Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Jones, Hank (Henry)

Pianist Hank Jones’s use of space and sophisticated lyricism has been documented on the hundreds of albums he has recorded as a leader and as a sideman. His approach includes combining traditional stride methods with bebop harmonies, resulting in a fusion of both conventional and progressive idioms.

Henry “Hank” Jones was born on August 31, 1919 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Jones’s father was an employee of General Motors where he worked as a lumber inspector and a deacon in the Baptist church while his mother was a housewife. While still young, the Jones family moved to Pontiac, Michigan where the family bought a three-story brick home.

Hank Jones

One of seven children, Hank’s life was filled with music, which was of the utmost importance in the Jones’ lives. Music would become the profession of several of his siblings, including his two brothers, trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Elvin Jones. Additionally, Hank had two sisters who studied piano and violin.

As the eldest son, Hank was the first to study music, receiving piano lessons at home. His initial lessons focused on classical music, something that didn’t truly encourage him in his studies. He had to force himself to study each week for his lesson, practicing enough so that he could convince his teacher that he learned the material.

Eventually Hank began to develop his piano skills through playing along with jazz records. Besides his formal lessons, he began listening to pianists Duke Ellington Earl Hines and Fats Waller. Hank would play along to records and would occasionally ask his brother Elvin to play along on a book in order to keep time. Hank would often go to the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit to see live jazz, seeing trumpeter Louis Armstrong amongst others.

Though Hank’s father saw jazz as the devil’s music, Hank continued to practice and hone his skills. Hank began to perform in local bands by the time he was thirteen years old. He would often perform in the house band of famed Detroit club the Blue Bird Inn with tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell.

His piano skills were met with enthusiasm and soon after he was invited to join bands led by drummer Benny Carew and alto saxophonist Ted Buckner. With these bands, Hank traveled all through Michigan and Ohio as well as Buffalo, New York and got his first taste of a musician’s lifestyle.

While performing in Lansing and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Hank met tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Thompson was impressed with his ability and invited him to New York to perform with trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page.The move to New York would bring Jones to the hotbed of the bebop movement as well as bring him to a different type of piano performance.

Upon arriving in New York in 1944, Jones began to perform with Page’s group at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Jones spent his time listening to the city’s vast array of talent, including pianist Al Haig, who was playing in the group led by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. In Haig, Hank saw a more modern style of piano playing that complemented the ensemble better. With this influence, Hank sought out other modern pianists that could inspire his playing.

Soon after, Jones began to listen to other modern iconoclasts of the piano including Bud Powell. Through performing in New York, he began to come into contact with the demands of bebop, with its intricate harmonic and melodic devices. The constant performing served to help him strengthen his playing and exhibit his talents.

Jones began to make a name for himself and soon began to perform with several luminaries of the scene including saxophonist Andy Kirk, bassist John Kirby and singer Billy Eckstine. In 1946, Hank performed with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and saxophonist/clarinetist Buster Bailey at the famed Spotlite Club.

By November 1947, Jones began to perform with singer Ella Fitzgerald as her accompanist. Through performing with Ella, Hank began an association with Jazz at the Philharmonic, which were a series of concerts and recordings created by producer Norman Granz.

Through these concerts, Hank received the opportunity to perform with Charlie Parker, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and drummer Max Roach. The same year, Hank released Urbanity, his first release as a leader.

Because of his association with Jazz at the Philharmonic, Hank recorded numerous, but significant recordings with Charlie Parker. An early example of Jones’ brilliance is his performance on Parker’s “Star Eyes.” Recorded in April 1950, Jones skillfully plays the changes while showcasing his solid sense of time. Hanks’ melodic disposition on this recording recalls some of the devices that Bud Powell would use, but in a spare style. What’s most appealing about his performance is how well he links the rhythmic substance of the drums with the harmonic body of the alto saxophone.

In 1953, Jones left the Fitzgerald group and began to perform with trombonist Tyree Glenn. From September 1953 until June 1954, he performed with bandleader Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five. In the 1950s, Jones performed on numerous sessions for Savoy Records as their house pianist as well as freelancing throughout the New York area.

Beginning in March 1955, Jones performed with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Clarke. In May of 1956 until February 1957, he performed with bandleader Benny Goodman on a tour throughout the United States and Asia.

In 1958, Hank performed on alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else for Blue Note Records. On “Love For Sale,” Hank performs an elaborate solo introduction where he displays techniques and ornamentations that recall the sound of pianist Art Tatum. His feel for the latin nature of the song is enhanced by bassist Sam Jones’ performance, often playing with the bassist in unison for a more powerful affect. On his solo, Jones briefly plays with the melody adding subtle inflections to break it apart.

In 1959, Hank joined the CBS Orchestra, where he remained until the orchestra broke up in 1976. A highlight of his time at CBS was the opportunity to back up singer Frank Sinatra on the Ed Sullivan Show. Throughout his time at CBS, Jones performed with his brother’s band the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1966 and occasionally performed with big bands such as the Ray Block Orchestra.

Beginning in 1974, Jones began to perform with Goodman on a recurring series of concerts all the way through March 1976. During this time, he was a regular performer at the Grande Parade du Jazz Festival in Nice, France. Hank also participated in duo groups with pianists John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan formed the Great Jazz Trio with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. The group also included contributions from trumpeter Art Farmer, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and singer Nancy Wilson.

Hank received his first Grammy Nomination in 1977 in the category of “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist” for his album Bop Redux. During the late 1970s until the early 1980s, he performed and conducted on the Tony Award-winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. Based on the music of Fats Waller, his participation in the musical enlightened audiences of his harmonic sophistication. Hank augmented his theater work with nightly performances at the Café Ziegfeld.

In 1987, Jones appeared at the JVC Jazz Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival. At the JVC Festival, Hank performed with pianist George Shearing and hosted an evening where he performed with an all-cast cast. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hank performed around New York at such venues such as Bradley’s, Fat Tuesday, Sweet Basil, and Tavern on the Green.

In 1989, Jones joined bassist Dave Holland and drummer Billy Higgins his album The Oracle. The same year, The National Endowment for the Arts honored Hank with the NEA Jazz Masters Award, their highest honor in jazz.

In 1991, Jones released the album Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 16. Released on Concord Jazz label, the album was recorded at the Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley, California on November 11, 1991. On “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” Jones creates an enjoyable atmosphere by performing in the stride piano tradition while adding the occasional bebop line to modernize it. Hank’s gentle and elegant touch gives it an air of sentimentality as well as a sense of tribute to this classic song.

In 1994, Jones released the album Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones, an homage to his brother Thad. The album was Hank’s way of paying tribute to his brother and includes songs Thad composed including “Thad’s Pad,” “Upon Reflection,” and “A Child Is Born.” The following year, Hank and bassist Charlie Haden recorded an album of folk songs, hymns, and spirituals called Steal Away. The album was lauded by critics and received a Grammy Nomination for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual or Group” in 1995.

In the beginning of 2000, Jones accompanied singer Salena Jones at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. The same year, he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. In June 2001, Hank performed with saxophonist Joe at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. In 2003, he was awarded with the Jazz Living Legend Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

On May 24th, 2005, Jones released the album For My Father, which featured bassist George Mraz and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Jones’ latest release in 2006’s West of 5th, which featured drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Christian McBride.

The same year, Jones performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival with singer Roberta Gambarini and pianist Oscar Peterson In 2008, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, which was presented to him by President George W. Bush. In recent years, he has shared his expertise and experience at master classes at Harvard University and New York University.

Jones lives in upstate New York and continues to actively perform and record.

Select Discography

As a leader

Urbanity (1947)

Bluebird (1955)

This Is Ragtime Now (1964)

Hanky Panky (1975)

Bop Redux (1977)

The Oracle (1989)

Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 16 (1991)

Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones (1994)

Master Class (1997)

For My Father (2005)

West of 5th (1996)

With Cannonball Adderley

Presenting Cannonball Adderley (1955)

Somethin’ Else (1958)

With Charlie Haden

Steal Away (1995)

With Thad Jones

The Fabulous Thad Jones (1954)


Hank Jones At Ninety by Ted Gioia

Hank Jones and James Moody Keep Jammin’ by Chris Kelsey

Octojazzarian Profile: Hank Jones by Arnold Jay Smith

Contributor: Eric Wendell