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Such intensity and dedication have helped Hargrove, 28, bear up under the tremendous expectations his talents have inspired. In 1993, for instance, Village Voice jazz writer Gary Giddins called him "the best jazz trumpet player since [Wynton] Marsalis, and the most exciting since Freddie Hubbard." Hargrove claims that he feels no pressure from raves like this--they "don't bother me so much," he says, "because I know the media has to do their thing." Besides, good notices aren't as important to him as the respect of his fellow musicians--and he's doing fine on that score. No less a jazz legend than Sonny Rollins is a fan; he even penned a tune, aptly titled "Young Roy," in his honor.
The acclaim that greets Hargrove today contrasts sharply with his humble beginnings. "I was born in Waco, and my grandparents lived in Mart, Texas; that's a small town just outside Waco," he notes. "Since my father was in the service, I basically stayed with my grandparents in Mart until I was about eight years old. Then I moved to Dallas with my parents in '78, when I was in the fourth grade. That's when I started playing--when I moved to civilization."
The more sophisticated environs of Dallas were important to his musical development, Hargrove says. But he credits his former band director, Dean Hill, with turning him on to jazz. "He was a drummer who had worked professionally before he got a teaching gig," Hargrove recalls. "That man had a very special gift for teaching young kids how to play, because he kept you interested in it. Sure, we had our standard material and marches and whatnot. But we would also play things we knew, like stuff we heard on the radio. And he was the first cat that taught me how to improvise. He would let you take a solo, not a written one. This is how he would do it: He'd take you in the office with the piano and whatever horn you played, and he'd show you two or three licks based on the blues.
"He was a very, very beautiful cat," he continues. "When it came time for us to perform, it wouldn't be about playing the licks note for note. You had to play them with some kind of feeling, because Mr. Hill would be urging you on. He'd be going, 'Play that horn! Go ahead there, boy! Play!' See, that's how we do it in Texas. People don't just sit and be polite at jazz concerts. If you're playing something, they'll start testifying and getting loud and rowdy and let you know that they hear it. I like that."
At seventeen, Hargrove caught the ear of the aforementioned Marsalis, who heard him play during a visit to the youngster's high school. Marsalis asked Hargrove to sit in with his band during a performance in Fort Worth and subsequently introduced him to producer/manager Larry Clothier, who oversees Hargrove's career to this day. Under Clothier's guidance, Hargrove played in Europe, Japan and New York before he received his high school diploma. He subsequently attended the Berklee School of Music and New York City's New School, but not for long. His debut recording, 1989's Diamond in the Rough, hit stores before he'd celebrated his twentieth birthday.
Over the course of the next four years, Hargrove issued a quartet of albums (Public Eye, Toyko Sessions, The Vibe and Of Kindred Souls) that validated the glowing reviews he got for his first one. His playing was likened to that of Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, while his stage demeanor reminded many scribes of the early Dizzy Gillespie. In short, he was a hard-bop player bursting with unlimited potential. The Roy Hargrove Quintet With the Tenors of Our Time, from 1994, underlined his ability; on it, he held his own in the presence of Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis and Stanley Turrentine.
If there was a knock against Hargrove during this period, it was that he was too much the traditionalist. But with his next two platters, Family and Parker's Mood, Hargrove put the lie to these complaints by stretching beyond his previous musical boundaries. Habana, cut in 1997 with a ten-piece Afro-Cuban ensemble dubbed Crisol, was the culmination of this process, earning Hargrove a well-deserved Grammy award in the Latin-Jazz category.
On his current trek, Hargrove is back to bop, but he's trying to take the sound to new places. He's reportedly playing more flugelhorn than ever before and encouraging the other members of his current sextet (alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Willie Jones III and trombonist Frank Lacy) to take chances rather than fall back on familiar forms. His collaborators are more than willing to do so--particularly Lacy, who caused a stir in the jazz community by deriding some of the untouchables of the avant-garde, including Henry Threadgill and Wallace Roney, in the latest issue of Down Beat. When asked about the interview, Hargrove stands up for his bandmate. As he puts it, "I thought the article was pretty deep, man. He got a lot of people in there. Yeah, he really got them." He adds that Lacy "tells it like it is, and he can offend some people--but he doesn't offend me. I'm cool with it, because I know him." This knowledge pays off in performance: Both Hargrove and Lacy burn with a fervent desire to expand their artistry, and more often than not, they succeed.