Jabali, Drummer Billy Hart – Master Teacher, Forever Student, and NEA Jazz Master
As a drummer, composer and educator, Billy Hart has participated in the history of jazz from behind the kit as largely an unsung hero. If so, then no longer — Hart was recently accorded the form's highest honor when he joined the 2022 class of NEA Jazz Masters.
This episode of Jazz Night In America, we'll travel through Hart's formative years in Washington, D.C. First, we'll touch on his first gigs as a drummer at the Howard Theater and the influence of famed locals Shirley Horn and Buck Hill, developing the talent that led him to work with the illustrious Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery before he had turned 25.
By 1970, around 30 years old, Billy was a working member of Herbie Hancock's experimental sextet, known colloquially as Mwandishi. The late James Mtume (born Forman, whose single would become a hip-hop staple) gave each member a Swahili name; Billy Hart's was Jabali, meaning "rock." And he was. Jabali and Billy Hart were one and the same.
Jabali could be heard on recordings with legends like Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner. He also started leading his own records by the late '70s, using unconventional instruments like violin and Japanese koto; these statements would nod to standards and funkier experiments, but they were also melodic and singable. A case in point is "Duchess," a song that the Billy Hart Quartet has kept repurposing (in this episode, we see what Hart and his bandmates do with it live on stage at Dizzy's Club).
Since the early '90s, Hart has been teaching at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, among other places, mentoring and passing on all he knows for the future generations of drummers, composers and musicians called towards improvisational music. His roots, rise and lasting legacy are those of a master teacher and forever student.
"Irah" from Oshumare
Billy Hart, drums; John Stubblefield, soprano saxophone; David "Fuze" Fiuczynski, guitar; David Kikoski, piano; Marc Copland, keyboards; Mark Feldman, violin; Santi Debriano, bass.
All music by Billy Hart unless otherwise noted.
Credits: Writers and Producers: Camilo Garzón and Alex Ariff; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Concert Engineer: Rob Macumber; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.
Special thanks to 1504 Productions, Josephine Reed, and the team at National Endowment for the Arts.
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