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These are questions and topics of discussion that often come up in conversation with musicians, students, and music enthusiasts in general. I've had many fond musical experiences so far, and I hope that you will enjoy hearing about some of them. Please feel free to email any additional questions or topics of discussion.
did you become interested in jazz?
What do you enjoy the most about playing music?
I sat in front of my parent’s stereo and listened to side A of a favorite rock album, which was the Aerosmith album with “Walk This Way” on it. As I listened, I thought “that’s cool.” Then I put on side A of a favorite jazz album, which at the time was a Ted Heath big band record. I hadn’t even heard of Miles Davis yet. As I listened to all of the interesting stuff going on inside the music, it was very obvious to me which music satisfied my appetite. I liked both albums, but I found so much more depth and satisfaction in the jazz album. back to questions
musician you have the power, either as a larger group, a duo, or an
individual, to play just the right thing at the right time in the right
way. When music is done right, it's like magic,
whether you are the player or the listener. It’s especially nice to be
both when those magical moments happen.
(Photo: Kevin Hart & Mike Nellas at Panache) back to
Occasionally, but these days I prefer playing many different styles in
addition to Latin jazz. I really began to appreciate Latin jazz through my
association with Bob Washut at the University of Northern Iowa. When I
started playing gigs in Champaign Illinois in the mid 90’s, I thought it
would be fun to explore the Latin Jazz style, and the members of my group
were open to it. It caught on because it was different and rare in Central
Illinois. I thoroughly enjoy the rhythmic aspect of it as well as the
depth of the genre, but I also enjoy many other aspects of many other
styles too. So these days, I enjoy playing music that I like, period. It
can be straight-ahead, contemporary, funky, fusion, Latin, or whatever.
just too many good things to choose from to limit the possibilities.
(Photo: Josh Caplan, Kevin Hart, Tim Brickner, Dan Llano, Jeff Mabgy. 1997
Peoria Jazz Heritage Festival)
to have a repertoire of music that has some musical depth and diversity
that we musicians can dig into, but at the same time can be accessible to
a general listening audience. That’s where arrangements are important,
and I guess that explains my occasional jazzed-up versions of well-known
pop tunes too. I don’t want to come across as being “difficult” to
listen to, so I try to choose, transcribe, write, and arrange stuff that
can satisfy us musicians, while also striving to be somewhat accessible to
What is that thing you are playing, a xylophone? I guess I should make more show-and-tell appearances in the local schools (with a bullet proof vest, that is) so that twenty years from now every one will know what a vibraphone is. Of course if you play the saxophone you don’t have this problem. Then you just have to deal with “hey, have you ever heard of Kenny G?” back to questions
Through college and beyond I’ve had opportunities to play with a few legendary jazz musicians. The first, and most memorable experience was playing with Dizzy Gillespie with Allan Horney’s Eastern Illinois Jazz Ensemble in February of 1990, Springfield Illinois. We were all so excited to work with Dizzy, and he was so good to us too. I remember Dizzy coming over and showing fellow percussionist Dean Klinker and myself some various conga and cymbal rhythms to play on some of his charts. I’ll also never forget when he asked me if I had any sizzle cymbals, of course being a poor college kid the answer was no. So Dizzy motioned to his manager to bring out the special cymbals. Dizzy then told me I could use any or all of the cymbals for the concert if I wanted, and they all had rivets in them of course. It was a very special night playing music with a true legend of Dizzy’s stature, and the fact that he treated us so well made it even more special. (Photo: Members of the EIU Jazz Ensemble with Dizzy Gillespie after playing a concert with him in Springfield in February of 1990. That's me on the right!!)
Terry was another memorable legendary jazz musician to work with, once in
the late 1980’s with the Eastern Illinois Jazz Ensemble, and a second
time in the early 1990s with Tom Birkner’s University of Illinois Jazz
Ensemble. Like Dizzy, Clark was friendly, respectful of everyone, and made
us feel very comfortable, and his musicianship is just outstanding!
I did get
to play a vibe/piano duo once with the great Billy Taylor for a master
class at the University of Northern Iowa in the early 90s. We played Green
Dolphin Street in Eb, and it is nearly impossible to sound bad playing
with someone like him! Billy, of course is known for being a great
musician and educator. He was very passionate about discussing music in
general, and very encouraging to those whom he works with during a clinic.
drums with jazz organist Jack McDuff in the mid 1990s for
Champaign-Urbana’s jazz and blues blowout was also a ton of fun. He was
full of surprises. It was a lot of fun going with him wherever he decided
to go musically at the moment, and it felt so good to play with someone
who swings that hard!
that came to the University of Illinois in the early to mid 90s were
drummers Louis Bellson, and Ed Thigpen. Yet another super nice guy, Louis
Bellson would talk to you as much as you wanted. In fact if it weren’t
for his manager, he’d probably be late for the show because he was busy
talking to a fan. Since I was in the rhythm section playing vibes right
next to him, I got to feel that driving, swinging, kicking big band style
of his first hand. What a treat!
Ed Thigpen also came to UI for a week of residency around that time, and addition to playing with the big band, he worked with my very own quartet one afternoon. My group had been playing a few tunes from the "Very Tall" album that he had recorded with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Milt Jackson, so we’d play some of that stuff since my group was the exact same instrumentation. He then sat in with Tim Brickner, Tim Green, and myself, and make us swing harder and harder. In fact at one point, he made us get up and dance around the room! I wound up spending a whole school year at UI with Ed as his teaching assistant when he was offered a brief teaching position there. It was a very unique experience for some of us to talk daily with someone who had played, recorded, and was friends with all of the great jazz legends. He was very eager to share his information and stories during that time, and a very warm human being to be around. (Photo: Jim Guglielmo, Ed Thigpen, & Kevin Hart 1994) back to questions
I’d have to say that no regional musician has inspired me more than Champaign pianist Donnie Heitler. Before ever hearing or playing with him, Tom Birkner told me very matter-of-factly that “oh, he’s probably the best pianist you’ll ever play with.” Well, Tom was right! Donnie’s musicianship is extraordinary, and I’m very fortunate to have had, and continue to have opportunities to play music with him. Meanwhile, Donnie continues to inspire the many younger Champaign area musicians who seek him out as well as musicians who are passing through. He can be heard playing solo piano regularly at the Great Impasta in Champaign. (Photo: Donnie Heitler & Kevin Hart) back to questions
I used to play drums in the mid ‘90s with a musician from Champaign named John “Doc” Scott who was a trumpet player, composer, and an endodontist. It was very inspiring to be around someone who not only loved jazz, but who could create it from scratch so well. All of his tunes are a joy to play and to listen to, but You're the Berries is probably my personal favorite. Don’t ask me why, it just is. back to questions
Crain and trumpeter Dave Hoffman are both dedicated jazz composers, as
well as being fine players of course. It's really great having these guys
around, and their music is a lot of fun to play. You can find links to
their CDs and sites in the discography section. (Photo:
David Hoffman and Kevin Hart)
about your jazz days in Iowa?
I spent two years in grad school at the Univeristy of Northern Iowa, and soon found that there were some great musicians all around the state. Being a teaching assistant to Bob Washut was a wonderful experience. He constantly exposed his students to new forms of jazz, as well as inspiring us with his arranging and composing abilities. I was fortunate to eventually play drums on his piano trio CD entitled "Songbook" along with bassist Mark Urness. (See discography section). I occasionally return to Iowa to play or teach, but if nothing else, I always try to go to the Iowa City Jazz Festival, usually held around the fourth of July weekend. For no admission, you can enjoy the sounds of top national jazz groups as well as many wonderful Iowa jazz musicians. (Photo: Mark Urness, Bob Washut, Kevin Hart at Iowa City Jazz Festival 1999) back to questions
where is this place called "Panache?"
Panache is a coffee house located in Peoria that has been a musical home to Mike Nellas, myself, Cassie Hart, and others since 1997. The owner has created a comfortable, stimulating atmosphere for all ages, and has allowed us to explore our music on a weekly basis for many years now. Offering food, drink, games, wireless internet, music, and friendly service, a place like this is a real treasure in Central Illinois. Even more rare is an owner who knows how to create such a great vibe in a venue, and stick to it. Please check out "Strange Things" in the video section on this site for a five-minute Panache experience, or better yet, check the place out for real. back to questions
Many, but one of my fondest memories of a local gig was from a few years ago. Donnie Heitler, Jeff Magby, and I had a gig in Peoria at a place called ZZ Pops, and we were driving over from Champaign. Jeff drove separately. Donnie and I were caught up deep into conversation as I missed a split-off in the interstate. We were well on our way to Chicago until we finally realized that we were going the wrong way. By the time we turned around, backtracked, and made it to the gig we were well over an hour late. We proceeded to set up and play to an interesting audience of folks including some who came over after a KISS concert in the Civic Center. This unlikely combination of folks just loved the jazz we were playing, and on top of it, the owner of the club liked us so much that he paid us extra, even after being over an hour late! I’ll never forget that. back to questions
musician hasn't?? Here are some that come to mind right now.
I put a
jazz group together to play for a wedding, and the bride and groom wanted
plenty of Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Dave Brubeck. So we played some
classics by these artists, and a few couples would come out and dance here
and there. So then we went into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” thinking
that no one would want to dance to this tune in 5/4. Wrong! People ran to
the dance floor like a bunch of kids running to the playground for school
recess. The dance floor was just packed! Then we went back to the regular
standards in 4/4 with a few dancers here and there. Then later on, someone
came up and requested “Take Five” for the people who were outside and
missed it the first time. So we went into “Take Five” for a second
time and it was like some magnetic force pulled everyone onto the dance
floor! It was a fun time, but definitely an unusual wedding gig.
played drums with a piano trio at a restaurant in Urbana, and the manager
kept telling us after every tune that we were too loud. Now I have already
been playing the entire gig very lightly with brushes, the bass player was
playing totally acoustic, and the pianist had his rig turned way down. So
I decided to have a little fun with the situation. When the piano player
called “Cute,” I proceed to play brushes, but never touched the drums,
I just pretended to. I was basically playing air drums. The only sound you
could hear from me was the sound of my brushes going through the air.
After the tune was over, the manager came over and asked us if we could
turn down even more!
strange gig was at a pumpkin festival in Central Illinois. I was playing
keyboards with a small group hired to play little interludes between a
pumpkin chunkin’ contest. We were up on a tall stage in the middle of a
plowed over cornfield playing some funky-jazzy kind of stuff for maybe a
couple of minutes at a time, being almost totally ignored. But when they
started flinging those pumpkins though the air, the crowd just went wild!
I kept asking myself “what planet am I on?” After an afternoon of
that, I couldn’t wait the get out of there!
Another situation happened recently where my group was hired to play at an outdoor shopping mall. It was a beautiful day, and several friends had come out to see and hear us play. There was just one problem. When I asked management to turn off the piped in smooth jazz music, they told me that they couldn’t, and if they did, that they could get fired. They told us to play anyway, and do the best we could with the situation, and if it was a problem, we could just not play and get paid anyway! The guitarist had the great idea that we should show up every week and get paid not to play. back to questions
I liked what smooth jazz started out to be when the musicians actually used real drums, piano, etc. I really liked the funkiness of it all, and I still do. While in college, I played drums in a band called "Backstreets." We played Sanborn, Yellowjackets, Vital Information, etc. It was really fun, and the music was good stuff. Unfortunately now most of the music on a smooth jazz station is composed of drum machines and keyboards with most likely a saxophone or guitar playing on top of it. There are still some musicians out there who record great music with real instruments that those stations could play, but I can’t figure out for the life of me why they choose to play the mechanical, monotonous, lifeless stuff that they do play. Every once in a while though, they’ll play something really cool by someone like Fourplay who does interesting things in that style. (Photo: Backstreets 1989. Rob Rub, Scott Ney, Simon Rowe, Tim LaRoi, Steve Wunder, Kevin Hart) back to questions
Boy, I just don’t know. Pop artists seem to get a ton of attention for doing things like going on a major network show like Saturday Night Live to lip sync a simple tune, …..and screwing that up! I’m just baffled by what is considered "talent" often featured on commercial television or radio. I’ll watch late-night talk shows, and when it gets to the musical guests, I usually have to either change channels, or just shut it off. I just can’t believe that this lack of talent is really what people desire. Then to top it all off, the host walks over and says "great job, that was awesome." Meanwhile I'm screaming to the TV, "don't encourage that!!!" On the other hand, some of my favorite modern jazz artists are going the complete other direction and putting out some very ambitious, complex, and interesting work. Of course I NEVER see or hear talent of this level on the major networks, but thanks to NPR and PBS, these folks get some deserving recognition from time to time. back to questions
In high school, a few of my friends and myself would spend hours figuring out and rehearsing Rush tunes for talent shows that would get canceled year after year, until finally my senior year when the school finally backed a talent show. Of course we had been working on this stuff for a few years at this point, so we were pumped and ready. Although our show seemed to go over very well, we were supposedly disqualified by a student judge for being “too professional.” We did get a rare opportunity once to display our progressive rock talents at a girl’s basketball game intermission. High school was definitely an interesting time.
I did play with a few rock bands in college and beyond. One band, called “Mutiny” seemed to take things seriously, and so we played a few nice rock gigs here and there. We once opened up for the Romantics (What I l Like About You, Talking In Your Sleep) in Springfield, so that was cool. I also played in some pop/r&b bands during my high school years and beyond with some very nice people from my hometown. back to questions
Yes I did! I sent off a two-minute solo that I recorded with a tape deck in the concert hall of Eastern Illinois University, and forgot about it. Then one day during the summer I came home from work to find a post card from Neil Peart sitting on the table. He gave me some nice compliments on my solo, and explained that I had received sixth place and would be listed in the “honorable mention” section of an upcoming "Modern Drummer." I was thrilled knowing that someone who had been such an inspiration has actually listened to my solo! I guess all of that time spent preparing for those cancelled talent shows in high school had finally paid off! back to questions
Teaching regularly at three colleges in three different Central Illinois cities on a part-time basis has given me an opportunity to work and communicate with a diverse bunch of students with a variety of goals. Some have gone on to study at respected music schools, while others are performing in some bigger cities. Some play music on the side, others have gone into music education. One has even joined the Peace Corps, while another has officially become one of my “bosses.” I enjoy being part of the process that helps students grow in a positive way no matter what path they eventually choose for themselves. (Photo: Donovan Hill, Rob Dickey & Kevin Hart with Dave Weckl after his concert in Springfield, 2005) back to questions
Not really. I enjoy playing vibes and piano so much, and have chosen to focus my time and energy there. I am easily able, though, to keep my drums chops up through teaching lessons, playing at home, and working on recording projects. back to questions