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Billy Hart has earned his place as an NEA Jazz Master

Billy Hart
Jonathan Chimene

The National Endowment for the Arts will inaugurate four new NEA Jazz Masters on Thursday night, bestowing this nation’s highest honor for living jazz musicians. Of the four artists being recognized this year, the oldest, at 81, is drummer, composer, and bandleader Billy Hart.

For more than 60 years, he has brought an earthy, exacting style to the art of jazz drumming, alongside everyone from Shirley Horn to Stan Getz to his fellow NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock, in the influential jazz-funk band Mwandishi.

Hart originally hails from Washington, D.C., where he came up backing pop and R&B acts like Sam and Dave, even as he set the groundwork for a jazz career. He moved to the New York area in the late ‘60s, and for decades now he has been among a clutch of jazz legends residing in Montclair, New Jersey — as he recently told the NEA.

This place where I live, I found it sort of by accident, but I found it by talking to other musicians that live here. And that's for one reason; another reason is that it has trees. It's not necessarily upstate New York. It's not necessarily California. But it's peaceful here. And for somebody like me, this is a kind of place where I prefer to study.
Billy Hart

A portion of that study has gone into honing a firm yet flexible pulse on drums and cymbals, one trademark of his style. But Billy Hart is also a composer and bandleader who released his first album almost 45 years ago.

Billy Hart at Village Vanguard
Desmond White

Over the last 20 years, his main outlet has been a quartet featuring some of the brightest players of a younger generation: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street. WBGO recorded the Billy Hart Quartet at The Village Vanguard in 2009.

Jazz Night in America will celebrate each of the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters in the coming weeks; stay tuned for an episode devoted to Billy Hart in mid-April.

You can listen to the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony this Thursday, at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, on WBGO 88.3 FM and at wbgo.org. And stay tuned for more mini-profiles of the honorees here at The Art of the Story.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.