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Hurt was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 8, 1967 in the historic Orange Mound Community. He attended Watkins Overton High School of the Creative and Performing Arts as a percussionist. Following early training as a drummer, Hurt switched to the piano after an encounter with the great Phineas Newborn Jr.
Upon moving to New York City in 1994 James immersed himself in the underground jazz music scene playing in several bands at Smalls in the West Village. Paul Carlon talks about the experience of playing with James and his unorthodox stylings in an interview. James was a member of Sherman Irby Quartet and was signed to Blue Note Records as a Group which included Eric Revis and Dana Murray. Gregory Tardy also tapped James' talents for his own Quartet later penning a song after him entitled "Mr. Hurt". He and fellow musician Tardy would play in one of Rashied Ali's last bands.
James has recorded in several genres and is a three-time grammy nominee for albums with Antonio Hart ("Here I Stand"), Abbey Lincoln ("Wholly Earth"), and Russell Gunn ("Ethnomusicology Vol. I"). The Pi Recordings Release of "Juncture", a hybrid project that paired music compositions with pulp fiction, features a composition written by James entitled "Greed".
His own first album was "Dark Grooves – Mystical Rhythms" on Blue Note Records in 1999. In a review of the album, James Lien of CMJ New Music Report called Hurt "one of the more adventurous young pianists to recently emerge on the New York scene." Calvin Wilson of The Kansas City Star described the album as "at once boldly experimental and totally accessible."
In the early 2000s James was a founding member of the New York City based hip-hop collective known as "The Real Live Show" who held residencies at Izzy Bar, Shine, and Nublu. They were also the first hip-hop band to play the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York's West Village. The single "Shop Rockin'" earned placement in MTV's video rotation and currently plays on MTV-U.
James has toured with several artists of his generation including Antonio Hart, Abraham Burton, Sherman Irby, in addition to performing with forward thinkers such as composer, trumpeter, and educator Wadada Leo Smith in Organic Resonance, Elizabeth Kontomanou, No Wave Experimental Music pioneer Arto Lindsay, trumpeter, electronic experimentalist and composer Graham Haynes, DJ Logic, the Melvin Gibbs collective "Elevated Entity", "Conduction" innovator Butch Morris, composer, percussionist, and conductor Adam Rudolph ( as a percussionist), and Bajram Istrefi Jr..
Known for his unique sound, penchant for rhythm, and dedication to creativity in the moment James has made guest appearances with a wide range of creative artists such as Buster Williams, Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, Donald Edwards, Stacy Dillard, Nate Smith, Felix Pastorius, Marco Capelli, Chris Dingman, guitarist David Gilmore, Steve Lehman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Corey Glover, Soul Live, Bernie Worrell, Maceo Parker, Kudu, and DJ Spinna.
- Watrous, Peter (September 26, 1996). "Individuality in a Pianist Trained as a Drummer". New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2012.
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- Anne Legrand, James Hurt, le vampire de New York, Citizen Jazz, March 19, 2011
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- Loewy, Steve. "Dark Grooves – Mystical Rhythms: Review". Allmusic. Retrieved March 25, 2012.
- Lien, James (September 6, 1999). "Jazz Reviews". CMJ New Music Report. CMJ Network, Inc. 59 (634): 33. ISSN 0890-0795.
- Wilson, Calvin (September 8, 1999). "Experiments gone aright: Imagination and daring are highlighted on three new CDs". The Kansas City Star. p. F6.
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- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved October 25, 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- James at the Royal Family Ball @ Terminal 5, Jambands, October 18, 2010
- Marc Millman, Review: One Month to Mardi Gras , Glide Magazine, November 2, 2011
- Cox, Gerard (March 8, 2004). "James Hurt and Marc Cary at The Jazz Gallery, 3/14/02". All About Jazz. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
- Jung, Fred (October 1999): My Conversation with James Hurt (All About Jazz)