Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

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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.


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