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Billy Hart now has to acknowledge he really is a Jazz Master

The Washington native is part of an elite group selected by the NEA to be feted in a tribute concert this month

D.C. native Billy Hart, part of the National Endowment for the Arts' 2022 Jazz Master class, will be celebrated March 31 in San Francisco. (Desmond White)
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It was announced eight months ago, but Billy Hart’s National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship still baffles him.

“All of my heroes are jazz masters. It’s hard to see myself as one of them,” says the drummer, a native Washingtonian who spoke by phone from his home in Montclair, N.J. “These are people who I admire and respect, and I’ve spent so much time trying to follow in their footsteps — I’ve based my whole life on some of the things that these people have accomplished. So, to put me in their category … you wonder if the people that are giving these awards know who’s who!”

Nobody else doubts Hart’s fitness for the honor, a lifetime achievement award that is the United States’ highest recognition of jazz musicians. “Billy is on the highest level of playing jazz — uniquely confident and uniquely personal,” says Ethan Iverson, the pianist in Hart’s quartet for 25 years. “He has been my most important mentor in learning about the tradition.”

Hart and the NEA’s other Jazz Masters for 2022 — bassist Stanley Clarke, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and saxophonist/educator Donald Harrison Jr. will be feted at a San Francisco tribute concert and live stream on March 31. This 40th anniversary class joins a roster of 165 previous honorees including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Quincy Jones.

Now 81, Hart’s résumé reads like an encyclopedia of jazz since the 1960s. He spent that decade recording and touring with three of its biggest stars: guitarist Wes Montgomery, organist Jimmy Smith and saxophonist Eddie Harris. In the 1970s came tenures with keyboardist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Stan Getz (the latter continuing into the ’80s); he spent much of the ’90s with saxophonist Charles Lloyd, then in the 2000s joined the all-star septet the Cookers and formed his own working quartet. Throughout, he was also a freelancer — one of the most in-demand of his generation, with more than 600 album credits and countless national and international tours under his belt.

“He can play any genre of jazz but always sounds like himself,” says Iverson. “At bottom, he has a really authentic swing feel, and he would credit that to Washington.”

Indeed, before he was jazz royalty, Hart was a kid growing up in Northeast D.C. He learned the music on the bandstand and in jam sessions partly with touring acts but mostly with local players, the mentors who enabled him to take D.C. swing around the world.

“Those are the guys I came out of, learning to play that Washington style of grooving and swinging,” he says. “If you got a chance to hear those guys, you would know me.”

Born in November 1940, Hart was raised in Deanwood, then a middle-class Black neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, where he was initially more interested in baseball than music. He played snare in the drum-and-bugle corps at Kelly Miller Junior High (now Middle) School, then got a full kit after he’d moved to McKinley Technical High School. His real awakening, though, came not at school, but at his grandmother’s apartment building on Division Avenue NE.

He visited her one afternoon and wound up meeting a neighbor, Roger “Buck” Hill. A postal worker by day, Hill was by night the District’s most fearsome tenor saxophonist. He was known to take on — and take down — all comers to U Street jam sessions. But Hill took a more generous stance with Hart, giving him four castoff records by saxophonist Charlie Parker.

“I had never even imagined that kind of music,” Hart recalls. “It was unbelievable. I guess you could say I fell in love with bebop jazz. The music captivated me: I can still sing some of those solos as we speak.”

Hill also got Hart his first professional gig, accompanying the “Wailin’ Mailman” at a Saturday afternoon jam session. He faked his way through the first two songs, but the third tripped him up.

“I was heartbroken,” he says. “And I started walking away, tail between my legs, but somebody grabbed me by my belt buckle.” The woman who stopped him had been accompanying them on piano. She said, “Don’t feel so bad. It takes three of us to make a rhythm section, it wasn’t all your fault.”

That was how Hart met singer-pianist Shirley Horn, a D.C. musician even more renowned than Hill. Hart counts both among his mentors. But when it came to his own instrument, he had a stable of heroes to choose from.

“Washington, D.C., was famous for having pretty good drummers,” he says. “Everybody knew Jimmy Cobb [who played on Miles Davis’s 1959 landmark album “Kind of Blue”]. There was Dude Brown, who went out on tour with [R&B saxophone star] Illinois Jacquet. Fats Clark, Bernard Sweetney, Bertell Knox.”

But there were two drummers who became Hart’s primary models. “Harry Saunders — they called him ‘Stump’ — he played with both Shirley and Buck, and then later he played with Sonny Rollins. He really had that kind of swing that Washington drummers are famous for.

“And then there was another straight-ahead drummer who went on to play with Ike and Tina Turner; his name was Ben Dixon. He was the first person I heard play in odd times — like in 5/4 time, 7/4 time, stuff like that. Everybody’s doing that now, but this was in the ’50s! Sometimes people think of me as kind of experimental; Ben was like that.” (Saunders died in 1994, Dixon in 2018.)

At McKinley Tech — a school that has graduated an astonishing number of revered jazz musicians — Hart found a peer group as well. Pianist Reuben Brown and guitarist Quentin Warren were two years ahead of him; Warren’s bass-playing nephew, Butch, was Hart’s age. Along with Hill, they became the house band at a club called Abart’s on Ninth Street NW. They played five nights a week for nine months but would get weeks off when out-of-towners came through. Among these was the John Coltrane Quartet, whose rumbling drummer Elvin Jones would be added to the list of Hart’s idols.

By this time, he was at Howard University, studying engineering. (Jazz was then verboten in Howard’s music department.) There, Hart widened his circle of jazz-playing friends: bassists Walter Booker and Mickey Bass; drummer Joe Chambers (yet another model for Hart); trumpeters Charles Tolliver and Eddie Henderson; and saxophonist Andrew White, who later joined Hart in forming the JFK Quintet.

Around that time, the drummer joined the house band for another local venue: the Howard Theatre, one of the jewels of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” for touring African American entertainers. His job was to accompany the pop acts who played there. That put Hart in the company of a young Aretha Franklin, as well as Motown Records revues featuring Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Supremes.

But if Washington nurtured Hart, it couldn’t keep him. Hart’s collaborations soon took him on the road to play the hard bop of Smith and Montgomery, the soul-jazz of Harris, the funky fusion of Hancock’s “Mwandishi” sextet and the avant-garde of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Over the next 50 years he would revisit each of those styles, as well as everything in between, with equal confidence — earning the title of “Jazz Master” well before the NEA made it official.

Washington swing has been Hart’s touchstone, but never a millstone that kept him from mastering another approach. “I like to remember what my friend [drummer and bandleader] Mel Lewis used to say,” he says. Lewis told him, “‘I made every band sound like it was my band.’”

The NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time (10:30 p.m. Eastern time) on March 31 at SFJazz’s Miner Auditorium in San Francisco. Live-stream it from arts.gov or sfjazz.org.

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