Riffs on Roy

At 26, Oak Cliff native Roy Hargrove is the hottest trumpeter in the world, and he deserves to be—even if his lack of seasoning is something of an off note.

May 1996By Comments

A TAPE IS MAKING ITS WAY through the underground of professional musicians and writers who keep one another up to date on developments in jazz. It captures a jam session led by trumpeter, saxophonist, and flutist Jay Thomas at the Water Street Deli in Port Townsend, Washington, during the Centrum jazz festival last summer. Following a guitar solo on the Charlie Parker blues composition “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” a trumpet solo materializes at some distance from the microphone.

As the player moves closer, it becomes apparent that he has technical adroitness, range, and vigor. The enthusiasm and drive of the performance excite the audience. Yet the solo has flaws that indicate a lack of seasoning: hesitancy in phrasing, repeated runs, cracked notes that come from strain, a tendency to get trapped in eighth-note patterns, ideas that work rhythmically but not harmonically, dependence on phrases appropriated from Freddie Hubbard. Still, any knowledgeable listener would identify it as the work of a talented youngster capable of moving into the first rank. The trumpeter is Roy Hargrove, the 26-year-old prodigy who grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.

At the end of Hargrove’s solo, the 46-year-old Thomas picks up his trumpet and plays a solo of his own. It has assurance, continuity, easy swing, a burnished tone, and originality of ideas. Its harmonic sophistication shows a deep understanding of chords. The contrast in the two solos is between potential and achievement, and it illuminates the facts of life in a category of music dominated by the marketing of the youth movement. Hargrove, who unseated Wynton Marsalis to take first place in the trumpet division of the 1995 Down Beat readers poll and has won the Jazz Times readers poll for the past four years, is in demand around the world. As a bandleader, he has recorded nine CDs for two major labels, more albums than many name jazz musicians with forty-year careers, and he is a guest star on dozens of recordings, including the latest by Dave Brubeck. Thomas’ four albums are on obscure labels with little distribution. Most of his playing is in Seattle, and he doesn’t get as much jazz work as he wants.

At age twenty, Louis Armstrong was still a sideman on Mississippi riverboats. When Harry James was twenty, he was perfecting his virtuosity in Ben Pollack’s band. At twenty, Dizzy Gillespie moved from Philadelphia to New York and landed a job with Teddy Hill. The year before Miles Davis reached adulthood, he was enrolled at Juilliard but did his real learning under Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, and Billy Eckstine. Twenty-year-old Chet Baker was between stretches in Army bands. Marsalis at twenty was into his second year with Art Blakey. For each of them, stardom as a jazz trumpeter came only after apprenticeship, struggle, and seasoning. But since Marsalis zoomed to success in the early eighties, establishing youth and attractiveness as commodities that quickly crowded out depth and experience in the jazz marketplace, times and possibilities have changed for talented young musicians. Envious of Columbia Records’ success with him and desperate for their own Wyntons, record companies began signing players who in previous decades could only have dreamed of recording contracts as they bounced through their early careers at the back of the band bus.

Roy Hargrove never took the bus: He jumped directly onto the jazz rocket train engineered by Marsalis. At age twenty, two years out of Dallas’ arts magnet school, Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, he was signed by Novus Records. Ever since, he has been in the top tier of a new generation of jazz players—referred to in the press as the Young Lions—that includes saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Ryan Kisor, pianists Brad Mehldau and Jacky Terrasson, drummers Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson, and bassist Christian McBride. While they are all talented, gifted in technique but still absorbing the jazz vocabulary, Hargrove in particular has demonstrated a competitive drive and a love of playing reminiscent of Hubbard or the late Roy Eldridge. Slight and cocky, with the alertness and coordination of a superflyweight boxer, he has shown major strengths as an improviser: an ability to transmit emotion, a fierce sense of swing, and an ear finely tuned to harmonic possibilities. His maturation as an artist may be blocked only by his early fame, which kept him from traveling the hard road that seasons sidemen, or by his tendency to lead his band through self-indulgent posturing that can shut out listeners.

Hargrove was born in Waco on October 16, 1969. His father, Roy Allan Hargrove, was an Air Force noncommissioned officer whose career forced him and his wife, Jacquelyn, to move often around the United States and Europe; so young Roy lived with relatives in Waco, Mart, and Groesbeck for most of the first eight years of his life. At the end of the senior Hargrove’s service, the reunited family moved to Oak Cliff. Roy’s father took a job as a sheet metal assembler for Texas Instruments, where he was employed until he died last July. His mother worked as a clerk and still does, at a dialysis center.

Encouraged by his dad, when he was nine Hargrove took up the cornet at William B. Miller Elementary School. The next year, as a fourth grader, he volunteered to play a solo intended for an older trumpeter who had taken ill. He amazed his music teacher and band director, Dean Hill, by executing it without a flaw. “He kept stepping out there,” Hill told the Dallas Morning News. “He was always one to keep digging and reaching for all he could. We knew we had something special.” “Special” is also how Hargrove describes Hill. “I came from a very special kind of atmosphere,” he told me recently over dinner in Los Angeles, “because Mr. Hill, a very special person, could teach the kids how to improvise. That’s how I learned—based on the blues.”

Both Hill and Hargrove moved on to Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School, where the budding musician developed with astonishing speed. Maynard Ferguson was the idol of the trumpeters in the marching band, Hargrove says, because “you were really bad if you could play high and loud, as high and as loud as possible.” At age twelve, he resolved to master Ferguson’s recorded solo on “The Way We Were.” The highest note was an A above high C, beyond the top of the trumpet’s range for most student players. “I practiced it day and night trying to hit that note,” he says. “I drove my parents up the wall. They were like, ‘Don’t you want to go outside and play football with the other little kids?’

“I went in the closet, trying to get that high A,” he recalls, shrieking to imitate the trumpet. “Finally got it, though, and we made a record of it.”

The next year, Dallas saxophonist and flutist David “Fathead” Newman played for a junior high assembly. Hargrove knew about improvisation, but Newman was the first professional he heard doing it. “It was so soulful,” he says. “I just kept thinking, like, ‘Man, he’s making all this music, and it’s all coming straight from him.’” Thirteen years later, Newman is a guest soloist on Hargrove’s latest album, Family (Verve).

Another guest is Wynton Marsalis, who heard Hargrove early in 1987 at an impromptu clinic at Booker T. Washington. Larry Clothier, now Hargrove’s manager and producer, was overseeing Marsalis’ engagement that week at Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams. “Wynton came back to the hotel in the afternoon and called me up in my room and said, ‘Man, I heard this little kid today that’s gonna be a bitch. No, that’s wrong, that kid’s a bitch today.’” Marsalis asked Hargrove to come by the club and sit in with his band. On the last night, Clothier and Marsalis spotted three young men standing in the back of the club. “One of them had a little tweed topcoat on, a porkpie hat sittin’ on the back of his head, and a trumpet case in his hand,” Clothier says. “When the band got done playing the tune they were on, Wynton called Roy up.

“He was like this,” Clothier says, drawing his head into his shoulders and casting his eyes to the floor. “Wynton said, ‘You want to play something?’ and he sort of shrank and looked down and nodded. And I thought, man, this kid’s scared to death. But when it came time, you could just see him draw himself up and expand. And it was like Wynton said. He was a bitch.”

That spring, Clothier persuaded other jazz stars at Caravan of Dreams to let Hargrove sit in. Among them were vibraharpist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Herbie Hancock, and alto saxophonist Frank Morgan. Hargrove listened at the back of the stage while Hancock, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Al Foster soloed. “Herbie and the guys were still struggling with this piece Buster had written,” Clothier says. “They thought Roy had decided not to try, but he stepped up to the microphone and played the hell out of it. Herbie almost fell off the stool ’cause Roy had it and they didn’t.”

A few months later Clothier convinced Paul Acket, the impresario of Holland’s North Sea Jazz Festival, to bring Hargrove overseas. The youngster played in an all-star trumpet group with Marsalis, Woody Shaw, and Jimmy Owens and then toured Europe with Frank Morgan. By the time he got back to the States, his fame was beginning to spread. “Everybody thought I was crazy to throw him out there like that,” Clothier says. “But I saw how he responded in Fort Worth. It really wasn’t a gamble.”

After high school, Hargrove went to Boston’s Berklee School of Music for eighteen months on a scholarship, then transferred to the New School for Social Research in New York. He quickly became a hot item and was drawn into the marketing machinery of the jazz business. Yet as the packagers and imagemakers have shaped his career, Hargrove has concentrated on his music and the music of his trumpet heroes. He studies the records of Hubbard, Gillespie, Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Kenny Dorham, and he’s a fan of two underappreciated trumpeters, Bobby Shew and Tom Harrell. “Yeah! Yeah! Tom Harrell,” he says. “His harmonic concept is so deep, man, it’s beautiful. The way he weaves in and out of the chord changes—it’s really nice to hear him play.”

Hargrove enters the contemporary lore of the jazz scene as an inveterate sitter-in, playing for hours with whoever is on the bandstand at clubs like Small’s near his Greenwich Village apartment, Deep Ellum’s Sambuca, and the lamented Chumley’s in Dallas. None of that, of course, substitutes for the kind of demanding on-the-job training Charlie Parker gave the young Miles Davis night after night or what Freddie Hubbard once described to me as “the foot in your ass” applied over the years by Art Blakey to a platoon of trumpet players who learned and flourished in his band.

McCoy Tyner, who served a five-year apprenticeship as John Coltrane’s pianist before becoming a leader, understands the supply-and-demand forces of the marketplace that have spawned the youth movement. He knows it would be unrealistic to expect an ambitious young musician to reject opportunity, but he speaks for many in older musical generations when he muses about the future of the Young Lions. “These guys have reached the pinnacle,” he says. “So what’s next for them? I was gifted as a young kid, but I was thrilled to work with older people, learn tunes, pick up their wisdom. You have to play with older musicians to get depth. It’s not the technique—it’s what the notes mean.”

Tyner’s concerns about depth and meaning came back to me at a concert by Hargrove’s band at the Wadsworth theater in Los Angeles. Hargrove, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Karriem Riggins, and pianist Charles Craig captivated the audience with their technique and fire. Hargrove’s intensity was physical as well as musical. He moved like a shortstop, dancing, making little jumps with scissor kicks and half-turns. He radiated rhythm and excitement in his music and his presence. He played ballads beautifully on flügelhorn, the instrument that Clothier calls Hargrove’s “true voice.”

As the concert proceeded, the excitement and energy built, but a kind of smugness began clouding my enjoyment. In their interval leaps, pauses for effect, and falsetto squeals, Blake’s solos had some of the architecture but little of the cohesion of the brilliant saxophonist Wayne Shorter, an icon of the Young Lions. Hargrove also seemed to aspire to what Shorter did in the late sixties in Miles Davis’ most daring, most challenging, and least understood band. The music grew increasingly edgy and self-conscious. Soon it was clear to me, as it must have been to much of the audience, that the members of Hargrove’s band were playing to one another. The audience had to admire the game for its action, but it was not in on the rules, the strategy, or the tactics.

I reflected on what I’d been told by veteran saxophonist, composer, and historian Bill Kirchner about this kind of playing in the emerging jazz generation. “Many of them know just enough about harmony that they try for pentatonic intervals, superimposed changes, and other sophisticated harmonic devices,” he said. “They end up exposing their naiveté. They have some of the vocabulary but don’t know how to construct sentences. They haven’t fully internalized the innovations made in the early sixties by Coltrane, Shorter, Hubbard, Shaw, Booker Little, and Joe Henderson.”

After the intermission, Hargrove’s band came back with a straight-ahead blues at the tempo of a comfortable walk. The uncomplicated swing and directness in the playing of Hargrove, Blake, and Craig brought the audience back inside the music. Cheers filled the theater. In his flügelhorn solo on Johnny Griffin’s “When We Were One,” Hargrove again projected deep feeling in a ballad. Then, following a workout on his old hero David Newman’s “13th Floor,” he played an encore. It was “September in the Rain,” a 1937 Harry Warren song with a pert melody and a pleasant harmonic structure. Blake abandoned the tension and striving of his Shorterisms in favor of a solo that in its relaxation and wit was his most affecting work of the night. Aside from a misfired attempt to quote the theme from Bonanza, Hargrove played with the artlessness and clarity that he has yet to realize are his most attractive qualities.

Roy Hargrove may not see a need to, but he can probably overcome the disadvantages of his advantaged youth. As he collects awards, royalties, and praise, it will require a struggle for balance and growth to compensate for what he missed by not being on the band bus. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the assessment of his Dallas teacher, Dean Hill: He was always one to keep digging and reaching for all he could.

Doug Ramsey, a former contributing editor of Texas Monthly, is the author of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers (University of Arkansas Press).

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