Oberlin jazz students know Billy Hart as a master of his craft. Now it’s his formal title.
The conservatory's longtime associate professor of jazz percussion was named a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor for jazz musicians, bestowed annually by the National Endowment for the Arts. Hart joins a 2022 class that includes bassist Stanley Clarke, saxophonist and cultural activist Donald Harrison Jr., and singer-songwriter Cassandra Wilson.
“I’m really surprised, and I’m really honored,” Hart, 80, said from his New Jersey home the day after the awards were announced. Hart himself didn't know he had won until friends started calling him with the news. "One of the reasons this is so special to me is that so many of my dear friends have also earned this award. I would be curious to see who suggested me, because I wanna give them a big hug!”
A native of Washington, D.C., Hart got his start in the spotlight while still in high school, performing with soul stars such as Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, and Sam and Dave as the house drummer for D.C.’s Howard Theater. He was a member of Herbie Hancock’s sextet from 1969 to ’73 and played with a long list of luminaries that included McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Pharoah Sanders, and Marian McPartland. Hart's discography spans 60 years, beginning with the 1961 recording Live at Jorgies Jazz Club (VGM) by Wes Montgomery, with whom a young Hart toured. Over the course of his career, he has appeared on more than 600 recordings and recorded 12 as leader.
A member of Oberlin's faculty since 2000, Hart remains active as ever—in studio, on stage, and on campus. June 2021 saw the release of the album All Things Are (Smoke Sessions Records), featuring Hart alongside pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street. It was recorded live—for a streaming audience, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic—at New York’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in December 2020.
Hart is also a member of the Cookers, a jazz supergroup that includes fellow Oberlin faculty member and longtime Hart collaborator Eddie Henderson on trumpet.
NEA Jazz Masters have been designated annually since 1982—an inaugural class that included Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra, and Roy Eldridge. Honorees for 2022 receive a $25,000 award and will be celebrated in a concert at SFJAZZ in March of next year.
"There are some people I did expect to get the award that didn’t get it, and I hope it’s just a matter of time for them," Hart said. "The fact they’re not in there is why I’m surprised that I’m in, but I’m just really grateful.”
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