Jazz bassist Robert Hurst releases new album, now calling Ann Arbor home
Robert Hurst’s life has come full circle in more ways than one.
Newly relocated to to Ann Arbor, the acclaimed jazz bassist and composer has returned to southeast Michigan, near where he was raised in the city of Detroit.
But the relocation goes deeper than that. As an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Hurst is also completing a jazz arc that started when he was the young child of jazz-loving parents.
“I guess you could say that this is a lifelong endeavor, in terms of being a product of this environment here in Michigan” he said. “My parents weren’t musicians, but my father was lifelong friends with people like (jazz pianist and educator) Barry Harris.
“So jazz — and the idea of teaching jazz — is something that’s very natural to me.”
Hurst, 46, who just released a new record, “Bob Ya Head,” on his own BeBob Records label and is currently on tour in South America, arrives in Ann Arbor with about as impressive resume as one can achieve in jazz.
He got his professional start in Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave’s rhythm section, where, following a 4 a.m. jam session with A-list drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, he hooked up with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and, ultimately, came to the attention of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who brought him on tour.
The stint with Wynton Marsalis led to a gig in saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ band, and, when the saxophonist became the bandleader for the “Tonight Show” Orchestra, Hurst began a six-year job both playing and arranging for what is arguably the most recognizable jazz band on the planet.
Not bad for a bass player who, at the time, was barely out of his teens. But, as it has throughout his career, the Motor City and it’s amazing pedigree of jazz musicians, has both kept Hurst humble and given him the drive to thrive in a difficult business.
“It was always like,’ I’m from Detroit,’” he said. “Same place as (legendary bassists) Paul Chambers and James Jamerson.
“I was like, ‘I can do this.’”
Hurst stayed with the “Tonight Show” Band until 1999, seeing it through the transition in leadership from Marsalis to guitarist Kevin Eubanks. Meanwhile, he was gigging in clubs and immersing himself in a West Coast jazz scene that was totally different from the ones he emerged from in Detroit and New York.
“I wasn’t crazy about the club scene,” he said. “But I really got a chance to do a lot of playing for the sake of playing and a lot of the things I picked up from other guys out there found their way onto the new record — things like using elements of African percussion and electronic music.”
As is the case with most bassists, the bulk of Hurst’s work comes as a sideman. As a first-call bassist, he’s performed with such artists as Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Tony Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Diana Krall.
And, of course, there’s also the matter of the four Grammy Award sitting on his mantle.
“I’ve just been so fortunate to have had so many great opportunities to play with so many amazing people,” he said. “Good things have come from those chances and I’m very grateful.”
And now, with a new gig on the U-M Music School faculty, Hurst said he’s in a unique position to pass some of his good fortune forward.
I think something that is very undervalued — even in classroom — is the question of how you actually make a living when you leave college,” he said. “I think that’s my strong point as far as what I bring to campus.
“These kids might be the greatest players ever, but they can still look to experienced, working musicians like myself and realize that we can help them pay the bills.”
Of course that’s something that Hurst realized for himself as a kid. And now, the student has become the master.
“I know that my exposure to people like Barry Harris all happened for a reason,” he said. “What I’m doing now just reinforces the fact that we’re all part of a longer tradition and we have to do what we can to keep it moving forward.”
Will Stewart is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.
Robert Hurst performing live with Chris Botti: