Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Crawford, Hank (Bennie Ross)

Hank Crawford

Bennie Ross "Hank" Crawford, Jr. was born on December 21, 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began piano studies at age nine, and started on the alto saxophone around the time he entered high school. Crawford learned the fundamentals from band teacher Matthew Garrett, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father. “Bebop was our classroom, the study period,” recalled Crawford, born Bennie, who took his stage name from Memphis altoist Hank O’Day. “We'd practice it all day at each other's house, but when we had to go out and play, we'd play a lot of blues. I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.”

His generational contemporaries in Memphis included George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, Charles Thomas, Booker Little, and Charles Lloyd. Crawford was much a devotee of the populist, Johnny Hodges-influenced style of Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic as he was of Charlie Parker. He developed a minimalist, melody-oriented, vibrato-heavy solo approach rooted in gospel and the blues (in his trademark horn arrangements, Crawford framed his alto as “lead singer” over a backup chorus of horns), that earned him a reputation as exemplar of “soul alto,” which David Sanborn, among others, adapted and stamped onto the post-‘70s pop soundtrack.

Crawford joined Ray Charles in 1958, replacing Leroy Cooper on baritone sax, but he soon advanced to arranging chores. “I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was eight pieces, five horns at least, that gospel type of sound,” he told me. “There was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands covered at that time. When they came through Memphis, they’d play at places like the Palace Theater, the Hippodrome, and Club Handy in Mitchell's Hotel. One of the good things about that era is that we got a chance to see a lot of the people who we later got to know, singers like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too. Sometimes they'd come through without a full band and pick up locals, and we would play for certain entertainers. Really, it was an era of everything going on. You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers—shows. We played shows.

“When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents. We’d play locally, and we’d get to Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then go up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill. During the summer, we’d play the southern route. I had some great teachers at Tennessee State in Nashville, which is where I started studying saxophones and reeds. W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he's a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins' “Body and Soul.” Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the ‘hundred steps’—you’d be running down the field almost. I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band—I was writing then.

“I’d heard Ray—“Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”—and I was impressed by the sound of his small band. I heard something about David then; the solo he did on ‘Ain't That Love’ knocked me out. Also, a couple of my buddies had already joined Ray—a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville. Anyway, Ray came through Nashville to the Club Baron. I think Leroy Cooper had taken a leave of absence, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part. I went down, didn't even audition. I don't think there was even a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice. I went to the campus band-room, talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed.

I remember the band bus—at the time, it was a called a ‘wiener,’ red-and-white, long, airport style—pulled up in front of Brown's Hotel. I remember David getting out with this grin on his face. He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back. That was the first time I actually saw him. Anyway, I played the gig that night, and that was the end of that. Three months later, I got a call from Ray’s manager to ask if I wanted the job. I never thought I'd stay as long as I did. I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world. Ray was getting into his thing. He was really beginning to blossom at that time.

“Joining the band with Ray was an avenue for me to do a lot of things. To be honest about it, Ray and I clicked right away. I was directing and doing most of the writing for the small band, and when he got the big band I went to alto and got the job as music director, which I kept for three years. So I was with Ray Charles 24-7. He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate. Before Ray, I loved the sound of James Moody’s Octet, and I liked Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster, and Ellington—I’d take a bit from each arranger, but basically I was being myself. I think I found my own voice on the saxophone, too. I've always been a melodic player.”

As Crawford put it: “The secret of survival in this business, is identity. You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play—but nobody knows who they are. People buy identity. If they don't know who you are, you don't really sell. I've studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard bebop. But that's not just me naturally. I just play what I feel naturally, and it ends up that I'm better being myself. I'm not concerned about changing with what's in. For me, playing simple is almost a natural—I found my sound, and I'm going to stick to my guns. In this business, there's only one of one. Nobody's going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That's the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.”

Hank Crawford died on January 29, 2009 at his home in Memphis . The cause of death was complications from a stroke he had suffered in 2000. He was 74 years old.

Contributor: Ted Panken