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Erykah Badu, executive producer of the forthcoming documentary about late jazz and R&B trumpeter Roy Hargrove, wastes no time in elaborating on the influence her collaborator and high school classmate exerted on her life and career.
“It started with Roy,” says Badu, who first met Hargrove in 1985, when she was a freshman at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. “Roy was the first person I met in high school: he in the music department and jazz band, me in dance right next door. We danced to that band’s versions of John Coltrane, Miles Davis. That helped me understand what jazz was, and how to interpret it. It was a subtle rebellion. Roy was already a legend as a sophomore — truth is,” she adds, “Roy was actually a legend starting in junior high.”
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Hargrove would go on to legendary peaks in both R&B and jazz music: With the Soulquarians — the collective that also included Roots drummer/ bandleader Questlove, bassist Pino Palladino, keyboardist James Poyser and DJ/ producer J Dilla — who performed on legendary albums by Badu, D’Angelo, Common, and others; and in the jazz world with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock, both interviewed for “Hargrove,” which was directed by Eliane Henri, and premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 12.
“We felt real secure together,” says Badu (pictured below, right, with Henri) of the Soulquarians’ extended musical family.
Courtesy Eliane Henri
The film follows Hargrove from that high school to session work for saxophonist Bobby Watson and tours of Italy and Europe. After Hargrove’s debut as a bandleader “Diamond in the Rough” in 1990, the trumpeter — a private man who suffered from both a longtime kidney ailment and substance abuse — showed genre-jumping diversity, playing with both jazz’s elders and neo-soul and hip-hop’s giants up until his 2018 death from cardiac arrest brought on by kidney disease. He was just 49.
“Roy was a throwback and a throw-forward,” saxophonist Ralph Moore says in the film.
That diversity is illustrated in the film: Hargrove won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album in 1998 for “Habana” with Crisol, his Afro-Cuban band, then another for Best Jazz Instrumental Album in 2002 for “Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall” with Hancock and Michael Brecker. And his playing with the Soulquarians has also been amplified in Dan Charnas’ much-respected recent J Dilla biography “Dilla Time.”
Between Hargrove’s playing and tastes in music, Badu states that she made greater steps into digging deeper into jazz during her freshman year of college through listening to A Tribe Called Quest.
“Here’s Q-Tip and Dilla sampling all the jazz greats I heard from Roy,” Badu enthuses, referring to tracks such as “Get a Hold” from Tribe’s 1996 album “Beats, Rhymes & Life.” “I dug further, listened more to the original compositions being sampled, and [incorporated those influences] into whatever my fusion is. Roy was the root of that.”
Through Badu’s college years, she kept in close contact with Hargrove, recalling all of his early releases such as 1992’s “The Vibe” and the trumpeter’s interpretation of the Cahn/Style classic “The Things We Did Last Summer.”
“I listened to that song daily, and was so proud of my friend,” she says. “I decided that when I put out records, he was going to be on every single one.” Those albums range from 1999’s “Mama’s Gun” and 2003’s “Worldwide Underground” (where Badu and Hargrove sing Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice,” a track she calls “hilarious” due to the trumpeter’s scatting), and on her “New Amerika Part 1” from 2008.
“We never lost contact,” she recalls. “It was a twins-soulmate thing, never in a romantic sense, but something where we understood each other. I didn’t think I was a good singer. Roy always told me, though, ‘You sure do sing pretty.’ Those words, while simple, resonate with me to this day.”
Badu also speaks of the intuitive musical connection she enjoyed with the trumpeter. While recording “Mama’s Gun” at Electric Lady Studios in New York, she says no one but Hargrove could execute its arrangements. “There was not a lot of conversation,” she recalls. “He’d listen to it, nod his head. If he needed a trombone or sax to widen the sound, he’d ask. There were not a lot of words between us. We didn’t talk about music. We embodied it. I never underestimated his abilities to feel what I was feeling as a vocalist. We trusted each other.”
However, the documentary does not dodge his struggles with substance abuse (in 2014, he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and was sentenced to two days of community service) and longtime kidney ailments and dialysis. Henri’s documentary also looks at Hargrove’s relationship with manager Larry Clothier, who is described as a father figure to the trumpeter, but whose intentions were questioned by several interviewees in the doc.
“Eliane’s rough cut [of the film], how dark it was, attracted me,” says Badu. “It hurt. I could feel the intensity of her choices. Eliane’s passion and support for Roy was clear throughout the film.”
After attending a 2018 Texas high school celebration of Hargrove’s life and work, Badu was introduced to Hargrove’s friend Henri, and her goal of finishing a documentary she’d started filming, on tour, during the last year of Hargrove’s life.
“Eliane came to my house to do an interview about someone I love,” says Badu. “After our talk, she asked if I wanted to be part of this thing. It became a labor of love, with me as her consultant, helping her get artists and clearances, and showing me all of her edits. Eliane had great passion for the film and her subject, and put the whole thing together by herself. She nailed it.”
For her part, Henri – Hargrove’s friend and tour videographer – had known the trumpeter since she was 17 years old, meeting him at his gig at the Catalina Bar & Grille in Los Angeles.
“I grew up seeing all of jazz’s greats with my aunt in L.A., but Roy was the first time that it was someone dynamic and in my age group,” says Henri. “Roy and his band made jazz present and contemporary, cool and edgy.”
Henri, who wound up working for Quincy Jones (“my mentor”) at his Qwest Records and endeavors, often hired Hargrove to play her events, furthering their friendship. And in 2016, she pitched Hargrove on the idea of documenting his life and work. “We developed the concept together for a year before we started shooting,” says Henri. “We began in earnest in 2018 with so much great footage, and then he passed that year.”
Working as part of the International Documentary Association, Henri witnessed, up-close, how filmmakers around the world crafted their wares.
“The question of how one knows what film they’re supposed to make came up, repeatedly,” she says, “with the answer being access: what story do you alone have access to. For me, that was Roy: one of my best friends and the most private of people. What we caught of him on film, getting him in the head space of such invasive filming…. it’s all so rare. He was specific and intentional about what he shared with me. He wasn’t a complainer, and was careful about discussing his health, even though he required dialysis every four days while on tour. That was superhuman of him, transcending his physical limitations to play as much and as powerfully as he did. I wanted to do something real, raw and slice-of-life for his film – not whitewashed. That was a lot for Roy, but I think we made it worthwhile when you see the film.”
Badu says that whether or not audiences knew the trumpeter’s work deeply, “I want people to feel,” she says. “I want people to get mad, get happy, feel horny, fall in love. That’s what I loved about Roy and his work — that there were so many different colors he went through in his career. Roy made you feel.”
“People have two deaths,” she concludes. “When they physically leave the earth, and the last time someone says their name. Keeping Roy alive is our goal.”
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