Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Billy Hart Is Still Solid as a Rock

A first-call drummer for more than 50 years, Jabali is now officially joining the ranks of the Jazz Masters

Billy Hart
Billy Hart at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. (photo: John Abbott)

Billy Hart doesn’t see jazz as being split between avant-garde and straight-ahead; for him, the big distinction is between acoustic and electric. And given the drummer’s endless list of associations during a career that stretches back to the 1960s, his view should be afforded a bit more than passing credence.

The National Endowment for the Arts is set to honor Hart, as well as saxophonist Donald Harrison— the drummer’s bandmate in the Cookers—this year. It’s an accolade that surprises Hart, but one that he also might have been able to forecast, considering his contributions to ensembles led by Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, Joanne Brackeen, and Lee Konitz, among others.

In addition to being a founding member of the Cookers, Hart has sporadically led his own groups—which recently have yielded a handful of finely wrought long-players on the ECM label. The Cookers, though, are in the spotlight this year, marking their 10th anniversary with the release of Look Out! (Gearbox). The band has positioned itself as something of a supergroup, featuring musicians who’ve performed in ensembles alongside the genre’s most acute innovators.

Reedist Dave Liebman is one of those stalwarts who in the past has done time with Hart on the bandstand; their ensemble Quest ran for more than a decade and issued about a half-dozen albums.

“Multifaceted is an understatement for somebody who’s made 600 records—and played with everybody. That’s the point,” Liebman said. “He started out with Jimmy Smith and could go from left to right. He’s extremely adaptable in understanding the details, the rise and fall of the music.”

Hart has taken that understanding and relentlessly developed a technique capacious enough to support—and drive—just about any musical setting. The drummer recently spoke to JazzTimes about what he learned during conversations with John Coltrane, living up to expectations, and how contemporary players are still able to open up a veteran to new ideas. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

JT: Do you ever go back and listen to how unique each period of your career has been?

BILLY HART: I’ve played with a lot of different groups. But in playing with all those different groups, I didn’t think of it like that, because they all required the same—as far as I was concerned—kind of contemporary system. Different bands have different acoustics. But when I first started, your main focus was to play rhythm patterns that caused a sort of euphoric reaction. They had different names for that, but the main term I think of is “swing.” And they had all kinds of dramatizations of that, like “Swing, no matter what.”

You still use the name “Jabali,” which you took while a member of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group in the ’70s. Can you talk about why it’s been important to retain?

It was a gift; it was given to me. They refer to him now as James—James Mtume—but we just called him Mtume. He named Herbie [Mwandishi] and he named [Albert “Tootie” Heath], who was in the band before me, Kuumba. That was his uncle, because [Mtume’s] father was Jimmy Heath.

He gave me the name, because a bunch of musicians got together to campaign for the first Afro-American mayor of Newark, New Jersey—his name was [Kenneth] Gibson. We were successful [Gibson, the first Black man to become mayor of any major city in the northeast United States, was elected in 1970 and remained in power for 16 years—Ed.], but Mtume had set that up, because he was that kind of person. When he gave me that name as a gift for helping with that, I asked, “What does that mean?” And he said, “It implies moral strength.” Like, “On this rock I build my church.”

“Jabal” in a bunch of different languages implies “rock.” We were speaking Swahili, but you can hear it in different cultures.

Did using that name change how you felt about your identity as an individual or as a musician?

No, not really. But I remember telling Mtume that I didn’t know if I met all those requirements.

Why’s that?

Well, you know—moral strength. So he said, “It gives you something to live up to, brother.” When he said that, I began to attempt more of that kind of thing.

I heard an interview you did with Ethan Iverson where you discussed being around Lee Morgan toward the end of his life. Had you been spending too much time engaged with the darker side of jazz life?

That’s an interesting way of putting that. There are other ways of being immoral. Plus, Morgan was older than me. I wasn’t in his social circle. He wouldn’t have been an example, anyway.

There was an example I was thinking of. I wasn’t thinking about going backwards, I was thinking about going forward. The example I had in mind was John Coltrane.

What attracted you more to Trane’s music than Morgan’s?

I wasn’t opposed to Lee Morgan, but Coltrane epitomized religious pursuance, you could say.

At a certain point, you realize music doesn’t come from you, it comes through you from a higher energy, right? So, you try to make your body more favorable to receive that kind of information. There have been many different philosophies: Chick Corea had Scientology and Herbie Hancock has Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Wayne has that also. Buster Williams has that.

The highest form of intelligence in the universe is love, and I think that’s what Coltrane was talking about.

Did you ever play with him?

No, I didn’t.

But you met him, right?

I certainly did.

What was that like?

It was inspiring—it was like a lesson. But I talked to him a few times.

The first time, I was playing with Jimmy Smith. He’d also played with him, so he was always asking me how it was performing with Jimmy. I talked to him, and Elvin Jones was a little late for the gig, so I asked him about Elvin, and I said, “What are you going to do about him?” He said, “I’m not going to do anything, because I don’t want to hurt myself.” As opposed to a lot of other people, who would want to fire him. He was that kind of guy, and he practiced nonstop.

Another time, there were a bunch of guys interviewing him, and they asked him, “What are you trying to do with your music, Mr. Coltrane?” And I assume, because of when it was, he was doing more Black Power [music]. And he said, “I simply want to be a force for good.”

I told him one time, “You know, John, you’re really beautiful.” And he said, “I’m just trying to clean up. You can imagine how dirty you would be, if you didn’t wash for 30 years.”