Oct. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Antonio Hart passes the jazz torch as first of MSU´s guest artists

When the MSU Federal Credit Union gave $1 million to MSU’s College of Music for a jazz residency program last January, it was Christmas: Part II for jazz studies chief Rodney Whitaker. MSU has a stellar roster of jazz professors, but it’s a long way from East Lansing to New York´s Iridium Club.

With an endowment that big, Whitaker could bring the cream of jazz musicians — from either coast or anywhere in between — to jam, teach and perform in the heart of Michigan.

After a sweet minute or two of candy counter paralysis, Whitaker seized on New York’s Antonio Hart, one of the top alto sax players in the world and a committed educator, as the program´s first guest artist. Two more guest artists will come to MSU this academic year: trumpeter Jon Faddis the first week in December and drummer Jeff Hamilton in mid-April.

Whitaker and Hart played together in the Roy Hargrove Quintet, one of the premier hard bop combos of the ‘90s. “We were on the road together for two years, so I know him pretty well," Whitaker said.

They’ll be back on the road next week, only this time in teaching mode. The grant not only calls for guest artists to work with jazz students at MSU, but also to pile them into a bus, as Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman did with their big bands of yore, to teach and perform around the state. Hart, Whitaker and MSU´s Jazz Orchestra I were scheduled to hit Byron Center High School in Kent County on Tuesday, Harbor Lights Middle School in Holland on Wednesday and Shabazz Academy in Lansing Friday. The unit should be well oiled by the time the residency ends with concerts at MSU Friday and Detroit Saturday.

Whitaker said the band directors in Byron Center and Holland are elated to have musicians of Hart’s caliber playing in their midst for free. Hart generously predicted that the MSU students will have more impact.

“I look young for my age,” Hart said, “but I turned 45 a couple of years ago. Seeing people closer to their own age with a passion for the music makes them feel that maybe they can do it too.”

Hart is a jazz professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College City University of New York, but teaching acumen wasn´t the first thing Whitaker noticed about him back in the day.

“When I first heard him play with Roy Hargrove, it was like hearing Bird and Diz,” Whitaker said, referring to bebop originators Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Hart has another attribute Whitaker values: An open mind.

"He´s got a foot in the future and a foot in the past, and that´s what you got to be about to be a jazz musician," Whitaker said.

Hart´s role models aren´t traditional types. He went to the Berklee College of Music under the influence of saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who impressed Hart by running a gamut from straight up classical to a jazz-R&Bhip-hop mélange in his group, Buckshot leFonque.

“I remember going to Boston Garden and seeing him play with Sting, hearing him play classical pieces, playing on ‘The Tonight Show,’” Hart said. “The musicians I love are amazing at their craft, but they’re open. They’re complete musicians and they can do anything.”

As a player, Hart has worked with heavyweights from Hargrove to Gillespie (the original) to bassist Dave Holland to pianist McCoy Tyner, but one of his most deeply felt experiences was a series of trips to Cuba that resulted in a ravishing Latin-tinged 2001 album, “Ama tu Sonrisa.”

“There was music in everybody, the way they walked, the way they cooked,” he said. “It made me love life a lot more and helped me bring back that enthusiasm.”

After Berklee, Hart went to graduate school at Queen’s College, looking for a mentor “who made a major contribution to the art.” He found his man in tenor sax player and elder statesman Jimmy Heath, one of the most widely respected figures in jazz.

“It worked out even beyond my wildest imagination,” Hart said. “He´s like a father. I´m at his house, we eat dinner together.

We´ve spent 20 years building this father/ son relationship.”

Programs like MSU’s jazz residency, Hart said, give him a chance to pass along some of the priceless mentoring he enjoyed as a younger player.

“If a student is open, I try to give them everything,” he said. “I’ll be accessible. They can ask me about New York, the saxophone or anything I can share with them. The more you give, you get triple back.”

Antonio Hart, alto saxophone

MSU Jazz Orchestra I 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18 MSU Union Ballroom $8-10, students free (517) 353-5340