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Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer

AAJ Staff By

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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 phone—as I was walking out to McPartland's gig—from [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 concerned—Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie and those guys: Tony [Williams] and Herbie—those 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 one—maybe 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 band—Clark 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, rock—I 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 Chicago—I 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 harmony—Webern, 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 go—that'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!

AAJ: Fifteen?!

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.

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