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Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

AAJ Staff By

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Billy Hart is one of the unsung giants of jazz drumming. Appearing on classic recordings by Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders, Hart continues to push forward in performances and recordings with Charles Lloyd, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Don Byron's Ivey-Divey trio. If he's not in New York playing, he's either touring the globe or teaching at one of five colleges and universities at which he is faculty.

All About Jazz: First of all, I'd like for you to go through your last two weeks again...Do you keep a diary of everything?!

Billy Hart: No, you sort of keep a date book, and compare it with your mortgage note and car. Let's see, where are we now? We're at Friday, so I'm performing with the [Montclair State University] faculty here tonight at Trumpets. Last Tuesday I was at Scullers [in Boston] with Don Byron. Now, there's a great jazz club in Northampton in Massachusetts also: Scullers in Boston, then Northampton. Monday was with Don Byron also, with Jason Moran doing the Ivey-Divey thing. Sunday, I played with Don Byron and Jason, the Ivey-Divey at Newport; Saturday I was at Newport with the Saxophone Summit. Something happened Friday, but I can't remember. But it started with me being here. Then I drove up to Newport. So, what was before that? I got back. I was two days late for this [teaching at Montclair State University]. That means I got back from California, from teaching a drum history class for two days in Healdsburg. That's in Napa, Santa Rosa, wine country—extreme wine country, beautiful! But they also have a jazz festival every year, which I've done for the last five years in a row. And I usually play with two or three groups there.

AAJ: Do festivals that are multi-day events ever contact you in hoping that you'll perform with several groups, or is it totally coincidental that you're playing drums with more than one band?

BH: In this particular case, they set it up, it's just economics. In some cases, there's economics in other places it's coincidental, like playing with Saxophone Summit and Don Byron at Newport is coincidental but it's also going to happen again at the Willisau in Switzerland...Same bands, two bands, that's at the end of the month. So, it means I'll go to Paris and then Willisau with the Saxophone Summit. And then from there, I'll join Don Byron and go to Portugal and then back to Willisau. So it does put a little strain on whoever is dealing with the plane tickets. That's a whole other story......OK, [so] I did the thing at Healdsburg. That was that weekend: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Then I flew back in time to do this [teach] for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That Friday night I went to Newport. But before Healdsburg, I was home for three or four days from doing the European stuff.

AAJ: You must have some frequent flyer mileage!

BH: Yeah, my family uses it all [laughs]... I ended up at a summer camp in Belgium with great musicians, and a lot of the times it's with American musicians, too. Lovano used to teach there. Let's see, Mark Levin the pianist from California. [There are] brilliant saxophone players and a great faculty there. I came there from Sicily, from doing this Italian band—Marco Tamburini—which I made two CDs with them, so they're a working band. They have one American other than me: Cameron Brown's the bassist in that band.

Then from there I came with the Don Byron tour doing most of the major festivals in New York. Don called me first but I actually had a call for that same time from about three or four different bands, one in particular, which is why I mention this. Jordi Señol the Spanish promoter—he usually deals with, I won't say more conservative music, [but] anyways—he called me, and said that he was putting together this band because of me which is the one with Benny Golson and Cedar Walton. Because by coincidence, I got a call to do this other festival—I guess it must have been around last September—I never get a chance to play with Cedar Walton. This guitarist, this Danish guitarist, it was his dream to play with me and Cedar Walton, so he got a concert and put it together.

[And so] I had a chance to play with Cedar Walton because of this guy. Cedar doesn't do much without Jordi Señol, who's been booking him in Europe for 30 years, so he was there. The next day, they hired me to stay over because Golson was going to be there and needed a rhythm section, so I ended up playing with Cedar Walton and Golson. And Jordi liked it so much, and it was different, he put together a summer tour based on that band. But it was too late—I couldn't do it because I obligated myself to Don. The trick is—I'm mentioning all this to say, those guys pay better. They [veteran musicians] say, "We're getting along in age now. We don't see why we have to work more than three days or four days a week, and it was paying better. I chose the Don Byron gig, [and] jumping up and down on and off these trains, oh man—I hadn't really done a European train tour in years! And it's rough going up and down those steps and carrying your cymbals and your bags and all that.

AAJ: Makes you wish you took up the flute!? Seems like you're true to your commitment—that you're committed to someone even if there are other offers, though...And it seems like you're playing with everybody these days.

BH: When I'm broke, it doesn't seem like I'm playing with anybody—you can also look at it like that! There are some guys who don't work that hard and make a lot of money... Being busy: there's two ways of looking at it. Even though I'm busy, it means I've got to keep being busy... In the final analysis, though, it's the music itself. Certainly I felt like I was, how can I say it, in a different way more challenged musically with the Don Byron situation. Which my wife thinks is foolish. "How old are you going to continue to be, how long can you, as far as she's concerned it's like looking for the fountain of youth. "What's so interesting that you have to keep playing with these younger cats all the time? What is it? You say you want to keep up with some of the latest trends. In the final analysis, how long are you going to do that, and why? At a certain age, when do you stop? Trends are always going to be new. How long are you going to be chasing it and if you're chasing it, there's another logic involved: why don't you get your own band and hire those guys?!

AAJ: Would you prefer to be primarily leading your own band versus being the quintessential sideman?

BH: Just to save energy, I would prefer it. But of course, it's a treadmill. Because I work so much, I don't have time to work on that. What the problem is, is it's hard for me to stop for whatever reason. It might be very illogical. Maybe the most logical thing to do is to stop and work on my own band while there's still a chance I have enough energy to put into it. You know, I'm getting pretty old now!

AAJ: Well, none of us are getting any younger! It's honorable seeing you in so many different contexts and playing with so many different people, which speaks volumes to the fact that your phone's off the hook. You're one of the more well-rounded drummers out there. Do you have any weaknesses? It would seem your job is not to have any weaknesses because you can play in all these situations.

BH: Well, a master of none and jack of all trades kind of thing. That's a weakness. It might really be the primary weakness. Because you know Art Blakey was Art Blakey, Elvin Jones was Elvin Jones, Max Roach is Max Roach, Jeff Watts is Jeff Watts. Maybe that's the weakness. What's missing is, somehow, I'm not quite realizing myself.

AAJ: Many would agree that you're certainly not as well known as you should be.

BH: It would seem that in terms of media reaction. You know, when I go to Europe with Don Byron, I know all those guys better than he does, all the promoters. The question is why doesn't somebody ask me to bring my own band? Is it that I've been seen too much? Or is it just cheaper to get me that way? Then you don't have to have my own band. I'm in Europe, four, five, six times a year anyways. In Japan, at least once a year, sometimes three times a year. Though maybe I'm not as popular, I'm certainly seen more than the most popular guys. You don't see them that much, but their publicity is. And I'm seen all the time [laughs!], and nobody, well you know what I mean.

Then of course [there's] the delight and the thrill of all the new young guys that come on the scene. And they demand a lot of attention and excitement. I read the magazines like anybody else to see and talk to those guys, see what they're talking about and how influential they are on both sides: on the media side and the musical side. Of course, the musical side is a little more important to me...but it's also interesting to see how they're affecting the scene in terms of who works with who, or whatever.

AAJ: There's an impressive list of young drummers who have studied with you, too. You're talking about people like Tyshawn Sorey.

BH: He was in this class years ago.

AAJ: And all of these guys are moving on to create, and you obviously have had a very significant influence on a young crop of drummers that have come up in the last five years in particular...probably also from when you were teaching ten, twenty, thirty years ago—I don't know how long you've been teaching.

BH: Well, I wasn't always teaching...Now it's funny when you see these little kids, or even the colleges at which I teach. You know I teach at five universities, and at the same time! Did you know that?!

AAJ: How do you keep track of all this?! [laughs]

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