Founder of RH Factor, composer of "Strasbourg Saint-Denis": the trumpeter hailing from Texas has passed at the age of 49.
For years now, Roy Hargrove’s concerts have born the consequences of his health. He has been seen shining on stage, alive with youth, maneuvering his trumpet with the strength of history blowing in his lungs; he has been seen out of breath, wasting his talent, abandoned by a body that he did not take good care of. Born in 1969 in Waco, Texas, he has passed at the age of forty-nine, just after showing himself at peak form over the course of his last summer tour. The sadness that has unanimously swept the world of jazz on the announcement of his passing testifies to his impact on both the guardians of tradition and the newcomers for whom he was an incredible gateway to jazz.
Whether he was playing with a classic set or with the RH Factor, Roy Hargrove was two jazzmen in one person. He owes his blossoming to Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter of the historical kind who spotted him in the 90s when he was only just a high schooler in Dallas–he later attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the New School in New York. At the time, he was trying to walk in the steps of Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Fats Navarro and Woody Shaw, while naming John Hicks, James Williams and Bobby Watson as his influences as a composer. He was only sixteen when he made a decisive encounter with bass player Christin McBride–himself only fourteen at the time–with whom he developed a loyal friendship, one that can be heard on Parker’s Mood, an album released in 1995 that, along with pianist Stephen Scott, showcases a surprising trio. Since the beginning of the 90s, he has forged himself so wide a path that he could count on the collaboration of figures such as Joshua Redman, Johnny Griffin, Stanley Turrentine, Branford Marsalis, Joe Henderson and Ron Blake for With the Tenors of Our Time, ensuring his notoriety in 1994. He was then labeled “neo-bop,” to which he responded (in an interview given to All About Jazz in 1996): “Neobop? What’s that? Neobop. I guess that’s a way to describe the fact that a lot of us are playing in a tradition. Everything that we play in jazz is a reflection of our experiences in life. I’m influenced by the music of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. But I’m also influenced by the music of KRS-One, Woo Tang Clan, and L. L. Cool J, Peaches and Herb, and Earth, Wind and Fire. There’s a difference right there. (…) I know people at home always ask me ‘why don’t you do rap?’ They don’t expect me, as a young person, to be playing jazz. But I’ve always felt I have to challenge myself. And because I love music so much, I didn’t want to fall into any kind of rut.”
The winner of a Grammy Award (the second after the African-Cuban project Habana in 1998) for the album he co-signed with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (2002) which explored the repertoire of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Roy Hargrove was infiltrating the entire neo soul scene at the same time. In 2000, he can be heard on two standards of the genre in particular, Voodoo by D’Angelo and Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu, all the while playing on Like Water for Chocolate by rapper Common, all of them members of the Soulquarians (together with Questlove, James Poyser, Pino Palladino, etc.). This inspired Hargrove to create RH Factor, whose first opus, Hard Groove (2003), showcases contributions from D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Common, but also Q-Tip, Stephanie McKay, Meshell Ndegeocello, Steve Coleman, Jacques Schwartz-Bart and Bernard Wright–the whole of New York waltzed through the Electric Lady studio over the course of a fortnight. Undeniably the symbol of an era, this brilliant jazz-funk-rap album–a fusion that has checkmated many who attempted to play with it–was followed by two other records that were accompanied by fiery concerts, drawing a youthful and enthusiastic audience. Roy Hargrove always took pleasure from entertaining.
Roy Hargrove had imagined RH factor as a homage to his father (who passed in 1995) who would often tell him: “I like jazz, but when are you going to do something a little more contemporary, something funky?” Since then, the trumpeter has kept a foot in each camp, leaving the door open to fusions with the likes of Christian Scott or Ambrose Akinmusire, without abandoning the quintet which was always his true point of reference. We could feel him, more often than not, clinging to his own music. After being put on dialysis a few years back, he recently checked in to a New York hospital for a renal issue. He has died just a few weeks after performing his latest and final concerts in Europe and the States. The tributes are pouring in, with Christian Mcbride lamenting the loss of “a brother.” They are fitting for a man whose music not only influenced a generation, but will continue to influence the many generations to come.