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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Drummer and educator Billy Hart is still pushing the music forward

Jazz drummer Billy Hart playing with Lucian Ban's group Elevation at the Seattle Art Museum, November 10, 2017.
Joe Mabel
CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Jazz drummer Billy Hart playing with Lucian Ban's group Elevation at the Seattle Art Museum, November 10, 2017.

Billy Hart was born in Washington, D.C. in 1940, growing up near the famed Spotlight Club where he heard the bands of Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and Ahmad Jamal.

Hart played with Otis Redding and Sam & Dave as a teenager, but he didn’t expect to become a professional musician. He studied engineering at Howard University before leaving school early to tour with singer Shirley Horn in 1960, which really set Hart on his life’s journey.

Among Hart’s important early gigs was working with organist Jimmy Smith’s band, and with Wes Montgomery until the guitar legend’s death in 1968.

As music and culture radically changed in the 1970s, so did Hart’s drumming when he joined Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band – swinging hard bop evolved into funky grooves and free improvisation.

Hart was a versatile player through the '70s and '80s – appearing on Pharoah Sanders’ classic spiritual jazz album Karma, Miles Davis’ fusion experiment On The Corner as well as straight-ahead records with the Stan Getz band.

His evolution as a bandleader brought his debut album Enchance in 1977 featuring Dewey Redman, Dave Holland and Don Pullen, and shined a spotlight on Hart’s colorful post-bop drumming style.

Hart found his calling in education as well, teaching at Oberlin College, the New England Conservatory, the New School in New York and others, leading to exciting interactions with younger musicians.

Hart’s toured and recorded with Aaron Parks and Joey DeFrancesco, also leading a quartet with Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street on sax, piano and bass.

Also staying connected with his own generation, Hart has been a member of the all-star septet The Cookers since their formation - making two appearances with the jazz “supergroup” in the KNKX Studios.

During their most recent visit in February, Hart said he’s always been connected to the history and the future of jazz drumming:

“I definitely feel connected to it, I mean… cause it’s an evolution of the instrument. We’ve got people from all the different cultures, and so they’ve all contributed to this music in particular. At my age now, you sort of study all of the contributions of the different cultures.”

Hart was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2022, the beginning of his seventh decade as a professional musician. With freedom and discipline, passion and creativity, Hart helped bring drums to the forefront of jazz, avant-garde music and pop bands.

Billy Hart’s music is a reminder to keep a connection to history while you’re moving into the future.

Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student in college that Abe landed his first job at Jazz24, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and he’s been hosting Evening Jazz since 1998.