SFJAZZ.org | QA with Billy Hart

On The Corner Masthead

A Q&A With Billy Hart  

March 28, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

Billy Hart (photo by John Rogers/ECM Records)

In advance of the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert (March 31) honoring Cassandra Wilson, Stanley Clarke, Donald Harrison Jr., and Billy Hart, staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the drummer, bandleader, and composer. 

When I grow up, I want to be like Billy Hart.

When I phoned him recently, Hart, who is 81 and one of the greatest drummers in jazz, said, “Call me after the gig.” He had just flown, on the spur of the moment, from New York to Arcata, California — way up north in the state — to sub in a band with saxophonist Dayna Stephens, whose scheduled drummer couldn’t make it.

Billy Hart to the rescue.

My midnight conversation with Hart — one of four 2022 NEA Jazz Masters — covered a lot of territory. For instance, he remembered the day that James Brown and Jimmy Smith called to offer him a job. Yes, you read that correctly — on the same day. He went with Smith: “I would’ve jumped over ten James Browns for Jimmy Smith… It is not about fame and money for me. It was about the music and it is about the music.”

As lyrical a drummer as he is a fiery one, Hart is known for his open-eared approach to whatever the musical environment. A scholar and educator (at Oberlin Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music), he can explain, in clear language, pretty much everything about the art of rhythm and percussion worldwide. He is also known as a mentor to young musicians, someone who always has an encouraging word — a very nice man who happens to be a genius musician.

He grew up in Washington, D.C.

One of his grandmothers was a concert pianist whose musical circle included Paul Robeson. His other grandmother lived across the hall from Buck Hill, the legendary saxophonist who became Hart’s lucky charm. Largely self-taught, Hart played with everyone who passed through town, including stars like Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, and Aretha Franklin. Aretha was known as a jazz singer in those days, and jazz was Hart’s true calling. His most important teacher became Shirley Horn, the D.C.-based pianist and singer, who would take him on the road and help prepare him for a jazz career in New York.

Over the years, Billy Hart — known as “Jabali,” the spiritual name given to him by the late percussionist James Mtume — has played with a long list of groundbreaking artists. They include everyone from Jimmy Smith to Wes Montgomery, Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Charles Lloyd and Stan Getz. That list barely touches on his vast resume which includes hundreds of recording sessions as a sideman and a dozen as a leader.

These days, Hart devotes much of his time to two bands.

One is his own exploratory quartet, a working band since 2004. It records for ECM and includes saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street, and pianist Ethan Iverson. (Iverson is co-author of Hart’s in-the-works memoir, a lively tome that brings Hart’s 60-year career into sharp focus.)

The other is the Cookers, the all-star hard bop septet whose members include tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee — and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., who, like Hart, is a 2022 NEA Jazz Master. It’s a take-no-prisoners band — high energy — and unique in that most of its members have known and played with one another since the 1960s.

Our conversation began with the Cookers.

The Cookers perform at the Internationale Jazzfestival Viersen, Germany, 2008

Q: I saw the Cookers just before the pandemic, and it was intense. I thought the top of my head was going to get taken off.

A: Man, tell me about it. I don’t really want to play that hard. But they like playing that hard. F*cking Billy Harper! (He laughs.) I mean, we’re like in our 80s.

Q: Almost everyone in that group has been on the road for 60 years. What keeps you going? It’s like you flip a switch and — boom. The music is your energy source.

A: It has to be that. Because a lot of those guys, like myself, have played with so many people. See, Billy Harper played with Freddie (Hubbard) and with Lee Morgan — and with McCoy Tyner’s big band. And George Cables played in Freddie’s band, too. George played in everybody’s band — like Art Blakey’s. But Billy Harper played in Art Blakey’s band, also. So did Eddie Henderson — who also played with Herbie Hancock at the same time I did. And Cecil McBee — who hasn’t he played with?

And all these guys wrote songs that you didn’t get to know as theirs, because Art Blakey’s name was on the record, or Lee Morgan’s name was on the record, or McCoy Tyner’s name was on the record. You know, I made some of those McCoy Tyner records, too.

Q: You’ve played with everybody. The first time I saw you play — almost 50 years ago — you were in Billy Harper’s sextet. The second time, you were with McCoy. The third time you were playing duets with a cellist named David Eyges — which required a whole different musical approach.

Does your adaptability have anything to do with growing up in Washington, D.C.? Was there something about the city, or the scene there, that shaped your musical personality?

A: Yeah, my grandmother was a concert pianist. She was Marian Anderson’s accompanist on some early recitals. So that’s how I grew up, familiarizing myself with the basic European classical repertoire. And Marian Anderson’s nephew was a guy named James DePriest who was one of the only major Afro-American symphony conductors that I know of in this country. And all these people were almost like a family. My grandmother knew Paul Robeson, that whole circle.

Then my other grandmother, she lived across the hall from Buck Hill, the best saxophonist in Washington, D.C. And one day when he saw me with a pair of drumsticks in my pocket, he gave me two Charlie Parker records. They were 78s. There was “Just Friends” and “If I Should Lose You,” which was Charlie Parker with strings. The other record was “Au Privave” and “Star Eyes,” and Max Roach was on it.

And that music opened a door. To this day, I couldn’t figure out why I liked that music so much, but then I thought, “Why wouldn’t I?” Most of my friends were listening to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Chuck Berry, that kind of stuff, which wasn’t bad. But I ‘d been listening to European classical music since I was a little boy. And this Charlie Parker, this American classical music, it really just closed the door on everyone else.

Q: Your story about Buck Hill makes me think about the role of happenstance in all our lives. How would your life have turned out if he hadn’t lived across the hall from your grandmother?

A: I probably would’ve been a postal employee or a cab driver — or maybe I would have finished college!

Q: What was the jazz scene like in Washington, D.C., when you were a kid?

A: They had a lot of good drummers. They still do. And a lot of good bass players, and they had a few good piano players too. Duke Ellington was one of them. And Dr. Billy Taylor was one of them. And you know that I ended up going on the road with Shirley Horn, who was from D.C.

So when I finally did go to New York, the training of playing with Buck Hill and Shirley — I never had to scuffle. What I learned from them was enough. One of the first calls I got when I moved to New York was from Sonny Rollins. And there was another quintet I was in with Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer and Cedar Walton. And then of course I joined Pharoah Sanders. Moving to New York, it couldn’t have been better for me. I was ready for it.

Billy Hart with trumpeter Jimmy Owens' quartet, 1978. (photo by Tom Marcello)

Q: In your memoir, you describe drummer Harry “Stump” Saunders — who played with Shirley Horn before you did — as having “a serious Washington, D.C., beat.” What does that mean?

A: You know about go-go music, the go-go beat? That comes from Washington, D.C. Miles hired Ricky Wellman, his last drummer, because he was the number one go-go drummer.

The beat was always serious in Washington. In my day, Harry “Stump” Saunders played like that. Jimmy Cobb played like that. There was another guy named Ben Dixon who played like that. He ended up making a lot of Blue Note records with organ players. And he later went on to play with Ike and Tina Turner.

Q: You played like that, too?

A: We all played like that.

You know, I turned down James Brown. He and Jimmy Smith called me on the same day to offer me a job.

Q: Incredible. I read about it in your memoir. You weren’t home, so your wife answered the phone.

A: She gave Jimmy my telephone number, where he could reach me, and she told James, “Well, he’ll be home in a week.”

Q: It’s like she was guiding you to take Jimmy Smith’s offer. What would you have done if you’d been home and answered the phone yourself?

A: If James had called me, and Jimmy hadn’t called me, I would probably have gone with James. But if James and Jimmy both called me, I definitely would’ve gone with Jimmy — because I’m not the kind of person that thinks pop music is the greatest music.

I mean, I could go for Tina Turner or Michael Jackson — it could’ve gone that way. But I would’ve jumped over ten James Browns for Jimmy Smith. I’m not that kind of musician.

I fell in love with Charlie Parker and then I fell in love with John Coltrane. It is not about fame and money for me. It was about the music and it is about the music. And in fact, if anything, I’m kind of — what’s the word — I’m kind of snobby about music.

I mean, I’ll go see ‘em play. I know who they are. I certainly respect them for being part of the Afro-American musical heritage. But I don’t think of James Brown in the same light that I think of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. I know there are people that think that way about James Brown or about Michael Jackson. But I don’t think that’s the highest genius level that Afro-Americans have donated or evolved to in this country.

Q: You’ve said that Coltrane is your favorite musician — that he’s kind of your “religion.” Why is that?

A: First of all, he really, really worked hard to get where he was. As much as I love Miles — Miles’s father was rich. Miles had an attitude that he carried with him, and once he learned what he learned from Charlie Parker, he was able to say, “I’m great.” He didn’t have to be discovered.

John Coltrane didn’t have that. Well, John Coltrane had Miles! But Coltrane worked hard. Coltrane didn’t have a lot of women around the world and a lot of money and expensive cars. Miles Davis was a pop star.

John Coltrane, he was raised by his elders in the South. His father, or his uncle, was a preacher — and today there is a John Coltrane Church (in San Francisco). If you listen to the names of his tunes — “After the Rain” — he’s not talking about “baby, take me home tonight” or any high school kind of “let’s go to the hop.” I mean, Coltrane didn’t have any of those kinds of songs. What’s that piece he made later on, after Elvin (Jones) left the group? “Peace on Earth.” You didn’t hear Michael Jackson singing “peace on earth.” You don’t hear any hip-hop guys singing “peace on earth.” But Coltrane’s music was, you could say, religious or spiritual. And he backed that up. He’s philosophic. He’s like a guy who writes novels. Instead of writing a novel, he did that on his saxophone.

Q: You saw him perform many times?

A: Many. I saw him one time in California when he had (drummer) Rashied (Ali) and (pianist) Alice (Coltrane) and all those people in his band. And I walked in the club and not only were some of the people walking out, but some of the musicians who had come to see him were walking out. And he came and sat down at my table, and I said, “Well, John, what are you going do? How are you going to make a living if this keeps happening?” And he said, “To tell you the truth, Billy, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just know I can’t stop.”

In other words, he’s not going to go with James Brown. He’s on a journey that’s spiritual.

Q: When did you first see him? When you were a teenager in D.C.?

A: I saw him with Miles in D.C. — when I was too young to get into the night club. In those days they didn’t have air conditioners. They had these huge fans the size of the window. And in the winter time, they didn’t have the fan going, so you could see in between the blades of the fan and look straight into the club. And that’s how I saw Miles’s band with Bill Evans and Cannonball and Coltrane, and that was a revelation.

Q: That was at the Spotlight Club, where you also saw Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver and a lot of other bands?

A: Exactly, the Spotlight. That was five blocks from my parents’ home.

Q: How did you get your playing together when you were young? Your memoir doesn’t mention your taking any formal lessons.

A: What do you mean I didn’t take lessons? I saw john Coltrane. I saw Jimmy Cobb. What kind of lessons do you take if you’re Afro-American and there’s nobody who teaches jazz?

Q: I get your point. But if there were lots of great drummers in D.C. — seems like you could’ve taken some lessons, that’s all.

A: Well, I found out there was a guy who lived nearby, and I took a few lessons, it’s true.

Q: But mostly you learned by playing along with records in the basement of your parents’ house?

A: That’s exactly how I started — with the two records that Buck Hill gave me. And then later, when I tried sitting in with people and they acted like it was a joke — I went back to Buck again, and he said, “Well, come down to the club. There’s a jam session this Saturday, there’s a matinee.” And I went — and that’s where I met Shirley Horn.

Q: Buck gives you a break and you meet Shirley Horn. More happenstance.

A: You’re telling me.

Q: You’ve called Shirley your most important teacher. Why is that?

A: She was older than me. She could’ve been my aunt. And she was a genius. I said to her one time, “Boy, you must’ve spent a lot of time listening to Bill Evans.” She said, “Bill who?” She said, “I never heard of him.” I said, “Well, I like the way he plays kind of French European harmony, like Messiaen or Poulenc or Debussy or Ravel, kind of like you.” She said, “You’re right about that. I did study that French European harmony, but I also studied Russian harmony, too, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin.”

The Shirley Horn Trio with Buster Williams and Billy Hart performs "I'll Go My Way By Myself", 1986

Q: Even before you started playing with Shirley — what was the feeling of being on the bandstand for your very first gigs? You were elated, thrilled, nervous?

A: They were lessons. I had fallen in love with the music and I didn’t even have any friends in school. Everybody liked pop music. Actually, once I got up into high school there were some good musicians. That’s how I got the gig with Jimmy Smith. A kid two years ahead of me — his name was Quentin Warren — he was a guitar player. And his cousin was my friend Butch Warren, the bass player, who played with Thelonious Monk. And Quentin, the day he graduated, he joined Jimmy Smith. And it was five or seven years later that Jimmy came to Washington, D.C., without a drummer, and Quentin recommended me for the job.

Q: How did playing with Jimmy Smith mature you as a musician?

A: Well, for one thing, Jimmy Smith had actually studied with Bud Powell. That’s studying this music. You study with Bud Powell or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Miles Davis — that’ s studying with somebody that can teach you something. Imagine: Jimmy Smith studied with Bud Powell. But some kind of way, because of his instrument, the organ — a lot of people used that instrument to play in church, and he ended up playing a sort of gospel kind of blues.

And that blues thing in this country makes a lot of money. So Jimmy Smith played blues. And I was from Washington, D. C., and I had that natural kind of beat that fits good with blues players, with organ players. That’s a thing that Jimmy Cobb had, too. He had that beat. He had it until the day he died.

Q: So you had the beat, and that’s why you fit.

A: That’s definitely why I fit with Jimmy Smith — although I had seen Jimmy’s previous drummer, Donald Bailey, and he was one of my mentors. Donald Bailey — they called him “Duck.” And Donald was so innovative — he developed a polyrhythmic style similar to Elvin Jones, simultaneously. But when he played it with Jimmy Smith, a lot of pop drummers imitated Donald and some of that style of drumming is still being played until this day. Do you know Bernard Purdie? He sort of comes from Donald Bailey.

Q: When did you start realizing that you have an overarching knowledge of drums and the whole world of rhythm? I’ve read interviews where you trace complicated lineages of drumming — Afro-Caribbean rhythms and how they connect with one another, historically. Or you could deliver a whole dissertation on a single drummer, like Mickey Roker.

A: I’m not by myself in doing that. Look at this music we’re talking about. Look at how many books have been written on European classical music. Look at how many books have been written on medicine, on law. This music is no joke. It’s something that’s been around for centuries, and it comes, basically, from Africa. What can you say about something that’s so important? It’s like studying astronomy.

Q: I agree that it’s important and that books should be written about it. I’m just saying that I enjoy hearing you break it down and explain it.

A: Any drummer can. You can go to Louis Hayes and get that information. You can go to Kenny Washington; he can do it. So many people. We talk about it. What about Carl Allen, man? He was the head of the jazz department at Juilliard. What do you think he was teaching up there? He was the head of the department. I’m not the head of the department. I’m just learning what I need to do my job.

Talk to Louis Hayes some time. Louis was with Horace Silver when he was 18 years old. And I met Louis when he was playing with Horace, because I got off the bus from high school — it dropped me off right in front of the Spotlight Club at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and there was Louis Hayes.

Q: You introduced yourself?

A: I Introduced myself. I used to try to look like him. I used to try to dress like him. Louis Hayes, he’s one of the greatest drummers.

See, those were my mentors: Louis Hayes, Albert “Tootie” Heath, Mickey Roker. Those were the older guys when I was coming on the scene. And they weren’t that much older, really, but when I was 16 or 18, they seemed old. And they introduced you to people. I was introduced to Elvin Jones. I was introduced to Max Roach. Somebody should write a movie about Max Roach. As far as I’m concerned, Max Roach is one of the greatest influencers on the instrument. For me, the history of the drummers is Chick Webb, “Papa” Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Max Roach. I’m still studying those guys as we speak.

And you mention this knowledge of rhythm — clave. That’s something that scientists can relate to: the sounds and rhythms of other planets. So if you’re lucky enough to meet people that know that kind of stuff — I don’t know how in the world I just happened to be getting off the bus at the same place that Louis Hayes was rehearsing, which was the same place where I watched Coltrane through the window. And I don’t know how in the world I went to the same high school as the guitar player who introduced me to Jimmy Smith.

Q: When you were playing with Jimmy Smith in the mid-‘60s, you started listening to “outside” drummers, the avant-garde.

A: I was listening to Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali, and later I got to Milford Graves, who might’ve been my biggest influence of that style of drumming.

Q: What attracted you to that style?

A: Coltrane — and my interest in European classical music. It all taught me to know a little more, to listen a little beyond. I remember a friend of mine, (saxophonist) Marion Brown, came up to me one day and he said, “Billy, I know you love Elvin and you love Tony Williams. But there’s another drummer up there now that’s doing something different.” And he was talking about Sunny Murray. Marion told me he was somebody to check out. And I checked him out. I wasn’t falling over on him, to be honest. It was not until Coltrane started using Rashied that I had some idea of what that was.

You know, a lot of people love Coltrane because he had Elvin. I love Elvin because he was playing with Coltrane. Whoever Coltrane liked was who I was going to like. And Coltrane started using Rashied.

Q: You call that style of drumming “multi-directional.”

A: When I asked Rashied about it, he said that’s what Coltrane called his music. All these scholarly authors about jazz, like Nat Hentoff, they just said, “They’re playing free music.” It was Coltrane who came up with a logical expression to describe that kind of playing.

Q: You grasped the style easily?

A: Yeah, because it’s not really free. “Free” implies people just playing anything. Blues singers who traveled around the country playing the guitar, like Robert Johnson — that’s free.

It’s not free, what Coltrane and Rashied and those guys were doing. It’s — what do you call Einstein? It’s genius. Well, where did Einstein get it? He didn’t learn it from some guy that was free.

Q: You integrated that multi-directional style into your drumming, and you brought it into Herbie Hancock’s band — the Mwandishi band.

A: Yeah, by the time I joined Herbie’s band (in 1969), I had already played with Pharoah and I had already fallen in love with Coltrane. Coltrane once asked me to sit in with his band in Washington, when I was with Jimmy Smith. He said, “What are you doing tonight?” Because John in those days was using two drummers. But I’d just got back from Japan and I just didn’t have any drums. You’d think I would’ve borrowed a set from somewhere. But it was too late.

Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band on French television, 1972.

So I was interested in that way of playing when I got to Herbie, because I’d heard Rashied doing it with Coltrane. At that time, there was Rashied, Milford, Andrew Cyrille, Beaver Harris — a bunch of guys were playing that style. Barry Altschul was another. Today there are drummers playing like that constantly. Look at who you’ve got: Nasheet Waits — his father (Freddie Waits) was one of Stevie Wonder’s first drummers. Who else? There’s Marcus Gilmore. There are even people playing so called hip-hop who are playing like that now — who’s the guy who plays with Robert Glasper?

Q: Chris Dave?

A: That’s it. He plays that way.

Anyway, I brought that into the band with Herbie. But after a while, Herbie had something else in mind — the Headhunters. First of all, he played with Miles. And Miles had made that turn, and Miles innovated that style of taking pop music and making the crossover music. Miles made a lot of money.

Q: You were on Miles’s On the Corner. A lot of people cite that as an early source for hip-hop.

A: That’s what Robert Glasper says. When he introduces me to some of his friends, he says, “This is Billy Hart. He made On the Corner with Miles.”

That’s the way this country works. It’s how a lot of cultures work. It’s this capitalism, where they take any kind of advanced concept and make some kind of new product.

Q: Let’s talk about your time with McCoy Tyner.

A: McCoy Tyner studied with Bud Powell, too, and he came up with something besides what he got with Coltrane. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with.

Q: A lot of people these days don’t seem to understand his stature in the music. I’ve seen him described as “under-rated,” which blows my mind. When you were playing with McCoy Tyner in the ‘70s, he was like — a god. His musical language dominated the scene.

A: There are people who just don’t appreciate. There are people who didn’t appreciate Charlie Parker. That hasn’t changed. That’s why people don’t know McCoy. Man, are you kidding? They don’t know McCoy?

I’ll give you an example about the greatness of McCoy Tyner. When I was in Herbie’s band, I ran into (bassist) Ron Carter. I said, “Man, when you were making (Wayne Shorter’s album) Speak No Evil, did you know while you were doing it what a great record that was?” And Ron said, “Yeah.” And so then I asked Herbie, “Did you realize while you were doing it what a great record you were making?” And he said, “No man, I didn’t think that. I was trying too hard to play like McCoy.”

There are people who purposely don’t want to know about a McCoy Tyner. When it comes to this art — we’re not giving you a new massage lotion. But then there are some people who do want to be uplifted. Ask John Coltrane: “Mr. Coltrane, what are you trying to do with your music?” He said, “I simply want to be a force for good.”

Q: After McCoy, you joined Stan Getz’s band. You tell a story in your memoir about Getz criticizing your playing. He told you to make your cymbals undulate. What did he mean?

A: Do you have a dictionary? What do you think he meant?

Q: That you should create patterns like waves with your cymbals?

A: Wavy is not the term. What I use as an example with my students is this: Say you’re seeing somebody in the hospital and he’s got tubes in his arm and he’s got the machine on. If the line on the heart machine is flat, you’re dead. It it’s going up and down, you’re still alive. That’s how I explain undulation. It’s an energy field that moves horizontally.

Q: It’s breathing, it’s alive.

A: But you asked me what Stan Getz meant by that. He was sort of being insulting. He said, “Man, I don’t like your cymbal ride.” And I was thinking to myself, “Hell, if it’s good enough for Shirley Horn, if it’s good enough for Buck Hill, if it’s good enough for McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Smith.” But what I did say out loud, was, “What do you have in mind? What do you suggest?” And he knew I was being sarcastic. And he said, “Just undulate, motherf*cker.”

Q: Joao Gilberto once told you to “play like the rain.”

A: Yeah, it’s a nice image. The great drummers around Washington, D.C., they all had phrases like that. They’d say, “Don’t play like that, do like this.” And that’s exactly what Joao was doing. That’s Brazilian rhythms. He was actually talking about kind of a samba pattern that didn’t even have a name back then. They now call it partido alto.

Q: I hope a lot of people get to read your memoir. It’s filled with great stories and gives such a detailed picture of your life.

A: Oh, boy. (He sighs.) I hope it’s not something that makes me look like I know a lot.

Q: You do know a lot. You’ve done a lot.

A: I’m not so sure. I’m not so famous as some of the people I’ve mentioned that I think have done a lot.

Billy Hart with the Cookers at SFJAZZ during the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival, June 2019.
(photo by Rick Swig)

Q: Your spiritual name, “Jabali,” means “moral strength.” Do you like the name?

A: We just lost the guy who gave that to me: Mtume. He gave me that name when I joined Herbie’s group. Each of us got a Swahili name. And at that point, I wouldn’t have named my biggest strength as being moral. So I asked Mtume, “Man, I don’t know if you’re really talking about me, if you’ve got the right person.” He said, “It gives you something to live up to, brother.”

Q: Is there anyone you haven’t had a chance to played with — someone with whom you’d still like to perform?

A: Just somebody that can teach me something.

I never got a chance to play with Keith Jarrett. And I never got a chance to play with Ornette Coleman. And I never got a chance to play with John Coltrane — but I’ve made attempts to get close, like when I was playing with Pharoah. And Dave Liebman put together a band called the Saxophone Summit with Joe Lovano and Dave and Michael Brecker. At a certain point, we toured, just doing Coltrane’s Meditations suite, and I was playing that style of drumming like Rashied and Milford and Sunny Murray. I was proud of those tours.

And I really respect and appreciate the time that I spent with Herbie Hancock. I’m flattered by it. People like Herbie who are able to put together a career in this country as an Afro-American — it’s not easy, and I think it’s admirable. He’s been able to make a good living playing crossover music, yet he somehow hasn’t diluted his musical genius. I just heard one of his later concerts, and he’s found some younger geniuses that are in his band, and he’s still writing new tunes. I admire that.

Q: When you look back on your life, do you ever think, “Man, did all that really happen? Did I really do all of that?”

A: Not until this stuff started with the NEA — that’s the first time I ever thought about it. And all I can say is, “Okay, I guess maybe I did.” But you’ve got to remember, I’m 81 years old now. I could’ve thought more about it if I’d gotten it while I still had some of the energy that I used to have. Although I still do pretty good.

Q: Before we go, I should ask you about Donald Harrison, who’s also getting the NEA Jazz Master award this year and plays with you in the Cookers. You’ve spent a lot of nights playing with Donald over the years. What do you think of Donald?

A: I think he’s great. Since he’s been in the Cookers, he‘s made a couple of his own records. And his drummer, Joe Dyson, is now the drummer with Pat Metheny. Donald raised that guy. And the knowledge that Pat is using now with this guy comes from Donald Harrison.

Donald plays good every night, man. He plays good every f*cking night. He’s written a symphony since he’s been in the band. Donald’s a great musician and a great improviser. He’s a great saxophone player. He continues to play.

Q: Like you, Billy. Will you try and sum up your legacy?

A: I’m still trying to contribute. That would be it. I’m still trying.

The 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will be held Thursday, March 31 at 7:30pm at SFJAZZ. Tickets and more information are available here, and the performance will be broadcast live on sfjazz.org and nea.gov

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

We use cookies on our site to improve your experience. To find out more, view our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy for more details.