Meet Roy Hargrove


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In memory of Roy Hargrove. This interview was first published in 1996.

All About Jazz: Glancing at your discography, I am impressed by the number of musicians you've recorded with. In fact, the title of your release Family refers to the extended family of musicians that you've acquired over the years. What is it that makes you all kindred spirits? How do you feel connected?

Roy Hargrove: Number one, having played with them in a lot of different situations, some of them have been a lot of fun, others have also been very challenging. Some of those situations have been where I played with my colleagues on recordings with some of the masters. That has been an educational experience for me and for them also. Experience in having played with them is one of the things that formed a bond between us.

AAJ: How about stylistically? Do you find yourselves like-minded?

RH: Yeah, with some cats. Especially cats like Kathy Salem. I like playing with Ralph. I remember the first time I played a gig with him was at The Willow, when I was going to Berklee. Back then, James Williams would come to Boston once or twice a year and he'd have me play with him down at The Willow in Cambridge. I guess the first time I played that gig with him, Ralph Moore was on the gig. James is a very professional cat, very straight ahead. So he mailed me the music beforehand, as well as a tape of his recordings. I remember being totally blown away by the music. Some of the tunes were very complex, challenging tunes, but they all had this very familiar sound and language to them. When we actually got there to the gig, Ralph was there. I remember the thing that I liked most about him was his sound. That, and his ability to blend. When he played lines with another horn player he'd blend very well. It was nice playing with him. Since then, we have gone on a couple of tours together. One of those was with a group called Generations Sextet. That was Ralph, me, a cat that was my roommate at the time at Berklee, Walter Booker, on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, and a guitarist from Colorado, named Tonk Evans. The concept of the group was different generations playing together. We really had a good time on that tour. I know I learned a lot of music. We also learned about off-road things, things about traveling.

AAJ: What kinds of things?

RH: Oh, like, you know sometimes, when you're on the road, you get in trouble with train conductors. If you have a bass, they won't let you on with your instrument. You know, just little things like that. Things that become obstructions along the way.

AAJ: You mentioned your education, in two ways already...

RH: Yeah, I learned the most from experience, playing with guys, especially playing with older musicians. I was very fortunate to be able to go to Berklee College of Music. I also went to the New School for Social Research, here in New York. I learned something from being at both those places. Most of what I learned from that involved being in a very competitive atmosphere. There was always somebody behind you, ready. There was always a group of people sort of in league with each other, yet in competition with each other. This gives you perspective, keeps you on your toes, and keeps you always practicing. There's always a cat right behind you, so you better keep it moving!

AAJ: That's a good point. One thing that's true about most musicians these days is that everyone's formally trained. They've studied their changes, their theory, their composition.

RH: It's true. I was just having a conversation about that very point with Curtis Fuller last night. He was telling me that he comes from a generation of people that couldn't analyze what they were playing, they were just playing music. He said, ?young trombone players come and ask me all the time, ?what was that you were doing on that Coltrane album or that Art Blakey album??? And he'll tell them, "I don't know!" He told me, ?I got so used to saying ?I don't know,? that I really wonder if I do know!? But most of what I learned about music wasn't formal. I developed a love of music at a young age. Ever since I was about three or four years old I knew that music was a big part of my life. Thanks to my father, who was also a great lover of music. There was always a lot of records in the house and he had this old stereo. So I began to experiment with it. He showed me how to use his reel-to-reel and I would go and listen to The Four Tops. I knew all the words to all The Spinners? tunes, and stuff like that. Coming up in the seventies, you know, that was the era of dance music—disco and rhythm and blues. I listened to The Temptations, Earth Wind and Fire, Roberta Flack.

AAJ: A lot of musicians your age mention growing up with the music of the seventies. Does that influence your playing today?

RH: Oh, definitely. That's a part of my style.

AAJ: But does it come out in your music? How would you say the music of the seventies affects the music that you play day to day?

RH: I'm an observer, in a way. I notice that there a certain jazz musicians who lock themselves down saying, "OK this style of music is valid, but that isn't valid." I don't buy into that. There is validity in every style of music, whether it is country and western, or classical, or jazz, or hip hop, Latin music because it's all so beautiful. One of the things I can be thankful for is having been able to go to a school. . . Like when I was in high school, I went to a performing arts school. There, I really learned a lot about culture and the different ways you go into music. That was the first time I learned about that cat John Cage, the composer. His theory was that everything is music, even silence. One of the pieces he did was called "Five Minutes of Silence" where he'd sit down at the piano and just turn the pages! [laughs] And then there were pieces that we would play as ensembles where he would have us doing things like blow air through the mouthpiece or clap our hands or stomp our feet a certain way, or make a buzzing sound through the mouthpiece. And he would notate that. So this opened my eyes to different concepts of music. But most of my training in improvisation was informal because my first experience in learning how to improvise was in the fifth grade. The first time I saw somebody improvise was when I was in the fourth grade, and that's what made me want to join the band. They were young, nine or ten year old kids, and they were learning how to get up and take solos!

AAJ: This was at your elementary school?

RH: Yeah. The band director was a drummer by the name of Dean Hill. He had been out on the road with Roberta Flack, and people like that. A very gifted teacher. I recognize, after years of learning with him, his extreme ability to bring stuff out of the kids. When I saw him working with that band of kids, and I saw those kids getting up and soloing. I was like, "yeah, I want to be a part of that." So I started on the coronet, and about a year later, I got my first solo. One of the first tunes I learned was "Centerpiece" by Harry "Sweets" Edison. The way it went down was, he took me into the office, he'd sit down and play a little groove on the piano. He'd show me a couple of phrases based on the blues. I'd learn the notes, go home and practice. And when it came time to perform, he would be standing next to you, cheering you on to make you play with emotion. This was the foundation of my learning how to play with as much emotion as possible. At that time I didn't know that much about the trumpet, or the mechanics of playing. But I knew that whatever it was that I played, I was gonna mean every sentence, even if I was gonna play like four notes.

AAJ: That there sounds like your informal training—learning how to express meaning in your solos.

RH: That's a very important part of music for me. You know, that feeling that you get when you hear someone play and their sound gets you right there. You can't help but either move something or shout. That's always been a very important part of the music for me. Don't get me wrong. I also believe that you have to practice and you have to have a certain amount of dexterity on the instrument, too. Because, that's what allows you to be able to communicate your ideas. In order to be a great musician you have to have a marriage of the two. If you want to be a great jazz musician, you have to have a marriage of both dexterity and feeling.

AAJ: So how do you think formal training affects jazz musicians and jazz music?

RH: I think that this can help you. Any type of education, as far as music is concerned, is helpful. For a creative musician it can only help you, not hurt you. But I think it's dangerous to fall into bags. I've met cats who were formally trained and had fallen into bags. They say "OK, I'm only going to play Bird's music, or I'm only going to play Coltrane's music." That's one thing that formal education does to you, but it's just a phase you go through. You have your heroes that you emulate and then eventually you put them all in a funnel and create your own style. There are people that I've tried to emulate, like Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw. As I continue on down the path of learning more and more about music, my style will develop and people will know me when they hear me. That's something that I am working towards.

AAJ: When people are learning their instrument, and they hear something in another musician that excites them, they try to copy it. But eventually, the creative musician no longer tries to copy others and those influences become absorbed.

RH: Yeah, exactly.

AAJ: So, what was it about Fats Navarro, or Clifford Brown that really excited you when you first heard their music?

RH: Well, when I heard Clifford for the first time, it was his sound that really got me. Just the warmth of it and the voice that he had. At first, I was like, "Is that really a trumpet? Is that a trumpet?" Because all of the experience that I'd had with the trumpet sound were like loud and high. I was used to loud, very brassy sounds. I heard Clifford playing and all I heard were sweet tones, man. I was just like, "Wow, I didn't know the trumpet could do that." He had stretched beyond the boundaries of the instrument. He was a complete musician. Now this is something that I strive for. But the cat that really turned me around when I heard him was Freddie Hubbard. To me, he embodied the same classic style of people like Clifford, "Fat Girl" [Fats Navarro], and Lee Morgan with contemporary sounds, too. Freddie would play some funk and still be intellectual at the same time. He had so much in his sound and emotion. To hear him play a ballad, I'd melt when I listened to that.

AAJ: He's on the cusp between the classic fifties trumpets and the modern players of the sixties and seventies.

RH: Yeah, he was around in the sixties when cats were expressing a lot of anger in their music, too, based on the political situation here. And that was a different side of the music. A lot of the older musicians talk about Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and how they took it out. To me, that era is also a very important part of the development of the music. They were going beyond the structural patterns that had molded and shaped the music for so many years. That's something to be learned from. I have yet to do a project where I could experiment with that. The one time I got the chance to do that was when I was still very young. I didn't know anything about that whole era. I was at a gig at a museum in Dallas, Texas with a cat named Dennis Gonzalez. He was a trumpet player, a local. I don't think he ever left Dallas, but he had his own record label. He was also working at the jazz radio station down there, KERA. I remember going to his house and rehearsing with him. He had an eight-piece band with tuba, two trumpets, saxophones and drums. The music was out, way out there. I was just starting to learn how to play changes at that time. Now when I look back on that, or if I could go back and do that now, I would have a lot more information. But it was good for me to experience then, because it always stayed with me.

AAJ: What would you do now? What would be different?

RH: Well, I would be more equipped. Because I've had some experience in listening and studying that whole era of the avant-garde, when cats were doing different things with the music. You know, Anthony Braxton, Ornette, and Don Cherry.

AAJ: There's another aspect of the music that some say has changed with the times: that is territory. In the big band era, people would talk about a New York sound or a Chicago sound. Do you think that that phenomenon still exists in jazz today?

RH: Yeah, it's still regional.

AAJ: So how about the Texas sound?

RH: Texas? Cats in Texas, man, are very melodic players. The blues is definitely behind it. There's something about being in the South or coming up in all of that hot sun that gives you melody. I noticed that a lot about Texans, they're all very melodic players. Piano players like Red Garland, and Cedar Walton, saxophone players like James Clay.

AAJ: And Ornette Coleman.

RH: Yeah, Ornette Coleman, a very melodic player. And it was interesting for me to come to the East Coast and experience the whole intellectual side of the music. When I got to Berkelee and hooked up with cats like Antonio Hart, you know, who to me has so much information. He's got so much information that playing with him was like being in a library all the time! In a positive sense. He's an example of a musician who has a marriage of the two. He has the dexterity and he plays with a lot of fire. He's intellectual, but not too cold. You know, there are musicians who can play all over the place, but then you don't feel where there coming from.

AAJ: So you'd say there's an intellectual sound on the East Coast.

RH: Yeah, it was interesting for me. When I came to New York, I met players who knew how to play changes, and knew the language. Cats that are from New York have a sound and a vibe that is unlike anything else in the world. I'm talking about cats that can really play and are from New York. I know a few cats, like Stephen Scott, and Greg Hutcherson, and then cats that have been here for a while like Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, Kenny Barron, they have a language. You know that they have been around because they have a complete language.

AAJ: How do you mean? What was that language?

RH: Yeah, let me think about it for a second. Take a player like Stephen Scott. I met him when I was like sixteen. I hadn't even been to New York yet. I was at a convention in Detroit, the National Association of Jazz Educators convention. We were five or six young kids from around the country that they selected for this "young talent" thing that they were doing. We were playing in a band together, and I remember Stephen was the baddest cat there. He was playing all of this Monk stuff on the piano, he had all these New Orleans tunes, so I got with him and we played all night, man. For two days we played straight through the night. We would go from room to room, wherever they had a piano, we'd set up and play, me and him and this bassist named Nathan Berg. I remember being amazed at how much this cat knew. I was like sixteen, he was like eighteen, and he knew all these tunes, he even had some of his own tunes, too. I mean, at this time, I couldn't even play rhythm changes! I could play in minor keys, something like an F-minor blues, but nothing with too many two-fives. I hadn't really developed enough to play over complex chord progressions. But when I met Stephen, he opened my ears up to some musicians who I hadn't really heard yet, like Lee Morgan, for instance. I didn't know who he was at that time. Stephen sent me a tape with Lee Morgan and some young Freddie solos with the transcriptions.

AAJ: I didn't know you guys went back so far.

RH: Yeah, this was in 1986. So, here's an example of a cat who's from New York. And he introduced me to his crew when I got to New York: Eric Lemon, Justin Robinson, Teru Alexander, Philip Harper, Winard Harper, and Troy Davis. They were all playing the jam session after hours at the Blue Note. So I would come up from Boston every now and then to hang out with those cats. Everybody had the language down. How can I describe it? Like drummers, they would always emphasize the cymbal beat. This was something I was not used to hearing. All the drummers I knew down in Texas, most of them played funk. The sound of the drums was about playing drums most of the time, not about the cymbals. When I came to New York I learned about the importance of subtlety, intensity without so much volume, and playing changes. In Texas, it was a little bit different. People didn't know that much about playing changes. Everybody was just like, "OK, well let's play some blues!" Or we'd play something based on the blues, something real simple with a tonal center, in the key of C or something like that. When I started going out on the road with older musicians and my ears started to open up a little more. There were a lot of tunes that I learned on the spot, just from being on the bandstand with older cats. They'd call a tune I didn't know and I'd say "I don't know that." And they'd say "Oh, well you'll hear it." They'd begin to play and I would join in. They were right, I could hear it. That's another thing about the cats from New York—they know the standards repertoire. They know tunes that are in the great American songbook, tunes by Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. Tunes like "Love for Sale" and "The Nearness of You." And all those New York players have developed their own interpretations of these tunes, their own reharmonizations. That's one thing I dig about Stephen Scott. He's not afraid to take a tune, turn it inside out, and make it sound like something that he wrote. You can still tell what tune it is, but he's put his own little vibe on it.

AAJ: So how are you different, as a trumpet player, from people who grew up here in New York?

RH: I think that I play blues differently than cats up here. East Coast blues is different from Southern blues. It's more about playing changes up here. It's more linear. At first, I used to think that there was one way to play the blues. That was I-IV-V: [sings a short, soulful, blues line.] You know what I mean? Gut bucket blues. But when I came here I realized there's other ways. There's the twelve bar blues progression. Then there's the different variations on that progression which involve playing different chords—playing I-IV-II-V or then you got up a third, all of these different ways of playing a standard twelve bar blues. These are things I didn't know before I came here and heard cats playing changes. This was very helpful to me, I could apply what I already knew about playing gut-bucket and then learn about playing changes on top of that. But as far as trumpet players go, there weren't a lot of trumpet players on the scene here in the late eighties to compare myself.

AAJ: At any given time, there are about ten tenor players to every trumpet.

RH: Yeah, there's always a ton of saxophones around! Not enough bass players though. Never enough bass players around.

AAJ: I'm sure you were happy to hook up with Christian McBride.

RH: Oh man, that cat! I'll tell you, when I met him I was really freaked out. I was about sixteen or seventeen when I met him. He was fourteen. He was like in junior high school, or something! [laughs] Man, look here, we were at this thing called "Music Fest" in Chicago, and it was one of those things where you travel with your school for competitions. The group that he was playing with was called the All-Philadelphia Trio. They selected three cats from all over Philly. It was him, Joey DeFrancesco, and a drummer. That drummer is playing funk now. He's out on the road with Janet Jackson. Joey, well you know Joey. He's an organ player, piano and organ, one of those incredible, multi-instrumentalist, freaks of nature [laughs]. Well me and Chris started a jam session. It was me and him and a couple of other cats—a drummer and a guitarist. Chris played the whole night and he knew every tune. He didn't let nobody else play bass. Well, nobody else wanted to play bass after hearing him. He was just playing Fender, man. I didn't even know he played upright. So you know I was in for a big surprise. The next day I went to go hear his group with Joey. Chris was playing upright, and I said "Wow!" In Dallas, nobody played upright. Everybody was playing Fender. That's the weird thing about being in the South, in Texas. The thing is, fusion is looked at like jazz. If you're going to be a musician and you want to make money, everybody thinks that you must thrust yourself into the contemporary world of music. And the history of it seemed to be pushed back. Even now, if you look at it now, I can't even go to my home town and play a gig. I mean if I did, I would take a big loss, financially. They don't have even have the venues down there. It would have to be something special like a jazz festival or a concert with the state kicking in money to make it happen. But that's not likely. It's not profitable. The radio stations don't play jazz, really. They play mostly contemporary players. So the bass players, play electric, Fenders and Ibinez. So when I saw this cat playing upright, man, I was like, "Wow, he's fourteen years old playing upright!" And to top it off he was like bowling! [sings a bass line] He really blew my mind. I knew he was bad, but I didn't know he was that bad! And he had heard me the day before. So we had a connection right there. I knew we would see each other again, after that. This was after I had met Stephen. So I had met Stephen, then I had met Chris. Another cat that I had met around that time was Christopher Holiday, an alto player. I don't know what happened to him. I think he's back in school now. He was also a very promising talent. He knew all of the Charlie Parker stuff. You know, that was enough for me. I dug him. It was really something to be able to meet Chris during that time. And also Joey. He was really incredible to me. He could walk the bass line and solo in the other hand.

AAJ: You, Stephen Scott and Christian McBride eventually got together to record Parker's Mood.

RH: Yeah, I think you can hear, in that recording, the history that we have together.

AAJ: What inspired you all to record in that format, with bass, piano, and trumpet?

RH: Well, that was an idea that came down from the producers. But we had had a lot of experience of playing in that setting from playing at Bradley's. We just moved that Bradley's thing into the studio. It was a challenge playing without a drummer. But, Christian has a really solid pulse. And you know, the drums are in your head. That's the way I was thinking about it. When I was making that recording, I was hearing the drums in my head.

AAJ: Did you feel that you had to replace the drums in time keeping, or did you leave the pulse unstated?

RH: I think that you can hear the drums without them being there on the recording. You can hear the drums without actually hearing the drums. We weren't consciously trying to focus on filling in what the drummer wasn't doing. We could hear the drums inside. It's all about the language of the music. The drummer has his role. He may have a certain sound, a cymbal pattern, and accents, on the four or the one or whatever. I mean when you have musicians who play together well, those accents come together even more. I mean on some of the greatest albums like Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson there's no drums or bass on that. But you can hear it. Because of the rapport that they have with one another. They're playing together. It's really beautiful. That's the beauty of this music. You can take any instrumentation and still have communication among the musicians.

AAJ: But it does make a difference. It sounds different with or without the drums in there. Do you find that different opportunities or challenges arise when you remove the drums?

RH: When you take the drummer out? Well, that all depends on who it is. If you got a cat that has problems with the time, then of course, you're gonna have problems. But with Christian McBride and Stephen Scott, the drums aren't missed at all. They are drummers, themselves. You can hear the drums in their rhythmic concept.

AAJ: Let me switch gears here for a minute. Who do you count as important influences in your compositions.

RH: I'd have to say John Hicks, James Williams and Bobby Watson.

AAJ: How do you think you've absorbed their influences?

RH: John Hicks influenced me with his harmonic concept. He uses a lot of major chords. At the time that I connected with him, he was playing tunes with a major sharp 11th sound. That's one of my favorite sound. So I started to write a lot of tunes with that sound in it. James Williams has a very soulful approach to writing. This is something that I took little bit of from him. I'm learning how to write in a very melodic way but with chords that are a little different from the usual two-five three-six two-five-one thing. Sometimes they move in an unconventional motion. I try to make my compositions tunes that you can hear and remember, that stays with you. This is the kind of music that I like. This is why I had such a great time on a Cedar Walton recording I did not too long ago. He had written all of these tunes that were very strong melodically. They stayed with me for a while. I still hear them in my head. Of course, Charlie Parker influences my writing. He had a lot of rhythmic and harmonic things going on. And a lot his tunes were like pieces of his solos. He had certain phrases that he would develop. One of the hippest things about Bird's tunes is that at the end of the melody it continues back at the beginning. [Sings the head to "drifting on a Reed"] It turns back on itself and keeps going and going! That's really heavy to me, I really like that.

AAJ: A lot of critics have dubbed your music, as well as the music of many of your contemporaries, "neobop." What's your reaction to that label?

RH: Neobop? What's that? Neobop. I guess that's a way to describe the fact that a lot of us are playing in a tradition. Everything that we play in jazz is a reflection of our experiences in life. Our experiences are quite different from Charlie Parker's. But it's still our experiences. I'm influenced by the music of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. But I'm also influenced by the music of KRS-One, Woo Tang Clan, and L. L. Cool J, Peaches and Herb, and Earth, Wind and Fire. There's a difference right there. I don't know where the term neobop comes from. It's a way to describe the fact that we're living in a contemporary world and for us to be playing in a classical style is out of the norm. I know people at home always ask me "why don't you do rap?" They don't expect me, as a young person, to be playing jazz. But I've always felt I have to challenge myself. And because I love music so much, I didn't want to fall into any kind of rut. I always want to be learning something new. I never was about getting a lot of money and becoming famous for me. I figured if I stay true to the art and learn as much as I can, the rest is secondary. Whatever I can do to further my development as an artist comes first. So neobop is just a title, it's a fiction.

AAJ: One last question. I want to ask you about your work with big bands. Big bands have seen a renewed interest in diverse spheres of music. You have the Mingus Big Band, the David Murray Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Roy Hargrove Big Band, just to name a few. What do you see as the source of this outburst of energy?

RH: Well, it's different from what most people are used to. But it's very difficult to keep something like that going financially. To begin with, you have like seventeen cats. This is a society which is more or less about dividing the pot among less and less people. Especially in pop music. Look at all the groups that have splintered into solo acts or being producers. Even with me, it's hard to keep a quintet on the road. That's why I admire Wynton for his work with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. They're able to travel and play. I would like to take a big band on the road, but we need a sponsor!

AAJ: So what drew you to the idea?

RH: I always wanted to do a big band. Ever since I got my first experiences in writing for big band in high school I wanted to do it. Then I saw a video of Dizzy Gillespie directing a big band and that influenced me a lot. His style of big band is what has influenced me the most. Well, Dizzy and Thad Jones.

AAJ: What is it about those bands that inspires you?

RH: With Dizzy, it's the sheer joy in the music. This is something I enjoy as well. I enjoy communicated with those guys and having it come together. There's nothing like standing in front of that much power. It's heavy! Especially when it's all coming right at you and you're giving it right back to them.

AAJ: Has your experience with the big band influenced your playing with the quintet? Is there any connection between the two for you?

RH: It's different. It's totally different. The quintet is quieter and you can stretch out much more. A lot more improvisation and a lot less ensemble work.

AAJ: OK. You've been a leader now for around seven years...

RH: Seven? Has it been that long!

AAJ: Any lessons that experience has taught you?

RH: One of the most valuable lessons I've learned was being in the studio with Jackie McLean. Another was being on stage with Sonny Rollins. That was a real experience. This cat, he's so unpredictable. You don't know what he's gonna do. You gotta be on your toes.

AAJ: So what was the lesson you learned from either of them?

RH: Well, from Jackie McLean, for me, he embodies the whole history of the alto saxophone in jazz. From Bird all the way up to Ornette. His sound is like a tenor, but he's playing alto. To play with him, I felt like a sponge, man! And he has such a brilliant way of writing. He is another cat that influenced my writing. He's a very energetic soloist. This is something that influenced me. And having the chance to record with him, just took my development to another place. It opened my ears to a whole different genre of the music. As for Sonny Rollins, his unpredictability keeps his musicians guessing. You never know what he's gonna do. It's stimulating. We were trading on the once, you know, the conventional fours or eights or twelves. He started trading sixes! And then he traded three, and then he did two bars and he kept doing it and he looked up at me with this grin! I had to just kept my horn up near my mouth. Finally, we ended up playing together. I was oblivious to everything else that was going on. But after we finished, all the people were cheering. I was like "Whoah, they liked it!"

AAJ: Well, there's the old adage: the best music comes from making mistakes. It forces you to be inventive.

RH: Trial and error, man, trial and error!

Photo credit: Andrea Rotili

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