Early in his career, he established himself as a seamless connector of different sounds without ever compromising the integrity of his musicianship. “If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, there’s no way you could avoid playing funk or hip-hop,” says bassist Christian McBride, one of Hargrove’s good friends and frequent collaborators.
“We got a lot of criticism from older musicians,” McBride continued. “It was from them where the words actually carried the most weight. But even still, we just kind of collectively looked at each other like, ‘Man, we got to do this. How are we not going to play with D’Angelo? How are we not going to play with the Roots?’ Everybody knows how much I love James Brown — I’m not ever going to avoid that, as a matter of principle. We’re ‘funk children.’ We can’t get rid of that.”
Alongside artists like McBride, Nicholas Payton, Marc Cary and Joshua Redman, Hargrove shepherded a new vanguard for the genre, one that could not be defined by the era in which it was created nor limited by it. Jazz itself is built on the careers of the musicians who pushed its boundaries; Hargrove and his contemporaries helped ensure that a new generation’s experiences were both valid and had a rightful place within this music’s continuum. Hargrove died in 2018 at the age of 49, and this month sees the release of “In Harmony,” the first archival recording released since his death. A collaboration with pianist Mulgrew Miller (who died at age 57 in 2013), the album serves as an opportunity to look at Hargrove’s sizable — and lasting and growing — legacy.
Born in Waco, Tex., before moving to Dallas as a child, a young Hargrove became obsessed with the trumpet and eventually attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, an arts magnet with other notable alumni such as Norah Jones, Edie Brickell and future Soulquarians collaborator Erykah Badu. When Hargrove was 16, Wynton Marsalis heard him play and invited him to perform with him at a local gig. “He played with an unusual and infectious combination of fire, honesty, and sweet innocence,” recalled Marsalis of their initial meeting in a tribute blog post after the trumpeter’s death. “The first time I heard him, it was clear, he was an absolute natural with phenomenal ears, a great memory, and tremendous dexterity on our instrument.”
While still a teenager, Hargrove’s reputation extended far beyond Texas. McBride discovered this when he first met Hargrove in April 1987 at Musicfest USA, a national high school and college big band and combo competition held at Chicago’s McCormick Place. As a member of the All-Philadelphia High School Big Band and Combo, McBride recalled the buzz around Hargrove’s name at that time, eagerly looking at the schedule to see when Booker T. Washington was slated to perform and compete.
“We ran to the room where they were playing, and saw and heard Roy for the first time,” McBride recalls. “It would really make [for] a great movie ’cause we were all like, ‘Hey, that’s him! That’s him!’ We heard him play, and we all looked at each other like ‘Daaaaaaaaamn!’ After they played, we all went backstage — me, [organist] Joey DeFrancesco, all the guys. We met Roy and got to be good friends.”
Right before he left to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, Hargrove met one of his lifelong collaborators, saxophonist Justin Robinson. Pianist Stephen Scott, another regular on the competition circuit, unofficially introduced the two over a phone conversation at Scott’s house.
“That was maybe ’87 or ’88 — it was the year when they were winning all these high school competitions,” Robinson remembers. “Scott won some, and [he and Hargrove] encountered each other down in Texas somewhere. When [Scott] came back, he was like, ‘There’s this cat you gotta hear! He has this nice sound. He sounds like he’s well beyond his years.’”
After just 18 months at Berklee, Hargrove transferred to the New School, as he was already a fixture at New York jam sessions (which continued even after he became a star). He fielded many label offers and ultimately signed with Novus, a jazz imprint of RCA, where he released a number of albums as leader between 1989 and 1994, including “Diamond In The Rough” and “The Vibe.” Although there were varying iterations of his earlier groups, his original core quintet featured Rodney Whitaker on bass, Greg Hutchinson on drums, saxophonist Antonio Hart and pianist Marc Cary. Hargrove’s later recordings for Verve found him his most fame; the earlier work recorded for Novus was crucial to his artistic development.
“It was incredible being a part of that period,” says Cary, who first appeared alongside Hargrove on 1992’s “The Vibe.” “Being in a band that was starting to create a new sound, we had an opportunity to be present, which gave us an advantage. A working band has a sound. [Hargrove] assembled bands with members who understood that groove [comes] from the bottom. Rodney’s from Detroit — now that’s where you get a bass player! Greg comes out of [Clarence] ‘C’ Sharpe, and he and I came up out of Betty [Carter], so we’ve been together. . . . It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s build a band.’ Like, he put together cats that knew each other and understood each other.”
“In Harmony” marks the only duet album from Hargrove and Miller. Taken from concerts on Jan. 16, 2006, at Merkin Concert Hall/Kaufman Music Center in New York and Sept. 11, 2007, at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., it is being released in partnership with Resonance Records and both of the late musicians’ estates.
“Mulgrew was one of the main arteries of the New York jazz scene,” says McBride. “He was the most beautiful friend and big brother that all of us could have. And his playing, dare I say, was superior — he was one of the leading voices on the piano for his entire life. So it only makes sense that those two made a recording together because [of] their similar sensitivities to the music and similar language — they both had a deep love of the American songbook.”
“In Harmony” renders a touching nod to their frequent collaborations at the beloved jazz club Bradley’s in Greenwich Village but also honors the bond Hargrove shared with the musicians he worked with, notably his pianists — Cary, Gerald Clayton, Jon Batiste and Sullivan Fortner among them.
“It is an interesting observation that there is that special connection between trumpet players and pianists,” said Clayton. “The trumpet is maybe sort of the closest to being a vocalist, as far as instruments go, and there’s been a strong relationship between vocalists and pianists throughout history — that’s a match made in heaven.”
“[Hargrove] almost always wrote at the piano,” recalls Fortner on how the two of them worked out a song. “He’ll sit at the piano, then play a song for me once or twice. Then he’ll look at me and be like, ‘You got it?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, play it along with me.’ So I’ll play the top, and he’ll play the whole song at the bottom and [he’d] be like, ‘All right, cool. You got it. Now show it to Ameen [Saleem].’ He would sing the drumbeat to tell the drummer whatever kind of beat he wanted. After that’s over, he’ll go over the melody with Justin [Robinson]. And that was it. His band was a total ear band. Our rehearsals were sound checks — we never really rehearsed.”
“Once I started playing with Roy during the first rehearsal that we had, he comes to me and says, ‘Wow, I never had somebody in the piano chair that is a blues player,” says Batiste, whose long list of honors includes a recent Oscar for best original score. “ ‘I had a lot of harmonic players, and I had rhythmic players. But man, you play the blues first.’
“There was a connection that I think we had in the piano chair that allowed me to be comfortable being myself, because otherwise since I had so much respect for Gerald [Clayton], I probably would have tried to emulate him! So he just wanted me to be who I am. He loved who I am, and he actually relates to who I am.”
Hargrove died of cardiac arrest on Nov. 2, 2018, after suffering from kidney disease for more than a decade. Aside from family members, one of the few people to see him before he died was Robinson.
“My last performance with him was the night before his birthday,” Robinson recalls of a concert just a few weeks before Hargrove’s death. “On that particular night, he played as good as I ever remembered him playing. He had been having problems with his teeth, like minor trumpet problems. But that night, it was almost like he was back; I mean, he played wonderfully that night. I know that he tried to go to a jam session after the gig, but I didn’t see him then. I saw him at the airport.
“I gave him a hard time about getting old,” Robinson continued. “He kind of nodded at me like he would when you’d ride him sometimes. He was up toward the front of business class, so I didn’t see him the entire flight. Later on, that’s when his manager called and told me that he didn’t look well.” Following that call, Robinson assumed that Hargrove would shake it off and perform again as he had always done.
Rather than recede during his final years as his illness worsened, Hargrove stayed active. He toured regularly and continued to serve as a mentor, with his late-night residency at Smalls Jazz Club a regular spot where he helped young talent. Hargrove’s influence reaches beyond his own body of work — there’s the Jazz Gallery, a nonprofit jazz venue he helped launch more than 25 years ago, to his contributions on albums by D’Angelo, Common and Badu that both fortified and re-envisioned the bond between hip-hop and jazz. These collaborations not only helped elevate the role of sampling but created something else far more organic and original, positioning instrumentalists at the front and as equals with the marquee artists.
“In Harmony” is a reminder that for all of those extracurriculars, one of the best ways to appreciate Hargrove remains him in his element — the trumpet playing that turned him from virtuoso to visionary, accompanied by a pianist with whom he had a special connection.