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.

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

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