Billy Hart: A Hart of a Drummer
So for a lot of those people, there was a circuit of theaters that was about five or six theaters and other than that there were no places for these groundbreaking acts that we take for granted now. It was the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal in Baltimore, the Howard Theater in DC and the Apollo in New York. So, I was the house band drummer at the Howard Theater for a while [and] who came through there? Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Joe Tex, Sam & Dave, The Impressions, the Isley Brothersso I got a chance to play with all those people. So I played with all of these guys. I didn't play with James Brown, but I played with a lot of the members of his band. I basically knew the workings of his band and the history of it.
A lot of people that think in terms of drums think that it started with Clyde Stubblefield, but I knew the original cats before him. There were two before him who innovated a lot of those rhythms. Certainly Jack DeJohnette wouldn't be able to say that or Tony Williams. There's a history and vocabulary and a language of that music that I was fortunate enough to be part of. A lot of people can't say that [and] I was right in the middle of that. That's a language and a vocabulary that as old as it may be when you hear me playing it right now, it was accurate.
AAJ: It's certainly still as relevant today, if not more, because of the resurgent interest....
BH: Could be. I'll give you an examplewhen I did On the Corner (Columbia-Legacy, 1972) with Mileshe came over to me and said, "You know any James Brown beats? And I did! I knew that beat. It's on the record.
AAJ: That's exactly what he said?
BH: That's exactly what he said. Now, suppose he said that to Jack, or even Tony! So, OK, another guy I could have shared that with is a guy named Harvey Mason, who I met when he was 16 years old. These cats' mothers come to me. Harvey Mason's mother came to me. Eric Harland's mother came to me. I was at Nasheet Waits' parents' wedding [Nasheet's father being the late great drummer/percussionist Freddie Waits]. I know these guys like that. They come to my house and play, like Steve Jordan came to my house to play. I know them like that. And I know that vocabulary like that. Alright, so then, because of the time, the bossa nova hits. But I'm from Washington, D.C. Who supposedly discovered the bossa nova? It was Charlie Byrd. He had his own club, the Showboat in Washington D.C. The jazz guys, I guess they didn't take it really seriously. But because I was a rock 'n roll player, or an eighth note player, they called me. I'm the one who got the chance to play with João Gilberto, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Bola Sete, and there's another guy...The guy that did "Morning of the Carnival, "Black Orpheus.
AAJ: Luiz Bonfá?
BH: Luiz Bonfá! I got a chance to play with those guys. You know what I mean? When the thing took off, either those guys played at his club out of gratitude before they came to New York, or after they went to New York, they would come back and would play at the club. So, now I have an understanding of bossa novaeven if I don't know it's the samba yetthat none of my other guys, none of the rock 'n roll guys, knew [and] none of the jazz guys knew. But, I was just lucky.
I played with this guy Buck Hill, but Buck Hill was friends not only with Gene Ammons, but Sonny Stitt. So, playing with him, they would come down to play. And I didn't do great, but here I am playing with Sonny Stitt; I'm playing with Gene Ammons, this is in Washington D.C. [and] while I'm playing with Luiz Bonfá and The Isley Brothers! There I am.
Butch Warren, we went to high school together, well, he's a year ahead of me. He graduates and goes to New York playing with [trumpeter] Kenny Dorham's band, with pianist Steve Kuhn and those guys, comes back for a minute and gets the gig with Monk. Jimmy Cobb [drummer], from Washington D.C., at that point he joins Miles. I get a chance to see who ultimately becomes my biggest inspiration and my reason for playingJohn Coltrane. Now when they play in Washington, for some reason the only major jazz club is in a residential neighborhood five blocks from my housefive blocks from my house! Everything else has been way downtown. It's like a jazz club being around the corner from here. I mean total residential neighborhood. I'm trying to remember what the name of that club was because there were a few live records made there. Ahmad Jamal, Buddy Rich...And what's the name of that club? I can't think of it. That's where everybody played.