Interview with Billy Hart
My first long interview of a legend went up in 2006 on a now defunct Billy Hart website. If you've read it already, click here to go to a new, previously unpublished section from 2008.
January 2006, part one. "Let’s call it the jazz tradition: that huge world that is a sociological development demonstrated through music."
Billy Hart: The first 78 I had was Charlie Parker with strings playing “Just Friends” and “If I Should Lose You.” Buck Hill gave me that record, and also the 78 that had “Star Eyes” on one side and “Au Privave” on the other. From those two records, I fell in love with jazz. I was fifteen or sixteen, and I think I was already playing some drums.
They were the first records that came to me direct. I’m sure that my mother and father had stuff that I grew up hearing that was in there, but it didn’t mean anything (especially after television came in when I was about seven years old--those big console sets that you had to move the antenna to change the channel).
I can visualize myself at school, being so hooked on those records that I couldn’t even sit with other people in the lunchroom. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, singing about it…it wasn’t like I took drum lessons or piano lessons, but it just took hold—I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Tootie Heath was close. I don’t know if it was in high school or in college…but for sure he did come by my room and make a physical thing outside the room [laughter] so that to avoid being embarrassed I had to excuse myself and go out into the hall and hang out! I remember going with him to go buy some drum sticks one time, and being impressed with his rudimental skills. He also played me my first Ornette Coleman record. In those days it seemed like was a lot older than me. Ben Riley, Tootie Heath, and Louis Hayes were already playing gigs when I was in high school. (My own age group seems more like Tony Williams, Al Foster, and Jack DeJohnette.)
Ethan Iverson: You told me once that of all the drummers on the East Coast, Tootie and you were in the same bag.
BH: No doubt that Tootie and I play similarly. Tootie and Louis Hayes were my first mentors. But it wasn’t like that they sat down and showed me anything, they were just the first guys that I had the chance to watch and imitate. Tootie’s interest in Ornette was strange because he never played any of that kind of music (that I heard about). He was playing with the Jazztet, and with Bobby Timmons. I remember him talking to me about playing with Timmons, and that Ron Carter was on the gig, and that he really enjoyed it, that it felt really good. This is before he went to Europe. When he came back he played with Herbie Hancock’s sextet briefly and then he was in Yusef Lateef’s brilliant quartet with Kenny Barron and Bob Cunningham. Oh, and before that, he had a very interesting connection with Cedar Walton when they both played with J.J. Johnson. Tootie has a flair for comedy: of all the people I know, Tootie is one of the funniest. All the Heath brothers are humorous, but Tootie is outrageous. He used to make up lyrics to all of Ornette’s tunes. That's how he would teach me that music, by singing his own lyrics to Ornette’s tunes, which were always funny, and may be one of the reasons I was so into Ornette. Lou Hayes, obviously, didn’t or wouldn’t understand Tootie then!
I do know that when I was coming up, there was more of an emphasis on finding your own sound. I remember people talking about Clifford Jordan and Sonny Rollins in intimate conversation—discussing if Clifford was his own man yet. Guitarist Eddie McFadden told me: you can get it from other guys--or you can get from the source (by studying music from books, and learning it yourself). The thing was to get your own sound. If not your own style, and least your own sound.
EI: When did you think you had your own style?
BH: There is a video of a Tony Williams clinic that I am going to quote. Tony says, “As far as I am concerned, I don’t have my own style. I was always trying to play like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and, Max Roach. I wanted to play like they played, if they were me!"
If there was another word besides “academic”…Tony, for his age, seemed to me more thorough in the study of the jazz tradition of drumming than anybody I’ve ever come across. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other guys. But the more I learned, the more I realized that he had somehow gotten that history together. And it is not just patterns, it’s the reason why.
I guess it would be in any kind of musical tradition, certain chords or accents or whatever present an emotion that been tried and true over a length of time, which I guess “speaks” or is traditionally accurate or correct. Tony had that. It wasn’t just that he played this rhythm or pattern, it was that the pattern belonged there traditionally. A lot of people today might play a Tony Williams pattern, but they play it just because they heard it…they don’t know why or how it works.
EI: There is that video you played me of the Miles Davis quintet with Herbie and Ron playing “Autumn Leaves.” There are some tensions in the piano and bass, and Tony responds by playing a simple shuffle on the snare and cymbal, which is kind of an advanced response to the tension.
BH: Except that it so correct! You can see Miles is immediately influenced and affected emotionally. And then you back to Philly Joe or anybody, hear them do it, and go, “oh right.” It’s like a change of color or a heightened intensity. (As opposed to starting a tune that way---if you start a tune there, you have to stay there.)
EI: One of the interesting things about the Miles band is that there were a lot of details about the tunes that incoming members have to learn, like the cymbal beat and piano tremolos on “All Blues.” Tony and Herbie interpreted those parts in their own way, but still they clearly knew the details.
BH: That’s something else that Tony said. Someone asked him about getting the gig with Miles just before he was 17 years old. There must have been other good drummers, right? Tony said, “Hard to know. I’d like to ask Miles myself. I can’t say that I was better than anybody else. But I was definitely prepared for the gig. There was nothing Miles could play that I didn’t already know.”
EI: You once told me that in your development that you thought you found your own style, but then you heard Roy Haynes.
BH: Yeah. Not only that, I even used to look like Haynes -- a lot! In the magazines his drum set also looked like mine. Evidently I wasn’t the only one that thought that. When I first moved to New York, and it looked like I would never have a gig, ever, I went to see Roy play for some inspiration, and I tried to muster up all the bravado I could get.
I walked up to him and said, [aggressively] “How you doin’ Haynes?” He looked up and said, [even more aggressively] “How YOU doin’, Haynes?” [laughter.]
And then I played this legendary club in Brooklyn called The Blue Coronet. I was playing with Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer. (This was during the days that Billy Higgins didn’t even own a drum stick, let alone a drum set. Higgins was playing gigs with spoons and knives and shit.) There was this drummer named Lenny McBrowne at that gig, and when he came up to me afterwards he said, “Billy! You sound great, man, just like a young Roy Haynes!”
Recently, just a couple of months ago, I played some Eric Dolphy music with pianist Eric Reed. He gave a tape of Dolphy with Haynes on drums. It wasn’t until I heard this Dolphy tape that I realized that had never really studied “Far Cry” and all those tunes, or that concept of playing. I found the music very challenging, and Haynes played it back in a day when you don’t think of guys reading on a very high level. I’m still puzzled how Haynes was able to play that music so masterfully. I mean, you can easily just chalk it up to genius, but I’m still looking for…something else! As I much as I thought I knew about Haynes, that he was this brilliant and innovative drummer who had the true message of bebop from Bird and Monk and Diz, I know now that he performed miracles with the next generation too.
EI: There’s also great Roy on that Andrew Hill record with Joe Henderson and Richard Davis, Black Fire.
BH: You know, I had that…and the Jackie McLean album It’s Time. But think that Haynes was playing so advanced on that music that it was over my head at the time. Now that I’m 65, I’m beginning to catch up. Thanks for reminding me of those records; I’ll go back to them too.
EI: You don’t play like Haynes any more. In fact, you seem to have had your own style from the earliest recordings I’ve heard you on in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
BH: Well, I guess what I thought was gonna “my style” that Roy Haynes was already playing was only a part of “my style.” An important part, but there were certainly other elements, especially because of the gigs I got. I left Buck Hill and was with Shirley Horn. Later I was with Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith.
Right at that point, something very, very important for drumming happened. (This relates very much to Tony Williams again.) At that point, the bebop guys had already embraced Afro-Cuban music. (Not unlike they’re doing today. As usual, the guys who romanticize that thing today seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that the bebop cats romanticized the Afro-Cuban thing at least as much then as we do now. Think of “Night in Tunisia” and “Woody’n You.”) That had changed quarter notes to eighth notes. [Sings an example of juke joint music first with swing eighths and then with an even eighth backbeat.] That’s what the beboppers did for popular music (as far I’m seeing it). So, by the time I’m checking Roy Haynes, I’m also looking at this, in sort of an osmosis kind of way. Like any young boy today. (I do all these clinics, and young cats ask me what I think of pop music—rock and roll, hip-hop—as if I hadn’t been there when it was invented, and as if it didn’t influence me!)
So anyway, at this time [the late 1950’s] the possibility of that [the even-eighth backbeat] being part of a positive evolution for drumming-- if not the music itself-- takes hold. Because as much as Roy Haynes and Max and those cats were a part of the process, they didn’t play [the backbeat]. They were playing like Chano Pozo and Machito.
EI: This makes me think of that song “Eighty One,” on the Miles album E.S.P., with Tony on drums.
BH: Yeah! Sure! That is definitely Tony’s analysis of the situation. I think Tony Williams—this is not anybody else speaking here, but just me–I think Tony Williams is the inventor, the innovator, the father, and the designer of so-called fusion drumming, if not fusion itself. That is a big chunk to say, and I’m sure some could defeat me academically or articulately over this point in an argument. But it wouldn’t change how I felt inside—I will go to my last breath believing that.
“Eighty One” is it. Tony is so deep that shows what I just demonstrated [with the juke joint singing], but it also shows how Tony knew the “second-line.” Do you know what I mean by “second-line?”
EI: New Orleans parade beat.
BH: But it is more than that. It’s the direct translation of the African rhythm through India, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the West Indies to the drum set. As we get rid of racial prejudice, we know more about the origins of rhythm. A lot of the more advanced drummers of today are basically going backwards. Because: the Swing Era was the West Indies, and Bebop was Afro-Cuban and the Caribbean (Puerto Rico too), and then right when I hit the scene we have Brazil! And now metric-modulation, odd-groupings, and hemiola implies the study of the classical music of India.
As the American players of those styles begin understand that each step, it’s like the real cats have been there waiting—“Oh, now you’ve found it? You’ve figured it out? Ok, now we will show you how to do it with a little more authenticity.” And as we learn that authenticity, it makes the whole thing a little stronger, I suspect. First we brought in some of the Afro-Cubans like Machito, and then eventually Eddie Palmieri and (even more jazz) Hilton Ruiz...now we are to the point that Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are fully in the mix. From Brazil we had Jobim and Sergio Mendes, then Milton. Now, there are Indian players on the scene like Vijay Iyer.
Anyway, the “second-line” is all over this music, and still is today (like in Kenny Garrett’s or John Scofield’s music). Do you realize that Vernel Fournier’s beat on “Poinciana” is pure “second line?” A modern example of traditional style “second line” is Adonis Rose on Donald Harrison’s New Orleans Legacy album.
So, anyway, back to me. I had Roy, and I had this other stuff, which I acquired though osmosis or had naturally. Then I began playing with Jimmy Smith. I went with Jimmy Smith to learn more about bebop—or whatever you want to call it. Let’s call it the jazz tradition: that huge world that is a sociological development demonstrated through music. Although I went with Jimmy Smith to learn that, he wanted me because I could play the new beat, or this new way of looking. He was looking to for a way to cross over with more authenticity.
I’m not on Jimmy’s records from the time I played with him, since the record label Verve was trying to make Jimmy a big star using an certain system. They put Jimmy with big arrangements, almost Frank Sinatra style, to make him make palatable for a wider audience. It was Creed Taylor’s concept, first at Verve, then at A&M, and then finally his own record label CTI. It was very successful! Jimmy was the first jazz artist to get the Creed Taylor treatment. Jimmy played with strings and big bands, like he was a popular singer.
I was with Jimmy three and a half years.
EI: A lot of us don’t realize you did serious road time with both Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery.
BH: I was with Wes immediately after Jimmy, and not for that long, maybe for about a year and a half or two years. Wes was coming out of the same concept. Identical Creed Taylor concept on Verve and A&M.
I buried Wes. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. I might still be with Wes Montgomery today because he put me on salary. I got paid every week whether we worked or not. He had a hand-drummer in the band, which meant he was already open or aware of what was to come, right? All this was pre-fusion fusion music, as I look at it now. Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Eddie Harris. After Wes passed, I went with Eddie until I didn’t want to do it any more (I got tired of the gig).
EI: Tell me about Wes and the ride cymbal beat.
BH: Right! It was very, very helpful. As helpful as it was humiliating. Basically, what he wanted was just what I didn’t have: more of a clear understanding, a clear direction of keeping time. I couldn’t do it. So Wes gave me a lesson that showed me that I didn’t have a clear cymbal beat. Which is how I learned how to play.
(Ed Blackwell has one of the clearest cymbal beats. Well, he’s from New Orleans. They get a special badge from birth, right after they cut the umbilical cord. It says, “You will have great time for the rest of your life.”)
EI: What did Wes tell you? He certainly didn’t say, “Billy, could you play a clearer cymbal beat?” [Laughter.]
BH: It happened again with Stan Getz. He did the same thing to me. It’s interesting how you learn things—I wonder how someone like Tony Williams learned it so correctly? Or how Elvin Jones learned it so correctly…well, anyway, someone had to tell me in the most embarrassing way possible, you know? But at least I learned it—or became aware of it, anyway. Wes said to me, “Billy, what’s that you’re doin’ with your cymbal?”
And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Wes.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Wes, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“OK , Billy, let me put it this way: the shit ain’t laying.”
Now, how am I supposed to know what that means? Well, of course I did know what it meant, you know what it means...how do you put that in words? “It’s not perfectly in sync?” Or “It’s not causing the kind of euphoria that we refer to as swinging or grooving?” Well, anyway, the way he put it was: “The shit ain’t laying.”
EI: Did he just tell you that just once?
BH: No, no. Being a younger person, I wasn’t going to accept it, so I said, “OK, well, he means he wants me to play that old-fashioned, old-style-ass cymbal beat. If he wants it, fuck it, I’ll do that, but I still have my other three limbs. With my left hand and right foot I’ll still help the evolution of the planet in a positive way, without this buffoon imposing his own old-fashioned-ass ways."
So, two or three months later, he says to me, “Billy, what’s that you’re doing with your left hand?” And we went through the same thing again.
EI: With all the limbs, I suppose.
BH: Well, I don’t think we had to deal with the high-hat. But it definitely went down with the snare drum and the bass-drum.
In keeping time, this kind of time, since the music started out as a sort of dance music, that meant the drummer was in jail, if not a slave. (A modern drummer like Nasheet Waits would consider it hard time on a chain gang.) So, it took evolution to get out of that, but once cats tried to do that, then they were really leaned on in terms of how to keep the beat. Basically, it boiled down to: “You can try some of this shit, but if the beat transfers one iota, it’s out!” Kenny Clarke told stories of how, after a while, he could look at the leader’s face—the leader wouldn’t have to say anything, he’d just start packing up his drums, ‘cause he knew he was fired. So, when you’re playing this dance music, what ends up happening is that guys begin start developing this independence in a very clear way, because the time could not waver. How it starts is with rudiments—stuff you do with your hands. After a while you play them with your hand and your foot while keeping time. As the thing evolved, the rudiments evolved too, so the shit between the left hand and the right foot got even more complicated. There were three guys were able to take this into a very clear fruition right around when I was comin’ in. The three guys are Edgar Bateman, Donald Bailey, and, of course, Elvin Jones.
Donald Bailey was particularly important to me since I took his place with Jimmy Smith. Even if I hadn’t been that interested in this approach, I would have had to learn it to play the gig.
By the time I get to Wes, I’ve had three and a half years to work on all of this. Wes, you know, his concept of a very fucking advanced drummer was Jimmy Cobb.
Now, Jimmy's great--one of the greatest. He's also one of my mentors. But Jimmy keeps time so that he STARES at his [right] hand and cymbal as he plays. It’s like a computer graph, where you make sure everything is in sync. Suffice to say, I didn’t quite play like that! And that was Wes’ favorite drummer, right? So there was a WIDE space between us…and I had to get it together. In one club in San Francisco the bandstand was next to the wall, and the wall was next to this glass painting that acted like a mirror. So I could sit there, and watch myself play…check out my posture. Sitting there watching myself, that’s how I learned to play Wes’ beat.
Wes never mentioned Jimmy Cobb to me, which would have been a simple thing to do, but maybe he didn’t realize Jimmy was from Washington and that I knew Jimmy’s playing.
Whatever, he just said it wasn’t laying.
EI: What about the snare and bass drum?
BH: The snare drum, (as I understand it) relates to the treble clef of any ensemble. (The bass drum relates more to the bass clef.) That means your snare drum could be the trumpet section of a big band. It implies a certain tradition of arranging, whether it’s Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Thad Jones: it’s how you put that in the mix. That’s what Wes needed, that tradition.
EI: One of my perceptions about Jimmy’s Cobb’s beat is that it feels kind of aggressive or even like it’s rushing.
BH: H’mm. Well. That’s interesting.
There’s a way of playing on top of the beat which makes things happen… like Ron Carter, Tony Williams, or even Louis Hayes …it definitely works and is accurate musically. It’s a definite way of playing and it doesn’t rush. All you have to do is have that attitude. If you don’t have that attitude, it will rush. But if you know what you’re doing, it is just a way of playing. (I have really only become aware of this approach as a clear concept in the last ten years or so.)
Now, Jimmy, that’s not his real way of playing. In fact, I think that Washington, D.C. (where I’m from) has a way of producing drummers that play behind the beat. But Miles tried to get every drummer to play more on top.
BH: Oh yeah. Definitely!
EI: When I listen to the records I feel that Philly Joe is more laid back on the beat than Jimmy.
BH: It’s a serious conflict if you naturally feel the beat in the front and the bass player feels it behind (or vice versa). There’s a professional way to resolve the situation that explains Philly Joe. If you’re playing behind the beat and you don’t want it to slow down, you play more upbeats. That’s where the shuffle comes in. That’s why the shuffle is valid and correct, because it resolves that situation. If you want to lay back, then you use more shuffles. There’s a certain euphoric sensuality to laying back in certain situations, but you don’t want to lose your erection. To keep it up and lay back at the same time, you shuffle—and Philly Joe was great at that.
EI: Philly Joe’s rim click on the track “Milestones” is pretty on top—unusually so, for him. It’s as ahead as it can be and still feel good.
BH: Well, that was probably Miles. Miles always wanted his drummers to play on top. Same with Stan Getz, even with ballads… I was very uncomfortable playing ballads with Stan Getz since it was never fast enough for him. Never! I grew up playing with Shirley Horn—you can imagine how different that was. A modern day cat who is the same way is Geri Allen. It doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll say to her, “How was that, Geri?” And she’ll say, “Oh, that was great! Except, it still feels like it is slowin’ down.”
EI: What about McCoy Tyner?
BH: Well, he plays on top of the beat. So, if anything, he might be the opposite. He might want you to pull him back a bit. He wants that isometric thing.
EI: Oh, right. Like he had with Elvin, of course.
2006, part 2. "Rhythm is at least equal to harmony in the scheme of human evolution."
EI: Max Roach.
BH: Well, every great modern drummer told me they got what they do from Max. Roy, Elvin, and Tony all told me that. But Max was not the inventor of that style, he’s the personification of it. The inventor of that style, the one that paid the most dues -- and even though he’s dead, he’s still paying the dues because we don’t acknowledge him -- was Kenny Clarke. Most of the great drummers have played piano. Not some; most. Kenny Clarke was a great piano player. From 1896 (or whatever) to almost 1946, drummers didn’t play the ride cymbal. People played the snare drum, or when it was finally invented, the high-hat. Kenny Clarke is the guy who played the ride cymbal. Also, Kenny Clarke played with Freddie Green before Green played with Basie and Jo Jones. Jo Jones and Clarke were from the same era, actually…Klook was like Monk, a little more advanced than the others. And he gave us the ride cymbal beat. I have a friend who played with Clarke at the end of his life. He said that when Clarke played that cymbal beat, he OWNED that beat.
Max Roach, not unlike Tony Williams a generation later, put it all in academic order. He was a real scholar of the instrument: not only physically, but socially. He was aware of everything, and of course he was the one on the records with Bird.
Max also had wanted to be a classical percussionist. He was accepted for the Baltimore Symphony until he showed up for the gig—and they turned him away because he was Afro-American, of course. That’s one of the reasons he became so revolutionary later.
EI: I like his tympani playing with Monk.
BH: Elvin played it too, I met Elvin’s tympani teacher once.
When you think about how Max related drumming to music, it makes sense. He had kind of a Kenny Clarke thing but more impressionistic, but also more aggressive and outward.
A lot of it is how you feel about life, and how you feel about social issues. For example, one cat will play with Ornette one way and another guy will play with him another way. Obviously, Ed Blackwell heard the direction, whereas Billy Higgins…if Higgins was impressed with the music at all, he wanted to make it swing. That’s a hard act to follow, too—making Ornette swing! And I don’t know why Higgins was in the band instead of Blackwell when Ornette came to New York, but maybe it made the band more acceptable, since it was swinging so hard.
EI: I asked Ornette who he loved best to play with, Higgins or Blackwell.
BH: Now, why would you do that?
EI: I couldn’t help myself. We were talking about drummers.
BH: Well, what did he say?
EI: He said "Blackwell, who played the most truthful phrases."
BH: How can you disagree with that?
EI: John Coltrane.
BH: The first time I fell in love with John Coltrane was his solo on “All of You” from Miles’ ‘Round Midnight. I’ve talked to Gary Bartz about this, and he felt the same way—that this solo made us Coltrane fans, forever.
The neighborhood I grew up in was a residential area, but it was five blocks from The Spotlite Room. Somehow, this residential area had a jazz club. And in those days, there was no air-conditioning. Instead there was a huge fan. Of course, in the wintertime, the fan wasn’t on, so I could stand outside. If it had been in a less residential area, there would have been about a hundred of us standing outside, freezing, but because of the location, it was only me, freezing, standing by the fan. I could watch through the fan, and that’s how I saw the Miles Davis sextet with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, who had JUST joined the band. As long as I could stand the cold, I would watch. Coltrane was back from being with Monk. He was doin’ that “sheets of sound” or whatever they call it. I watched it happen.
So when Coltrane formed his own band, I was waiting for it. I wasn’t surprised, I was waiting for it. The thing that surprised me was Elvin. To see it! Jones…to see it! I went every night. It was at the Bohemian Rhapsody. At the end of the last night, I was there looking at Jones taking his drums down. I couldn’t move, like I was stuck in cement. I was just watching him. So finally he called me up to the drums, and he gave me his bass drum pedal, which had broken -- the mallet part was broken. How do hit the bass drum so hard that you break the mallet without breaking the drum head? That’s quite a physics problem. That’s when he said, “Don’t ask me to show you anything, because if I could show you, we would all be Max Roach.”
Anyway, I was into Coltrane…so much into Coltrane. Then at some point I realized one of the reasons I was going to see the band was the pleasure of watching McCoy catch up.
EI: McCoy was playing better and better.
BH: Yeah. Not just technically, he always had that, but harmonically. I could see how the band was growing through the piano. Some people left John at Giant Steps, other people left him at A Love Supreme. Certainly many people left him at Meditations. But I was hanging in there! And I was hanging in there with Alice and Rashied in a very deep way. So much so, by this time, I was into Cecil Taylor and Sonny Murray.
John came to Washington one time. He was still looking for two drummers. (That was the first clue that Elvin was going to leave—two drummers.) John wanted Elvin, but he wanted another drummer too, so there was Frank Butler in California. Then when he was in D.C., he asked for me. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t do it…I thought I wasn’t ready. But I also thought I was going to get another chance, because I didn’t expect him to die. (I have been hearing, just recently, that he might've known he was going to die.)
EI: In one of the interviews, Trane says that he didn’t intend for Elvin for leave, that he wanted a band that could do both the Rashied music and the swinging music with Elvin. But Elvin took off, and Coltrane didn’t look back, but just kept going on out.
BH: That is exactly right…it makes a lot of sense if he knew he didn’t have much time.
EI: One of the most beautiful things about the Coltrane legacy is that you ultimately don’t have the option to leave him at Giant Steps or A Love Supreme. You have to accept it all. He tells you very clearly that this is where it needs to go. A lot of people would prefer that those last two years didn’t have that kind of music, but he is there every day, telling you, “This is where this goes!”
BH: Oh man…you are right.
EI: You didn’t play with Trane, but you did play with Pharaoh Sanders.
BH: I’m on three of the records, and he called me for the other two, and that’s part of why I left Eddie Harris, ‘cause being on tour with Eddie prevented me from being on those.
EI: It was a lot of vamps, right? Not as free as the Coltrane band.
BH: Well, live it was very free at times.
Right after that, within a year, if not six months, I recorded with Herbie, McCoy, Zawinul, and Wayne. Walter Booker -- and Booker’s pad -- was real important at this time. That’s where I first played with Herbie, trio with Miroslav Vitous.
EI: Was that the first time you met Herbie?
BH: That was several years before at the Village Vanguard. He was coming to watch Miles play, and I was playing with Shirley Horn, alternating sets. Herbie was standing in sort of the same area as Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, but they didn’t know each other yet.
EI: Who was playing bass with you and Shirley?
BH: Ronnie Markowitz or Walter Booker, probably. I think that Herbie got some stuff from Shirley, actually. As a piano player, Shirley had a bigger influence than most people realize. That intro to “My Funny Valentine” that Herbie played? That owes something to Shirley. Her intros: did you ever hear those?
EI: I know she’s a wonderful pianist, but it sounds like I haven’t checked her out enough.
[Interview pauses while Billy finds the first Horn album on Steeplechase, A Lazy Afternoon, which is trio with Billy and Buster Williams. The lovely track “Why Did I Choose You?” is played, which features advanced piano harmony.]
BH: I got her this record date -- I arranged it all. Her comeback was my idea! I’ve always been a singer’s musician. So has Buster, actually.
Then, after this record, she started to gig in New York again. I was playing with her somewhere, and Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter both told me I was playing too loud for a singer. So the next set, I pulled it back. Afterwards, Shirley comes up to me.
“Billy, are you for me or against me?”
“Aw, Shirley, people been telling me that I’ve been hitting too hard.”
She looked at me, and said, “Don’t tickle me.” And the inflection, you know, was purely sexual — like, “Put it all the way in!” [Laughter]
Man, I was so lucky to know her. I miss her. She was my most important teacher.
Back to the night at the Vanguard that I met Herbie Hancock. I remember telling Herbie how great he sounded on this Donald Byrd record with Billy Higgins. He seemed surprised that I knew it and was really grateful for the compliment. Miles came over, and was very displeased with me for not knowing anything about the Washington boxing scene, which I guess was very strong. Miles walked away shaking his head, and Freddie, brash as always, said to me, “Punch that motherfucker!"[Laughter.]
It took me a few years to play the Vanguard again. That was after I moved to New York. After Wes hassled me so much, I decided to quit his band. Of course, that’s when he finally complimented me. He said, “Billy, you sure sound good.”
I said, ‘cause I was drug with him, “Well, I’m just trying to keep a gig.”
He looked me straight in the face and said, “Well, man, you got one. You got this one. This is your gig.”
In retrospect, what he made me go through was good for me, although I hated it at the time. In the final analysis, I figured it out.
When I moved to New York, Walter Booker, who I had known from Washington, got me gigs, and pretty soon Pete LaRoca and Higgins (who both knew Booker) were getting me gigs. The most popular drummer seemed to be Mickey Roker: he was the Lewis Nash of his day. But, yeah, Sonny Rollins called me for the Vanguard.
EI: I didn’t know you played with Sonny. Who else was in the band?
BH: Reggie Workman, can’t remember who else. But is a sad story: I didn’t finish the week. Sonny did call me again a few times, but I never felt able to accept the gig. I was never that frightened, disappointed, or dismayed, as when he decided to make a change in his band mid-week at the Vanguard. This is after he called me four of five nights on the intermission at the Blue Coronet, making sure I was going to make that Vanguard gig.
He let me go after two nights.
EI: Did he say why?
BH: No…and he had his manager call me, not himself.
EI: That’s cold.
BH: Well, I figured it out. I hadn’t played in New York enough. Let me tell you what Milt Jackson said about me. I played a gig with Milt just after this Sonny thing went down. Well, I thought I knew Milt Jackson, I had the Modern Jazz Quartet records, you know. How was I to know that Milt Jackson hated John Lewis and the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet? He hated the non-swingingness of it and everything about it. I didn’t know this, so I tried to play with him like I would have played with the MJQ.
EI: Oh, dear.
BH: Word got back to me -- LUCKILY, word got back to me that Milt said: “Billy Hart! I never heard a drummer that didn’t do nothin’… I thought the motherfucker was dead.” [laughter.]
So, between Sonny Rollins and that, it dawned on me that when you moved to New York, they wanted more of a drummer than just a subservient cat. You know what I mean? Your hometown cats were one thing, but in New York, they definitely wanted your opinion.
EI: So, Sonny must have felt you were playing too light?
BH: Yes, or just indecisive, that I was trying to figure him out. He was a man who had played with Max Roach and Elvin Jones, and he’s at the Vanguard, in front of a lot of people: he doesn’t want someone tiptoeing or fumbling around!
EI: A year or two later you had learned your lesson, right? That’s when you played and recorded with McCoy, Wayne, Zawinul, and ended up joining Herbie’s band.
BH: I just wish I had realized what a moment it was.
You know, you get into New York, and you are just scufflin’. You are just trying to survive. I heard other people say that, didn’t accept it from them, but now I’m using the same excuse.
I did several rehearsals with Wayne, Sonny Greenwich, and Cecil McBee. But the Wayne record I’m on [Odyssey of Iska] has all these other cats except Greenwich. Greenwich was Canadian, and he was my favorite guitar player in New York at that time.
Then I had this steady gig with Marian McPartland at 42 and Lexington. That’s where I met Michael Moore, who remains one of my favorite people and one my favorite bass players. That gig lasted several months, and I felt lucky to have the work. One night I was on my way out the door, late for the gig (as usual), and I heard the phone ring. I had already locked the door, and nearly didn’t go back in to get it, but I did, and it was Joe Zawinul, asking me to come down to the studio where he was recording. I sent Harold White to the McPartland gig, and I’m on that Zawinul album, with two drummers (Joe Chambers is other, I think). Like John, it seemed that everybody wanted two drummers for a while. Also on that date was Herbie, which was the first time we played together since that time at Booker’s pad. Me and Herbie again. I guess he’d seen me weasel my way onto the scene…his first drummer was Pete LaRoca.
EI: Really? I didn’t know that.
BH: Oh yeah, that was the first drummer in the Herbie Hancock sextet. The first sextet was Ron Carter, Pete, with the front line of Johnny Coles, Garnett Brown — and this is interesting — Clifford Jordan. Think about it! What a great band.
EI: For sure. It can’t have lasted that long, right?
BH: Well, one reason was that LaRoca said he didn’t feel like being creative before 11 o’clock at night, so he never showed up before 11. And this is Herbie’s first gig with his own band, right? And with Ron: Ron is the kind of cat (just like Wes) who feels that if you are not half an hour early for the gig, you’re late. So that didn’t last long. But Clifford Jordan knew that Tootie was on his way back. I think Tootie must have come back by boat, because Clifford wired him on the boat that he had a gig when he got off the boat. So, Clifford wanted Tootie in that band.
EI: Tootie is on The Prisoner, but Joe Henderson and Buster are on it, not Clifford and Ron.
BH: I don’t know why Clifford split. And by the time I join the band, the trumpet player is Woody Shaw, so it is Joe and Woody.
EI: It’s a shame that those two didn’t record more together, they were a phenomenal combination.
BH: Buster had just moved back to New York too. He had subbed for Ron in Miles’ band, that’s how he met Herbie. He had a connection with Mickey Roker, a Philadelphia connection, and I think he got Roker the gig with Nancy Wilson.
EI: Roker is the drummer on Speak Like A Child. He sounds good, but I’ve always wished it was Tony Williams, or someone else who played more interactively.
BH: It’s funny what people want from drummers. Ethan, you’ve got to remember, you are in a minority. You always seem to encourage in drummers what most people would reject.
EI: It’s true that people love Roker’s playing on Speak Like a Child, and he sure does sound good, I’m not saying anything else! But…
BH: Also, man, you’ve got to remember what drummers were playing like back then. Tony Williams was very heavily criticized! There were no other drummers doing that style yet. Everybody plays like that now, but nobody played like that then.
EI: I just mean that…well, like Roy Haynes doesn’t sound out of place with Chick and Miroslav on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs the way that Mickey Roker sounds out of place on Speak Like A Child.
BH: Right…well, you say that now, and that’s easy to say. Back then, with an egotistical glint in my eye, I might have felt that way myself. But I think that if Roker had been available for that Hancock gig, I never would have gotten that gig myself, I can tell you that much!
See, Roker’s first name is Granville. What does that sound like? Maxwell Roach. Wynton Kelly. Theodore Rollins. Those are English names, from the Caribbean element. They have an island heritage, American too of course, but those British names are from the islands, from the Caribbean. For me, as a drummer, I feel that they are closer to the source rhythmically. What always happens is these cats bring back some sort of rhythmic truth just when it is getting too harmonic. That’s why New Orleans is important, because it is the closest port to the islands. That is where Jelly Roll Morton got the rhythms. When you think about Rollins, he’s from there, and he plays these rhythms. Coltrane doesn’t play those rhythms, but Theodore does. [Sings some of “St. Thomas.”] Rollins imposed so much of that in post-bop that it has become a part of the tradition. Next time you listen to Sonny again, notice how much of those island rhythms he plays.
Also, Thelonious is an island name. I mean, it’s not Greek, is it? [Laughter.] "Bemsha Swing." It’s rhythm.
Rhythm is at least equal to hamony in the scheme of human evolution. It’s just that the European concept (since it was so devoid of rhythm) related harmony to emotion so clearly that it used to seem like the only way to do it. At this point, we know differently: obviously rhythm can give you that same emotional value.
EI: I think my profound attraction to jazz is that is the precise intersection of both values.
BH: Right. That’s what jazz is.
EI: On my instrument, it could not be more literal. When you listen to Jelly Roll Morton or James P. Johnson, you are listening to the collision of 2,000 years of heritage from two different continents.
BH: James P., he was rough, man. A bad cat. Anyway, this keeps the rhythm honest, especially anytime we want to have some kind of a “designer” rhythm. [laughter.]
And when you are looking at Roker, that is what you are not looking at: the island element. The cascara rhythm. Roker had the cascara in his ride cymbal beat, just like Higgins and Haynes. And drummers who have the cascara beat in their cymbal will always be very popular.
EI: Well, by the time you were Herbie’s band, you brought the odd-meter and rock beat element, which I don’t think Roker would have done.
BH: Well, anyway, Tootie had the gig anyway, not Roker. And Tootie was ready to try to do that stuff. His favorite drummer at that time was Billy Cobham. He told me to my face that he thought Billy Cobham was the newest thing since Bird. I said, “Man, you haven’t checked out Tony Williams.”
Anyway, what happened was this. Herbie was trying to put a band together, and had an old college chum named Granell booking the band, which -- well, a whole summer tour fell apart. So Tootie split and went with Yusef Lateef, who had a bunch of gigs. It wasn’t just for the summer, it was…forever! And Tootie had a family. So not only did Herbie not have a drummer, he had no work, which also made it easier for him to try someone like me. He had just done Fat Albert Rotunda, which has both Tootie and Bernard Purdie. I joined the band right at that point. We were on our way to some gig, and Joe Henderson doesn’t show up. He sends Pete Yellin, one of Joe’s boys.
(I just made a record with Yellin, actually. He’s been teaching quite a bit recently, but I remember when Joe Henderson had a sextet for a minute with Woody, Yellin, George Cables, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White.)
And then the next time Joe can’t make it, he doesn’t send anybody, he just calls at the last minute. Buster had been playing with Bennie Maupin in Lee Morgan’s band, and he told Herbie to call Bennie. We went down in a van, and Bennie is there, reading the music in the van, so that’s how that happened.
Then we had a gig in California, and Herbie offers Woody a ticket, but Woody recommended Eddie Henderson, who was living there, being a psychiatrist at the same clinic Denny Zeitlin was at. Eddie was always a good reader—that’s how I knew him as a musician. When I was in the Howard theater band, Eddie was in it too: we played behind all the rock and roll acts: I played with Joe Tex, The Isley Brothers, Sam and Dave, Patti Labelle, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
But at the time of the California gig, I knew him as a doctor, not as a jazz player. Also, in addition to being a doctor he is an ice-skating champion and a chess champion. He’s a brilliant man. At the end of the California run, I said to him, “Man, Eddie, you sure sound good.” Because as good as he was playing, and he got better every night, I was still thinking of him as a doctor, not as a trumpet player. “Nice seeing you again, Eddie, nice playing with you again. If you weren’t a doctor, and you were living in New York, you would have a chance for this gig.”
And Eddie said, “Man, I already hit on Herbie for the gig.”
“What? WHY? What about all those years: pre-med, med, and another stint on top of that for psychiatry. What about all your training in medicine?”
And he said, verbatim: “Motherfuck medicine.” He was at one of the most respected clinics, making serious money, driving every night to the gig in a Ferrari.
That gives you an idea how much love there was in the band. I had just joined Herbie Hancock, and was totally in love with him, and now Eddie gave up his life to be in the band too…and this is before Julian Priester joined, Garnett was still the trombone player. (Garnett was really a studio player, and that is how Herbie knew him, from all the studio work they did together.)
And that’s how that sextet, which will always be one of the highlights of my musical life, came together.
2006, part 3. "I so believe in tradition that I believe there is a logical solution for even the most 'out' music: that there is always something to find to make the avant-garde presentable."
EI: Billy Higgins.
BH: Well, obviously Higgins has that island element, too, but I haven’t really been able to trace where he comes from. Every time I asked him, over and over again, he gave the same response:
“How many times do I have to tell you, Billy? I studied with Ed Blackwell.”
A year later I would have heard some other record with Higgins. I’d see him and say:
“C’mon, Higgins. Where did you get that?”
“I practiced with Ed Blackwell.”
It’s really deep what that is…and Higgins has that from Blackwell the way Elvin got it from Haynes. Elvin and Higgins both have some correct shit that doesn’t come from where they come from. Higgins called it “The Lift,” but basically it’s a use of upbeats. An upbeat is not the “and of one” or the “and of two,” it’s a part of a triplet. It just sounds like an upbeat, since it’s so close. Elvin often played the last two of the triplet, and Higgins just the last. Where it gets deep is how Higgins ride cymbal is like the cascara -- almost an even eighth-note -- and his left hand is playing the triplet. Elvin has something similar, except for him it’s harder to define. And when you go back to see how Art Blakey or Philly Joe did it, you realize that this element is crucial to what we call swing. And some cats, like Roker or whoever have this so naturally. And they talk about it that way, too: “Man, how are you going to explain that? That is some natural shit. You can’t explain that academically."
EI: There certainly isn’t the right language in place to talk about it.
BH: Well, their way of looking at it was that it was impossible! It was so “from osmosis,” so “culturally ingrained.”
EI: These days a hip-hop producer puts it on his computer screen and controls it very precisely, of course.
BH: What do you mean?
EI: Well, to maximize a groove, they make sure that the different parts of the drums are in just the right place of disunity or de-synchronization, just like between the hands of Elvin or Higgins -- or yourself!
BH: Of course they would do that, huh?
EI: I recall that you once told me that you thought the backbeat was a commercial simplification of the clavé.
BH: What! Did I tell you that? Do I really mean that? [Pause.] Let me put that another way: I hear the second-line, which is clavé, in all jazz. The backbeat seems pretty simple compared to something as vast as God!
The clavé (and all the great Latin rhythms associated with the clavé) is always four and six at the same time, or rather, triplet and binary at the same time.
EI: Just like you were saying about Elvin and Higgins just now.
BH: Exactly! I told Higgins that I had seen it: “Goddamn, Higgins! You and Elvin are playing the same thing!”
Higgins said: “You gotta remember, I was with Coltrane first. Elvin took my place.”
EI: That's right! There's not much recorded, but there is a great photo of both Elvin and Higgins playing with Coltrane at the same time.
BH: Now we got Ben Street in the band, and of course Ben is playing with the modern historian of the clavé, Danilo Perez. Have you heard the record Panamonk? That record is where it started. Somehow Danilo, without being murdered -- and I’m still not sure that he’s safe -- he’s been able to transfer the clavé into odd groupings like five and seven. I mean, the clavé police don’t allow that! That means Danilo had to be very articulate about it.
Danilo is so heavy, man. The first recording is Panamonk, with Jeff Watts on drums. People don’t remember that Watts played with Danilo (and The Fort Apache Band). He’s of course also associated with New Orleans musicians…so if anyone could put together the relationship between the second-line and the Afro-Cuban, it would be Watts. [Terri Lyne Carrington is on Panamonk also.]
For the seven, Danilo took the 2-3 of the son clavé and made the last beat of that the first beat of the rumba clavé 3-2. That’s going around now...it’s a hell of a thing.
Maybe it’s just the times, but I’m still surprised that the clavé police allowed that. They don’t allow much: they are like playing with Lou Donaldson, George Coleman, and Sonny Stitt all at the same time.
EI: What did Lou Donaldson say about Herbie Hancock?
BH: Yeah: that Herbie Hancock could maybe play some classical piano, but he certainly couldn’t play jazz. And really, the clavé people are even tougher than Lou.
Danilo asked me to play with him a few times but I always felt that I didn’t know enough about Latin drumming to do it. Now he’s got Adam Cruz, who’s father was also a Latin drummer, so Adam really understands all of that. That trio is rough. [Perez, Street, and Cruz.]
EI: Well, Billy we have been talking for over three hours. I don’t want to wear you out.
BH: Has it been three already? Well, I’m loquacious. That’s a Sagittarius trait.
EI: One thing I would love to get on tape is a story you told me on tour. The story of the day Lee Morgan died.
EI: It’s an epic tragedy. Do mind telling it again for the tape?
BH: Well, I don’t mind telling you what I know…
[Rather than transcribe the next segment, here is an Mp3 file of this remarkable piece of urban folklore. It's a little over 11 minutes.]
EI: What an incredible story. It’s like a Frankie and Johnny-type ballad.
BH: Yes, or like Robert Johnson or James Reese Europe…
EI: See, a story like this is real window into the reality of -- whatever you want to call it -- the jazz life, if not jazz music, period. You know, I’m a white guy who grew up in the cornfields of Middle America. When I studied this music off of records as a kid, there was no way for me to learn about the cauldron that this music came out of.
You might buy a Lee Morgan record on Blue Note, but the liner notes are not going to give you much of an idea about the reality! I mean, Leonard Feather?
BH: Right! Right! [Laughter.] I remember running into Morgan at The Showboat one time. The Showboat had two flights of stairs, kind of like Smalls -- a few more steps down after the place where they take your money. Well, Morgan was there sitting on the stairs where the tickets were taken, nodding. I began talking to him about Mickey Bass, who I think was just playing with Art Blakey. Then I asked him about The Sidewinder, and he said, “Yeah, man, ain’t that a bitch? I played all this hip music, and we threw this other shit together just to finish out the record, and that becomes the hit. My first hit had to be some dumb shit like that.”
EI: Of course, then they started putting a tune like that on every Blue Note record. There are a thousand tunes that emulated “The Sidewinder."
BH: Yeah. But that first tune is still the one, because there goes Higgins with that cascara again! Just like Roker. They used those guys like Higgins and Roker because they could still make hit records without having to subscribe fully to the rock and roll formula. See, as long as they could do that, they didn’t feel like they had fallen to playing rock and roll.
EI: It’s true: the backbeat didn’t really appear on jazz records until the seventies.
To conclude, do you want to say anything about this current group or about Ben Street or Mark Turner?
BH: Well, Ethan, when we did that record with Reid I felt really compatible…much to my surprise. I mean, you are a weird player. [Laughter.] Do you know that many people have told me they heard that record, by the way? A lot of drummers have heard The Minor Passions.
When you brought Ben in I was nervous, since I felt so comfortable before with Reid. Why did you do that, anyway?
EI: Well, Reid and I formed The Bad Plus with Dave King, where we all are leaders together. I’m on some old Reid Anderson records as a sideman and vice-versa, but those days are over, at least for now. In the beginning of The Bad Plus we had a terrible time getting the press to understand that it wasn’t my trio. It’s still an issue, actually: the last review of us in JazzTimes called me the leader.
BH: Well, you know, people don’t recognize “Ethan Iverson” that well yet. I tell people my piano player is Ethan Iverson, and they go “Who”? Then I say, “The piano player in The Bad Plus,” and they say, “What?”
EI: Yeah. Well, The Bad Plus has its own way of doing things, Billy.
BH: I’ve noticed that. Well, you sure are doing something right. One way you can tell is how angry people get about you!
BH: I mean, I was talking to X [famous straight-ahead jazz player], who thought that you didn’t know one thing about this music! Like that you didn’t know even one Bud Powell chord or something. [Laughter.] I told ‘em they needed to hear you with me…although I don’t think you play any different in The Bad Plus.
But anyway, I really liked playing with Reid. But then Ben was great, too.
Ben really knows something about rhythm. All the time, at every clinic, somebody asks me what I like in a bass player. And I always say this: I prefer the acoustic bass, no doubt. But I need an acoustic bass player that knows the workings of the electric bass, in terms of music. I guess that means that they are more sophisticated rhythmically, and more enthusiastic about being sophisticated rhythmically.
One of the things that I feel about rhythm is that it can be played close together…but it can be really beautiful if you space it out and still can make it swing. In other words, if you did something June 1st, then did it again September 22nd, and than again February somethin’…if it was the right thing, it would be this amazing orgasmic rush. (This is a weird way of saying it, I know.) But lot of electric bass players, the good ones, that is part of their gig. They have to find out a way of doing that.
Well, Ben has that, and when you add the sophistication of understanding the clavé the way he does…whew!
EI: I remember listening to a record of Coltrane with you (it was the live in Seattle gig with “Body and Soul”). I commented how beautifully strange Garrison’s playing was. You looked at me and said, “Yeah, and you always get those kind of bass players!” Reid and Ben are always declaring a point of view when they play.
BH: Garrison is a great example of doing that. Well, Philadelphia has a bass player legacy. Spanky DeBrest—Buster Williams—Reggie Workman—Christian McBride—Stanley Clarke—Jymie Merritt—
Lee Morgan used to fuss with Merritt on the bandstand. He’d say, “C’mon, c’mon. C’mon, Merritt, please!” And Merritt would be in here, you know, doing double stops and everything, and would say back: “It’s too late, Lee! It’s too late now!”
EI: I think Garrison is underrated by the jazz world overall.
BH: Well, definitely that!
EI: I even feel like a lot of the cats playing jazz in the seventies and eighties loved Trane, McCoy, and Elvin, but not Garrison.
BH: But now, things are getting to be a little different. Like Larry Grenadier, who has all the hippest gigs: who plays more like Garrison than that? And he’ll tell you, straight out. If Peter Washington will tell you he is trying to play like Paul Chambers, than Larry will tell you -- with no doubt in his mind -- that he is trying to get to Garrison.
EI: When you were listening to the playback of “Confirmation” from the record, you looked at me and said that Ben and I sounded like Wilbur Ware and “The Legendary Hasaan,” which is about the highest compliment I think either of us ever expect to receive!
BH: On some tune when were recording, I went for something that was so ridiculous…it was bordering somewhere between egomania and fantasy. Afterwards, I apologized to Ben, but he said,
“No, man, I apologize for not being able to find the right thing to go with it…” I really like that he looked at it that way, because I look at things that way. I look for…I so believe in tradition that I believe there is a logical solution for even the most “out” music: that there is always something to find to make the avant-garde presentable. And Ben clearly feels that way, too.
As for Mark Turner…now, in some way, I think that you and Mark play alike, at least in the way you both make me play.
Now that I’m playing with Mark regularly, I’m noticing how many other saxophonists are trying to play like him. Is that true?
EI: Yes, he is one of the most influential saxophonists of his generation.
BH: A lot of people told me that he had figured out a system.
EI: He knows what he’s doing, but he’s a real improviser, too.
BH: He is a genius and an innovator. When he used to come see us perform, you would tell me that he wanted to play with us. I thought, “Why would he want us, or really, me?” But I always played with you with more space, and soft. And I think Mark likes it when I play like that.
EI: Yeah, well, we also like it when you kick our asses!
BH: Somehow, this band covers that as well as the other. This band really is uniquely of me. And it is a unique challenge.
EI: We are four unrepentant individuals, for sure!
BH: I still don’t know how you knew to put the four of us together.
EI: Well, all I’ve ever really cared about is how the drummer sounded in the band. And that’s how Ben and Mark feel, too. As much saxophone as Turner plays, he never overplays. He always leaves space. In his playing, he asks the band to participate in an ensemble.
BH: That’s true. You are actually describing my ideal.
EI: Too often, the drummer is just asked to provide, to make everybody else feel comfortable. All three of us are just so happy to be in a band where Billy Hart gets to play the way he wants to play.
BH: I will keep trying to live up to that challenge!
EI: Do you regard yourself as a bebop drummer?
BH: Well, I’m trying, I’m learning. I’m still discovering more and more things, day by day, about how intricate and perfect it is.
As much as I loved and respected Tony Williams from listening to the records and hearing him play with Miles, it wasn’t until I started teaching that I realized how much basic knowledge about the instrument he really had.
Now I said basic, but that’s not really the best word. I have a certain paranoia that a lot of guys don’t know a lot about jazz drumming and think they do. So they’ll use a word like “basic.” Art Farmer used the word basic, but I think a better word is "traditional": traditional knowledge, knowledge of the history. Just to say "basic" doesn’t really cover it. So Tony had this traditional knowledge that was almost unbelievable for a kid of sixteen, seventeen years old.
All I can offer is my experience, especially if I have new students. I ask them and say, “Man, do you know who I am?” That’s number one. Number two, if you know, “Why did you choose me as your instructor?” The point is, at the college level, you should have some idea of what you want to do, you know, what creative perspective do you have. So the more you know about me and what I play, the better you can judge how I can help you.
So after I’ve asked everybody that, then I say, “Play something. Play.” I mean, a lot of kids play stuff like the records now. Takes a while before you get some stuff that’s really yours. And that’s because you have a tendency to be insecure about your stuff.
Eddie Harris told me when I was in his band: “Man, I go to check out people that nobody likes.”
I said, “Why’s that?”
He said, “Because they have a tendency to be more original.”
I said, “Really?”
He said, “Remember this, Billy: people have a tendency to only like themselves when they sound like somebody else.”
EI: Jorge Rossy told me that it was a very important moment in his development when you came and saw him play, and afterwards you said, “Jorge, you played great! Just make sure that at least once a set, you play something only you can play.”
BH: Did I say that?
EI: Which I think is the best practical advice I’ve ever heard for a jazz musician!
BH: Back to bebop drumming: There is a formula I’ve put together from some things that Stan Getz told me. You know, Stan Getz, he’s such a rival… he’d try to break people. And he could. Because he had so much experience and he played so good all the time. So for about six months, he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Billy, this is one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve had.” And then one time, we got off the bandstand, he put his arm around my shoulders and said, “You know, Billy, if anyone knows what you’re trying to do, God knows that I know what you’re trying to do. But man, it’s just not working.”
He ended up coming up with some phrases that I still use to this day. He said, “Undulate, motherfucker, undulate.” Now, when I say that to students, they say, “Well, what does that mean?” And I say, “Well, man, look it up in the dictionary. Investigate this.”
Have you ever seen a definition of undulation? It means waves – waves of energy, you can see it moving on a graph. Reminds me of, when you’re in a hospital, and you look at the screen, and it’s going like that – you’re alive. If it’s going like this, you’re dead. That’s what undulation means.
Now, how did I interpret that for the cymbal ride? What it was – and I think I’m pretty close to it -- is the shuffle, because it covers both the two and three.
Okay, so you say “bebop...”
You have these upbeats, bing, bing, bing, bing-KA-bing, bing-KA-bing. The tendency, I guess from a European classical perspective, is to say, okay, the upbeats are the “and” of one, the “and” of two, the “and” of three. [Even eighths.] Well, in jazz, that upbeat is part of a triplet. In other words, a perfect upbeat triplet is a shuffle. It’s that upbeat – da-DUT, da-DUT, da-DUT. So that’s what Stan was trying to tell me.
EI: Having four and six at the same time, which of course is an African type of thing.
BH: There’s no reason to discuss this from any other perspective. We’re talking about so-called “jazz” because of the Afro-American contribution. Purely. You can’t have an Afro-American contribution if it comes from China.
EI: Is it too reductionist to say that to undulate, you need to imply both the four and the six at the same time?
BH: Yeah, that sounds right. Definitely. Something like that. I have to think about how to answer that more specifically, but the answer is yes. But also what it does is that it creates a texture, a texture that feels good, that breathes. When people talk about keeping time, they talk about how good it feels. How good it feels – that implies a texture. And having a simultaneous two and three is one of the most clear ways of producing that texture that people like.
I mean, there’s all kinds of textures, but the one that seems to be more classic, and of a higher level or class, is Billy Higgins playing with Cedar Walton. And before that, the impression I get from talking to people is that that’s what they got from Philly Joe. And then when I talk to people older than that, they’ll say Kenny Clarke. They stop talking about any full-blown European concept of technique, and they talk about texture, how it feels, how it falls.
So when I play, I try to emulate that as far as I understand it. And so then I get complements from people, say somebody like Ben Street – you know, he doesn’t really describe what it is he likes about my playing, but I feel like it helps acoustically, it helps people who play acoustic instruments particularly.
Like when Bob Hurst first joined Charles Lloyd’s band. After the first night, he said, “Man, I can say a lot of things, but one thing for sure, you certainly know how to play with a bass player.” So I assumed, between him and Ben, that’s what he means, that texture that works acoustically.
And I think that goes back to the lesson I got from Stan, that Lester Young thing… you know, supposedly Lester Young would tell guys, “Don’t give me none of those bombs, just give me some titi-boom, titi-boom.”
At Dewey Redman’s funeral – you were there – you know everyone played and everything, and then at the last minute Roy Haynes got up and played. I expected to hear some traditional Roy Haynes, with that kind of Latin cascara he has for a ride beat, but they just played this medium blues.
EI: That was one of the most swinging things I’ve ever heard.
BH: Man, did you hear that?
EI: It was incredible.
BH: That texture, that he had that, and in the back of all this other stuff he’s got it, just a basic understanding of that texture.
So, okay, that’s undulation, right. And that undulation creates this texture that some people, you know, they’ll say “that feels good.” Even when you say “grooving” or “swinging,” it goes away from accepting it as a meditative or therapeutic kind of feeling.
EI: For that texture, do you need to feather the bass drum?
BH: Yeah, well, I’m still working with that. As we’re talking about it, I’m still asking people about it, because those earlier jazz guys were definitely somewhere between the 2/4 and the ostinato thing that went down, starting with the tuba, and then onto the trombone, and then the contrabass. The contrabass comes really late in the game, but it’s the connection with that where doing stuff is the bass drum. That pattern you can take all the way back to Africa, although we haven’t got past Brazil yet…there’s a few of these patterns that are so old – they’re in the Second Line, in basic jazz drumming, and also in Afro-Caribbean music, Cuban music, and Brazilian music. Identical! The exact same pattern.
It’s interesting. I don’t know if it was you or Ben that said it yesterday, but he didn’t say it right. He just said the American, uh, “commercial” version of it. He just called it the “Charleston.”
EI: Oh, that was me.
BH: If we call it the “Charleston,” if we put an American name on it, okay, then we don’t even know the real name for it, because it’s African. And that same beat, that same pattern, that same system is the thing I’m talking about, in all of these countries.
EI: I personally don’t object to using the word “Charleston” because it was James P. Johnson’s most famous song.
EI: Yeah! So at least there’s that.
BH: Interesting. I’ll keep that in mind.
So now we got patterns, concepts, of course, that cause – I was gonna say "imply," but I’m going to go so far as to say "cause" – a texture. But it also causes changes of mood. Psychologically. There’s a color to the bass drum that alters your mood. It offers a certain kind of psychological depth.
So now, the question of studying it is, when, and how, and for what reason, does it first go from 2/4 to 4/4? And I’m still investigating that.
You know, you ask a lot of people, and they say, “Well, Pops Foster, Walter Page, boom boom boom.” But I asked Buster Williams one time, and he said, “I think the bass player got it from the drums.” I had never considered that! So anyway, I’m still investigating.
EI: You were saying that, early on, you weren’t feathering yet –
BH: - even though, from the very beginning, cats tried to get me to do it –
EI: -so tell me a little bit about that, because I think this is so common, that a beginning jazz drummer has sort of heard about feathering, but doesn’t want to do it because he doesn’t think it really exists.
BH: Well, that system, or that mood, exists, it’s just from what angle they want to interpret it. So the dude who doesn’t do that, I’ll say, “Well look, man, play me a rock beat.” And he’ll play the shit out of the bass drum. And I’ll say, “So why did you do that then, and not when you play jazz?”
I’ll say, “Play that same rock beat without playing the bass drum.” And I’ll say, “So that’s what’s missing when you play here.”
EI: Didn’t you talk about this with Milt Hinton?
BH: Yeah. When I played with Milt Hinton, Eddie Jones (the guy that was with Count Basie) and George Duvivier, I immediately attempted some stumbling, fragmented approach to doing it. [chuckles] It’s like going to a country and at least attempting to speak their language. They applauded me for that attempt, and encouraged me. So that’s what happened with those three: “Ah-ha! Very good. That really feels good. Thank you. You’re the guy that I’m going to recommend.”
And when Illinois Jacquet heard it, he said, “Boy… ain’t but a few of you bad motherfuckers left!”
BH: Just from feathering the bass drum.
EI: It’s beautiful to hear that duo with Sonny Rollins and Philly Joe Jones, because you can really hear the feathering. When a whole band is playing on a record it’s not always easy to hear it.
BH: In the early days of the recording industry, the bass drum would knock the needle off. So they would actually make certain drummers not play the bass drum. And when I say certain drummers, I mean certain white drummers, because those are the guys who were making the records.
It wasn’t until Gene Krupa insisted that they at least allowed him to do it. He wanted to get that sound! And then from there, Buddy Rich was so great that they allowed him to do it on record. But basically, it was like enriched bread – they didn’t want the whole wheat.
So, anyway, the feathering of the bass drum, it creates that depth, that mood. It affects people psychologically immediately. When you think about Elvin Jones, you think about that depth. When you think about Art Blakey, he has that depth, that bass drum depth. And of course, there are subtle versions of it, depending on how smooth the texture is: is it cotton, is it silk, and so on.
EI: When you hear the masters feathering the bass drum, do you hear an implied clavé?
BH: Well, yeah! Because if you just do that [taps quarter notes] like a metronome, that’s cold, that’s like a straight line, that’s death.
EI: The first time you told me that you’ve always heard the clavé in the normal jazz swing time, I had no idea what you were talking about. But then I heard “Bags’ Groove” with Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, and I had a glimmer of what you were talking about.
BH: Okay, well, see, going back to the undulation factor – the upbeats and whatever – that’s a system passed down for maybe millions of years. I tell my students, “It was around when we got here, and it’ll be here when we go.” The clavé is another word for God, as far as I’m concerned – it’s always been here, and it’ll always be here.
So that system of that upbeat, which causes this mood and change of textures and all of that, is referred to in Spanish as clavé. Clavé means "key." Now – what other reason would you call a pattern, the "key?" In other words, we call it clavé, but that’s a Spanish word; if we were saying clave in English, we would be playing the key. The key to what?
EI: The key to life!
BH: You know what I’m saying?!
So this system of upbeats that causes this texture, is the key. It isn’t just [taps quarter notes]. In fact, if you did that, your foot would get tired! It has to be [sings and taps irregular pattern]. And that’s what feathering the bass drum is – it’s not just "boom, boom, boom, boom"; it’s [sings clavé on “boom”]. That’s how it keeps that roundness.
So, that's the way the clavé is in the bass drum...but the clavé is in the snare drum too! The bebop stuff seems to be how you mesh one with the other. Because when you add the European contribution, the harmonic thing, it’s like the bass drum works with the bass clef, and the snare drum works with the treble clef.
You gotta realize that the ride cymbal doesn’t really come into existence until around Kenny Clarke. Basically, that means that the ‘40s is really when the ride cymbal establishes itself. At that point, the ride cymbal is the bass drum, but it has a high pitch, which means that you have a tendency to say that it’s a treble clef instrument. But it’s not – it’s a bass clef instrument. That’s why the cymbal is so important with the contrabass, I think, in this process.
Even if you don’t play the bass drum, if you don’t realize that the cymbal functions the same way the bass does with the bass clef of the ensemble, then it’s like you’re driving a car that is out of alignment. That’s what happens a lot of times when guys just play the cymbal...and they work on the cymbal...and they go searching for the right-sounding cymbal...when in fact, if you played the rhythm right you could play it on this [taps seat]. Then it’s going to cause what you need to get.
EI: I’ve been in the corner of the Vanguard watching your bass drum and ride cymbal, and there are times when you’re not feathering --
BH: -- most of the time I’m not feathering --
EI: -- but it sounds like you are, because the cymbals have that depth. Elvin talks somewhere about playing bass drum in the marching band, and how he felt like that’s what gave him good time, just lining up all of everyone playing the bass drum.
BH: Yeah, well, that’s the original drumset. If you go back and check out the Second Line: it came out of the marching band, came out of the people of African descent who happened to play European instruments, even European percussion instruments, because they weren’t allowed to have their own drums. So after the Civil War – you know, some cats were marching with guns, and other cats were marching with their trumpet – well anyway, so after the war, there were all these instruments laying in the field, even if they move the bodies, there were drums and trumpets just laying in the ground. So cats would pick these up, start playing ‘em.
And that’s where the original bands begin. That’s where European instrumentation comes in. They had a guy playing the cymbal, a guy playing the bass drum, and a guy playing the snare drum. After a while, after it got down to less cats doing it, the guy that played the bass drum also played a cymbal – he had a cymbal on top of the bass drum and he played that with his left hand. That’s why, even today, New Orleans cats play that sort of Vernell Fournier Second Line beat with their left hand.
So, okay now, getting back to Stan Getz, undulation’s just one word. The others are clarity, projection, and placement. Some of that I got from him, some from other people.
But before I worked with Stan, I was on a few records a year, and after I worked with Stan, I was on thirty records a year.
EI: That jump was probably helped by thinking about those four words.
BH: I think so.
Placement. It’s above tempo and the metronome. Nobody ever said Elvin Jones had perfect time, but everybody loves him. Yesterday, during the soundcheck, I played some Elvin-isms, and everyone went off like, “Wow, that’s really swinging!” So this fluctuating, dragging, kind of “undulating” – that’s what you mean by heavy groove swinging? [laughs]
EI: I guess it is – a lot of the time. What about projection?
BH: One time I was in a recording studio, playing with Herbie. I thought I was confident, and I went to the engineer and said, “Hey man, I just played something, and I didn’t hear it.”
EI: Didn’t hear it on the playback, you mean.
BH: Yeah. And he looked up at me and said, “Look, man, if you wanna hear it, you’re going to have to play it.” In other words I played my spiritual card and he played his material card.
BH: Right? So of course, I had my boy backing me up – Eddie Henderson walked in and said, “Well, I heard it.” Like: “Motherfucker, you talking to my boy about this?” So he heard it, and related to me spiritually, if you wanna call it that.
So that’s what I think about projection. You have to make it more obvious! Sacrifice your subtlety, which means sacrifice your creativity. Play something for people that don’t necessarily appreciate subtleties – for whatever reason – and people who don’t necessarily appreciate creativity – for whatever reason. Satisfy them anyway!
And then you see why some people say, “Well, fuck them!” And then you’re this outcast, this weird guy, like Thelonious Monk, or Elvin Jones.
EI: Is projection is also just a certain amount of sound out of the instrument that you need to get?
BH: Well, that’s a material way of looking at it. Yeah! Placement. Confidence, self-confidence. Somewhere in there is – well, I don’t know. Who you asking?
EI: I’m asking a master! A master of projection. I’m pretty sure you never play anything at the club that doesn’t project. What about clarity?
BH: Well, it all goes in there. I was fortunate enough to be in the presence of Jonathan “Papa Jo” Jones in San Francisco for four or five days when I was with Jimmy Smith. Hanging out with Papa Jo Jones, for me, was like hanging out with Stravinsky for somebody else. I couldn’t believe it. I was terrified, and in awe, and excited, all at the same time. In fact, some of the times I didn’t want to see him, because the pressure of standing beside him was just too much.
So after a few days of doing this, he actually shows at my gig with Jimmy Smith, who was a loud motherfucker – the organ is loud even with one Leslie speaker, but Jimmy always had two. (I watched him wipe out big bands over a chordal disagreement – he’d just wipe out the band for that period of time.) Anyway, Papa Jo sits in on my gig, and when he gets down, Jimmy looks at me like he smells something, and says, “Man, that’s the trouble with drummers like you and Jack DeJohnette – you don’t think enough ahead of time.”
When he was saying that, I was thinking, “Well, that’s what I want to do. I want to be on the spur of the moment. I want to create. I don’t want to think ahead of time. That’s like a machine.”
But Jimmy was suggesting composition. It gives you some place to go, rather than just sitting around meandering, where sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you aren’t.
When I was listening to Papa Jo that time, that wasn’t the first thing that came to my mind. But it was interesting that Jimmy said that.
EI: What did you feel about listening to him sit in on your gig?
BH: Oh, just the texture. Even if it seemed a little dated, it immediately got the point across. Immediately. No rushing or dragging or playing too loud or playing too soft – just the right shit. Relaxed. No worries. No scuffling. Just total fucking self-confidence. [chuckles]
So I’ve taken that to heart. I’ll tell you how I’ve used it: a lot of times, you have to make a decision, or you feel you’re at a point where you feel you have to make a decision. “Should I do this, or should I do that?” And you have a fraction of a second to think. And my answer is, if you thought of it - do that. Rather than fuck around.
Use the confidence of playing what you hear, no matter what. Just play it. Some people will ask you, “Well, what should I do?” And I say, “Play it. Just play it.”
That’s what I’ve taken from that thinking-ahead-of-time thing that Jimmy was talking about. It comes like that – it’s still creative, it’s just that you don’t mess around with it. Think of it as a gift from God: boom, boom. There it is. And if you do it like that, then the next step will be more apparent.
It’s interesting to have all this kind of thought process coming from a drummer, right? [laughs] But if you’re talking about jazz, you’re talking about all of us as co-composers, right?
EI: Absolutely. The drummer is arguably the most important member of the ensemble.
BH: Cecil Taylor asked me to play with him once. He said, “Billy, the reason I want you to play in my band is so that you can play what you wanna play. Because that’s what my band requires, is a drummer that plays exactly what he wants to play.”
He said, “If you want to sit in my band and not play anything, you can do that in my band. You can just sit there and not play anything.”
So I’m sitting there scratching my head, trying to figure out what this motherfucker is saying. And while I’m doing that, he looks over at me and says, “Look, man. There have been many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many great jazz bands, but very few innovative jazz bands. And in every innovative jazz band, the drummer has been free.”
(2005 photos by Jos L. Knaepen.)