Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hart, Antonio (Maurice)

Saxophonist and educator Antonio Hart was born September 30, 1968 in Baltimore, Maryland. His exposure to music as a child was casual; his grandfather had a piano in the house, and his uncle played the trumpet and listened to jazz records.

At age seven, when a saxophonist visited his elementary school, Antonio fell in love with the instrument, and decided then he would learn to play it. When instrumental music lessons were offered to students at his school a couple of years later, he began a basic study of the instrument, learning three or four notes a week at first, and carrying a single reed around in his sock. He soon found focus in playing, and in a suffering school system that had little to offer academically he gravitated towards music as a stabilizing discipline, and a reason to stay in school.

Before leaving junior high school, he learned that high school he would be attending could not afford a music program, and that the existing one would be cut so he secured an audition at the Baltimore School of the Arts. Since he could barely read music at the time, he learned the audition piece by listening to his friend sing it to him repeatedly over the phone. His inability to read music was exposed in the audition, but the judges recognized his determination and Hart was admitted to the school.

At the Baltimore School of the Arts, Hart studied classical saxophone, played the standard solo repertoire and with a saxophone quartet. However, as an African-American, he found little he could relate to in the European classical tradition. While studying, he listened to the popular hits on the Baltimore radio station, which included Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green.

Hart became intrigued by the concept of improvisation, and as a senior in high school he began to listen to Grover Washington Jr., a soprano saxophonist with both pop and jazz sensibilities. In an effort to understand the origins of modern jazz, he began listening to saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker, whom he attempted to imitate without really understanding the basics of jazz harmony.

When it was time to go to college, Hart knew he wanted to study jazz, so in 1986 he began pursuing a degree in music education at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with Joe Viola, and Andy McGhee.

Hart soon realized he was far behind most of the other students in terms of his grasp of jazz and improvisation. At one jam session he attended, his future bandmate Roy Hargrove played “Blue Bossa” through all twelve keys. Hart was struck with the realization that he didn’t even know what the normal key of the tune was. So began an expansive study of jazz and the musicians who played it. He started practicing up to thirteen hours a day. He also figured out who the best musicians at the school were, and “shadowed” them, sitting near them to see how they carried themselves, how they interacted with people, and how they practiced. Many of the musicians who inspired Hart as a Berklee freshman have gone on to become career performers, including Javon Jackson, Sam Newsome, Delfeayo Marsalis, and Mark Gross.

Hart’s dedication was magnified after he began studying with of one of his heroes, saxophonist Kenny Garrett while Garrett was in Boston performing with Miles Davis. He credits Garrett with opening his eyes and ears to harmonic concepts that Hart explored passionately.

During his time at Berklee, Hart developed a deep reverence for the legends of jazz. While he strove to keep abreast of the innovations of his contemporaries at Berklee, such as Chris Cheek, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Mark Turner, his passion lay in understanding the foundation and the origins of jazz. He dug into the recordings of saxophonists from prior generations like Johnny Hodges, Marshall Royal, Earl Bostic, and Tab Smith.

As an upperclassman at Berklee, Hart began to lead the jam session at Wally’s Café Jazz Club in Boston, which had been previously led by Branford Marsalis and Greg Osby, among others. Hart began to gain recognition amongst the many top musicians who stopped by to sit in at the session.

In 1990, Hart’s fifth and final year at Berklee, he was signed to RCA records while student teaching in a high school in a suburb of Boston. He began that year to tour the world with a band of young musicians including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and released his debut as a leader, “For the First Time,” the following year.

While on the road with Hargrove, Hart began to pursue his master’s degree in jazz composition at Queens College, where he studied with Donald Byrd. He also studied with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who has worked closely with many key musicians in jazz’s history, including John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Hart graduated from Queens in 1992, toured with Hargrove until 1993, and then Nat Adderley until 1996.

In 1996, Hart’s career took an odd step when he became overwhelmed by the dealings of the music business. He found that he no longer loved performing, and suffered what he considers a breakdown. He told his bands he wouldn’t be going on the road for a while, and sought to regain his enthusiasm for music. On a whim he traveled to Cuba three times over the course of a year, and was struck by the friendships and humility he found there. His outlook evolved, his zeal for music renewed, and he vowed to devote himself to the art with a selfless and reverent attitude.

Hart continued to tour with his own bands, and he also played with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and on freelance recordings. He has since recorded seven albums as a leader for RCA, Impulse, Enja, and Chiaroscuro, including the 1997 Grammy-nominated “Here I Stand.” He can be heard with various ensembles led by Dave Holland, the Jimmy Heath Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and others.

Hart is currently a full-time professor of jazz at Queens College. He performs and gives clinics internationally, striving to pass on his reverence for the tradition and the beauty of jazz to his students and audiences.

Select Discography (as a leader)

All We Need, Downtown Sound/Chiaroscuro Records, 2004

Ama Tu Sonrisa, Enja Records, 2001

The Collected Antonio Hart, RCA Novus Records, 1998

Here I Stand, Impulse Records, 1997

It’s All Good, RCA Novus Records, 1995

For Cannonball & Woody, RCA Novus Records, 1993

Don’t You Know I Care, RCA Novus Records, 1992

For The First Time, RCA Novus Records, 1991

Contributor: Jacob Teichroew