Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hanna, Sir Roland (Pembroke)

Pianist Roland Hanna's playing highlights the relationship between the rhythmic components of swing and the melodic contours of bebop. As a composer and performer, Hanna's love for the history of jazz piano can be heard in a style which ranges from the physical prowess of stride piano to the soul of Detroit blues.

Roland Pembroke Hanna was born on February 10, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan. Hanna began his musical education at an early age from his father, who was a minister and saxophonist. While still a young child, Roland received piano lessons from a local teacher named Ms. Josephine Love. At the age of eleven, he began to study classical music and further gained knowledge about the fundamentals of the piano.

Hanna was introduced to jazz as a boy by a friend and fellow aspiring pianist, Tommy Flanagan, and he has cited pianists Art Tatum and Hank Jones as his earliest musical influences.

Coming of age on Detroit's active local jazz scene, Roland began to perform with several musicians in the area including pianists Barry Harris and Woody Anderson while still a student at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. In high school, he expanded his musical education by doubling on the alto saxophone.

Upon graduating from high school, Hanna enlisted in the United States Army where he spent two years performing with the United States Army Band. Upon his discharge in 1951, Roland began to perform with trumpeter Thad Jones at the Blue Bird Inn club in Detroit. Shortly after, he began to study at the Eastman School of Music, but only stayed from 1953 to 1954, and left in frustration that he was not allowed to play jazz there. Hanna returned home to Detroit for a brief time and shortly after he married Ramona Woodard.

In 1955, Hanna moved to New York City in order to enroll at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. While a student at Juilliard, Roland was hired by clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman to perform at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and he also joined him on a European tour that ended at the Brussel’s World’s Fair in Belgium. The same year, he began to appear regularly with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on the television program Art Ford’s Jazz Party.

During this time, Hanna began to perform intermittently with bassist Charles Mingus, joining him in 1959 for a performance at the Half Note club in New York City. The same year, Roland performed with Mingus on the bassist’s album Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife as well as his 1960 releases Mingus Revisited and Pre-Bird.

1959 also saw Hanna releasing the albums Roland Hanna Plays Harold Rome’s ‘Destry Rides Again,’ and Easy to Love, which was recorded with bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Roy Burns. Both albums were released on the Atco label and served to showcase him as a bandleader. The following year, he graduated from Juilliard with his bachelor's degree, and began to accompany vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Al Hibbler.

During the next decade, Hanna focused on live performances and ensemble work, including leading trios at such notable nightclubs such as the Five Spot in New York City. During this time, Roland replaced Tommy Flanagan in Hawkins's quartet. In 1964, he toured Japan with a quartet that included Thad Jones. Two years later, he became a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

The following year, Hanna performed on the orchestra’s second album Live at the Village Vanguard. In late 1967, Hanna formed the New York Jazz Sextet while continuing to work with Jones and Lewis. In the late 1960s, he supplemented his time with the orchestra with sideman work with several luminaries of the jazz scene including tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, guitarist Kenny Burrell and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

In 1968 and 1969, Hanna played several concerts in the West African nation of Liberia, which helped to raise $100,000 for the education of that country’s children. In a gesture of thanks, Liberian President William Tubman knighted him in 1970, after which he has gone by the name Sir Roland Hanna.

Hanna’s work with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra brought him critical praise, but it did not help him secure extra work outside of the trio he led. During this period, Roland supported himself largely from teaching. In 1970, he recorded with the Jones/Lewis big band on the ensemble’s best-known album Consummation. Roland’s best work can be heard on the song “Tiptoe.”

The song begins with the horns adhering closely to the melody, with Hanna adding little fills in pauses. Roland carefully maneuvers the congested harmonic terrain by choosing to perform with a laidback feel. After around three minutes, the arrangement goes into a more traditional swing feel and Hanna accompanies the group with loose-sounding voicings and articulations. During the last minute of the piece, the ensemble returns to the tight-sounding melody featured in the beginning, and ends with a long sustained chord while Hanna performs a playful fill.

In 1971, Hanna formed the New York Jazz Quartet alongside saxophonist/flutist Frank Wess. The idea of the ensemble was that all of the compositions would be written by the members of the group in an effort to help publicize the members. In February of 1971, Roland recorded the album Child of Gemini along with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Daniel Humair. Two years later, he released the album Sir Elf for the Choice label.

In 1974, Hanna decided to leave the Jones/Lewis orchestra with their new commercial direction being the impetus for his departure. The following year, Roland performed with guitarist Jim Hall on his album Concerto. Joining alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, trumpeter Chet Baker, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Steve Gadd, Hanna is at his best on the Don Sebesky-arranged piece “Concierto de Aranjuez.”

After a lengthy introduction from Hall, Baker and Desmond, Hanna comes into the arrangement after a minute, and he plays light chords against Hall’s picked, tremelo passage. Carter then enters with a groove, which Roland enhances with smooth sounding chords and ornamentations. In his solo, Hanna performs rich sounding chords and funk-inspired trills while maintaining the song’s deep groove. Roland’s performance effortlessly blends all of the melodic instruments while maintaining the rhythmic prowess of the ensemble.

In 1975, Hanna released the albums In Concert in Japan, Vol. 1 and In Concert in Japan Vol. 2 with the New York Jazz Quartet. Two years later, Hanna recorded the album At Home with Friends for the Progressive label. Throughout the late 1970s, he continued a prolific recording schedule as a leader. In 1978 alone, Hanna released three records as a leader: Bird Tracks, Impressions and A Gift From Magi.

Hanna continued to perform with his quartet throughout the 1980s. In 1982, Roland performed as a member of the memorial group Mingus Dynasty and also recorded with them in 1987. 1982 also saw him writing the song “Seasons” for singer Sarah Vaughan’s album Crazy and Mixed Up. In 1984, the New York Jazz Quartet released the album The New York Jazz Quartet in Chicago.

In 1988, Hanna performed on the soundtrack to director Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird where he provided new accompaniment for classic songs made famous by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The following year, Roland performed in the orchestra that gave the posthumous premiere of Mingus’ symphony Epitaph. In 1991, he was included on the score to director Spike Lee’s movie Jungle Fever. The score also featured contributions from trombonist Robin Eubanks and bassist Milt Hinton.

In the 1990s, Hanna focused more of his attention towards his compositions for solo piano as well as accompanying symphony orchestras. With the National Symphony Orchestra, Roland was able to perform bandleader Duke Ellington’s “New World A Comin” and composer George Gershwin’s ,a href="/music/2008/4/5/zubin-mehta-rhapsody-in-blue">“Rhapsody in Blue” in Washington D.C. In 1992, he wrote “My Name Is Jasmine, but They Came Me Jazz.” for the BalletMet of Columbus, Ohio in 1992

In 1993, Hanna’s piece “Oasis” for piano and orchestra was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Throughout this time, Roland toured with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, his trio and as an unaccompanied soloist. In 1996, he composed the piece “Sonata for Piano and Violin” which was commissioned by the Library of Congress and performed by the Jazzdance dance troupe in 1996.

In 1997, Hanna established the RMI record label to showcase younger jazz talent. In 1999, Roland toured with the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition on Duke Ellington where he performed solo piano. The following year, he was an honoree at the twenty-third annual Paradise Valley Jazz Party in Phoenix, Arizona. The same year he expanded his piece “Sonata for Piano and Violin” and it was performed by the New York Philomusica Chamber Ensemble and the Sanford Allen Chamber Ensemble.

In June 2002, Hanna recorded the solo piano record Everything I Love at the SUNY Performing Arts Center in Purchase, New York. The album includes several standards including trumpeter Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” composers George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and an original he wrote in tribute to vibraphonist Milt Jackson entitled “Bags- A Tribute.” A highlight of the record is his rendition of the song “I Hear A Symphony.”

Hanna begins the song with a slowly ascending melody that erupts into a powerful chordal statement complete with low bass notes and robust sounding voicings. Roland fills the air with a sentimental atmosphere that is only enhanced throughout the song. After three minutes, he begins a walking bass-like passage that segues into a heartfelt sounding declaration that helps to serve the overall emotional arc of the song. Hanna ends the song by allowing the piano to sustain where it slowly drifts off, ending a highly emotional statement.

Throughout his later career, Hanna remained a committed and influential teacher at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. On Wednesday, November 13, 2002, Roland died after to a viral infection of the heart in Hackensack, New Jersey, he was seventy years old. Shortly after, Queens College organized a memorial concert in his honor where his friend and colleague tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath performed.

Hanna is survived by his wife Ramona, his sons Michael and Christopher, his daughters Cheryl and Cheri, his sisters Winifred Wells and Ethel Brown, his three brothers Leonard, Elisha and Lagorce and six grandchildren.

Select Discography

As a leader:

Roland Hanna Plays Harold Rome’s ‘Destry Rides Again (1959)

Easy to Love (1959)

Child of Gemini (1971)

Sir Elf (1973)

Bird Tracks (1978)

Impressions (1978)

A Gift From Magi (1978)

Everything I Love (2002)

With Jim Hall

Concerto (1975)

With Thad Jones/Mel Lewis

Live at the Village Vanguard (1967)

Consummation (1970)

With the New York Jazz Quartet

In Concert in Japan, Vol. 1 (1975)

In Concert in Japan Vol. 2 (1975)

The New York Jazz Quartet in Chicago (1984)

With Charles Mingus

Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (1959)

Mingus Revisited (1960)

Pre-Bird (1960)

Contributor: Eric Wendell