Remembering Roy Hargrove

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Roy Hargrove (1969–2018)

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Roy Hargrove, an influential trumpeter, bandleader and trendsetter, died on Nov. 2 at age 49 in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. According to his longtime manager, Larry Clothier, Hargrove died from cardiac arrest due to a long battle with kidney disease.

Born Roy Anthony Hargrove to Roy Allan and Jacklyn Hargrove on Oct. 16, 1969, in Waco, Texas, he grew up in Dallas and began playing trumpet at age 9. During his three-decade-long career, Hargrove exemplified the “jazz torchbearer.” Even though his virtuosic playing firmly was rooted in the hard-bop tradition, he wasn’t beholden to it. His musical vocabulary included blues, Afro-Cuban music, funk, soul and hip-hop­—without a hint of pandering to commercial tastes. When it came to ballads, Hargrove was nearly peerless as he brought a glowing sensuality to the fore, especially when he played flugelhorn.

Wynton Marsalis gave Hargrove his first national boost after hearing him play at a music clinic in 1987, when Hargrove was an 11th grade student at Dallas’ famed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Impressed by Hargrove’s fluid improvisations and musical maturity, Marsalis invited the teen prodigy to join him on a date at the Caravan of Dreams Performance Center in Fort Worth. Later that summer, Marsalis asked Hargrove to play in his all-star band at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague.

After high school, Hargrove attended Berklee College of Music for one year. There, he met alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, who would contribute to Hargrove’s early-’90s Novus/RCA albums, such as Diamond In The Rough, Public Eye and The Vibe. Hargrove played on Hart’s early-’90s leader discs on the same label, and in 1992, Novus released Hargrove and Hart’s double-billed disc, The Tokyo Sessions.

Hargrove already had developed a reputation as a stellar trumpeter prior to encountering Hart at a jam session at Wally’s Café Jazz Club, where Berklee’s jazz students frequently convened. While reflecting on their front-line horn rapport, Hart said that it evolved naturally. “We never discussed anything,” he said. “Once we played together, there was just this spiritual bond that I’ve yet to find with any other trumpet player.”

Before Hargrove released Diamond In The Rough in 1990, he’d made his recording debut on alto saxophonist Bobby Watson’s 1988 Blue Note album, No Question About It. Hargrove also joined Watson in the band Superblue, which issued its eponymous debut in 1989 on Blue Note.

In 1990, Hargrove received critical acclaim for performing with saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall. The following year, he played on Rollins’ album Here’s To The People. Throughout the rest of ’90s, Hargrove solidified his reputation as an outstanding trumpeter and bandleader with a string of discs on Novus and Verve that often found him fronting intergenerational ensembles that included veterans, such as bassist Walter Booker, drummer Billy Higgins and saxophonists Johnny Griffin, Stanley Turrentine and Joe Henderson. The trumpeter often reserved the piano chair for masters like John Hicks, Larry Willis and Ronnie Matthews.

Hargrove dazzled onstage during concerts and at after-hours jam sessions he frequented, particularly at the now-defunct New York jazz clubs Bradley’s and Augie’s Jazz Bar. He topped the category Trumpet (Talent Deserving Wider Recognition) in the DownBeat Critics Poll in 1991, 1992 and 1993.

In 1995, he teamed with business partner Dale Fitzgerald and singer Lezlie Harrison to create the Jazz Gallery, a New York-based venue that continues to be a forum for emerging and established jazz talent.

Hargrove won his first Grammy for 1997’s Habana (Verve), on which he led Crisol, a coalition of American and Cuban jazz artists that included pianist Chucho Valdés, drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and trombonist Frank Lacy. The late ’90s saw Hargrove’s artistry expand beyond modern bop. His live shows often featured him and his bandmates nodding to DJ culture, quoting riffs from ’70s funk classics such as Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight” while trading fours. He also appeared on the 1997 neo-soul classic Baduizm, the debut album from singer Erykah Badu, one of his classmates from Booker T. Washington High School.

At the turn of the millennium, Hargrove became more immersed in hip-hop and modern soul. In 2000, he played on D’Angleo’s Voodoo, Badu’s Mama’s Gun and rapper Common’s Like Water For Chocolate—three classic albums associated with the Soulaquarians, a collective that also included keyboardist James Poysner, rapper Q-Tip and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. But Hargrove continued playing straightahead jazz, as evidenced by the Grammy-winning 2002 disc Directions In Music–Live At Massy Hall (Verve), a collaborative effort co-led by pianist Herbie Hancock and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Inspired by his touring experience with D’Angelo in support of Voodoo, Hargrove and 31 musicians convened at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan for lengthy recording sessions that would yield the 2003 album Hard Groove (Verve Records) under the band name RH Factor. With high-profile guest appearances from Common, Q-Tip and Badu, along with mesmerizing vocal performances by then-newcomers Anthony Hamilton, Shelby Johnson and Stephanie McKay, Hard Groove significantly raised the bar for the fusion of jazz with hip-hop.

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