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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]

BH: I'm at NYU on staff and New School University. So, between those, I could have as much as 12 students, but they come to my house. The other schools are Western Michigan University. I've been there the longest, like 13, 14, 15 years. But now my priority is Oberlin—I've been there six years because they gave me benefits and all that, and my own room and the whole thing. I do try and show up there with some sort of consistency. It's still getting there in an airplane. The thing that is complicating things most is that the last three years I've been at New England Conservatory, too [laughs]!

AAJ: Are there three other Billy Harts running around somewhere? [laughs]

BH: ...You know, being addicted to the new things, like if I just have a Tyshawn Sorey at each one of these schools, my addiction, my jones is being fed on this massive level. I had a kid at New England Conservatory when I first got there. I asked everybody because you know they have other drumming instructors as that's one of the primary instruments—so I said, "OK, for you guys to choose me, just so I can help you: What is it particularly about me that you would want, that I could help you which would be different from Bob Moses, or so-and-so?

One guy came up and said well, "I'm interested in you because you played with Herbie Hancock. And I said, "That's very interesting, but I haven't played with him in like thirty years. Why would that interest you? He said, "Well, because I'm playing with him now. I said, "Really? What year are you? He says, "Yeah. I'm a sophomore. I said, "What do you mean 'playing with him'? He said, "I travel with him, I tour with him. I said, "Really? He said, "I've got a video. Next class I'll bring a video of the concert. And sure enough, he did. After Herbie did the Gershwin project [Gershwin's World Verve, 1998)], there was another thing. He and Wayne both have these chamber orchestra projects they do. And so with the chamber orchestra project this kid is the drummer. And he's so great if Terri Lyne [Carrington] can't make it, he's already being geared to go. And he's great. I mean, he really is great! And that's my student. I had him for another two years. You know what I'm saying?

So, if you have one of those at each one of these schools, you see what I mean? In fact, at his graduation recital, he ended up making his own recording, that is at the same time—he made his own commercial recording, and Herbie's on two tracks! I mean, who in the world?! I could never get Herbie Hancock on two tracks of my own [recording]! His name is Richie Barshay. You're going to be hearing about this guy. On this CD, on his record, he plays on one tune tabla and drums at the same time. That doesn't mean that much to you now, except that I will tell you that the future of jazz drumming as I see it implies the study of tablas, of Indian drumming.

AAJ: Jeff Ballard does that.

BH: Jeff Ballard, and there's a new cat in town—Danny Weiss. He just made a record of tabla translated to the drum set that's the best that's ever been done...

AAJ: ...Now, speaking of Herbie. I've always been curious if there's any reason as to the lack of a Mwandishi reunion.

BH: One of the things about Herbie that's understated, is that as much a musical genius as I think he is, he's a phenomenal genius at business. He got that from studying with certain mentors—Donald Byrd, for instance. You've to remember that when he had the Blackbyrds, he was flying his own airplane. There are certain guys who are commercial successes beyond the thing, the level, that what we see. They're not on Entertainment Tonight. Like they made a movie about Ray Charles but conceivably Ray Charles is above what we think of as normal commercialism. They have a genius that's above that. [For instance] the name of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters is Herbie's. So, occasionally, they tour and he may not be with them, but it's his business.

It's hard to answer that question myself because arguably the last time I saw him, and I don't see him but once every four, five years, and then there's a chance I might not talk to him because he's in this other level. Anyways, the last time I talked to him...he said, "Yeah man, I'm trying to get back to the thing that we were doing. Of course what I would like to say is, "Why don't you just get us while we're still alive?! But I think because of his business thing, he would like to do it with younger faces, something that's more commercially appealing.

AAJ: At this point, that would be very commercially appealing...

BH: Nice of you to say, but...

AAJ: All of you guys still sound great, Julian Priester...

BH: He always will. Eddie Henderson and I talk all the time. All we ever talk about is, "If we just knew then what we know now. If we could get a chance to do that again. Certainly, I think I'm much further ahead than I was then. Obviously, Herbie's concept is probably more influential on my concept than anybody I've ever worked with. When you think of my records, and you think of his band, then maybe you'll see that...

[Anyways] I always have had the kind of interest that encouraged younger guys to come and talk to me, so I would always have this network of guys that used to come to the gigs and who would sit down and talk, I mean in a consistent way... I remember Victor Lewis, Adam Nussbaum, Kenny Washington. They were always there. So after a while, there was a time in the very early '80s, that I was busy and popular. Like one year I made thirty-three records, so a day for me may be going to the studio say eleven or twelve o'clock, try to leave the studio and go to Lincoln Center or Town Hall and doing a concert, and then run into the gig that night. So I always had these guys, called them to sub for me, and to make the sound check at Town Hall for me, and play the first set at [places like] Sweet Basil until I got there. And I even met guys in Europe, people saying, "Man, you didn't even know me but you just handed me the keys to your car and said park the car for me!, because I was running like that. So when that finally ended—that doesn't last that long for anybody—I was actually kind of grateful. I prefer to let Lewis Nash have it because he's one of them people. And I know what he has to deal with.

AAJ: Do you have any criteria for taking on a job? Is there any sort of decision made as to who they are or where they're coming from?

BH: Where they're coming from is more interesting to me at this time. For some reason I'm addicted to what I think the contemporary move in jazz is. I'm addicted in being a part of that. Of course, arguably a great percentage of that is coming from the younger guys, so I'm interested in Dave Douglas and Chris Potter, not to mention Steve Coleman and Branford Marsalis. And one of the few guys of my age that I think is the ultimate of that is Dave Holland. Then of course you look at guys, well not last summer but the summer before I was on tour with Ravi Coltrane. That was really heavy because I told Ravi I had something else that I couldn't make so he actually built his tour around this other tour. So that actually meant that I was doing two separate tours simultaneously, as there was this Danish band. At least I got a chance to play with Ravi. Say somebody like Vijay Iyer—I can't turn down a chance to play with someone like that. You know what I mean?...They've got too much to offer to me. There's so much for me to learn with that. I love Vijay. I had a chance to play with him once or twice.

And oh, I've got this other thing—this band that I'm not "really the leader of. This is this band with [bassist] Ben Street, [pianist] Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner, who could be the newest and freshest sounding saxophonist today. I'm really lucky to be with these guys and we've actually been playing on and off for a couple of years now. We've already got a gig at the Village Vanguard as an [originally intended] record release, [but] we haven't even done the record yet! [HighNote plans to release the band's debut by Fall 2006]... Of course, on the other hand if that hadn't happened, it's already a conflict because if someone came up with a gig for my band, I still have the band I put together with the violin. There's Mark Feldman, who is a greater violinist and composer than that, and you put that together with [Dave] Kikoski, and Santi [Debriano] and [Dave] Fiuczynski, look where he's at—alternative, whatever. I put together something I thought was...

AAJ: Are you still playing with those guys?

BH: I think of it as that. I haven't done it in a couple of years. I still think of that as my concept. That's the culmination of all my records is that sound. The violin, the alternative rock guitar whether it's Fiuczynski, [Bill] Frisell, or Kevin Eubanks—it's still that direction. Of course the second record had Steve Coleman and Branford Marsalis.

AAJ: I think my favorite record of yours is your first one as leader—Enchance (A&M, 1977).

BH: Oops, you know about that! Well, it's the same, I don't see those as any different—contemporary ambitions. I don't consider how successful that is, who knows. I say that, because you can't really say that I was consistently working with Don Pullen, and Dewey Redman, and Oliver Lake...

AAJ: They all sound so great on that session. They've all got great careers and produced amazing music. But on that session, it's certainly on par as exemplary and some of the greatest music they've produced.

BH: But I was somewhat an outsider on my own date as I was on the other ones. So when I did have some kind of working band, I tried to put all of that into the same thing like some of that kind of material, adventuresome material. But then, once you put a band together, then right away you are faced with that commercial reality: Will the Village Vanguard hire you with something like that?! I was getting a few gigs at Sweet Basil's at a time, and finally James Browne [club owner] said, "Why don't you go down to the Knitting Factory with that band? There was no Tonic at that time. They said, "Look this is a little too deep for us. Because the record's one thing but if you heard the band live, you'd see we pushed a half an envelope or two. I was pleased with that. You know, I'm still pleased with it. I still wish [I was playing with that band, too].

There was another band I put together, my first working band—a band I put together that people don't understand that I had called the Great Friends. It started with Billy Harper, Stanley Cowell, and Reggie Workman, and then the next record [with the addition of] Sonny Fortune. We toured, went all over Europe and Japan. They just re-released one on Evidence from 1986...Then we never got to record when it became a sextet when Eddie Henderson joined the band...

AAJ: Was that a leaderless band?

BH: It was my band. That's a good question, though! It was my band. I got the gigs, but it was still a leaderless band. To be a leader is—what's a good word for that—it's an award, I mean it's a prize. It's something that you really have to be adept at; it's a talent...

AAJ: Still. Going back to one thing what you said about the Max Roaches, the "Tain Watts. I think the one thing about this music is that it respects people when it's too late. It just goes without saying that with jazz that people don't realize what they had and what they have, until—like a fine wine—you have the recordings to look back on and then you suddenly realize, "Whoah, we've had some great people with us and whether it happens during that person's lifetime or not, it's hard to say. I think there are lots of people who'd say, yeah there's the Max Roaches, the "Tain Watts, and the Billy Harts. And I wouldn't doubt saying that. I just spoke with Dave Liebman, because I was trying to get in touch with you, and he had nothing but the highest of compliments about you...So what is "The Billy Hart ? What sets you aside, and why are so many people calling you, and why do people always want to play with you?...As a drummer who has played with what seems like everyone, as is the case with everyone who's recently passed you have some connection to, from John Stubblefield to Albert Mangelsdorff. You've got this connection because of all the people you've played with. What's the special thing about your drumming style, and what sets you aside? And also speak of where you came from?

BH: That's more like it, where I came from. There was an article done [on me], maybe it was Down Beat....Dave Holland had some stuff to say, Liebman, Sonny Fortune, everyone but Charles Lloyd who refused to do it for whatever reason...At that time, I had worked with him for 10 years. He said he didn't like the interviewer. That's why de didn't do it. But all these people had these kinds of things they said.

AAJ: And the fact that you came from DC at the time you did—how significant a role has that played in your music career and drumming concept?

BH: ...One of the things I think that happened, fate put me in some very funny situations. I grew up in DC, in 1958 I was sixteen or seventeen years old. So when you think about where the music industry was at that time, whether you want to call it rock 'n roll and rhythm and blues, whatever you want to call it, it was just happening. And it wasn't really being accepted because we were still basically in a segregated society at that point. Certainly '56, schools were supposed to have been integrated, but in society it was still out... so Motown, or Stax, or whatever, there were certain places you just couldn't play. You weren't playing Radio City Music Hall, Las Vegas, Miami Beach.

So for a lot of those people, there was a circuit of theaters that was about five or six theaters and other than that there were no places for these groundbreaking acts that we take for granted now. It was the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in DC and the Apollo in New York. So, I was the house band drummer at the Howard Theater for a while [and] who came through there? Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Joe Tex, Sam & Dave, The Impressions, the Isley Brothers—so I got a chance to play with all those people. So I played with all of these guys. I didn't play with James Brown, but I played with a lot of the members of his band. I basically knew the workings of his band and the history of it.

A lot of people that think in terms of drums think that it started with Clyde Stubblefield, but I knew the original cats before him. There were two before him who innovated a lot of those rhythms. Certainly Jack DeJohnette wouldn't be able to say that or Tony Williams. There's a history and vocabulary and a language of that music that I was fortunate enough to be part of. A lot of people can't say that [and] I was right in the middle of that. That's a language and a vocabulary that as old as it may be when you hear me playing it right now, it was accurate.

AAJ: It's certainly still as relevant today, if not more, because of the resurgent interest....

BH: Could be. I'll give you an example—when I did On the Corner (Columbia-Legacy, 1972) with Miles—he came over to me and said, "You know any James Brown beats? And I did! I knew that beat. It's on the record.

AAJ: That's exactly what he said?

BH: That's exactly what he said. Now, suppose he said that to Jack, or even Tony! So, OK, another guy I could have shared that with is a guy named Harvey Mason, who I met when he was 16 years old. These cats' mothers come to me. Harvey Mason's mother came to me. Eric Harland's mother came to me. I was at Nasheet Waits' parents' wedding [Nasheet's father being the late great drummer/percussionist Freddie Waits]. I know these guys like that. They come to my house and play, like Steve Jordan came to my house to play. I know them like that. And I know that vocabulary like that. Alright, so then, because of the time, the bossa nova hits. But I'm from Washington, D.C. Who supposedly discovered the bossa nova? It was Charlie Byrd. He had his own club, the Showboat in Washington D.C. The jazz guys, I guess they didn't take it really seriously. But because I was a rock 'n roll player, or an eighth note player, they called me. I'm the one who got the chance to play with João Gilberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Bola Sete, and there's another guy...The guy that did "Morning of the Carnival, "Black Orpheus.

AAJ: Luiz Bonfá?

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