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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.
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