then the trumpets in similar fashion, followed by solos from he rhythm section, who were swinging their collective asses off.

"The electricity in the theater was high," said Clyde Bullard, jazz producer at Flushing Town Hall. "You could feel the excitement and the joy of the audience who came out to hear live the Queens Jazz Orchestra for the first time in almost three years." The orchestra under the direction of Hart "proved to still remain strong and potent as the audience shouted and cheered after musicians in the orchestra took hot solos during the concert."

"We do it once a year, outside of the COVID situation. We've been together since 2008," says Hart, who added, "As we develop and I move into my position, I'll start adding my music in there, which is gonna give me an opportunity to grow as an arranger and composer."

That's a good thing. As wonderful as Heath's contributions are, time moves and Hart, aside from his superb playing, is poised to advance in other creative areas. But education will always be an important facet. At one time in his life, he wasn't thinking much beyond teaching.

"I went to school primarily to get my degrees in education. So I thought my trajectory was to be a teacher. I was going straight through to my Ph.D., but I stopped with the master's because I was on the road all the time," he recalls. "And so my direction changed more into performance than education. And after several years on the road, you know, I got a little tired. And I got back into what I had planned to do anyway," which was teaching.

"It's a nice to have both, where I can teach and I can go on the road and play," Hart says. "I'm not out there as much as I used to be, but as much as I want to be. I was comfortable in terms of being able to take care of myself because of the teaching job. So financially it has been a blessing. Getting a chance to share with future generations is a blessing. To grow as an educator is a blessing. So, there are a lot of pluses. It's been 22 years of growing as an educator, growing as a musician, growing as a therapist—sometimes you have to do that—grow as a colleague, understanding the insides and the workings of academia, which is a whole different beast, a whole different animal. So yeah, it's been cool."

Hart's abilities as a player have resulted in top musicians seeking his contributions over the years. Lately, Hart hits the highway mostly with his own band. He is working on new material for a new recording and anticipates his band will do a tour in support of it.

"Right now, for me, I'm in a period of study and creation," he says. "I've had time to think, assess, listen and study. So now let's see what comes out of that."

As a youngster in Baltimore trying to learn the sax, music education in junior high was minimal. He was trained in the European classical tradition. Then he got into the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts where he was discovered different artistic disciplines. He began to hear and like jazz. He struggled with it at first, compared to his contemporaries. But he dug in, gave it his best and it began to pay off.

He says, "I got interested in jazz for a number of reasons. One, playing European classical pieces, I didn't see many African Americans playing them. Everything was through-composed. With the knowledge I had, in terms of being expressive and creative, it was limiting." At nearby Morgan State University, the radio station played jazz. "Listening to the station, I discovered Grover Washington, Jr. first. That was my man. He still is. And then later, of course, I got into Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and the list goes on and on and on. But it started with Grover Washington, Jr."

Like so many young musicians, Hart's next move was to Berklee College of Music. That's where his jazz education really began to pick up speed.

"The best part about being there is that a lot of your classmates are the people you're going to work with in the future. For me, it ended up being Roy Hargrove. But I remember we had everybody there. We had Lalah Hathaway there. We had Paula Cole. Seamus Blake was there. Mark Turner was there. And I'm missing some people. It was a very rich time to be there, because we were all young, just trying to figure it out. Nobody was a superstar. Nobody was recording and making records at the time. I don't even know if we were even thinking about that. We were just trying to play. So it's nice to see a lot of my classmates at Berklee became very successful. Now, some of them are considered icons in music, which is pretty nice."

Hart says during that period he and his classmates were driven to study hard and get better. They weren't concerned with when their first record would come out. Sometimes that is not the case with youthful players being told how good they are.

"We weren't so concerned about going on tour. We wanted to be good enough that Art Blakey would say, 'Come join the band.' Or whomever. You wanted to be on a level where there was still the thought that those guys would call you. Whoever was there at the time. Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette. And that's what we were trying to do."

"Even when I got signed to RCA or got offered a contract, I almost didn't take it because I was like, 'I haven't played with nobody. How do I deserve this when you have a generation of guys out there that have been near for 10 years?'" Hart says with some bemusement. He was about 20 at the time. "I struggled with that, but someone told me that it's an opportunity that might not come around again and that's why I took it. I'm glad I did, but I was always realistic about where I was, my respect for the music, the industry and the like."

The road to the first record, For The First Time (Novus, 1991), wasn't easy. Hart was 17, turning 18, when he got to Berklee. He hadn't been playing jazz as long as many of the others at school. "Guys came in, they could play already. They knew. Geoff Keezer, I mean, he came in, he could have been a teacher, you know? I started from ground zero, the lowest ensembles, lowest everything. Even though I knew music, because I knew it from a Euro perspective, instead of counterpoint and all stuff like that, I had to learn the vocabulary, I had to learn the vernacular."

Teachers like Billy Pierce, Andy McGhee and Joseph Viola gave him direction. As always, Hart worked hard. The desired results came and he was becoming a player to be reckoned with.

"I discovered all the players and the lineage of the saxophone. I considered myself a student of that and that's what kind of allowed me to have this 30-year career," Hart says. "Because there are a lot of guys that were on the cover of magazines, and you're like, 'Wow. What happened to that guy?' People might say that for me on some level, but I'm still here. Someone said to me, 'It's not about being famous or the flavor of the week,' which I've experienced. It's about longevity. That was always my objective—to have longevity. And my phone rings. So it's nice."

Perhaps his best Berklee connection was Hargrove.

"He was a young up-and-comer. We did his first record, Diamond in the Rough, and from then on, while I was in the band we did about four or five CDs together. So yeah, that was the beginning of that period. You had Christian McBride, who was like the young genius. You had Geoff Keezer, Gregory Hutchinson, Mark Whitfield, Tim Warfield. There was a small handful of us that were getting record contracts. They called us the Young Lions. It was like another resurgence of traditional jazz. You had Wynton and Branford Marsalis in the mid '80s. Then you had Terence Blanchard = 90665 and Donald Harrison. Me and Roy came after that. We were part of that renaissance. We started our careers. You know, it was beautiful. It was a surprise to me because, again, that wasn't my trajectory. It just so happened that Roy asked me to join his band. People dug us together so it was wonderful."

Besides the Hargrove connection, Hart blossomed after college, streaking across the jazz sky. He played with Nat Adderley for three and a half years and was part of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band for around 25 years, as well as the Mingus, Village Vanguard and the Duke Ellington bands. "I've had and continue to have a wonderful, wonderful career. I'm very blessed because it was nothing I ever dreamed of," Hart says.

Now as a veteran player, Hart is figuring out what's next, like many in the post-pandemic world.

"Right now I'm in the woodshed with a lot of things," he said on a day when a new baby grand piano had just been delivered to his new home. " I'm working on new music, and I definitely will get into the studio. I don't know when that's going to be. Definitely we'll get into studio at some point and make my little contribution. Hopefully, people enjoy what they hear."

"I'm working on a couple books, part of the academia thing. After teaching for 20 years, I've seen some things that students, I think, should have that] I think could be valuable to people," says Hart, a humble man. "It's a little daunting because I have some insecurities with some of some of that kind of writing. But this is a chance for me to to rise to the occasion in the spirit of Master Heath, pitching in and helping."

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