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 countryextreme 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 bandMarco Tamburiniwhich 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 promoterhe usually deals with, I won't say more conservative music, [but] anywayshe 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 festivalI guess it must have been around last SeptemberI 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 lateI couldn't do it because I obligated myself to Don. The trick isI'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 manI 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 commitmentthat 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 anybodyyou 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 agoI 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 OberlinI'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 instrumentsso 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 timehe 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 townDanny 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 mentorsDonald 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 endedthat doesn't last that long for anybodyI 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 IyerI 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 thingthis 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 atalternative, 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 Eubanksit'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 leaderEnchance (A&M, 1977).
BH: Oops, you know about that! Well, it's the same, I don't see those as any differentcontemporary 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 banda 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 iswhat's a good word for thatit'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, untillike a fine wineyou 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 didhow 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 Brothersso 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 examplewhen I did On the Corner (Columbia-Legacy, 1972) with Mileshe 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?
BH: Luiz Bonfá! I got a chance to play with those guys. You know what I mean? When the thing took off, either those guys played at his club out of gratitude before they came to New York, or after they went to New York, they would come back and would play at the club. So, now I have an understanding of bossa novaeven if I don't know it's the samba yetthat none of my other guys, none of the rock 'n roll guys, knew [and] none of the jazz guys knew. But, I was just lucky.
I played with this guy Buck Hill, but Buck Hill was friends not only with Gene Ammons, but Sonny Stitt. So, playing with him, they would come down to play. And I didn't do great, but here I am playing with Sonny Stitt; I'm playing with Gene Ammons, this is in Washington D.C. [and] while I'm playing with Luiz Bonfá and The Isley Brothers! There I am.
Butch Warren, we went to high school together, well, he's a year ahead of me. He graduates and goes to New York playing with [trumpeter] Kenny Dorham's band, with pianist Steve Kuhn and those guys, comes back for a minute and gets the gig with Monk. Jimmy Cobb [drummer], from Washington D.C., at that point he joins Miles. I get a chance to see who ultimately becomes my biggest inspiration and my reason for playingJohn Coltrane. Now when they play in Washington, for some reason the only major jazz club is in a residential neighborhood five blocks from my housefive blocks from my house! Everything else has been way downtown. It's like a jazz club being around the corner from here. I mean total residential neighborhood. I'm trying to remember what the name of that club was because there were a few live records made there. Ahmad Jamal, Buddy Rich...And what's the name of that club? I can't think of it. That's where everybody played.
I got a place to see Art Blakey and [his] transitionsI heard the band with Johnny Griffin and Bill Hardman and then he comes back and it's Lee Morgan and Johnny Griffin, then it's Lee Morgan and Benny Golson. This is way before Wayne [Shorter]! I'm 17 years old [and it's] five blocks from my house! They didn't have air conditioners like this. They had those fans in the window. I couldn't really get in. In the wintertime, if you just wanted to freeze, you could just stand right outside by that fan and hear the music like a stereo system. I was young enough to hear Coltrane's sheets of sound. I heard Bill Evans in that band. I'm just standing right there. I'm hearing all of this. Buddy Rich! All of them. I can't tell you what that means. I could just stand there and listen to this.
Horace Silver, and Horace liked to practice a lot; Louis Hayes was in the band, and Junior Cook, Blue Mitchell. I see Louis Hayes, as my school bus stopped right in front of the club. I get off the bus, I see Louis Hayes standing there. I go in. I'm like, wow, "Are you going to rehearse again tomorrow?! He says, "I hope not! I said, "I can't come hear the music, but man I heard the rehearsal! So the records come out, and I heard the rehearsal. And there was no Berklee and all of these schools, but [that's what] it was for me. So you ask me, "What might make me a little different?
OK, now, I play with Buck Hill, so I go to these jam sessions, I'm sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. And I finally get a chance to play this jam session with Buck Hill, the top guy in town, and nobody knows who I am. One tune is OK, the next tune I turn the beat around. Now I'm embarrassed, it hurt. I'm looking to go into a corner and cry, and as I'm going there, somebody grabs me and says, "Remember kid, it takes three of us to make a rhythm section. It wasn't all your fault. I look up and it's this woman, it's Shirley Horn. Shirley Horn actually plays the piano without the facility of Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, and now I'm not going to know it until I move to New York years later but my time and my understanding of that is enough to get me into the scene just like that, because of her. Buck Hill and all of that other thing, too. But that knowledge of jazz, that I sort of took for granted because she was a local person, playing with her was unbelievable, it was like playing with Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal. Now, put all that together and you begin to see whatever it is that makes me.
So, Quentin Warren, related to Butcha funny relationshiphe graduates from my high school too. And the day after he graduates, he goes with Jimmy Smith. When Jimmy Smith comes toof all placesWashington D.C., Donald Bailey has left the band for a bunch of reasons and the drummer they wanted couldn't make it, his mother got sick or something, and so he came to Washington without a drummer. But Washington D.C. is a drummer's town.
So the drummer he wanted was a guy George Brown, there were a couple of George Browns, so they used to call him "Dude Brown. And he had played with Illinois Jacquet and all those kind of guys and that's where he was, he was out with Jacquet. Now Jimmy's in Washington with no drummer, right? So Quentin recommends me, [because] we went to high school together. And Jimmy says, "Oh my god, I'm desperate now. So if he makes the first night, I'll let him have the rest of the week. Just so happens, it's a gig for two weeks, so if I do alright the first week, I can have the second week. I guess I did OK.
Now I'm playing with Shirley Horn, and I'm playing with Jimmy Smith. So I go to California with Shirley Horn, San Francisco, and I meet some people who live in this house. Dig this: Jimmy Lovelace, Dewey Redman, Joe Lee Wilson, they're all living in this one house. So, I'm with all these guys, and before I can get a great relationship going, Jimmy Smith calls me in California, and I have to go to Europe, to Paris. So, I'm in Jimmy Smith's band for three-and-a-half years. It's based on the fact, the same old thing, that they wanted to play crossover, he wanted to play crossover. The scene, and I know the whole scene, the scene is like Creed Taylor the hot new producer of crossover stuff, he's at Verve. Jimmy Smith leaves Blue Note, and goes to Verve. Creed Taylor hooks him up crossover kind of material.
Now, they need somebody who can do the gig. He wants somebody like that. And I can do that, because I played with all these pop cats. There's only a few of us my age that can do it as I learned: there's Maurice White with Ramsey Lewis who ends up starting Earth, Wind & Fire, then there's Billy Cobham with Horace Silveryou know what he became, there's me, and Bruno Carr who had been with Ray Charles and with Herbie Mann, and that's almost it. The rest of the guys are more jazzy or whatever.
Now because I know that when I leave Jimmy Smith, because I'm leaving now, now I'm not only in love with Coltrane I'm in love with Ornette. I want to do that. When I leave that, before I can get it together to move to New York, I get with Wes Montgomeryfor the same reasons. Then the next thing you know, Wes dies, but I did get a chance to move to New York. Now I'm playing with Pharoah Sanders, and that's what I really want to do! But then I get this call from Eddie Harris for the same thing [as what I had done with Jimmy Smith and Wes]. So, I end up with Eddie Harris. I finally leave Eddie Harris and make a few more records with Pharoah Sanders because that's the closest thing I can do to Coltrane, although Coltrane actually asked me to join the bandI was just terrified. He wanted me and Rashied...
AAJ: ....After Elvin left.
BH: Yeah, because I was always there.
AAJ: I was going to ask what drummers you were shadowing as other drummers have shadowed you...
BH: I love Coltrane! I love Coltrane. I love Coltrane!
AAJ: So, did you ever get an opportunity to play with him?
BH: No, he asked me. I just couldn't do it. I didn't have the courage, what it takes. And that's important to have that kind of courage. That's another thing about why I'm not what I am, because that's important to have that kind of courage.
AAJ: To know when you have it too, to know your limitations at a certain time and what you can handle...
BH: But Rashied wasn't the first, there were some cats in Washington that ended up joining the original [New Thing]...like I went to college with [alto saxophonist] Marion Brown. So, he came back from New York, and said, "Man, there's something different going on. I know you like Elvin and Tony, but there's a guy named Sunny Murray that you better take a look at.
So because of him, I was able to check out him and Albert Ayler. I would come to town with Jimmy, and I would go looking for these guys. I would say, "Ah-hah! As much as I knew about Higgins and Blackwell, Blackwell began to show me and tutor. Blackwell's a teacher, he taught Higgins. He likes to show you. So, he showed me. Then of course Rashied goes with Coltrane. Now, that's everything, that's the New Thing and he's with Coltrane. That's the way I want to play. In fact that's one of the problems I began to have with Jimmy is that I was young and crazy enough to say, "But I'm going to do some of this. He said, "Oh God!
I remember [drummer] Papa Jo Jones came and sat in and he said, "Why can't you guys be like this? What's wrong with you guys that you want to...[laughs] So, anyways, there was Rashied and Coltrane, and my love for that. So, I just followed John all the way into that. So what happened after that? I had just moved to New York, I played with Pharoah [Sanders] and Eddie Harris, then I was the hot new cat on the block for a minute. Within about two months, I ended up making a record with Marian McPartland first, and who was next I guess it was McCoy [Tyner]. I did Asante (Blue Note, 1970) with McCoy. Then I don't know why they couldn't find Jack [DeJohnette], but I got a call on my phoneas I was walking out to McPartland's gigfrom [Joe] Zawinul. They were all in the studio, so I did Zawinul's record Zawinul (Atlantic 1970). Then I ended up doing Herbie's [Hancock] record Mwandishi (Warner Bros.1970). Then I did Odyssey of Iska [Blue Note, 1970] with Wayne [Shorter] all in that same period of time. And then I ended up with Herbie's band. So, without going any further, hopefully that answers your question...
AAJ: The only aspect, that maybe I'm unaware of, is what about any experience you may have had in big bands?
BH: Whoops. Let me tell you about Herbie Hancock. He ended up getting David Rubinson because he was so advanced. The only problem as far as I'm concernedWeather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie and those guys: Tony [Williams] and Herbiethose guys, that's their vision; the commercialized version gets to be that the real seed of all that is Herbie and Tony. I was there, so that's my viewpoint. So why am I saying that? OK, so I'm in Herbie's band, I'm joining Herbie. The first day of the gig, David Rubinson puts his arm around my shoulder when nobody's looking and says, "I'm so happy you're here. I've been telling Herbie to get a rock and roll drummer. Even with that, it was like my crossover ability that followed me! None of these guys now think of me like that. In fact, I never really played consistent bebop vocabulary until I joined Stan Getz, which is a reward in itself because so many people had jumped on that other bandwagon. There was no Lewis Nash or any of those guys then. I was the only onemaybe me and Al Foster, so that's how I ended up making thirty-three records when I left Stan Getz. I had learned that vocabulary.
AAJ: It seemed like Toshiko Akiyoshi in the '70s, that was the beginning again for big bands...or was it the low point in big band history, as it seemed like the '70s could definitely have been a low point?
BH: It was on one level. But the Monday night band [Village Vanguard's] was there. All my boys were in that band, too, you know [saxophonist] Billy Harper.
AAJ: Did you play in that band?
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 bandClark 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, rockI 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 ChicagoI 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 harmonyWebern, 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 gothat'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!
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]
BH: They just released some new live stuff we did. Just released it this year, so we just decided to do it. Live stuff! Just sounds like a drum solo with accompaniment. But Liebman likes that kind of stuff. And plus I don't play like that anymore. You know what I mean? It's embarrassing...it sounds like [jokingly makes static/white noise sound as drum sounds]...Even with the band Quest ending fifteen years ago, of course I still ended up making four or five records with Liebman, four or five with Beirach; and the bassist [Ron] McClure, six or seven. In fact I was in the studio with McClure yesterday, so the band broke up for everybody but me! [laughs]... [and playing] with Saxophone Summit [with Liebman] certainly affords me, well it does what I want it to do. Now, there it is again: I get to use my level of Coltrane.
AAJ: It's always moving...You seem to always be developing, alone for the fact that you're playing with so many people, and also you have this interest in all these young guys. It must be interesting to go back and listen to yourself on recordings through time.
BH: You know it's never good enough. Maybe now and then I would enjoy what the rest of the band did. I'm pretty much self-taught, so all the little things that you end up learning, of course you get stuck with that. You're so pleased with learning this little thing that you stay with that and next thing you know you really look like you're even older. Like I remember I had a conversation the last gig with Saxophone Summit that Michael [Brecker] was on and you know Michael he's a quiet kind of guy, so he gives me this big compliment. I just say, "I'm sort of just trying to play like Baby Dodds. He said, "Man, I'm trying to say that you're one of the guys, like Al [Foster] and Jack [DeJohnette] and Tony [Williams] and now you want to talk about Baby Dodds, now?! He didn't say that, but that was the look on his face. But I had! I had just discovered this Baby Dodds thing. I said, "Oh man. WOW. That's how you... [laughs]. "
But it is important. It is important. Those are the kinds of things that cats like Al Foster and those guys knew all the time, Tony Williams, too. I didn't know that! It's always these things that I'm learning. I'm chasing the newer things and I'll hear a record every now and then and I'll say, "God, I was already playing that! I thought I was just trying to learn this now. So I must have stumbled on it by osmosis or something. I must have just learned it in the situation, in the momentwhich explains that too, that it can be gotten like that. Everything isn't academic. I think you kind of get academic as you get older.
AAJ: That's a downside, being over-academic... People are relying on that rather than the osmosis and the feel because they're overly academic. It's the feel you lose.
BH: That's what I'm saying. That's exactly what I'm saying now. I know Nasheet [Waits]. He's still saying, "Mr. Hart I'm saying, "Come on, man! ...EJ Strickland, too.
AAJ: Are there any instrumentations, or contexts you prefer not to play in or with? You've accompanied Shirley Horn, and I heard you once with Judi Silvano. I don't know how many other vocalists you've played with?
BH: A lot. A lot. Because I was playing with Geri Allen...[on] this record we just did with this lady from California named Mary Stallings...that record just came out...We already played at the Blue Note with Geri and Wallace [Roney]. But Mary Stallings is the latest one. I was supposed to make Judi's record, but with my schedule, I made the rehearsal [laughs]! What other singers? Well, Shirley Horn. The first time I was ever on an airplane, the first time I met Buster Williams, was with the Betty Carter gig. Buster and I met on that gig. Even then she was getting these young kids because I couldn't have been more than 20. Betty CarterBuster I met on that gig. And that's how I got in Herbie's band. Because Buster recommended me. Buster, I love him...
AAJ: So there's no context you'd ever not consider?
BH: No, no.
AAJ: That's another aspect is that you talk to a lot of musicians, and they're very particular. It's almost limiting in that they're not as open-minded with playing in all these different contexts, different places, different people. They know what they're good at, and they're comfortable doing that, and it's this sense of comfort....
BH: That's what I'm saying. I think that's an advantage.
AAJ: You think? I think it's an advantage what you do. You play in any context and people respect that.
BH: Maybe my enthusiasm. Just how well can you do that if you're so scattered. When you get a guy who can do that! Isn't that a good definition of genius: The ability to concentrate on one thing at a time?
AAJ: Yeah, but the downside to that...would you rather be a genius doing one thing for your whole career, or somebody who is just great at everything and is growing as time goes on.
BH: There's a bunch of those guys, but they grow out of the media. Look at Frank Wess. Look at Kenny Dorham. The last years of his life, he had really grown. But who talks about him? [And] well, Frank Foster's not playing anymore...
AAJ: Like Hank Mobley. When Hank Mobley died, he was penniless.
BH: That's one thing. If you don't establish yourself as one thing, thinking it from my side sooner or later, that's detrimental, it's dangerouswith the exception of [Billy] Higgins. He just worked himself to death. Who didn't love Billy Higgins? You talk about someone who had it all!
AAJ: You know that last Charles Lloyd recording that Higgins played before passing away shortly thereafter?
BH: That's what I'm talking about. Who was really listening to Higgins? The more I got, the more I got into him. You end up chasing Down Beat. That's what I like about your paper. I don't know how you have the capacity to see all of this. Bill Dixon [a recent AllAboutJazz-New York cover story subject]? [laughs] You know, Robin Kenyatta? Whoah!
Hart's quartet with Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, and Ben Street is at The Village Vanguard April 11th-16th, 2006
Quest, Of One Mind (CMP, 1990]
Sonny Fortune/Billy Harper/Stanley Cowell/Reggie Workman/Billy Hart, Great Friends (Black & Blue-Evidence, 1986)
Billy Hart, Enchance (A&M, 1977)
Miles Davis, On The Corner (Columbia-Legacy, 1972)
Herbie Hancock, Mwandishi (Warner Bros, 1970)
Pharoah Sanders, Karma (Impulse!, 1969)
Top Photo: John Abbott
Second Photo: C. Andrew Hovan
All other photos: Dragan Tasic