At 25, Texas trumpeter Roy Hargrove could swing with the best of them

As originally posted by dallasnews.com.

NEW YORK - It's 4 in the morning on a Wednesday, and though they say New York is the city that never sleeps, it sometimes dozes a bit at this hour.

The streets of Greenwich Village are drizzly wet and the street lamps make soft patterns in the puddles. It's so quiet you can hear the traffic lights change.

But as you approach the corner of 7th Avenue and West 10th Street, another sound pulls you foward. It's the sound of a drummer slapping cymbals and pounding his feet; a bass player thump-wah-thumping; a pianist splashing in rhythm; and a trumpet player blowing as if his life depended on it.

The club is called Smalls; the trumpeter is Roy Hargrove.

Smalls is an after hours place, a stripped-down basement where some of New York's finest young musicians drop by when they've finished their paying gigs. It's not listed in the newspapers and it isn't advertised on radio. Beginning at 2 in the morning, the bandstand is open to anyone good enough to handle it.

Roy Hargrove, 25, closes the place almost every morning. When he's not on the road and he's not home visiting his parents in Dallas, it's a good bet you can find the trumpeter on stage at Smalls - alone, playing with musicians he barely knows, playing before an audience of maybe seven or eight, and playing for no reason except that he loves music above all else.

He closes his eyes, puts his shiny silver trumpet to his lips and concentrates so hard it hurts to watch. The little yellow spotlight strikes stars in the moisture on his temple. The sound from his horn is brash but fluid, with musical ideas unfolding in whole sentences and paragraphs.

"I never can leave when I go in there," Mr. Hargrove says. "As soon as I go in there and play one song I want to play more and more and more. I can't leave. I stay in there until it's daylight outside."

To some jazz fans, Roy Hargrove is the most exciting young horn player to come along since Clifford Brown blazed all too briefly across the scene in the 1950s. Mr. Hargrove plays with the tenacity of a pit bull and the meticulous touch of a painter. With seven albums as a leader, he is already one of the jazz world's top trumpeters.

While young audiences drift away from mainstream jazz, critics say Mr. Hargrove might be the musician best-equipped to restore some of the music's popularity. He's fantastically photogenic. He loves rap, funk and anything else that feels good. He even sings nicely, according to the few who've heard him.

But most of all, for reasons that even Mr. Hargrove can't explain, audiences seem to fall magically under the spell of his thick-toned horn. They see the effort he puts into his playing, they sense his sincerity, and they respond with a screaming fervor more often reserved for pop artists.

"No amount of publicity will make people like your sound," said trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. "People like Roy Hargrove's sound. It's soulful and it's warm and it's relaxed. And he swings very hard."

Yet Mr. Hargrove remains something of an enigma. As a child, he recalls feeling all alone - just a boy with his horn. But instead of looking to make friends, he shut himself in the closet of his parents' Oak Cliff apartment and practiced his trumpet where no one would hear.

Today, fame fits him like a $50 suit. He is absorbed in his music to the exclusion of almost everything else. He has little patience for etiquette and dislikes talking to reporters. He fell asleep during one of the interviews for this article.

"He's completely socially inept at times," said his manager, Dale Fitzgerald. "He doesn't recognize people. He can come off as rude sometimes, but he's oblivious. I guess a person who has the kind of musical ear he has actually sees the world differently from other people."

The rebel jazz man

Roy Hargrove is a small, tightly-built young man with short-cropped hair, a thin-moustache and a round face given to shy grins and raucous laughs. His one-bedroom apartment in New York's  West Village looks like it belongs to a college student.

The kitchen table is covered with magazines. The living room is cluttered with CDs, sheet music, two trumpets and a small electric keyboard. The walls are decorated with posters advertising his own gigs. The centerpiece of the room is a bigger-than-life, unfinished painting of Mr. Hargrove playing his trumpet. He doesn't know who painted it or why, but he saw it in a gallery and bought it.

Sitting on a soft sofa one afternoon, still red-eyed and groggy from an all-night session at Smalls, Mr. Hargrove talked about his childhood and his musical education in Texas.

He lived until he was 8 with relatives in Mart, just outside Waco. But when his father completed his duty in the Air Force, Roy and his parents moved to a low-rent apartment complex in Oak Cliff.

Jacqueline and Roy Hargrove Sr. both worked. She was a clerk at the county jail and he assembled sheet metal for Texas Instruments. Roy was an only child until his brother was born 15 years later. He had few friends and spent most of his time practicing trumpet and listening to jazz records.

When his parents came home from work, tired and in no mood for blaring horns, Roy would not quit playing.

"A lot of times they would try to get me to stop practicing, so I would go in the closet," he said. To this day, he sees nothing unusual about it. It wasn't that he wanted to play the trumpet. That would be the same as saying he wanted to eat, drink and breath.

"Music for me was the only thing that I could really find peace of mind in," he said. "It seemed like a lot of my friends wanted to get into these other things, negative things, and music sort of saved me from that. Plus, it's just the idea of being able to excite people with your trumpet or your saxophone or whatever. Just the idea of being able to do that is what intrigued me so much."

Inspired by the music

As a fourth-grader, he remembers hearing the school band and feeling overjoyed.

"The saxophone player would get up and play a solo. A couple of trumpet players would get up and play. It was all improvisation. I could tell what they were playing was coming straight from them, and it was really exciting. It was really a lot of energy coming off of that. It touched me, you know. I knew I wanted to join the band."

Though he would have preferred a saxophone, his father, a talented high school musician, recommended the trumpet for a practical reason: He already had an old pawn shop cornet in the house. Roy would learn to love it.

Dean Hill, the music teacher at William B. Miller Elementary School, made a strong impression on young Roy. And Roy in turn made a very strong impression on his teacher.

When the school's top trumpeter got sick and couldn't play his solos, Mr. Hill was stunned when an undersized fourth-grader offered to step in. He was further stunned when the boy played the solo perfectly.

"He kept stepping out there," Mr. Hill said. "He was always one to keep digging and reaching for all he could... We knew we had something special."

Mr. Hargrove still talks about his elementary school solos as if there were landmark accomplishments, on roughly the same scale as his new recording contract with Verve or his 1991 triumph at Carnegie Hall.

"The rule was you couldn't get a solo until you were a sixth-grader, but they gave me one early, because my director knew that I really loved to play, and if he gave me a solo I was going to play it with all my heart," he recalled.

"Just the ability to be able to cause emotion. I would pour all of my feelings into it, more or less. It was my means of expression. Even though I was just a kid, I still had a lot of things on my mind that I wanted to say and the trumpet allowed me to do that."

Education by osmosis

His parents couldn't afford private lessons, so Mr. Hill helped guide Roy's education. The young man attended summer band clinics and rehearsed with every group that let him. By junior high school, he and his friends formed a band called The Future, which played at hotels, festivals and debutante parties. Roy led the group, wrote the music and taught fellow bandmembers to play their parts.

When he couldn't find anyplace to play, he would visit the high schools near his house and listen to the older musicians.

"I used to hang around the high school guys and pick them for information and listen to them play high and loud and fast," he said. A lot of those guys had amazing chops. There were some trumpet players in Texas that were so bad. None of them are playing anymore, but these guys had phenomenal chops."

Which raises the musical question: Why did the kid in the closet make it when none of the others did?

"For me, there was nothing else but music," he said. "I always had a lot of confidence in my playing. I would play with anybody. It's hard to explain. It never came to mind: 'Maybe I'm not good enough'. I never though like that. I always though, 'Yes, I am good enough', or 'I can be good enough'."

His big break came in high school when Wynton Marsalis visited Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts and heard Roy play with the school jazz band. Mr. Marsalis invited the student to join him that week at Caravan of Dreams, the Fort Worth jazz club.

Partly because of nerves and partly because he couldn't get a ride, Roy missed the first few nights at Caravan. But his father drove him to Fort Worth in time for the last show. Roy Hargrove, age 16, made his debut on Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise.

"It was my first time, really, in front of an audience like that," he said. "I was nervous. But when the music started I was cool."

Mentor Marsalis

From there, everything changed. Mr. Marsalis arranged for the young musician to study privately with a professor at Texas Christian University ("I didn't even know you could do that," Roy said). Agent Larry Clothier invited him to tour Europe that summer with saxophone legend Frank Morgan.

"It was my first time ever being anywhere outside of Texas," he said. "I was like in shock. A lot of times, I mean, just looking at the countryside it would be so beautiful I would be in tears. I had never been anywhere.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and began playing regular gigs in Boston and New York.

When he returned to Dallas on vacation, Mr. Hargrove would find music anywhere he could. He would make unannounced appearances at small clubs such as Terilli's, Sambuca's and the now-defunct Chumley's.

Roger Boykin, a pianist and guru to many young Dallas musicians, recalls the night Mr. Hargrove commandeered one of his gigs at Terilli's. Mr. Boykin said he was impressed with Roy's playing in high school but knocked out when he returned from Berklee.

"That's when it hit me for the first time how much like Clifford Brown Roy played," said Mr. Boykin. "I was amazed at the maturity of his playing, the intensity, the melodiousness."

Roy Hargrove is already a terrific player, said Mr. Boykin. Wynton Marsalis is a better technician and a better soloist, but Mr. Hargrove, if he matures and finds his own voice, might be someday be among the very best, Mr. Boykin said.

"Roy can probably swing as well as Wynton, if not better, owing to his Texas roots," he said. "In Texas, it's all about the feeling. In Texas, they cut to the real essence of what music is all about: How does it feel? How does it make you feel? And I think that's the element in Roy's playing that's sometimes missing in Wynton's. If you put them on the stage together, Roy might swing him off the stage."

Star power

After 18 months at Berklee, Mr. Hargrove moved to New York, enrolled in classes at the New School and began his graduate work in the clubs of Manhattan. He received a graduation ceremony of sorts in 1991 in a Carnegie Hall concert with Sonny Rollins, the saxophonist often called America's best jazz soloist.

Each year, Mr. Rollins chooses a hot young musician and puts him to the test. Some budding stars have wilted under the heat, but Mr. Hargrove blossomed. He overcame his nerves and seemed to feed off the saxophone master's enormous energy. Four years later, jazz fans still talk about that concert.

Now the question facing Mr. Hargrove is this: As good as he is, will he get better?

Marian McPartland, the 75-year-old pianist, has jammed with the world's finest musicians for the better part of the century. Asked recently to name the young musicians most likely to shape the future of jazz, she offered only two: Mr. Hargrove and pianist Benny Green.

To get there, though, according to the musical elders, the young man must maintain his restlessness without losing control. Like so many young musicians, Mr. Hargrove struggled with a period of excessive celebration. Those troubles have passed, though, according to friends and fellow musicians.

These days his only serious addiction is music. He reads, cooks and goes to movies, but mostly he plays. He exercises his lips and works on his technique for two hours a day. He composes and arranges new songs for several hours more. He's making plans for his first stint as leader of a big band. And, of course, he is sitting in every night he can at Smalls, the underground club in the Village.

It's a Smalls world

On that recent rainy night, with most of the city still sleeping, Mr. Hargrove played as if this were his first big chance.

At one point not long before dawn, members of the band pulled out music for a newly-penned song. Everyone else in the group had played it, but Mr. Hargrove had never seen it before. The piece was confoundingly difficult, filled with unusual key changes and difficult chords, all rumbling at breakneck speed.

But even as a child, Roy Hargrove heard things others did not. He can name any note the instant it sounds. He hears and understands the structure of a song the way an architect might see and understand the structure of a bridge.

In all likelihood, the rhythm section chose the tough tune to scare musicians off the bandstand. Mr. Hargrove listened for a few bars with his head down and eyes closed, then checked the sheet-music to confirm his analysis.

When he blew, he blew so fiercely you half expected smoke to waft from the bell of his horn. His jaw squeezed tight and a straight line creased his forehead. His back arched slightly and his knees bounced with the music.

With each measure, his confidence grew. He punched the short notes sharply and kissed the long ones. He invented melodies within melodies and played off them to make more melodies. Sometimes he paused to let the silence have its say.

"My dream," he said, "is to be in a constant jam session. Twenty-four hours. When would I sleep? I wouldn't. I wouldn't need sleep in my dream. I'd just stay awake and keep playing."

For now, sunrise is hours away, and the night has a lot of music left in it.