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Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

AAJ Staff By

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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.

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