Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

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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 nova—even if I don't know it's the samba yet—that 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 playing—John Coltrane. Now when they play in Washington, for some reason the only major jazz club is in a residential neighborhood five blocks from my house—five 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] transitions—I 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 Butch—a funny relationship—he graduates from my high school too. And the day after he graduates, he goes with Jimmy Smith. When Jimmy Smith comes to—of all places—Washington 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 Silver—you 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 Montgomery—for 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 band—I 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...


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