Trumpeter Roy Hargrove is a torch-carrier for his heroes: Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard. When he brings his straight-ahead quintet to Yoshi's San Francisco for five nights to begin the New Year, he will play out of that jazz tradition. He can blaze.
But Hargrove, 43, also is famous for his side projects. He has a funk band and a Latin band, and he has performed with key musicians in hip-hop and neo-soul: D'Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu. So, when I phoned the trumpeter at his Greenwich Village apartment, I began by asking him about some of his musical friends outside the jazz world.
Q Tell me about this friend of yours, Rude Boy Nice.
A Wow. You're going way back. Rude Boy
Q That's the name of your funk band -- and also was your moniker, when you rapped, right? Do you still rap?
A No man, I ain't no rapper. I mean, I've written a few rhymes and whatnot. But if I'm anything in that genre, I'd probably have been a DJ. I used to make my own little mix tapes when I was a kid. I still do it sometimes in my home. I've got my DJ app, and I put together all kinds of stuff, a very eclectic list of tunes.
Q What's on it?
A Oh, my track list is very vast. It goes
Q I just read an old interview where you talked about following various "underground" rappers -- people you admire, but who aren't well known.
A I've met some interesting people along the way. Like one of my trumpet students is a great MC, this kid Dante Winslow. He calls himself Ransom.
Q Wait. Ransom, the rapper, is your trumpet student?
A Yeah, from Baltimore. I've known him since he was like 12 years old. And in the Bay Area, I know this rapper named Kirby Dominant -- kind of reminds me of Too Short a little bit. People don't really know these guys. They're my friends.
Q You went to high school in Dallas with Erykah Badu. You were friends?
A Yeah. We had biology together. I went to a magnet arts high school in Dallas, and she was a dancer there. But I could tell she had some kind of musical thing, because she'd come in with her rhymes. We'd sit down together, and I'd beat the rhythms out on the desk before class.
Q What about D'Angelo? How'd you wind up playing on "Voodoo"?
A D'Angelo heard about me; I heard about him. We hooked up, that's all. And when I went to the studio with him the first time, it seemed like we were on a similar page. See, I'm known for playing jazz and mostly in a bebop style. But people don't know that I grew up listening to everything. I'm a studier of all kinds of music. It was just a matter of hooking up with him and playing all the stuff that I heard growing up.
When I go into the R&B genre, I try to think about what would go with it and make that music grow. So I play horn section parts to make that music happen. And I'm from Generation X, so I got hip-hop in there, too.
Q You once said that if you were to analyze a Charlie Parker rhythm and an MC's rhythm, there would be clear similarities. Can you explain?
A I think that if you take one bar out of a (drummer) Kenny Clarkething, then you can hear pretty much where hip-hop was born. He was the grandfather of hip-hop, know what I'm saying? (Bebop drummer Clarke played with Parker and many others.)
Q In jazz, people have always talked about older musicians who have "the Texas sound" -- big and bluesy, kind of wide open. The term gets applied to saxophonists like Arnett Cobb, Booker Ervin, Billy Harper. Are you part of that sound?
A Sure. When you come up in Texas, you get the blues a lot. It's a very big part of what you come up with. I think that's what the Texas sound is: blues, a lot of church, a lot of spiritual sounds, mostly melodic.
Q Did you hear it from your parents? Did they play music?
A My dad wasn't a professional musician, but he had an ear for music. And when he was in high school, he played a few instruments: brass, sousaphone, trumpet, maybe a little saxophone. My mother also played saxophone.
My dad was kind of a Jack of all trades. Also very mathematical.
Q Are you mathematical?
A I would say in a musical sense, yes. I wasn't that good in math class, though.
Q You've said that you didn't have a lot of friends as a kid, because you were too busy practicing the trumpet. But you must have made friends through music. Music became your social scene?
A Yeah, my friends loved to come on over to my house and play. It was something to do other than get in trouble. It kept me off the streets. Because all my friends, we came from low income, and a lot of them were in trouble. So I stayed out of trouble by playing music. I'm very thankful for that, really.
Q I've heard these stories about you practicing in the closet as a kid.
A I was driving my mom crazy: "Will you PLEASE play it somewhere else?" So I'd go in the closet. My dad was like, "Leave the boy alone. If he's going to be any good, he's got to work at it."
Q What drove you to work at music so obsessively?
A It was just extreme love for the music, man. And when I heard something that really moved me, it made me passionate about learning how to do it -- like the first time I heard David "Fathead" Newman play. He was the friend of my band director in junior high, and he brought in Fathead to demonstrate for us. He played a baritone saxophone solo along with the tubas -- they were playing the bass line for (Herbie Hancock's tune) "Chameleon." And he was making it up as he went along. And when I heard him playing all that music, I was like, "Man, I got to learn how to do that." And from that point on I started to seek out those things that really moved me, very melodic things.
Q What came next?
A I was like 12 or 13. It started out with Fathead and then later on, when I got to be a freshman in high school, my principal was a trumpet player, and he was playing all these arpeggios and whatnot, and I said, "Where did you GET all that?" And he said, "Clifford Brown. You never heard of him?"
So the next day, I got called out of algebra class, thought I was in trouble. I got sent to the principal's office, and all he wanted was to play some Clifford Brown records for me. And he said, "You can keep these." And my life was never the same. After that was Freddie Hubbard; I was like a Freddie Hubbard magnet. And then I started getting into Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, the people Freddie came from, you know? And later on, when I got to Berklee (College of Music in Boston), I started paying attention to Fats Navarro, the more esoteric stuff.
And then all the time I'm also checking out Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. So Clifford Brown opened a door for me. And from that time on, I'm on a quest.
Q Are you still on it?
A It never ends. Never. And lately I'm listening to Louis Armstrong, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers: very melodic. It's very interesting. You can hear Louis play a melody-- just a series of quarter notes -- and it helps me to understand the way Fats plays a series of eighth notes. It helps me to understand that connection, almost by osmosis.
Q Seems like Louis could play a melody with one note.
A Yes. He can play it in one note; just the attitude.
Q Roy, you still seem pretty obsessed with music. What's a typical day like for you? What do you practice? What do you listen to?
A A lot of my time is consumed by learning how to travel. That's really the hardest part of this life; that's what they pay us for, trying to get to the gig. Airports. Going through security. The hardest part is not the music. The hardest part is getting there in time to play the music.
But as far as playing and listening -- there's a radio playing in my head all the time. I might start with a song in the morning, and it won't let me be, all day long.
Q What's today's song?
A Oh, now that you ask me, I can't remember! But there's always something playing. It could be anything. But then you know, I've been practicing, too. In fact, I've got a bass trumpet now, also a C Melody saxophone.
Q Come on. You play the saxophone?
A To an extent. I've also got an alto (saxophone) and a valve trombone. I'll be overdubbing a whole horn section.
Q When did you learn the saxophone?
A I've always known the fingerings, going back to around junior high school. The sound is a whole other thing, dealing with that reed. I'm not that bad. I'm still working on it.
Q You had so many important mentors as a young guy. Who stands out?
A (Pianist) John Hicks; he was one of my greatest teachers. I learned a lot about harmony just by watching him. I learned from a lot of piano players: people like Hicks, Larry Willis and Kenny Barron. I watched them at this club in New York, Bradley's, which was a hangout for all the musicians.
Larry, he had a lot of drama in his sound, and you could feel the emotion pouring out of him. Also, James Williams, who was sophisticated in his harmony, but was also really soulful.
But John Hicks: Watching him play was like watching someone elevate. I'd follow John all around New York. All these guys were relentless, the way they taught us youngsters, made demands on us: "Right now! Play `Cherokee,' fast, 12 choruses, in 12 keys!" Today, I tell these young guys, "You don't have the chance to get the whoopings that we got."
Q What do you teach the young players who come under your wing?
A I tell them 99 percent of this whole game is about ear training. You have to be able to hear the music and play it on the spot. You don't get a chance to go home and work on it.
Q How successful are they?
A Some of them can do it. They struggle. The one complaint I have with a lot of the younger guys is, they don't know songs. They want to be modern, they want to do only their own tunes. You have to know the fabric of the music first, learn the tunes, learn the words of the songs.
For me, having been around people like Betty Carter and Art Blakey -- they trained you to be ready. If you have the tools to play jazz, you can do anything, because you have what it takes to make spontaneous music. It's about being able to come up with a melody and a rhythm on the spot, something that comes out of your heart.
If truth be told, there were a lot of musicians back in the day who didn't read or write, but they were just able to make music. And if you had that in your heart, and in your ear, you had a lot more to grab from than people who are more technical. Not that the technical part is not important, because it is; you have to have dexterity. It's kind of like a perfect marriage, having that balance between that dexterity and what you have in your heart.
Q Tell me a little more about James Williams. He had that balance?
A When I was in college, he gave me my first gig. One of the first professional gigs I had was with him -- (saxophonist) Ralph Moore was in the band -- at a place called the Willow in Cambridge. James gave me a chance. I could definitely relate to that soulful stuff. But the thing he gave me, it was soulful, but still very sophisticated harmonically, and I took that as a lesson.
And everything I learned from these cats, I now try to pass the torch on to the younger cats. I know they haven't heard of James. But say you're at a jam session; there's my chance to pass it on. Because sometimes you get tired of playing the same songs all the time in jam sessions. So James, he's got this one tune called "Alter Ego" that's only got four chords. You can pick it up, and it's fun to play.
Q A lot of the current jazz mainstream focuses on virtuoso playing in all kinds of wild time signatures. What do you think of it?
A It has it's place. But you can't beat people over the head with that all the time. It's the kind of thing that turns people off to jazz, if you get too heady or complicated. I think that's one thing that's missing from the music right now, is just guys having fun. Sometimes you can play some blues or some rhythm changes, as long as it doesn't go on too long. You know what I'm saying? What you're describing, it's the one thing that makes people say, "I don't love jazz."
Q You're talking about bringing pleasure to the listener. I love hearing you sing "September in the Rain."
A Yeah, I like to have fun.
Q You've sung that one for years. How come?
A It's just one of those tunes that's stuck with me.
Q Do you have perfect pitch?
A I've been told that. I never even knew what that meant until I got to college.
You mean, where you can call a note out of the air? Yeah, I guess I have that.
Q Musicians always say your harmonic sense is acute. When were you first aware of having that?
A Any musician should learn some piano at some point. So when I started playing the trumpet, I was messing around on the piano, too. And that kind of grows as you grow older. Dizzy Gillespie said it best, when he said, "If you could tell a young musician anything, it's, `Learn the piano.' " Because all the notes are there, the whole spectrum.
Q How's your piano playing?
A I play all right.
Q You have a piano in your apartment?
A I do.
Q Do you still live in Greenwich Village?
A Yeah, small place, one-bedroom apartment.
Q Do you have any new projects? Maybe you'll start a rock band?
A Whoa! Who told you that? The next thing I'm probably going to do is with my baby brother, Brian. He's a great, great writer. I showed him like two chords on the piano when he was maybe ten years old, and he just ran with it. And now he's just killing it. He sat in with the quintet when we were in L.A.
So I'm going to try and do my next project with him. He's more current than me. He's more electronic. He's more into technology.
Q What does his music sound like?
A It's contemporary. It's not really what I play, not like that kind of jazz. It's more electronic, like synthesizers. And also he's got a little classical influence, too. I don't really know how to describe it, but he's got some of that Hargrove harmony. From those two chords I showed him: Major 7 and Sharp 11. And now he's got his own little science that goes along with it. Now he's a grown-up, got his own band, got his own thing, living in L.A.
Q Can I see him on YouTube?
A Yeah, Brian Hargrove. Look him up.
Roy Hargrove Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m., Jan. 2-5; 7 and 9 p.m., Jan. 6
Where: Yoshi's San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore St.
Tickets: $16-$28; 415-655-5600, www.yoshis.com