In conversation with roy hargrove
By Ted Panken
By his own account, Roy Hargrove spends about two-thirds of his time on the road. Such was the case this past summer, when in a period of seven weeks he toured all three of his bands: his quintet and big bandóboth devoted to hardcore jazzóand his crossover unit, the R.H. Factor. Back home in New York for a few days, Hargrove was decompressing, relaxing in the daytime, and spending his nights jamming at various New York venues: Smalls, Fat Cat, and the Zinc Bar in Manhattan, and Frankís Place in Brooklyn. Still, as busy as he is, the 39-year-old trumpeter, resplendent in a pink-check jacket, shorts, and a narrow-brimmed hat, strolled into the Jazz Gallery this hot afternoon exactly on time for a discussion framed around his new recording, Emergence [EmArcy], his first with the big band.
In point of fact, Hargrove's projection of an old-school attitude toward road-warriorship, song interpretation, blues feeling, and swingówhile simultaneously tuning-in to the popular music of his time on its own termsómay be singular among hardcore mainstream-oriented jazz folk of his age group. Which of Hargroveís peers of comparable visibility would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devotes to the various ensembles that he leads? Which other highly-trained post-Boomer would deliver a lyric like "September In The Rain," a staple of Hargroveís sets for at least a decade, with as much brio as Hargrove projects when uncorking cogent, thrilling solos on structures ranging from bebop to post-Woody Shaw harmonic structures? Indeed, in his ability to blend the high arts of improvisation and entertainment with equal conviction, Hargrove is a true descendent of such iconic elders as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly.
How does the big band sound now compared to when you did the record, after playing quite a number of gigs over the last year?
Itís really tight. Iím trying to get them to the point where they have the music memorized, and donít have to use the written music any moreóbeing able to play by ear is so important. When I played with Slide Hampton and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I tried to memorize the parts so that I could pay attention to everything thatís going on with the conducting, with the dynamics, and try to make it very musical. Itís getting close.
How big is the book? There are 11 tunes on the recording?
Thereís probably 30 songs or so.
In the program notes, you stated. 'I always wanted to work in a big band format. The sound is so full and rich, and it provides opportunity for congregation, which is much needed among todayís younger musicians, most of who have come of age in small group settings. Iím also thankful for the opportunity to exercise my compositional and arranging skills. Music is such a vast world, and I intend to explore every avenue possible. The cast of players on this project are all guys I met in school and on various gigs and jam sessions over the last twenty-odd years. I think we all share a strong passion for music that comes from the heart.'
Two themes arise which are a common thread in your career. One is this notion of congregation, communication through music, speaking across generations and styles. Also curiosity, hunger for information. I can recall watching you as a young guy getting your butt kicked by the elders at Bradleyís, and not being daunted or fazed, but taking it in a constructive way and coming back for more.
Now, in the liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that the first day he met you, you told him that to have a big band was an aspiration. You were always interested in that notion?
Yes. I always watched Dizzyís big band on video, and it was very inspirational to me. When I started to embrace playing jazz as a teenager, the big band format was my training ground, in learning how to read, and learning how to play in a section in a group. For me, itís kind of going backward. Earlier, there were big bands and then they went to the small groups; now itís small groups, and Iím trying to bring back the big band thing.
I believe itís really important that we all have to know each other when we play together. Most big bands, if itís a great ensemble, the soloists are okóthey have one or two. But this group is a band full of soloists, so itís challenging for me to try to bring them all together and have them play where the entire ensemble is thinking in the same direction, with tight cutoffs and everybody breathing at the same timeóthe things that normal big bands do. A few guys work in the Broadway shows, so they have a lot of experience ... everythingís by the numbers. So thereís a balance between discipline and at the same time keeping it very loose and spontaneous.
You just mentioned that watching videos of Dizzy Gillespieís big band was an early influence.
Yes. The way Dizzy conducted the band, and the way he seemed to have so much funóand they were having fun. This was inspirational to me, and I wanted to have a group like that.
Playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band over the last number of years has probably been a great training ground in putting together your own group.
Oh, itís been great. Especially playing in the trumpet section there, playing the third trumpet part on Slideís arrangements. The third trumpet part is a kind of focal point within the band, because you get to hear all the different ensemble parts written around the voicings. A lot of times, the third trumpet part, or even the third trombone part, has special notes that make the chord grow. Iím a sponge, listening to everything and taking it all in. It just gives me more information to transfer along to the group.
The program of Emergence contains many flavorsóLatin, straight ballads, you sing a bit, exploratory pieces arranged by Gerald Clayton and Frank Lacy. But somehow, the template seems rooted in the mid-Ď50s Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; the Ernie Wilkins-Quincy Jones synthesis of Dizzy and the Basie New Testament band, seems to be a jumping off point for the feeling you have in mind
Itís a nice blend of art and entertainment.
I think that musicians should always have fun when they play. Sometimes it gets too serious. Thatís just my opinion. When we play, it has to be tight, but at the same time I like to have the freedom to go outside of the box a little bit.
Talk about the process of recruiting this band.
Now, thatís difficult. With a big band, thereís hardly ever any money to pay guys, so itís hard to get cats to be available.
It started off as a sort of Monday workshop thing, as often happens around New York ...
Actually, the first hit was about 15 years ago, in Washington Square Park, where I was able to pull together a kind of all-star thing, with Jesse Davis and Frank Lacy, and even Jerry Gonzalez in the bandóJerry was playing fourth trumpet and percussion! I was able to do that first hit because the Panasonic Jazz Festival, which was running the event, paid us enough that I could give each one of those guys a grand or something. They were excited. 'Ok! You got some more gigs?' But at the same time, throughout the process, the music grabbed them, too, and here it is, fifteen years later, weíve brought it back, and everybody seemed to want to be part of it.
The other thing is that there arenít really any gigs out there, and there're a lot of musicians. People want to play. So it wasnít that difficult to find musicians to be in the group. But itís always a different gauge to try to find people who are available. For example, we did a few things here at the Jazz Gallery, and I was trying to find trumpet players. We shifted around a few different people, but we finally got what seemed to be a lineup of ringersóTania Darby, Frank Green, Greg Gisbert are all very good lead players, too, and Darren Barrett, who I went to Berklee with, is a great soloistóClifford Brown-Donald Byrd stuff. I guess finding the trumpet section was the hardest part; for a while, we had some mishaps. But we managed to pull it together.
Iím always at jam sessions, like I was last night, so Iím always running into musicians. I just go into my mental rolodex and pull out the people I know.
It takes time to accumulate a book. How did you accumulate repertoire?
I arranged a few of my songs for it, just to begin, then I told the cats, 'If you want to write something, bring it in.' For this album, I asked Saul Rubin to write the arrangement on 'Every Time We Say Goodbye,' and I had written 'Tchipiso' and asked Gerald Clayton to do the arrangement. Then, of course, thereís our theme song, 'Requiem,' by Frank Lacy, which weíve been playing. Thatís the chop-buster for the whole band; they like to play it, but itís kind of difficult. Itís very powerfully arranged.
I try to include the music that I learned when I came to New York, from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Larry Willis... Right now, a friend of mine is working on an arrangement for Hicksí 'After the Morning,' which we used to play at Bradleyís all the time. My premise is to try to pass down the information I picked up from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan and Idris Muhammad when I started cutting my teeth in jazz.
Apart from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, what other big bands have you been part of after high school?
I think thatís the only group Iíve actually played in. Iíve sat in with a few, played with some large ensembles here and there, but not anything that happened more than once.
Playing in big bands was a rite of passage for many of the older musicians who were your heroes, who came up before 1955-1960.
Thatís why I think the music needs this. It creates some kind of humility. Itís very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! Iíll give you an example. Weíll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. Thereís no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you donít have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody canít be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! Thereís something to be said about being able to trim it downósay less but have it have more meaning.
Is that something you learned early on, playing in your high school big band?
No, I didnít learn that early on. Iím still trying to learn that!
Itís a quality that you aspire to.
Yes, I aspire to it. Sometimes, you have to make the amount of music that is just enough. You donít have to overcrowd it.
How do you see this band vis-a-vis other contemporary big bands? It isnít as though the scene is totally devoid of big bands, though there arenít so many that work steadily.
Yes, there arenít that many.
Maria Schneider, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Carla Bley ...
My group is not quite that streamlined. Iím still trying to get it to that point. My group is filled with hooligans.
No hooligans in those other bands?
No hooligans over there. Thereís plenty in my group, though. My vision of that just seems like thereís those groups, and theyíre all very clean-cut and organized, and then thereís my group, which is complete chaos. A lot of characters. Itís never a dull moment around those guys. When weíre hanging or traveling on the train, all I have to do is go around them, and itís entertainment all day.
Does the composition of the band somehow reflect your personality?
Maybe so. Iíve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, probably.
So youíre talking about camaraderie and the jazz culture. This band evolved through this location, the Jazz Gallery, which has served over its decade-plus ...
As a breeding ground.
... as a breeding ground and also a kind of communal space for a lot of young musicians from many different communities.
Talk a bit about the interface between the Jazz Gallery and the evolution of this project. Your quintet identity was already long-developed, but the big band identity not so much.
I have to give it up to Dale Fitzgerald, because it was his idea to bring this back into the picture. The first gig we did here at Jazz Gallery, people got really excited. That got the ball rolling. Then I got excited about it. I figured, well, itís been over ten years; we might as well record the thing now, try to take it out on the road. I guess thatís an uphill battle, considering the economy and everything else going on right now. But still, I think itís very needed. The kind of conversation youíll get with it is worth more than money. To me. Because it would help if we can feed jazz with something fresh. Itís difficult right now. People donít want to swing any more. That dance element is getting buried, more and more and more. Itís got this esoteric sound. People want to be so hip. They want to create the new thing. But the new thing, to me, is the dance. Theyíve buried that. I like hearing drummers when they play the ride cymbal. You canít get drummers to play the ride cymbal any more. Theyíre always playing like a drum solo throughout the whole song. The ride cymbal, that is your beat. Thatís your identity. The way the bass and the drums sound together is a big deal. People just forget about that. Everybodyís on their own program. Thatís why Iím doing this whole big band thing. Thatís why Iím doing all three bands. Instead of music just being in the background, music should be like therapy for people. When you go to hear music, you should feel better when you leave. Like youíve been to the doctor and he heals you.
Another flavor of this band which also hearkens to Dizzy Gillespie is your embrace of Afro-Cuban rhythms on several pieces. Two things come to mind. One is that the Jazz Gallery has been an incubator for some of the most creative Cuban jazz musicians of this period ... including some of the more esoteric ones.
But then also, itís the place where Chucho Valdes entered the New York picture during the Ď90s, and the venue where you first touched base with him and gestated Crisol. Letís talk about Afro-Cuban rhythms and how they fit into your notions about swing.
It goes back to the dance thing. When I went to Cuba the first time in Ď96, they was partying in there! Hereís people who donít have anything, they canít even go to the store and buy orange juice. Youíve got to go to somebodyís house to buy beer, or something to drink. They donít even have their own bathrooms. Itís crazy. But when they party, when the music starts, itís like a festival. They really know how to get down. This inspired me ... the possibilities exploded in my head. I owe so much to Chucho for turning me on to that world. Before that, I had no idea. Not really. Not like that, before I went down there and saw it for myself. The level of virtuosity with the musicians in Cuba is out of this world! One guy would have five different facets in his realm. For instance, you might have a trumpet player who plays congas and is also a visual artist who can dance.
When I hung out with Anga and Changuito, playing with these guys, even though they didnít speak English, I was still able to communicate with them through the music, and they showed me so many things. They showed me how to play the different rhythms based on the clave, things that inspired me .... But I didnít really get to dive into it on this album the way I wanted to. We had one percussionist. I wanted to do a bunch of overdubs, but we didnít have time to get into it the way I really wanted on the big band thing. Thereís still some music floating around from the Crisol era that hasnít been released.
Did the Cuban experience have an impact on your improvising style, on the way you phrase? Is it something you can dip into, go out of? How does it play out for you?
Just being around those guys, I soaked in some of that. Iíve always been into rhythm and movement. When I play, Iím trying to be a part of the dance. I want the music to go into your body, the way you feel where you have to tap your foot and snap your finger, or move your head, or something. Hanging out with those guys strengthened that feeling, made it more prevalent. When I play, Iím thinking about the drums the whole time, and trying to sit in to the rhythm of whatever the drummer is doing. I pay attention to the drummer always. If the drummer isnít really happening, then I canít really play. Sometimes I can, but most of the time itís a struggle if at least the time is not steady.
So it isnít so much the style or whether theyíre playing swing or straight eighth thatís important, but the quality of the beats. Or is that not the case?
Itís a combination of things. Itís the steadiness of the beat and also the way it feels, like if it has an oomph behind it as opposed to it being very quiet, subdued. I prefer to play with a lot of energy. Thatís why I liked having all those drums when we were doing the Latin project, because it inspires me to play with energy and force. Drums and brass just go together.
Letís segue to the R.H. Factor project, which is a much more explicit manifestation of your dance orientation.
In the beginning, I started off trying to do a tribute .... My father was a record collector. He had foresight. People used to come to our house to see what we had, so they could go and buy it. They wanted to know what the new thing was going to be, because my father would have it.
So whatever Roy Allen Hargrove was getting, thatís what ...
Yeah, they used to come to our house to see what he had in his collection. Every weekend, my dad would buy two or three records, and come back home, and then two weeks later it would be a hit. He just bought what he liked, but apparently that would be what everybody else liked, tooóbut later. I lost him in Ď95. So I wanted to do a tribute to him in a way that ... He always said to me, 'I like the jazz, but when are you going to do something a little bit more contemporary, something funky?' Iíd say, 'Iím getting to it.' He got out of here before I could do it. So I began to collect all of these recordings from my memory, out of what I knew he had. I would go out and get Herbie Hancock with Headhunters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and George Clintonójust reeducating myself. Iíd always been doing little home recordings of my own original music, and I decided to take a few of them out of the archives and transfer it into a live setting, which was the beginning of R.H. Factor. We went into Electric Lady Studio for two weeks. Once the word got out that I was doing something different, all the musicians in New York started coming through!
A lot of musicians.
A lot! Iím saying every day it was somebody new. Itís funny how the world is small. When the word gets out, it gets out. You know how that is, here in New York. We were at Electric Lady, and the first day I couldnít find anybody. Nobody was around. I didnít have a bass player, no drummer, no nothing. It was just me and Marc Cary, trying to get it started. We had Jason Olaine calling around, trying to find us a bass player. Finally, Meshell Ndegeocello popped up and brought her drummer, Gene Lake, and thatís how we got startedóand the whirlwind of creativity began at that point. For two weeks, cats were just coming ... even Steve Coleman came by one day. There were some people who I actually called to come through, more mainstream entertainers like Q-Tip and DíAngelo and Common, Erykah Badu. These are my friends. It was a little bit difficult to get them, but they still came through. The only problem was that the budget spiraled out of control, because there were so many musicians, and they had to pay all of them. But that first one, once it got off the ground, was a lot of fun to do. I had Bernard Wright there, and my homeboys from TexasóKeith Anderson, Bobby Sparks, and Jason Thomas. Thatís the nucleus of what was going on.
Just let me interrupt momentarily. Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, DíAngelo, Common, were all people youíd come to know during the Ď90s. Now, youíre best known as the leader of a hardcore jazz quintet playing swing, in a milieu where the jazz police are serious.
Mmm-hmm. But I never paid attention to that.
Well, you mentioned your fatherís question, 'when are you going to play something more contemporary?' That made me wonder whether there was a tipping point where you decided ...
No-no. I never was satisfied with just staying in one place with music. I get bored. I always try to keep it rounded. When I was in school at Berklee, people thought I was strange because I would hang out with the jazz guys and the R&B cats, and then just sit there and listen to the gospel choir, saying, 'they donít understand.' Because there especially I met people who got into their locked-in things. Youíve got the guys that just play like Bird, then ones that just play like Coltrane. You got the guys who are strictly R&B, and they think the jazz guys are stuck up. You got the jazz guys who think the R&B guys are ignorant and canít play changes. I never really sank my teeth into being in one of those groups. When I started recording professionally, I chose to do straight-ahead jazz, because thatís where my development was at the time, and I was trying to learn how to do it. I thought there was enough people trying to rap and do all that other stuff. There was enough of that at the time! Iím fascinated by Clifford, Fats Navarro, and these guys who were like institutions.
It was high art.
Yeah. Iím fascinated by that. Once I got locked on to that, I couldnít stop. For me, itís a blessing to be able to record jazz in this day and age. So I just went with that. But then, when it came time ... Actually, it was really difficult for me to try to branch out and do something that wasnít jazz. When I make a jazz recording, no one says anything. Theyíre just like, 'Ok, take three. Thank you.' Or 'maybe we need another one, just for safety.' But then, when I started branching out into something else, everybody had an opinion. Everybody wanted to try to tell me how to write the songs, how to arrange the songs, do this, do that, 'youíve gotta get this singer, youíve gotta get that one.' Everybody became an authority. People in the jazz world, they all think, 'Heís a bebopper, he doesnít know what heís doing; he canít play that.' But Iím from the generation that hip-hop came from, so itís going to come out of me, too. I mean, my favorite group was Run-DMC when I was like 13 and 14. I actually bought Kurtis Blowís first album.
Did your father like hip-hop?
He had one song he liked, 'The Message' by Grandfather Flash. 'Donít push me, Ďcause Iím close ...'
In his very warm liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that you started playing in an elementary school jazz ensemble in Dallas. Then people started hearing about you when you were 14-15, when you attended Booker T. Washington High School, which had a distinguished lineage stretching back to the Ď40s and Ď50s. During that time, were you working outside school? Blues bands, R&B bands, church situations?
Yeah. Once I got hit by the music bug, I couldnít stop. I wanted to do it all the time. They had to pull me out of the band room. I was the first one there, and always the last to leave. Iíd stay there until 5 or 6 oíclock in the evening, because I loved it so much. It was also a kind of deterrent from being in the streets. People talk about South Central L.A., but South Dallas is no joke! Erykah is from South Dallas. We went to high school together. Yeah, people donít talk about South Dallas. If you picture the ghetto in South Central L.A., or Compton, which they glamorize on TV and have the gangs ... Just imagine ten times that. Itís so bad, they canít even show it on TV. You go to Texas, and the ghetto is crazy. People are just crazy for no reason! I grew up around that in the 1980s, the late Ď80s, when a lot of gangs were beginning, and there was a lot of crack. One time my father told me I couldnít go outside after 6 oíclock. So being around all that ... having music really helped. Having something to do to keep me out of the streets. Otherwise, it might have been trouble. Iím thankful for that.
Did the idea of having a distinguishing voice on the trumpet come to you pretty early? Were you modeling yourself after the cats you were listening to? Did it just naturally come forth somehow?
Being in Texas, you hear blues all the time. Blues all the time. People love to listen to the blues. Every Sunday, my father and his friends would get together and play dominos, and put on Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, and listen to the blues. My grandmother and my aunts and all of them had 8-track tapes of Tyrone Davis. A lot of blues. So the blues gets in there. So when I first started learning how to improvise and took my first solo, it was based on playing the blues. My band director showed me a couple of licks ... I guess coming up in church, you learn how to project yourself emotionally through your instrument, if you play an instrument, or if you singówhatever you do. Texas is the Bible Belt. People know what that is when you go to church, and somebody sings a solo. That becomes a part of you. My grandmother put that in me when I was little. My spirituality has always been what keeps me going. Thatís what is coming through.
It wasnít until I was a teenager that I started to hear people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now, hearing Freddie Hubbard pretty much turned my whole life around. Clifford Brown at first, because I had never really heard jazz trumpet like that. Cliffordís technique was so good that it sounded like he wasnít even playing trumpet any more. It went into like a woodwind sound almost, as though he had practiced so much and got so good that his sound went past being just a trumpetóit was just music. But then, Freddie Hubbard really got me, because he had a contemporary thing in his soundóit reached back to cats like Clifford and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, but it also had a thing from my fatherís generation, from the Ď70s. I could definitely latch onto that, especially the way he played ballads. I always liked his ballad playing. Just ballads in general. I like to play the slow songs.
So I started from blues, and then I started learning bebop when I came to New York.
That was right after high school?
Well, I was in Boston for a couple of years.
Didnít you come to New York before you went to Boston?
Well, yes, I actually did, once. But it was for a competition. I was still in high school. I didnít really leave the hotel.
But before you came to Boston and New York, there were a couple of national figures who entered the picture for you a little bit, right?
Yes. Clark Terry and Wynton. When I sat in with Wynton that first time, I was really nervous. But I thought, 'Ok, youíve got to step up to the plate now; youíve got to deliver.' I wasnít afraid, but at the same time I was really nervous.
Is stepping up to the plate something innate in you?
Iíve always enjoyed when people enjoy. When Iím playing and someone is feeling good from that, Iíve liked it, ever since I was little, when I first started. When I play a few notes and somebody goes, 'Yeah!' Iím like, 'ok, yeah, I want to do that every time.' so yeah, step up to the plate, make it happen.
Back to R.H. Factor and the first record that came out with Common, Q-Tip, and artists like this, what was their sense of you as an instrumentalist? Were they thinking of you as a jazz player? As a common spirit? Apart from the friendship and the collegiality, what was the artistic relationship like?
Like Herbie always says, 'Iím a human being first, and a musician second.' I guess thereís something to be said for a doctor with a bedside manner. You have to know how to deal with people. So when I go to the more mainstream artists, I switch the way I work with them as opposed to when I work with the jazz players. In some cases, theyíre used to special treatment, and you canít be so technical.
Give me a concrete example.
For instance, with Q-Tip, I put him in the booth and let him write to the track, and just have the first 8 bars, or something like that, keep looping over and over. For about an hour I left him in there by himself. He wrote to the track, then we went back in and cut it, and he did it first take.
But thereís no formula. Itís different with each person. It depends on their personality. With Common it was a little different. He and Erykah were dating at the time, so I had to pull him out of the studio. Finally, I got him out of there at 5 a.m. or something, and he came down. He didnít even write anything. He just improvised his thing, which was one take. I couldnít believe he did it in one, so I was like, 'Can you do that again?'óand he did it again! It was great. But then I went through all of this crap with his manager, because he didnít like the improvised thing. He wanted him to write something. Iím like, 'You donít understand whatís going on. I wanted it to be improvised.'
Does this emphasis on bedside manner represent your attitude as a bandleader in all the different situations?
Definitely. It takes patience and forward thinking. You always have to be thinking for the other guy, thinking what heís going to do. Is he going to miss that note? Ok, is he going to come in? Iíve got to count him in. Itís like a juggling act sometimes, trying to ... well, not really like a juggling act; Iíll take that back. What I mean is, you have to think forward, think ahead. With the big band especiallyóconducting and bringing in all the different sections and whatnotóyou have to always be at least two bars ahead.
I guess you have to be like when youíre leading the small band, too, keeping the crowd in mind, what to play at what timeógauging all those dynamics.
I mean, itís not that much different from the small group to the big groups. I think that, in a way, the approach should be kind of the same. With the small group, sometimes we play the big band arrangements, pared down, which is exciting for them.
A different flavor. Changes things up.
Changes things up, yes.
So you hit New York in 1990 after two years at Berklee. Was being there helpful to you?
Yeah, definitely. Billy Pierce was there. I did my first couple of gigs with James Williams while I was there. Greg Hopkins, too. At Berklee, I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Ensemble, which is how I learned a lot of that book. Greg had some of the same arrangements, so when I got in the band with Slide, I had played a lot of the arrangements before. That helped me professionally. I already had some training, and I got a lot there, too, though I wasnít there very long. Not just from being in the school, but from being on the streets. Going to Wallyís every night. I heard a lot of great music there, and I got to know some great musicians as well, like Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Delfeayo Marsalis .... Being away from Texas was a culture shock for me, but also very enriching as far as my education in jazz.
Then you get to New York...
Then it got really deep! While I was at Berklee, I was starting to learn a little bit of some bebop, but I was really just trying to learn how to read chord changes. Iíve always played by ear, from when I first started. The first trumpet player got mad at me, because I would play his part, but Iíd be down at the third trumpet!
I think the ear training is such a big deal, though, especially now. Weíre in the information age, and you can get everything at the push of a button. So musicians have to be very complete. You have to be not only good readers and be up on the technical side of playing music, but also be able to play what you hear. Thatís sometimes lacking. I know a lot of musicians who can read flyshit, but if you whistle something to them, they canít play it. Ear training is a big deal.
Anyway, it got deep when I got to New York. I started sitting in with people like John Hicks. I followed John Hicks around New York for a while.
Letís paint a picture. You were around 19-20, and spending a lot of time at Bradleyís, both playing bookings and sitting in. You were playing with Hicks, and you were playing with Larry Willis, and the musicians who play on the record, Family... I personally remember an occasion when you were sitting in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr. on the second set, they kicked your ass, and then you came back on the last set and hung right in there. I saw similar situations transpire several times. Itís kind of an old-school way of learning, but I think it says something fundamental about you.
Iím very thankful, because people like George Coleman and Walter Davis taught us how to be men on the bandstandóhow to be grownups. I never will forget that same night you mention, when I was playing with George and we went through the keys on 'Cherokee,' which was like a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm. Then we played 'Body and Soul,' and he started changing up the metersóhe played in 3 and then in 5, and then BLAM, really fast. [LAUGHS] Then he turns around to me and goes, 'You got it.' I go, 'ok. What am I going to do after all of that?' But I stuck to my guns and tried to ride it out. Man, they were so helpful to me.
Thatís why I think we just need something now. Musicians need role models, something so that they can see how itís done. Iíd glad I got a chance to see it in person. Bradleyís was an institution, to me. It was like going to school. It was like your Masters. You go in there, and youíre playing, and then thereís Freddie Hubbard at the bar! What do you do? This is very humbling. Everything Iím playing right now I owe to that whole scene.
Before I interrupted, you mentioned following John Hicks around the city, and you remarked earlier youíve commissioned an arrangement of his piece 'After the Morning' for the big band. Hicks was a musician who is underappreciated in the broader scheme of things in jazz ...
Yeah, but he was a true musician's musician. My manager, Larry Clothier, told me about John in the beginning. He said, 'Youíve got to hear him; he elevates off the piano. Really. He starts levitating.' When I saw him the first time, it happened! I was like, 'whoa!' So I latched on to John, and he was like my uncle. He was like family to me. His music was an influence. I was influenced by a lot of pianists as far as how I write and my approach to harmony. Thereís John Hicks, then also Larry Willis, then also Ronnie Matthews, Kenny Barron, tooóand James Williams, of course.
My writing was influenced mostly by James Williams and John Hicks, the use of the major seventh-sharp 11th chord. That was my favorite chord when I was in college, and I used to use it on a lot of songs. They showed me how to use that chord, and make it very melodic. Sometimes the guys in my band would get tired, because I would write them like in parallel ... 'Man, you got some more major seventh-sharp eleventh chords?' A lot of my tunes had inflections from John or James or even Larry Willis, and they still do today.
One thing that I think shone through at Bradleyís was your ability to play a ballad. At 19 you could have been called an 'old soul,' but we canít really say that now, since youíre turning 40 this year.
I think thatís just my upbringing. Iíve always gravitated towards the slower songs. Ballads have an emotional quality to me. You slow it down, and you hear everything, all the nuances .... Maybe Iím a romantic as well. I guess I believe in love! I like the slow songs. I like when itís broken down. Sometimes thatís where the beauty is, when you bring it in the slow tempo. And I always listened to singers. Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan is my favorite. Of course, I owe a lot to Carmen McRae. I got to hear her live a lot, and she used to let me sit in with her all the time. Her delivery ... I heard Freddy Cole at Bradleyís as well.
Thereís a vocal element in my music. I try to play like a singer. I try to sing through my instrument like a vocalist would sing. Iím always thinking about the lyrics. I was told by Clifford Jordan that you have to know the words of the song, because then you really understand what itís about, and when you play the melody you really understand the mood youíre projecting. Also, it helps your phrasing.
It sounds like there was never any generation gap for you.
Man, I have extreme respect for my elders. I believe in that. Somebody whoís been on this planet longer than me, I have to respect them. Even if theyíre dead wrong, Iíve still got to respect them! Thereís something to be said about the fact that theyíve been here longer than me, and theyíve survived. When it comes to musicians, it even gets deeper.
Another thing thatís interesting about how Bradleyís played out for you is that, because your business arrangements turned you into a leader quite quickly, it became the primary venue for your apprenticeship. You never did the sideman thing too much, if I recall correctly.
No, youíre wrong about that. I did a lot of sideman things, but it wasnít anything steady. I started off playing with Frank Morgan and the Ronnie Matthews Trio, and it went from there to Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, and Vernell Fournier, and then Charles McPherson.
Were these one-offs or were you touring with them?
I was touring with them. I would do a week here, two weeks there with different groups. Most of them were veterans, with me, the young kid, as the special guest. They were so encouraging. Whenever I showed up on the scene with my trumpet, the older guys, like Clifford Jordan, would be like, 'Man, come on and play.' Nowadays, people get very protective over the bandstand. You want to go sit in with them, itís like 2 oíclock in the morning, and they say, 'Weíre going to play a few songs, and then weíll invite you up.' You canít do that at 2 oíclock in the morning, man! Itís too late for all of that. Letís have some fun! But people get very protective. I think the reason is because thereís no gigs. That creates a thing where when somebody gets a gig, even if itís 2 oíclock in the morning, they want to play all their original shit and they want to speak their piece.
But the older cats were very welcoming, even though I couldnít really even play changes that well. 'Hey, come on and play.' Sometimes, when I didnít want to play, theyíd be like, 'Get on up here.' Like, Kenny Washington one night, we were at Bradleyís, and he was playing some fast, crazy tempo. Kenny was known for playing 220! I went to go sit down, and he was like, 'Unh-uh, come back up here.' [LAUGHS] He wouldnít let me go. 'Yeah, youíre getting some of this, too.'
But even if my premise is wrong that you didnít do so much sidemanning, pretty much you were leading groups from ...
I didnít have my own quintet until Ď93-Ď94, with Greg Hutchinson, Marc Cary, Rodney Whitaker, and Antonio Hart. I tried to create a couple of bands before that, but nothing really stuck. I had different projects. I had one group with Walter Blanding, Chris McBride and Eric McPherson early on
Iíd like to talk about your development as a trumpet player over the years. What your weaknesses were, how you worked on them.
Trumpet is a beast! When I was in high school, Wynton referred me to a guy named Kerry Kent Hughes, who was a trumpet professor at Texas Christian University. He was my very first private instructor on that level. Iíd been studying at school, and pretty much teaching myself, for the most part. This was the first time I actually had someone who would come to my house and work with me. Man, I learned so much. I couldnít pay him. We were poor. But he did this out of his heart. He was a classical player, but he also did musicals and shows and so on, and he was very versatile. Actually, he came to the Vanguard the last time we played there, and it blew my mind, because I hadnít seen him in so long. But Kerry Hughes would come to my house every week or so, and show me little things to help me with endurance. We worked on Cichowicz flow studies and stuff like that, and also the Arban method. This really instilled in me the importance of an everyday routine on the trumpet, certain rudimental things that you do just to keep your chops up. With a hectic schedule and touring when you have to go to the airport and so on, you donít get a lot of opportunities to practice, so you have to develop a daily routine to keep your chops up. I learned a lot from him in that respect.
Iíve picked up things as I go. A few years ago, I learned something called the Whisper Tone that really opened me up, helped my range a lot, helped me to be able to play more around the horn. Iím still developing, trying to learn as much as I can about the trumpet. Itís a beast. Dizzy says, 'It lays there in luxury, waiting for someone to pick it up, so it can mess up your head.' [LAUGHS]
Dizzy Gillespie sure messed up the heads of a lot of people. You donít hear too many who can emulate him.
I was just listening to something last night, 'Birks Works' with Milt Jackson.
At what point do you feel you got past influences?
Iím still not. Iím still there.
Were you transcribing trumpeters? Were you doing it more by feel?
When I was at Berklee, I had to transcribe some Fats Navarro. Jeff Stout was my teacher, and he had me transcribe a couple of Fats Navarro solos. But I never got into transcription as far as writing it down. I donít think that you get much from that. Itís better if you transcribe by ear and learn it, because some things you canít really write down all the wayócertain inflections and the feel that comes from someoneís conception. But I transcribe a lot by ear, not even really trying to. If I hear something more than three times, Iíve pretty much got it memorized.
Thatís a gift, to be able to do that.
Yes, I think so. Thank God for that. But itís also training. Because if you listen to music all the time, which I do, then it becomes part of you. It becomes part of your breathing. Itís just like drinking water or eating. I listen to music all the time. Even when Iím not listening, itís still in my head.
So the quintet is your longest continuous entity.
Yeah, I like the quintet format. It has everything there. I have tried some other formats, though. Thatís why I like coming to the Jazz Gallery to play, because I get to do other thingsólike the organ trio is fun.
Youíve also paired off with other trumpeters on various gigs here. Back to the notion of camaraderie and collegiality, it seems that you like to have another voice to play off of.
Yes, I like it.
It doesnít seem that quartet would be your favorite format.
Well, it depends. With quartet, I would probably play more ballads. But itís hard to play ballads now, because the young guys donít know the American Songbook. They donít know the songs. Itís difficult. I go to jam sessions a lot, and when I start calling tunes, nobody knows anything. You either get 'Beatrice' or 'Inner Urge.' Thatís it!
Gerald Clayton, who was your pianist for several years, has command of that ...
He does. He knows the language of it. If he doesnít know the tune, he can figure it out. For his generation, heís one of the better ones. But then, his father is John Clayton, so heís getting it honest. But I could stump him, too. He didnít know 'After the Morning.'
But in any event, youíre always bringing new young musicians into the band. Is there a disconnect for you with that generation?
I miss being able to hear some music that I just canít get enough of! Iíll give you an example. Just two nights ago, I went into Smalls, and we were hanging out, jam session, everythingís pretty straight line, and then my friend Duane Clemons gets up and playsóand I was so happy! It was like touchdown! Know what Iím saying? It was like throwing a pork chop into the middle of a hunger-starved place. I felt so good just for that little bit. Man, if I could just have a little bit of that all the time. I was telling Duane that, 'Man, you should really play more, because thatís food.' He was playing the real language. He was playing bebop. He was playing the real New York stuff. The real fabric of the language of the music. When you hear it, you know what it is.
You do some workshops and clinics, too. Youíre in touch with younger musicians.
Sometimes. I did a thing with Roy Haynes at Harvard not too long ago. It was real cool.
What do you think is alienating musicians from that way of playing? Is it lack of information, or ...
Lack of information.
... is it attitude?
Itís both, One feeds the other. First of all, I think people sometimes come into the arts for the wrong reason nowóbecause they want to be famous and rich and have a nice life, instead of trying to reach peopleís consciousness and make a difference. Doing something for someone else besides yourself. People come into this, and, 'Yeah, I want to be rich, I want to have a car, I want to have people waiting on me,' and so on. It gets weird when thatís your main focus. So you get the jazz musician who learned how to play in school who already thinks heís learned it all. I like to meet musicians like that, because then I like to challenge them. Thatís why I started this big band. I wanted to challenge the peacocks, musicians who think, 'Oh yeah, I already know everything.' But you donít!
They donít get it. But if you love this music, youíll go out and find what you need. Thatís one thing I like about Jonathan Batiste, the new piano player whoís been playing with me. He seeks out cats like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones. Thatís different than the guys in his generation, who are more into McCoy and HerbieóJonathan checks out the real thing. I have to say, he did a great job on this last tour. I was really excited, because he came out and took care of business. This cat played in all three groups.
Jonathan Batiste is out of New Orleans.
New Orleans. What are they feeding them down there?! I donít understand. Them New Orleans piano players. I had two of them in the past months, Sullivan Fortner and then Jonathan, and these guys are so complete. There was nothing I couldnít throw at them. Iíve been working towards having the type of group where if I wanted to show them a new song, I could sit down at the piano and play it, and then theyíd hear itóI donít have to write it out or anything. Now is the first time Iíve ever had a group like that; with Jonathan, I could sit down and play it once, and heíd pick it up. Something about New Orleans.
So the present group is either Sullivan Fortner or Jonathan Batiste on piano...
Yes. Amin Salim is playing bass. Montez Coleman is on drums. Justin Robinson on alto saxophone.
Is the quintet a more open-ended format for you than the big band or R.H. Factor?
'Open-ended.' What do you mean?
In your current bio sheet, you remark about the big band, 'Thereís not much left to chance.'
Yes. With the quintet, itís always up in the air. The book is so vast with the quintet right now (excluding the new members, like Amin Saleem, who doesnít know the whole book yetóbut heís learning it) that we can go in any direction you want. I can actually do the Big Band and R.H. Factor set with them, too. This version of the quintet is probably one of the more versatile units Iíve had. When we play the Latin thing, itís real Latin. When we play some funk, itís real funky. When we play straight-ahead, itís tippiní. We can go anywhere. Thatís basically my whole premise. I believe in variety, and also I believe in spontaneity. Thereís no rule book. As soon as it starts to get to be in a rut, then I change it right away. With the quintet, we never play the same thing. Each night I try to change up the repertoire a bit so that everyone stays focused. We never get bored.
Being a bandleader is very interesting and challenging in that way. You have to keep everybody focused, and also motivated. Even outside of the music, trying to keep morale up is a balancing act as well. When youíre on the road and nobodyís slept for a few days, people get tired of looking at each other and it gets real dark. So I try to keep a very positive energy around everyone, so we keep it going.
You yourself must get tired, too.
Yes. I get tired. But Iím ok. My spirituality is what keeps me going, for sure.
Ted Panken interviewed Roy Hargrove on August 11, 2009.