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By June 2020, the red double doors to the Village Vanguard, New York’s oldest continuously operated jazz club, had been locked since mid-March. Back then, jazz fans needed no clearer reminder of the music’s arrested state of affairs since the COVID-19 crisis hit.
That’s when the Vanguard began opening its doors to musicians and a three-person crew for sets that were streamed online. The first musician to take the stage again was drummer Billy Hart, leading his current quartet. Despite the absence of a live audience and the fact that, owing to pandemic protocol, the musicians were masked, as Hart spun out gently swinging beats, as he sounded out melodies from his drums, as he subtly shifted rhythms or sounded a shimmering texture from a cymbal, he seemed like he was playing to a full and enthusiastic house.
“This place holds the history of jazz,” Hart had told me before that engagement. “Our community is embedded in its walls. And as long as the club is open, jazz is alive.”
The Vanguard also holds much of Hart’s personal history and is a showcase for his continued vitality. The club speaks of the earliest stirrings of a career that this year was recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award — particularly the week in 1961 when Hart played in singer-pianist Shirley Horn’s trio, after Miles Davis demanded that Horn serve as his opening act. Then, Hart had left his steady gig in the house band at Abart’s, in his native Washington, D.C., and Howard University, where he was majoring in mechanical engineering, to tour with Horn. He’d already been steeped in bebop and swing and had played with blues and soul stars including Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. “But Shirley taught me how to build excitement and to swing without playing too loud or too strong,” Hart says, “which opened up a new set of possibilities. And she helped me understand how to invest in a song — in its structure, its melody, its lyrics.”
Hart has played the Vanguard regularly in the decades since, especially as a member of Herbie Hancock’s sextet between 1969 and 1973, where he “gained an understanding of everything I wanted to do,” he says. “Herbie had played with everybody I wanted to play with, including Miles, so I felt connected to that lineage. He could resolve the blues with very sophisticated classical elements, and he could resolve classical ideas with blues and with deep African elements. He could dig into jazz tradition, but sound completely contemporary.”
By now Hart, who is 81, has played with just about everybody a jazz musician would want to play — including Miles; he’s the drummer on Davis’ On the Corner — digging deeply into jazz tradition while sounding utterly contemporary. According to Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography, Hart has 651 recordings to his credit, which range from in-the-pocket swingers to fiery, freely improvised sessions to lyrical, soft-spoken affairs. He is now both an elder jazz statesman and among the most in-demand musicians on the current scene. When we spoke in late December, he’d scheduled the phone call during a free day after three consecutive recording sessions: with avant-garde pianist Angelica Sanchez; with the commanding post-bop tenor saxophonist George Garzone; and with his own quartet, which has made a series of radiant releases since 2006.
In that latter band — with pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner (all of whom are decades younger) — Hart serves as the sort of vital link Hancock once was for him. “Playing with Billy showed me weaknesses in my own playing,” Iverson says. “I was confronted with swing and blues via the depth of a relationship with those traditions that has to do with where and when Billy was born, and all the places he’s been.”
Hart was born in Washington, D.C., in 1940. With his friends, he would listen to doo-wop and early rock and roll by the likes of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Through his paternal grandmother, Viola Andrews, who played piano for opera singer Marian Anderson, he gained exposure to European classical music. Through her neighbor, Buck Hill, a tenor saxophonist who was a local legend, he discovered bebop. He recalled the moment when Hill played him a Charlie Parker 78 recording: “I had never envisioned that kind of music. I was off, and I never looked back.”
Iverson points to another aspect of playing with Hart. “Billy helped me understand that knowledge only goes as far as you can use it in a relationship, which means that there’s no one articulation of an idea: It’s always in a sentence and part of an ongoing conversation. Billy drew me into that conversation.” That sense of a conversation that knows neither beginning nor end is especially evident in Hart’s work with the all-star collective, The Cookers, a septet that places Harper alongside stellar contemporaries such as pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Cables, who first recorded with Hart in 1968, describes Hart’s mastery of the drums as much more than rhythmic. “Billy is very specific about how he tunes his drums, so he is very much part of the negotiation of what notes to play. And he is responsive, which invites you to respond to whatever he does. Most of all, when I play with him, I feel a sense of trust, and the freedom that comes from that trust. I know that I can try whatever I want.”
That sense of trust, of community, is evident through all of Hart’s music, especially his own recordings. The first of these, 1977’s Enchance (A&M), gathered some of the most authoritative players of that day, including pianist Don Pullen and saxophonists Dewey Redman and Oliver Lake, for music that marries form and improvisation with remarkable clarity. On 1985’s Oshumare (Gramavision), Hart enlisted rising stars of that moment, including saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman, to effectively reconcile a then-seeming chasm between straight-head jazz and more contemporary sounds. On 2011’s Sixty-Eight (SteepleChase), Hart convened yet another generation of rising players to look back with both reverence and invention at the legacies of three of his trap-set heroes — Tony Williams, Roy Haynes and Ed Blackwell — through the repertoires of recordings by Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and Mal Waldron.
Long ago, percussionist Mtume dubbed Hart “Jabali,” a Swahili word meaning “wisdom.” On and off the bandstand, Hart seems forever chasing and dispensing both old and new knowledge. “There are times when you know and understand everything,” he says, “and then it disappears like you never knew it. You remember you knew it, but you can only search for what you knew, and there are many paths to get there again.” That search, those many paths, are what, in his ninth decade, still drive Billy Hart’s beats. - Larry Blumenfeld