Roy Hargrove can effortlessly stretch jazz music’s boundaries at any given moment. Beginning with the release of his debut effort, Diamond in the Rough, in 1990, the iconoclastic trumpeter has explored Afro-Latin rhythms and hardbop. The musician’s two decade-plus career further allowed him to collaborate on an instrumental project with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker and record a tribute album to Charlie “Bird” Parker with Christian McBride and Stephen Scott.
Highly sought after, Hargrove was session player for a range of performers like Erykah Badu (his high school classmate), Common, Diana Ross, John Mayer, Vanessa Williams, Angelique Kidjo, Take 6, Eric Benet, Buckshot LeFonque, Dave Brubeck, Dianne Reeves, Femi Kuti and Macy Gray. “Jazz is one of the most complex but hardest to get a hold of,” says Hargrove. “If you’re gonna be a musician, you’ve got to be open. Don’t leave anything out. If you take care of the music, it will take care of you.”
Standing on a small stage holding a carbon fiber-made trumpet, Hargrove is conducting a workshop focusing on his axe. The Roy Hargrove Quintet had just headlined opening night of this year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival the previous evening. The bandleader’s audience was so moved, his combo played two encores.
Hargrove’s swagger bridges jazz with hip hop.
He’s wearing dark sunglasses, a peaking faux hawk, suspenders and bright green and gray high top Nikes. The two-time Grammy winner presses his instrument’s finger buttons with incredible dexterity. He blares out notes with a puffy-jawed face while his back is semi-arched. The multi-talented performer also croons raspy vocals and scats like elder jazz statesmen.
The 44-year-old Waco, TX native is equally complex when he composes or arranges new works. “I’m always trying to figure out different ways of writing songs to inspire myself,” says Hargrove with his hands behind his back. “Sometimes I’ll figure out notes first without harmony. When musicians are singing and playing from the heart, it doesn’t matter where you are. People get it.” Nodding his head from left to right, Hargrove performs several numbers with keyboard accompaniment.
At the end of his intimate presentation under a tent directly beside the festival’s main stage, Hargrove sits at the keyboard and plays a few chords. “Whatever instrument you play, you have to deal with the piano,” says Hargrove. “We are all trying to sing through our instrument. If you have lyrics, that gives you an understanding of what the song is about. It sets the mood you want for the entire project. Every statement you make has to be meaningful. Every note has to be beautiful.”
Hargrove traces his humble beginnings. He saw his elementary school’s concert band members each play a solo. He knew instantly he wanted to join the band and eventually make music his livelihood. “We used to play popular songs,” says Hargrove. “It kept us interested enough to stay in the band and out of trouble.” Hargrove also played the snare drum in drum corp.
He shines light on how similar it is to play trumpet and drums. “Drums and brass go hand-in-hand,” he says. “The rhythm helps with articulation and how you play. It makes a difference how you sit or play 8th notes. Timing is important.” Hargrove’s career took off his junior year of high school. Wynton Marsalis gave a clinic at Hargrove’s school.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Artistic Director was so impressed with Hargrove’s musicianship, he invited him to perform in his band on tour. After he moved to New York City, Hargrove followed pianist John Hicks from gig to gig. He also met iconic trumpeter Miles Davis. Recording with jazz legends was how Hargrove learned the mechanics of jazz. Playing by ear was the norm. “Cats would just call tunes,” says Hargrove. “Being in their company helped me to understand what the fabric of the music is all about. It’s not always what’s written. It’s interpretation.”
“When you have paper, you have to depend on that. Everything is so important. When you go into the studio, they want to know can you play what you heard. It’s just learning how to use your ears,” adds Hargrove. He attended Berklee College of Music for a year but transferred into The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music upon settling in New York.
Hargrove gives Berklee props though. “They have a great foundation,” he says. “They have one of the biggest libraries for musicians. It’s no place like it. It’s a great school for young players.” Numerous young musicians were scattered throughout Hargrove’s master class. He especially suggested to them that mastering an instrument and becoming a professional is an ongoing process.
“Music connects directly to life,” he says. “If I was teaching, I would concentrate on young musicians learning the great American songbook. It’s cool to be modern, but it helps to expand your knowledge. People enjoy music when you enjoy playing it.”
Hargrove also encouraged the young performers to embrace every phase of their artistry. “When I listen to musicians play, tempo is what separates the men from the boys,” he says. “If you can play slow, it shows maturity because everything is exposed. Keep practicing. You’ll get over the humps. You might discover something during that time. Mistakes are beautiful because they’re human. You don’t want to sound like a robot.”
The trumpeter met Grammy-winning musician D’Angelo and played on the enigmatic artist’s VoodooLP. They didn’t record upon meeting. Instead, they played video games and introduced each other to new sounds and artists.
“When I was in the studio with D[‘Angelo], we hung out and got to know each other,” says Hargrove. “Once we got started, I played solos on top of his tunes. The energy was wonderful.” The two haven’t collaborated in years. “I don’t know where he is,” adds Hargrove. “I’m lucky just to have his phone number.”
The somewhat enigmatic Hargrove himself doesn’t tweet, post to Instagram but does have a Facebook fanpage. He hasn’t released a project since 2009 but actively plays live. He appeared at this year’s International Jazz Day in Osaka, Japan.
He wanted to jam more with the other musicians. “We didn’t get to play together as much as I’d like to,” says Hargrove. “I wished we would’ve done more acoustic jazz. People try to be so contemporary, they forget about the swing.” Touring is Hargrove’s opportunity to see to it that jazz remains an adventurous musical style.
“People enjoy what we’re doing,” he says. “The main problem is cats don’t play it. We perform normally in places where they don’t get it all the time.” Before Hargrove wraps up, he tells one musician that one highlight moment of his career was playing with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall. “He was so unpredictable,” recalls Hargrove. Another unforgettable moment was performing with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean.
However, Hargrove is still waiting on his breakthrough moment. “You have to be ready for anything,” he says. “Whatever I do, I’m gonna do it 150 percent. It’s all music to me. I try not to separate it too much.”
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.