Courtesy photo

A drummer, bassist, saxophonist and vocalist walk onstage and a jam session begins. This year’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) 2022 Jazz Masters can do that at a moment’s notice.

Drummer Billy Hart, bassist Stanley Clarke, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, count as a ready-made performance group regardless of the music genre. The foursome will receive the highest American jazz honor during a virtual and in-person tribute concert on March 31, collaborating with SFJAZZ from San Francisco. Dianne Reeves, 2018 NEA Jazz Master, will host the occasion.

Hart, a respected composer and jazz professor, shuttles between the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio and the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. Weekends usually mean gigs with his group, The Cookers, who recently performed at Blues Alley in Georgetown.

“It was a huge surprise. I didn’t expect it,” Hart said when he learned about the Jazz Masters recognition. “That I would be considered like so many people I admire highly and believe in, it’s an honor.”

He grew up in the District’s Deanwood and Brookland neighborhoods, attended McKinley Tech High School and Howard University to study mechanical engineering. The late Buck Hill, another D.C. native, began mentoring Hart in his teen years. Then as a young adult, Hart joined the house band at the Howard Theater, playing behind Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Joe Tex and Otis Redding.

His career soared when he began performing with jazz legends including another native Washingtonian, pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn, organist Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. 

Hart’s notoriety increased when he began playing with McCoy Tyner, saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Eddie Harris and Weather Report co-founders Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. In the 70s, Hart joined Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet which consisted of saxophonist Bennie Maupin, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester and bassist Buster Williams in addition to pianist Hancock and Hart.

“That was the first time I played with people my age,” Hart said about Mwandishi. “Herbie is not only a musical genius; he has a brilliant mind.”

Clarke, an accomplished composer and producer, worked on many award-winning solo and group jazz projects. In the early 70s, Clarke and pianist/composer Chick Corea co-founded the jazz fusion group Return to Forever [RTF]. Their album “Light as a Feather” produced several popular jazz radio favorites, including the title track along with “Spain” and “500 Miles High.” Joining Clarke and Corea to complete RTF’s core group would be drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al Dimeola. By1977, RTF formally ended.

“It was a very powerful movement (but) we didn’t realize it until near the end,” Clarke said about the RTF’s impact during that jazz fusion era. “It was like a ship that had a lot of byproducts. We were just trying to get our music out to people.”

In the early 80s, pianist, composer and producer George Duke and Clarke created The Clarke/Duke Project. Their sound was a blend of jazz, Latin, pop and slow R&B jams. Their composition “Sweet Baby” topped the pop charts from that collaboration. 

“Sweet Baby wasn’t going to be on the record. It was kind of a make-up song for Duke’s wife because they had an argument,” Clarke said.

Then Clarke became an in-demand composer on television and film projects including “Boyz N the Hood,” “Poetic Justice,” “The Best Man,” “Lincoln Heights” and “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” Clarke has scored more than 80 television and film projects.

  “I’ve done a lot of stuff. It is nice to be acknowledged for your work,” Clarke said, reflecting on the 2022 Jazz Masters designation. “This is different because it is the highest award that the country can give.”The live webcast of the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert can be seen March 31 at 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET. All four NEA 2022 Jazz Masters will perform during the tribute concert with an all-star band and the SFJAZZ Collective. For a complete list of where to view or listen to the concert, visit the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters page.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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