Roy Hargrove Carried the Torch For Jazz Tradition Into the Hip-Hop Generation

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
Roy Hargrove performs at the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on Sept. 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The Grammy-winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove -- who died at 49 on Friday (Nov. 2) of cardiac arrest, following a long struggle with kidney disease -- was paradoxical in the way that so many of jazz’s most important figures have been. Which is to say, the contradictions about him as a musician and a person only broadened his power, influence and allure.

One of the fastest-rising stars that jazz has experienced since the mid-1980s, Hargrove, 49, forged ahead on a wave of “Young Lions” marketing made possible by the ascent of Wynton Marsalis, and delivered brilliantly within those mid-century boundaries. (Case in point: the 1993 live album by the Gen-X dream team called Jazz Futures.) His playing could embody the best of his influences -- the ground-zero bebop language of Dizzy Gillespie, the gusto of Clifford Brown, the supple virtuosity of Freddie Hubbard -- or bring home something that transcended historical touchstones; his famous ballad playing, for one, informed by his favorite singers and often undertaken on flugelhorn, could be incomparably beautiful.

Hargrove learned from the sizable record collection garnered by his father, also a versatile brass player, at his family’s home in Dallas, Texas. Jazz, R&B, gospel, funk and especially hard blues were a kind of lifeblood, and by the time Hargrove had settled in at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he’d become immersed in music, learning intensely in part as a respite from his rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Marsalis, already established as the leader of a new heritage-minded jazz vanguard, became impressed with Hargrove while visiting his school, invited him to sit in and then helped to facilitate overseas performances for the wunderkind.

In the late ’80s, sideman work with the saxophonist Bobby Watson marked Hargrove’s first recordings, and the trumpeter spent a year and a half at the Berklee College of Music, enjoying a hyper-talented peer group, gigging locally and, presciently, absorbing the Dizzy Gillespie songbook. (Hargrove would later become an enduring focal point of the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band.) He transferred to the New School, engaged in necessary mentorships on the club scene and released a bandleader debut, 1990’s Diamond in the Rough, that could safely be called auspicious. As the critic Gary Giddins closed his review of that album in Entertainment Weekly, “A major career is launched here.”

Hargrove would grow into an inarguable force of innovation over the course of that major career. As the leader of the RH Factor in the 21st century, his hazy, sultry blend of jazz, funk, neo-soul, contemporary gospel and hip-hop illustrated a special moment in the jazz and pop narrative, while laying the fluid, organic groundwork for artists who are successfully melding jazz with R&B and hip-hop today. If you’re unfamiliar with Hargrove but hip to Robert Glasper, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Terrace Martin, Snarky Puppy or Kamasi Washington, the RH Factor’s best album, 2003’s Hard Groove, featuring D’Angelo, Q-Tip, Common, Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello and more, is crucial listening.  

The RH Factor came together as an outgrowth of Hargrove’s game-changing work in the Soulquarians, the collective of vocalists, producers and musicians who originated neo-soul beginning in the 1990s. In 2000 alone, Hargrove appeared on three era-defining albums -- D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and Badu’s Mama’s Gun -- providing sleek ambiance through tasteful filigree and overdubbed harmony. On tour with D’Angelo, he elaborated on that studio magic nightly, in a cohort that the critic Robert Christgau called “the best funk band in the universe.” In between stylized hard bop and hip-hop-generation fusion, Hargrove’s triumphs traversed plenty of ground. In 1998 he won the Grammy for best Latin jazz performance for the fantastic Afro-Cuban exploration Habana. Five years later he earned another statue for Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, a next-level postbop summit credited to Hargrove, pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Michael Brecker.

For years Hargrove was dogged by reports of substance abuse, both rumored and sadly public. (In the NPR obituary, Hargrove’s longtime manager, Larry Clothier, tells Nate Chinen that the trumpeter’s substance-related issues had improved vastly of late.) Despite those demons, Hargrove’s public profile was generally one of professionalism, a road warrior who matured seamlessly from a young luminary into a steadfast mentor. In his big band and especially his various working quintets, he wrote smartly accessible compositions and arrangements and nurtured some of today’s most impactful musicians. Serious jazz observers became mindful of his bands as incubators and proving grounds, and he had a notably sharp ear for pianists; to name a few examples, his quintet alone featured Gerald Clayton, Sullivan Fortner and Jon Batiste, currently the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

Off the road he could be a consistent presence at jam sessions in New York, and in the mid-’90s he cofounded the Jazz Gallery, a nonprofit venue, now on its second location, that has served as a laboratory for jazz’s state-of-the-art. In terms of jazz education, he liked to embrace tenets that harkened back to the old school: the importance of learning to play by ear, of building an expansive repertoire and of gaining hard-core performance experience on the bandstand. He exhibited golden-age integrity in other ways as well, not least in his appearance: Hargrove was among jazz’s nattiest dressers, eclipsing the conventional jazz power suit with his matching hats, frames, ties and shoes, and at certain times an unmissable faux hawk.

The jazz grapevine could be unforgiving to Hargrove, but he came to play whenever I heard him live, and a few shows reside at the forefront of those memories. Sonny Rollins, who’d invited Hargrove to record with him in 1991, had his 80th birthday celebration at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 2010, where Hargrove offered a downright magisterial “I Can’t Get Started” on flugelhorn. At the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival, his luxuriant ballad playing was bolstered by strings, à la his album Moment to Moment, and the RH Factor worked the crowd toward a frenzy via a P-Funk medley. Over the course of that one weekend, he covered a mighty range of musical expression. 

From 2006 to 2018, Evan Haga was an editor at JazzTimes magazine.