One recurring theme in discussions about the newest generation of jazzmen is the importance of jazz education programs. Because if these kids weren't able to study jazz seriously, the argument goes, these young lions would barely know how to purr.
Antonio Hart isn't so sure. Although the 24-year-old alto saxophonist is ranked among the finest young players in jazz, he takes a different view toward jazz education.
"The only way you can learn the music is by listening and playing with musicians of higher caliber," the Baltimore-born saxophonist says over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "That's how I'm going about learning this music now."
This is not to say that he has anything against the other kind of schooling. Hart has put in quite a bit of class time over the years, first at the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, and then at Boston's Berklee School of Music. But that sort of education taught him more about how to play the saxophone than how to play jazz.
"Berklee's supposed to be a jazz school, but it's a contemporary music school," he says. "What they teach you is in a jazz fashion, but it's not really a jazz school."
On the other hand, playing with a great bandleader -- particularly a jazzman of the be-bop generation -- is an education and a half. And Hart counts himself lucky to have had several such opportunities.
"I've been fortunate enough to play with Art Blakey," he says. "I recorded with Dizzy Gillespie before he died. I've been doing a big band with Slide Hampton and Jimmy Heath -- we did a record, it should be out soon. I've recorded with Terence Blanchard.
"I've played with so many cats, man. I've been fortunate enough in the couple years I've been around to play with almost everybody on the scene, mainly the older guys."
Hart can't help but emphasize how fortunate he is to have been able to play with such giants. "The thing is, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw and Lee Morgan and all those cats had opportunities to be apprentices in certain bands," he explains. "We don't have those anymore. Those bands are non-existent. Art Blakey's been dead for a couple years now. Dizzy's gone, Miles is gone.
"That was the last real opportunity for young musicians to express themselves and learn. You don't have any bands like that anymore. The only person out there that's really doing it right now is Betty Carter."
Still, Hart hasn't let the paucity of opportunity slow him down. In addition to the albums he's made as a sideman, he has recorded two albums -- "For the First Time," and the current "Don't You Know I Care" -- that have earned him a reputation as one of the brighter lights of jazz's new traditionalist movement.
"Because I've been fortunate enough to have a record contract, a lot of people around the world know my music," he says, with typical modesty. "But there are a lot of cats that deserve it as well, both my age and older, who might not get that opportunity right away. Or ever. My story is pretty lucky all the way around."
Maybe so, but Hart understands that the most luck can provide is a break or an opening -- it's talent that makes a career. "I was always a firm believer in being prepared for opportunity, so when it came you can just jump on it," he says. "That's what I do.
"I play what's inside my heart and what's in my head, and hopefully what comes out, people dig. So I don't feel like I have to conform to any norm or anybody else's style, because there's enough creativity inside of me to say something that will stand out."
Antonio Hart When: Tonight and Saturday; shows at 8 and 10 p.m.
Where: Spike & Charlie's, 1225 Cathedral St.
Call: (410) 752-8411.