Remembering Roy Hargrove

Trumpeter Roy Hargrove died of complications from kidney disease on November 2nd after falling into a coma on October 16th, his 49th birthday, directly after flying home to Manhattan after an engagement in Paris. His passing sparked an outpouring of social media testimonials in which a huge slice of the jazz community — old friends and alumni from Hargrove’s various bands, musicians with whom he shared the bandstand at late night jam sessions, fans representing various levels of connoisseurship — expressed how deeply the Texas native had touched their hearts and souls.

Some knew Hargrove from his role in such hip-hop, R&B and neo-soul classics as Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and Mama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. Others fell in love with Hargrove’s RH Factor on albums like Hard Groove, Strength and Distractions, for which he coalesced the aforementioned stars along with luminaries-to-be like Q-Tip and James Poyser and other figures from the jazz and hip-hop/R&B mainstream. Others connected to Hargrove via another fusion date, Habana, the 1997 Grammy-winner for which he convened an ensemble of American and Cuban masters (Chucho Valdés and Gary Bartz among them) who melded folkloric Afro-Cuban chants and rhythms with modern jazz harmonies.

“Almost from the beginning, Hargrove held a singular position among mainstem jazz elders and generational peers in projecting an old-school attitude toward road warriorship, song interpretation, balladic soulfulness, blues feeling and will to swing — all while engaging with the popular music of his time on its own terms of engagement.” Photo: Adriana Mateo.

Then there was the succession of hardcore jazz albums that showcased Hargrove’s working bands and documented his growth from 1989, when he emerged, fully formed, as an internationally recognized artist — Diamond in the Rough, Public Eye, The Vibe, Tenors of the Times early on; Nothing Serious and Earfood during the ’00s. Almost from the beginning, Hargrove held a singular position among mainstem jazz elders and generational peers in projecting an old-school attitude toward road warriorship, song interpretation, balladic soulfulness, blues feeling and will to swing — all while engaging with the popular music of his time on its own terms of engagement.

Who among Hargrove’s comparably visible peers would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devoted to fronting his various ensembles? Could any other highly trained post-Boomer jazz modernist deliver a lyric like “September in the Rain,” a staple of Hargrove’s sets for many years, with the same ebullient brio as when uncorking thrilling solos on abstract post-bop repertoire? Indeed, in his ability to blend improvisation and entertainment with equal commitment and conviction, Hargrove was truly a lineal descendent of such iconic trumpeters as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly and for whom music was, as the saying goes, as serious as their lives. – Ted Panken


Roberta Gambarini

Singer Roberta Gambarini, a master practitioner of the Great American Songbook who pianist Hank Jones once called “the best since Ella Fitzgerald,” shared bandstands with Roy Hargrove hundreds of times in the course of their 19-year association. Among other settings, they performed together on several iterations of the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars, with James Moody, in Hargrove’s own big band and on three of Gambarini’s own recordings.

Roberta Gambarini: “That emotional urgency to do the right thing at the right moment is what made him so essential. It’s now or never. Roy was always there to deliver what was needed.” Photo: Allan Titmuss

When Roy played horn alongside me on a ballad, he knew exactly where to play and what to play. His tone made it sometimes exactly like singing a line with another human voice. Of course, any listener can hear this, but to experience it while your body is resonating with that frequency is a different and deeper level. I never felt that way with any other instrumentalist.

For Roy, playing was literally a matter of life or death. He said that sometimes, especially at certain tempos, he felt like somebody had a gun pointed to his head. That’s not rational or intellectual. It’s innate, part of how you think, how you live. That emotional urgency to do the right thing at the right moment is what made him so essential. It’s now or never. Roy was always there to deliver what was needed.

Toward the end of his life, Roy wanted to teach. He wanted to pass on what he learned from the great masters of the previous generation who had tutored and mentored him. The things that matter, which have to do with a certain way of hearing music and making music, are not things you learn in a classroom environment, but by osmosis. He was helping young people to forge a certain taste for beauty, which is in danger of getting lost. In that regard, he will really be missed, because he was the continuum, one of the rings in this chain link.

Roy’s musicality — and his personality — was multi-layered. Classification didn’t interest him. He did everything from a creative standpoint. He didn’t make a funk band to reach more public. No. He made a funk band because that was in his blood; he loved the music, and he wanted to explore that alley. What he did with funk, hip-hop, and R&B is what Dizzy Gillespie did before him in spelling out the influence of the diasporic rhythms of Latin America. I think the new generation of musicians owe a debt to the musical direction that Roy established. His influence has to do with the spiritual roots that animate the music. This stream runs very deep through generations, and it will grow and grow, like a tree. This is just the start. Who knows what it will produce? It’s going to be something beautiful, because Roy was all about beauty.

Keyon Harrold

With a c.v. that boasts well-documented tenures as a performer, arranger, beatmaker and producer on the highest levels of hip-hop and R&B, while operating with equal facility as an elite jazz stylist and improviser, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, 38 — who first sat in with Roy Hargrove as a high schooler in St. Louis — mirrors his idol’s penchant for retaining his voice through multiple genres.

Keyon Harrold: ““Everything he did was soulful. From a ballad to the fiery, fast stuff, he put his whole self into every note he played.” Photo: Deneka Peniston

One day in high school, my friend borrowed Roy’s album Tenors of Our Time from the library and brought it into the band room. To this day that’s probably my favorite album by Roy. Amazing saxophonists: Stanley Turrentine, Joe Henderson, Johnny Griffin, Branford Marsalis. It was the epitome of what I thought jazz should sound like. It was young. It was fiery. It was smooth. He was fresh, at his best. I felt, “I need to practice; I want to be like that.” Later, he put out Family, then obviously RH Factor, then I went back and checked his stuff with the Jazz Futures, then Diamond in the Rough and The Vibe. When I finally got to the New School in New York, I’d always try to find Roy sitting in somewhere, to see what he was doing, what he was thinking about.

Then Robert Glasper introduced me to Common, who was looking for a trumpet player basically to play the stuff that Roy had played on Like Water for Chocolate, which was coming out. I realized all the stuff Roy was on at the time — D’Angelo’s Voodoo, classic record; Erykah Badu’s Mama Gun, classic record — wasn’t different from the way he approached jazz. He was putting the same coolness, the same vibrant, fiery lines he’d use on his albums into popular culture. That inspired me in a major way — “Roy Hargrove is doing it so it must be cool.” I learned a lot from his horn arrangements, the nuances he used in instrumentation; he’d overdub his trumpet and flugelhorn, and get a unique, crispy sound.

As a young trumpet player, it was inspiring to see somebody go to the threshold of what music is supposed to be. Listen to any recording he did, whoever he was working with, you still fish it out that it’s Roy Hargrove. He didn’t have to change mouthpieces or change horns or change his style. It was always what he brought that made whatever he was working on cool. Everything he did was soulful. From a ballad to the fiery, fast stuff, he put his whole self into every note he played. Each note resonated individually, with a certain zeal and urgency. His sound was unique. From my vantage point, Roy transcended just being a great trumpet player. He’s like the status quo of what a jazz musician should sound like, the status quo of expressing as an artist.

Antonio Hart

A full professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, 50, was a Berklee undergraduate when he met Roy Hargrove at a jam session he was leading at a popular Cambridge club called Wally’s. Not long thereafter, he got a call to tour with Hargrove’s new quintet, beginning a five-year association that included the albums Diamond in the Rough, Public Eye and The Tokyo Sessions.

Antonio Hart: “Roy could play just a melody and shut the room down, make people stop talking, make people cry.”

We’d heard rumors of this young trumpet whiz, and then one night Roy came in, wearing a tweed jacket, button-down collar shirt, sunglasses and European cigarettes. “Yeah, baby, you all sound good. Can I sit in?” “Yeah, we’ve been hearing about you. We want to see what the hype is.” Then he picked up his trumpet and played, and that was the end of the conversation. There was this connection. We didn’t have to talk about anything. It felt natural when we played together.

I’ve never known a musician who had that kind of talent, but the world didn’t really get a chance to see the depth of Roy’s God-given gift. His sound sticks out. All the masters were there, but it was completely personal. Also the intention. He was very transparent, like recordings by Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges where you feel the story in the note. The note was secondary to the message coming through. He had that at a very young age. It’s because of some experiences he had growing up. Roy was a complex, sensitive, vulnerable spirit, and that’s what he was able to articulate in his music when he wasn’t able to talk (even though he was very vocal at times, when he wanted to be). When he played flugelhorn or trumpet, it looked effortless. It didn’t matter who got on the bandstand with him, how much technique or harmony they played. Roy could play just a melody and shut the room down, make people stop talking, make people cry.

Later, I think Roy was realizing his mortality, and felt a responsibility to give whatever he had any way he could while he was here. He affected a lot of younger musicians. He always had that swag. He always maintained a connection to moving forward. People started dressing like Roy. They still do. People started trying to play like him and mimic his mannerisms. I wish they would imitate the way he would play a song, a ballad hopefully; I hope that happens.

Playing that music kept Roy alive. He preferred to be playing music at Smalls at 2 a.m. after a gig, because that was a time when he could be free and decompress and channel through that horn for a few minutes. And we were lucky enough to receive that love and that openness that came through the horn.

Jimmy Heath

Tenor saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath, 92, spoke to JAZZIZ a few days after spending a day in the studio recording his latest project, a big-band date featuring a group of previously unrecorded original charts. Roy Hargrove borrowed Heath’s complimentary sobriquet “Hardgroove” as the title of his first RH Factor recording.

Jimmy Heath: ““He just had everything, like another coming of Dizzy Gillespie.”

When I first met Roy Hargrove. I started calling him “Hardgroove.” That’s “Hardgroove,” not “Hargrove,” because he could play so strongly when he showed up on the scene. The thing I found so interesting is that he was so much like Dizzy Gillespie, who I played with. Dizzy was my mentor. He’s the person I wanted to be like. I wanted to be able to improvise at a top level, I wanted to be able to write arrangements. I wanted to be able to conduct the band. I wanted to compose. Roy could do all of those things — and he could really sing, and he could scat, as Dizzy also could. He could play the trumpet. His ballad playing was beautiful, and his sound was gorgeous. He had several different-sized bands: big band, small group, Crisol and the RH Factor — he covered the whole thing. He just had everything, like another coming of Dizzy Gillespie.

Also, Roy was able to cross over to play what the younger people liked. He had respect for all the audiences. Exhibit one for me would be on a live record called Togetherness, at the Blue Note with my big band, where Roy took the first solo on my composition “A Time and a Place,” which I wrote during the ’60s, thinking of younger people as well as older jazz fans, trying to cover both areas, both genres of music. The solo was just perfect for that particular composition. There’s another record we made with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, where he sang and scatted and soloed on “I’m Beboppin’ Too,” for which Lorraine Gillespie wrote the words. Roy could do it all.

Nicholas Payton

In response to Roy Hargrove’s death, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, four years his junior, expressed his sorrow in a loving testimonial on his blog, titled, “My Soul Brother, Roy Hargrove.” Over the years, Payton and Hargrove recorded for the same label, participated in “going for blood” trumpet battles and even won a Grammy on the same night. A great virtuoso and storyteller, Payton most recently released Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, one of the highlights of this decade.

Nicholas Payton: “At an age where most people sound pretty close to their influences and are still trying to create an amalgam of who they’re going to be, he already had his stamped, signature sound.”

Roy played ballads masterfully very early. That usually doesn’t develop until you’ve matured or fallen in love or had your heart broken quite a few times. But Roy was able to channel that pathos and feeling, and be that emotive from the beginning. Even on his first recordings, he had something different. At an age where most people sound pretty close to their influences and are still trying to create an amalgam of who they’re going to be, he already had his stamped, signature sound. And he was very soulful. It’s like he caressed and massaged every note in some way that nothing escaped his being. It was never just about notes, or theory, or scales. You could hear that he understood all that. Everything he played meant something.

One thing that was very apparent early on is that even though he came out of this music’s tradition, he was not conditioned by a jazz mindset where you couldn’t bring to the forefront all the things in black music. He’d interpret a ballad, but his sound and his vibrato would communicate an R&B sort of sensibility. He’s one of the first people I heard really do that. That made an impression on me, on a lot of us, particularly during the ’90s, where there was strong jazz-purist pressure to not put pickups on basses and to reference only certain eras of black music. Roy didn’t seem to be swayed by any of that. He played as a man of his age, of his experiences. He gave us the confidence to speak to our eras while at the same time still acknowledging the past. The RH Factor albums and his work with D’Angelo changed and influenced how a lot of people made records.

In 2017 I started hanging out a bit more, to be more connected to the scene the way I used to be. Inevitably, I ran into Roy quite a bit, because he was already doing that work, and we’d hang and talk and play like back in the old days. We became closer than we’d ever been. I’m appreciative that I was able to reconnect and reestablish our relationship before he passed on.

Justin Robinson

Justin Robinson met Roy Hargrove in 1987, when Hargrove attended the late-night session at Manhattan’s Blue Note that Robinson ran. Robinson, 50, assumed the alto saxophone chair in the Roy Hargrove Quintet in September 2001, and held it until Hargrove’s very last gig at the New Morning Club in Paris, on October 15, 2018.

Justin Robinson: “In the last years he’d come from dialysis not feeling well sometimes, and then play like an absolute angel.” Photo: Adriana Mateo

Part of our core connection, from the beginning, is that we both were obsessed with Charlie Parker. We never clashed over an idea or a phrase. Roy could analyze the room, get a feel for it, then change up the set at the last minute without telling us, which drove us crazy, but wound up being well-received. He didn’t talk much on stage either, but he captivated the audience. I’d only witnessed that from some of the older masters — capturing a feeling and letting people into his musical world, telling his story in a special way that felt like more than just music. He was always on the road, so he was always in game shape, ready to perform. Playing like that, you weed out what works and what doesn’t work for you, and you expand. In his prime years he was a very clean and precise player, but it wasn’t about the trumpet. He was an artist. His music was always genuine. It’s who he was. In the last years he’d come from dialysis not feeling well sometimes, and then play like an absolute angel. When you hear a note, you’re like, “That’s Roy; it’s nobody else.” That’s a rare thing, especially in this day and age.

About nine years ago, I started noticing younger musicians at our gigs, guys following him around and so on, after the Earfood record came out, with the song “Strasbourg/St. Denis.” All over the world I saw him flourish in scenarios where he didn’t know the guys, but would get on the bandstand and raise the level of the situation. I attribute some of his health issues to that, because after a certain point you have to sleep. The last night in Paris at the New Morning was the strongest I’d heard him in a long time. We played hard that night. It was rare for him to sweat out his suits, but this time he did. After our gig, he went to the Sunset-Sunside Jazz Club and played. We were cracking jokes going to the airport, and we joked at the airport. I was teasing him that it was his birthday. I could give him a very hard time; very few people could. I went to the lounge, but he went shopping to buy something new, which he always did at the airport. I didn’t realize that would be the last time I ever saw him.

Feature photo by Adriana Mateo.

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