arts profile

Jazz From the Hart
Tori Phelps

Musician, composer, performer, teacher...Kevin Hart wears all of these hats as he enjoys a successful music career in central Illinois. Hart, who grew up in Bourbonnais, began playing the drums when he was old enough to hold the sticks and was enrolled in piano lessons in third grade. “I started attempting the sounds of Lionel Hampton late in grade school when one of my older sisters purchased a set of vibes. At around 15, I began drumming with established local musicians, while experimenting on various instruments throughout high school.”

Hart then studied music at Eastern Illinois University and played drums, vibes, and piano in various groups. “While playing drums in the jazz ensemble, we musicians had unique experiences playing with jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Rufus Reid,” he said.

During graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa, he experimented with different sounds such as classic and fusion jazz, modern jazz, and Latin jazz. While completing doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, Hart organized his own vibraphone-based groups and began performing at numerous venues, festivals, and concerts throughout the state, while at the same time working with many notable regional musicians.

Currently, Hart has a full plate. “I’ve recorded CDs with my own groups and various other artists. As of now, I continue to perform with my own group—Kevin Hart and the Vibe Tribe—as well as The Swing Daddies, Cassie and Friends, Dave Hoffman, Joe Metzka, and others. I also continue a long-standing weekly gig on Tuesday evenings with Mike Nellas at Panache in Peoria.” Hart also teaches at Knox College, Parkland College, and Illinois Central College.

Hart’s parents can be credited with instilling in him a love of jazz, he said. “I grew up listening to jazz music from day one. From my earliest memories, most jazz made sense to my ears, and it always felt good to listen to. Because my family lived so close to Chicago, we often drove up to jazz concerts and festivals. By the time I was in my early teens, I’d witnessed some of the real legends of jazz in person such as Stan Kenton, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and Art Blakey. It’s one thing to listen to good music on record, but to witness such talent in person certainly heightened my enthusiasm.”

In addition to his performances on vibraphone and jazz piano, Hart also is a composer—though he wouldn’t call himself “prolific.” “I usually write a few tunes a year, and only if some idea really grabs me and won’t let go. Some tunes reveal themselves to me from beginning to end—for example, ‘The Road to Everywhere,’ the title track on my recent CD—and they go down on paper very easily. Other tunes reveal themselves as a main idea for me to complete, almost like a puzzle—for example, ‘Two Winter Days’ from the same CD. Sometimes, a clever song title will pop up in a conversation, particularly with my wife, Cassie, and I’ll write a tune based on that. Inspiration happens in a variety of ways, and I’ll take whatever I can get.”

As a composer, Hart especially appreciates the compositional abilities of fellow musicians. “Local composers are like a little support group in that we all make a point to play each other’s music. Jazz composers are rare around here, but a few of whom I really enjoy playing their compositions are local trumpeter Dave Hoffman, Springfield guitarist Sam Crain, and former central Illinois trumpeter John Scott, whose tunes I’ve included on my CDs,” he said.

Hart said he likes to arrange as much as compose. “I’ll hear a pop tune on the radio, and all of these ideas will run through my head as to how I could re-arrange this song in such a way that jazz musicians would enjoy playing it, as well as putting a twist on it that listeners might enjoy. Two examples of this would be ‘Axel F’ and ‘Foolish Heart’ from The Road To Everywhere CD.”

In addition to promoting his new CD through performances, Hart said he’s discovered that some jazz radio stations around the country have taken a liking to the CD. “A few jazz stations closer to home, namely WGLT, WEFT, and WSIE, have been extremely supportive. WGLT has always been especially helpful in playing many local musicians who’ve released CDs. A lot of time and thought was put into this CD, and it’s very encouraging to know some of these radio stations have found something in the music that they’re eager to pass on to their listeners.”

Hart’s teaching career at the three colleges offers different responsibilities, which he said keeps it interesting. “At Knox, I mainly teach private jazz piano and percussion students, as well as a jazz combo, but best of all I’m not totally limited to just those things. Knox is the type of school that allows plenty of flexibility for both the students and teachers. I often teach students who play other instruments such as guitar, bass, or trumpet even though I’m not really an instructor on that particular instrument. I’ve also been able to organize a Latin Jazz combo from time to time, providing students an opportunity to play a very unique and challenging genre of jazz.

“My jazz combo/improvisation class at Parkland is set up in such a way where I have plenty of class time not only to teach some fundamentals of improvisation, but also rehearse a large enough repertoire of music so the group can play a few live gigs throughout the semester. I’m strictly the percussion instructor at Illinois Central College. Some students wish to continue as music majors at another school, while others just want to learn for enjoyment. Either way, ICC is a great starting place for any student considering a degree in music,” he said.

Teaching has given him an opportunity to work and communicate with a diverse bunch of students with a variety of goals, Hart said. “Some have gone on to study at respected music schools, while others are performing in bigger cities. Some play music on the side, and others have gone into music education. One 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.”

A true performer at heart, he balances his “day job” with a steady diet of gigs—everything from playing background music for receptions and parties, to casual listening environments such as coffee shops and nightspots, to more high-profile concerts and outdoor festivals. One of his favorite performances, however, happened in college. “The most memorable experience was playing with Dizzy Gillespie with Allan Horney’s Eastern Illinois Jazz Ensemble in February 1990 in Springfield. We were all so excited to work with Dizzy, and he was so good to us. 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. 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.”

His hope is that jazz music will become more appreciated as time goes on. “There are some venues, organizations, and individuals around this area who certainly are helping to develop this appreciation as well: Panache, the Contemporary Arts Center, and Central Illinois Jazz Society, to name a few. Jazz radio is rare on the FM dial, but thanks to WGLT 89.1 FM, people all over central Illinois are able to access some form of jazz throughout the week. As I mentioned before, WGLT also has taken an interest in local talent and has given many local artists some promotion and airplay. I recently saw a television show on WTVP about the current radio station situation in Peoria, as well as the rest of the country. Because of the way a majority of radio stations are set up now, it’s virtually impossible for a local artist of any kind to get exposure—no matter how good they might be. With WGLT, there’s a strong sense of our own local community. They make an effort to utilize and promote our own people who do a variety of interesting things. That’s something to take pride in and to feel very fortunate about.”

The Road to Everywhere can be found in Peoria at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Kidder Music, and Panache; and in Bloomington at Borders, The Garlic Press, and Kidder Music. It’s available through or by calling (800) 448-6369. Hart’s Latin jazz group recorded a CD called Corazon in 1996, and he’s also recorded on many CDs as a sideman. A complete listing, plus audio and video clips, can be found on a&s