Many know Billy Hart—Jabali—for his resonant contributions to Herbie Hancock’s sextet during the Mwandishi years. Others know him for his storied associations with Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, or his early experience performing alongside Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Patti LaBelle.
But the new assembly of artists—“the new guard,” to use his words—knows the DC-born drummer, composer and band leader as a towering figure with a sound that continues to evolve the music. He acts as a mentor, showing up for multigenerational protégés; an elder, eagerly inviting younger artists to play next to his fire; and a master of the moment, whose Vanguard sets are known to entrance front rows, back tables, service staff, and management alike.
This week, he shares The Jazz Gallery stage with long-running quartet-mates Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street. From his home in Montclair, New Jersey, he spoke with the Gallery for nearly two hours, beginning many thoughtful responses with the same question: “Well…do you want to hear the whole story?”
The Jazz Gallery: So many artists in New York, and I imagine elsewhere, consider you a mentor. I’d love to hear about one of your first mentors, Shirley Horn—what playing in her band taught you about the music and about leading a band.
Billy Hart: I still play the drums the way she taught me. Every night. How much time have you got?
On first experiences in jazz
I’m from Washington, D.C. My grandmother lived in an apartment across the hall from the best jazz saxophone player in town, at that time. And I would have had no way of knowing that—or even caring because I wasn’t interested in the music on that level, at that time—but my grandmother was late coming home from work. This guy’s wife didn’t like the fact that there was somebody loitering in the hall, so she came out to see what I was doing. When I told her I was waiting for my grandmother, she said, “Well you can’t wait here. You can come in my apartment.” Then her husband came home from work, this guy Roger “Buck” Hill. He was the great tenor saxophone player in town. I had my drumsticks in my back pocket, and he said, “Oh, you’re a drummer.” And he gave me two Charlie Parker records; one was Bird with Strings, “Just Friends”—on the other side was “If I Should Lose You,” and the other one was “Au Privave” and “Star Eyes.” They were two 78 records [laughs]. This is how long ago that was.
So I went home and put the records on. Before that, my favorite music was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. And what’s interesting about that for me, is when I finally got the chance to hang out with Tony Williams, he felt the same way. His favorite group was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. So anyway, I heard this music. And for some reason, it grabbed me. I can’t even say why because most of my friends were listening to vocal pop music. So I started listening to the records and I ended up putting together a piecemeal drum set, and started playing with the records. Over a period of a couple of years, I guess I got better at it. That’s when I somehow discovered that this music could be heard on the radio—and on the radio they would advertise live performances. So I decided to go to some of these live performances. I didn’t really tell my parents, so that was a problem—because I wasn’t allowed out that late at night. And I was staying out so late, but I still had to get up and go to school in the morning.
Getting Started on the D.C. Scene
So I got to the point where I started asking people to let me sit in. And nobody would let me sit in. They thought it was a joke. They thought it was funny that this little kid was asking to play. And they would say, “Well you can’t sit in now, but maybe we’ll let you sit in in the last set.” But the last set in those days was really, really late. The gigs didn’t even start until 10, so the last set might be 3 o’clock in the morning. I’d have to go on home and deal with my parents, and then go to school. And they still wouldn’t let me play. They wouldn’t let me sit in. So I ended up calling this saxophone player back, and I said, “Man, I been trying to play and they won’t let me play.” So he said, “Well I’ve got this Saturday afternoon gig. You can come down and play with me.” And I know he didn’t really wanna do it. He hadn’t heard me play. He just remembered giving me the records, and that had been two or three years before. He just was being nice. So he let me sit in.