At one point, jazz was sharply defined by the local communities in the major cities. Billy Hart is from Washington D.C.: I’ve heard Billy talk about Shirley Horn, Butch Warren, Joe Chambers, Andrew White, and others so much I feel like I know them myself.
Billy’s own most most important mentor might have been saxophonist Buck Hill, who gave Billy his first Charlie Parker 78s.
On the surface the two Buck Hill albums recorded in 1981 at North Sea with Reuben Brown, Wilbur Little, and Hart are nothing special: veterans going through their paces. But if you really know how to listen to straight-ahead jazz, these discs show a specifically Washington D.C. way of handling the common practice repertoire.
Reuben Brown isn’t well known but he was a big talent who had a year-long trio gig with Butch Warren and Billy Hart in about 1960. Wilbur Little was also a member of the D.C. scene around that time.
These are all well-educated musicians, but there’s also an element of jazz as folk music. When teenagers of that generation got interested in jazz there was no manual. If the local gatekeepers thought a youngster had potential, they were indoctrinated into the mysteries mostly through the oral tradition.
In this circle the queen was Shirley Horn, who eventually gave Hill his biggest exposure on a few of her later major label releases. I hear something similar in Brown and Horn: Herbie Hancock also got some of the same information because Miles Davis had Horn double bill with Davis at the Vanguard. The intro Brown plays on “Easy to Love” is not quite “normal.” It’s some D.C. stuff. Horn probably invented some of those voicings, and Herbie grabbed at least one of them too.
As for the tenor solo, what can you say? This is it, this is the mid-century Afro-American tenor saxophone tradition stretching from walking the bar to Interstellar Space. It’s not Hill’s best playing but you only need to hear a phrase to know that that truth is being spoken. Now that Hill’s gone, that once vital branch of American music, old-school tenor saxophone, has that much less of a connection to modernity.