Friday, March 24, 2006

Top Brass

These days, it's hard to find a jazz album without Roy Hargrove on it. This 27-year-old trumpeter has hit records, sold-out shows, and a sound as smooth as his wardrobe, but he's more than just another young lion.


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by CORY JOHNSON TONIGHT, LIKE EVERY NIGHT, the legends guard the walls of the Village Vanguard. If you can see through the smoke and the dim lights, they're all there: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. There's in odd black-and-white of Bill Evans curled over the piano at the Vanguard, where his trio redefined jazz music in the 1950s. Mel Lewis and Thad Jones are pictured side by side, just as they were when for more than a decade in their big band owned Monday nights this crooked basement bar, deep below Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. Dizzy Gillespie laughs, Joe Henderson bores in, Charles Mingus broods, McCoy Tyner grins. And off to the side, dressed in a fierce herringbone suit, a young Roy Hargrove, circa 1995, is blowing the shit out of his trumpet.

It seems almost sacrilegious to see Hargrove, just 27, pictured among the greats in this cathedral of jazz. Yet here he is, one of the hottest performers in the history of the music. In polls of jazz magazines such as Downbeat, Hargrove has unseated Wynton Marsalis as the most popular trumpet player in the game. In just six years, he's recorded nine albums of his own for two labels, more than some musicians record in an entire career. And he's such a frequent guest star on other artists' records that critics joke in amazement when they find albums Hargrove isn't on. He is also one of the industry's top money earners and has spent most of the last five years traveling to sold-out appearances in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Hargrove is no Kenny G (thank God), but he plays with a smooth, accessible tone in an aggressive, highly charged fashion. Equally adept at the trumpet and the warmer-sounding flugelhorn, Hargrove calls to mind such illustrious players as Fats Navarro, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, arid Freddie Hubbard. And with each recording he makes, he adds to his already substantial following.

At about 9 p.m. on this Tuesday night, the Vanguard is filling up. After waiting for half an hour in the hot humid street, eager fans fork over a $25 cover charge to squeeze into this cramped, V-shaped space to see Hargrove play. His quintet is about due to go on, but backstage a Verve record company executive nervously scans the room, filled with musicians smoking cigarettes and tuning their instruments, and asks meekly, "Urn, where's Roy?"

No one answers. But Hargrove is tucked away in a back corner between a stack of beer bottles and a dusty old cast-iron stove. He sits crouched on a chair, eyes closed, head between his knees, rocking slightly, gripping something in his right fist. After about 15 minutes or this, he comes out of his trance arid abruptly stands up. He's a little guy, 5 feet 8 inches and thin, but decked out in a black DKNY wool-crepe suit over a cobalt-blue rayon/linen shirt and big Kenneth Cole shoes with a badass buckle. Hargrove is handsorne, with light brown skin, a shadow of a mustache, and a slight smirk on his face. His eyes are thin slits, as if he's just awakened in the middle of the night.

"Hey, man," he says laconically, extending his hand to shake mine. But he forgets he's still holding the silver balls he's been spinning in his hand. "Oh," he says. "These are my Chinese balls." He stares into his hand, then into my face, awaiting a reaction. An awkward silence falls as both of us wonder whether that was a joke, but just then the Verve rep returns arid says, "All right guys, you're on!"

Roy jumps up in the air and snaps his fingers. "Yeah! Let's go!"

The set begins with Hargrove playing a mournful flugelhorn solo. But when the band kicks in, the room explodes. Miguel "Anga" Diaz, 35, a Cuban percussionist with five con-as, two bongos, a timbale, three cowbells, arid a muted tambourine, instantly forges a wide path of Latin rhythm. His hands run roughshod over the congas, like a bulldozer through rubble. The rest of the band can only respond. Twenty-year-old drummer Karriern Riggins is kicking the rim shots; bassist Gerald Cannon, 38, is bug-eyed, playing triplet half notes; and pianist Charles Craig, 29, is punching staccato, salsa-style notes. Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, 30, stands off to the side in amazement. Anga is one of Cuba's greatest musical stars; he received a U.S. visa only days beforehand and rushed to New York to play this gig. This is the rhythm section's first time with Anga in the U.S., and they're holding on for dear life. To top it off, a No. 1 subway train comes speeding down Seventh Avenue, rattling the pictures on the walls.

Hargrove stands in the middle of all this, powerfully tapping his heel, waiting for the groove to settle in. Then he picks up the horn, .points it to the ceiling, and, amid the chaos, picks a beautiful melody out of the air. No avant-garde noise, no discordant tiffs. Music. It's like he's floating on a magic carpet over bombed-out Baghdad. Hargrove is a little man, but he blows the horn with ferocious intensity, sometimes holding one strong note for four, eight, even twelve beats. He looks like one of those compact NFL running backs-Emmitt Smith or Dave Meggett-plowing past an entire defensive line. He powers his way through the funk, then takes a step back from the edge of the stage, holding the horn at his side. The rhythm section surges. Roy pauses, then leans his head back and shouts, "Yeah!"

FROM HARGROVE'S UPBRINGING IN A DALLAS GHETTO, it would have been hard to anticipate his life today. Born in Waco, Tex., in 1969 to Jacquelyn and Roy Allen Hargrove ("We have different middle names," the trumpeter warns, "so don't call me 'junior."'), Hargrove spent the first eight years of his life shuffling between relatives while his father was in the Air Force. When his father left the service in 1977, the family settled in Dallas's Oak Cliff section, the toughest neighborhood in the city, now famous for producing such celebrities as NBA All-Stars Larry Johnson and Dennis Rodman, and Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson.

Soon after moving, Hargrove, then 9, took up the coronet at his father's urging. "But man, I still remember carrying that horn to school," he says. "That was a rough neighborhood. I seen cats on the street comer with Unzips and shit, guys in Jheri curls, they'd shout out, 'Go toot you horn!' and I'd run off to school."

Toot he did. He practiced so much his parents begged him to play football like the other kids. But his skill on the horn, under the tutelage of music teacher Dean Hill, earned him admission to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. It was there, in 1987, that Hargrove first met Wynton Marsalis.

Marsalis was visiting Fort Worth for a week-long gig when he stopped by the high school for an impromptu clinic. Larry Clothier, now Hargrove's producer, was booking gigs for Marsalis at the time. "I'll never forget it," says Clothier. "Wynton called me up in my hotel room that afternoon and said: 'Man, I just heard this little kid that's gonna be a bitch. No, man, that kid's a bitch today!"'

Marsalis invited Hargrove to come by the club and sit in with the band, but it took him a full week to show up. "That last night, three teenagers are standing along the back wall," says Clothier, "and one of them has on this little tweed sports jacket, a porkpie hat on the back of his head, and a trumpet case in his hand. Of course that was Roy."

Marsalis invited the young man to join the band onstage, but the timid Hargrove couldn't even meet his idol's eyes once he got up there. "I saw him, like, shrink down and he was scared shitless," Clothier recalls. "But when it came time for him to solo, man, he just rose up and blew the crap out of that tune. And it was just like Wynton said: He was a bitch!"

Marsalis and Clothier began to spread word of this young trumpet prodigy, and the following summer they got Hargrove invited to the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Holland, where he played in an all-star trumpet group with Marsalis, Woody Shaw, and Jimmy Owens. Hargrove so impressed saxophonist Frank Morgan that Morgan immediately invited him to join his European tour. News of the kid genius spread among the international jazz community, and by the time he was 17, the Hargrove legend was launched.

After his stint in Europe, Hargrove was a hot commodity. He attended Boston's Berklee School of Music on scholarship, but was constantly getting calls in New York to do record sessions with other artists. So Hargrove transferred to the jazz and contemporary music program at New York's New School for Social Research and attended every open jam session he could find. He became a fixture on the burgeoning New York club scene. Even today, almost any night he's home, Hargrove can be found sitting in with the house band at Small's, a Greenwich Village jazz hole, or holding court in the back of Bradley's, the famed jazz piano bar.

But Hargrove is rarely home. He plays in New York only a few weeks a year, because while jazz is certainly growing in popularity in the U.S., the real market is overseas.

"International travel is what allows us to be alive here," says Hargrove's business manager Dale Fitzgerald. "Americans don't support this music for shit. The significance that this world sees for jazz is outside America, though it's begun to happen here. Wynton has led the charge and tapped America on its collective shoulders and said, 'What the fuck do you think happened in the 20th century that was of any significance in the world but this music?' But Europe and Japan is where our bread is buttered."

Hargrove laments that he still has to be away so much. "I try not to let it get me down," he says. "But man, last month I had to cancel a gig in Dallas, my hometown, because the concert hall hadn't sold enough tickets. My hometown! And in Japan, people are hiring up around the block. That's somewhat hard to bear."

In sheer numbers, jazz has not traditionally been great for record labels in this country. In the '60s and '70s, a big jazz album might have sold 10,000 copies in the U.S., while a moderately successful POP record might have sold 100,000. But that began to change in 1981, with Wynton Marsalsis's eponymous debut. When he burst on the scene, he amazed critics and fans. People who had never before been interested in jazz flocked to listen to Marsalis and his older saxophone playing brother, Branford. And as the decade rolled on, the Marsalises performed an even greater miracle for Columbia Records: They sold upwards of 100,000 records every time out.

By the '90s, other record companies started to catch on to the money to be made in jazz. Wynton and Branford had opened the door; now a new generation was ripe for its own stars. Enter Roy Hargrove. His 1994 Verve debut, Roy Hargrove Quintet: With the Tenors of Our Time, sold more than 100,000 copies. His current album, Family, tops the jazz charts (a limited edition three-CD set called Extended Family will be released this month). And the Vanguard been sold out all week.

The day after Hargrove's first Vanguard gig, we're sitting in the back of a black Cadillac limousine cruising along the Hudson River. Verve hooked Hargrove up with the ride to attend a radio interview this morning. Morning for a jazz musician, that is-my watch says noon. But for Hargrove, it's a break from his usual rhythm.

"I don't really do much, man," he says in his whispery voice. "Just play, eat, and sleep."

It's hard to tell whether he's shy or just modest. Hargrove lives in a luxury few musicians are accustomed to. His clothes, even this morning, are expensive and impeccable. He works out regularly at the Printing House, the most prestigious gym in lower Manhattan. He has a stylish address in Manhattan's West Village, a cavernous apartment, and a beautiful piano that once belonged to singer Carmen McRae. Of course he can't play it much, because his hoity-toity neighbors complain; so instead, he has a Yamaha keyboard that he can listen to through headphones while he plays.

Hargrove's musical style further differentiates him from the pack of other young jazz artists. While most players his age dig deeper and deeper into discordance and "free jazz," Hargrove seems to have a vision of melody. Every time he touches the horn-no matter what the tempo-beautiful sounds flow through it. "I've got nothing to be angry about," says Hargrove. "I play happy music. When the audience goes home, I want them to be high, I want them to feel what I'm feeling. It's the exchange between the musicians and music. It's like a church. Music is powerful. Art is powerful. That's what it's all about."

HARGROVE POSSESSES REMARKABLE SKILLS, but he employs them emotionally and subtly. "I'm a Libra: Balance is my whole shit," he says. "We mix it up, we'll play ballads, some funk, a little bit of everything. We're getting back to the emotion, the love, where jazz music-where all music-comes from."

If you pick up a trumpet, it doesn't seem like much: just a twist of metal, three valves, and a mouthpiece. But it's probably the most physically demanding of all jazz instruments. The player has to summon up a tremendous amount of strength from his diaphragm and force that air, in an uneven burst, from the lungs, through the trachea and larynx, and up into the mouth. Once there, that breath must be held in and refocused by the muscles in the cheeks, creating what is known as embrasure. A trumpeter must master that power and release the breath through the thinnest opening in the lips, which are melded into the bowl-shaped mouthpiece to create a tone. just a few minutes of this can physically exhaust the mouth. Most trumpet players lose feeling in their lips after a gig; sometimes they bleed.

To make music out of a trumpet is necessarily an aggressive act; and to make beautiful music is a triumph of man over nature, compassion over rage. Perhaps that is why Hargrove has such a commanding presence, such pronounced self-confidence. As a young kid in the ghetto, he conquered this horn. Holding together a band, waiting out a rhythm, managing his money, his music, his crew, and his career is nothing compared to this physical act of dominance.

Back on the cramped stage at the Vanguard, Hargrove looks like he's ready to take on the world. He's bouncing on his toes like a prizefighter. Next to him, stately Ron Blake holds his tenor saxophone out before him like a flag, his body is perfectly still, his eyes closed as he runs notes up and down, his fingers waving across the keys; he's not about to stop this stream of consciousness. The band is steaming; the bass lays down a deep pattern, the pianist is on his tippytoes playing chords so full he must have 11 fingers. Drummer Riggins has a solid backbeat, with a cymbal riding fast and glimmering. And Anga fills every open space with the sound of his congas. But Hargrove can't wait. A bundle of energy, he picks up his horn and points it to the ceiling. As the music builds, the breath starts at his toes, rises up through his knees, hips, chest, fills his cheeks.

And he just blows.

Contributing editor Cory Johnson has written for Vibe, People, and George. He reached his musical pinnacle at the age of 16, when he played guitar with Dizzy Gillespie. It's been downhill ever since.


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