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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 with Christian McBride at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival
Billy Hart with Christian McBride at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival (photo © Alan Nahigian)

Maybe a good dichotomy to ask you about would be between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, since you seem to be able to access both of their approaches to drums: swing and more free playing. You’re playing pretty straight-ahead with the Cookers, though.

I wanted the drums to be more lyrical. I can think of Max Roach rhythms that I can sing. I can think of Elvin Jones rhythms that I can sing. I can think of Roy Haynes solos that I can sing.

You gotta remember, the Cookers are basically my age group; Eddie Henderson was in Mwandishi with me. We were both influenced by the Coltrane musics. When you hear music under Eddie’s own name, it might be more like the Jazz Messengers or Freddie Hubbard. But again, Freddie Hubbard’s on [Coltrane’s] Ascension. So I don’t see the evolution of the music in that way, at least from a drummer’s perspective, as much as I think of it going from acoustic music to electronic music.

If you say, Chick Corea’s Elektric Band or Weather Report or Mwandishi, I think of that as different. In other words, I don’t see much difference in the acoustic stuff; at least by the time I joined the acoustic thing, it’s the middle ’60s.

There’s more attention being paid to electric music today—or electronics. Electronic music is more commercial in a certain way; it’s more popular. What do you think?

I don’t think you’re wrong. A lot of what counts as pop music now is electronic in some capacity. But I think it’s easy to live in the corner of the jazz world where it’s still 1961. There are benefits to that and limitations. Do you see the Cookers as a counterweight to the electronic music you’re talking about? And is the band a teaching tool for a new generation of players?

It’s definitely a teaching tool.

When you think of all the major acoustic innovators, the Cookers have played with all them. Although, I played with Miles and those records were electronic. It doesn’t mean that we’re not familiar with that vocabulary. When you start talking about so-called “jazz,” the term originally was a dance-music term. One question would be, why are they still using a dance-music term for a music that’s clearly evolved to a classical music? Duke Ellington didn’t say it. Coltrane didn’t say it either. And Charlie Parker didn’t.

[Reporters] asked Coltrane, “Tell us about classical music.” And his response was, “Every culture has a classical music. To which culture are you referring?” Which means, are you implying that the only classical music is European and there are no other cultures on the planet?

I think you studied mechanical engineering at Howard University.

I did. You know more about my interviews than I do.

I try to do my homework.

What’s the JazzTimes guy’s name? The original editor?

Ira Sabin?

He used to own a record store [Sabin’s Discount Records in Washington, D.C., where Hart grew up], and I’d run into that store and grab records.

When you were a kid?

I was already playing drums, so I would think it’d be around 1959 or ’60. I watched him put that magazine together. It was a newspaper, a little jazz newspaper at first.

Was that a way you learned about music, just going into his store and hearing records?

I mean, yeah. He was a friend. I could just go in there, and he loved the music. We could talk about it. There were great D.C. musicians too, like Shirley Horn and Buck Hill, and a few people earlier than that. Frank Wess, a saxophone player who sometimes led the Basie band.

Both you and Donald Harrison are being honored as NEA Jazz Masters. What’s it like to receive that kind of attention?

I was actually thinking about that today. It’s definitely an honor, because each time, it’s a surprise. To play this music efficiently or accurately, you have to keep studying—you don’t stop. Or at least I can’t stop. Duke Ellington didn’t stop. John Coltrane didn’t stop. Miles Davis didn’t stop.

I didn’t expect an honor. I knew it existed, and I’ve won a few polls. So, when you’re honored by your peers … a lot of your peers say that kind of thing to you anyway. They’ll say, “I really liked how you played on this record.” And it does make you feel good. Maybe I’m making some progress.

Is there something left that you still want to do or achieve in your career?

That reminds me of an answer Duke Ellington gave after he was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done?” He said, “The next thing.” I’m sure there is something that I haven’t done and I’m looking forward to doing it.

I’m trying to keep up with what interests me—and of course, some of that is younger musicians: [keyboardists] Aaron Parks, James Francies. Those people are encouraging and inspiring to me. And they do help me find new avenues.

Do you have experiences like that in the classroom when you’re teaching too?

Every now and then. Have you ever heard Sullivan Fortner? He was my student at Oberlin [where Hart has taught since the 1990s].

Yeah, sure. What do you think about his stuff with Cécile McLorin Salvant?

I think that’s miraculous. Sullivan plays on a very, very high, sophisticated level. And when you talk about classical music of different cultures, he’s knowledgeable in that arena. But so is she. It’s rare to have people with those similar experiences at that young age. I think a lot of what they do is inspiring.

She knows music of different cultures and knows how to use it—and in fact, that’s what this American music is about. This is the only country on the planet that has all these different cultures in one place. If you go to France, everybody’s French.