Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hawes, Hampton (Hampton Barnet, Jr.)

Hampton Hawes had a fascinating piano style which combined the stride and swing elements of Earl Hines, gospel and blues, with a virtuosic right hand that ventured to reconstruct the horn lines of his major bebop influence, Charlie Parker. Hawes’s brand of jazz was profoundly rhythmic, carefully based on the changes, and featured a distinctive swing often more reminiscent of a horn player than a pianist.

Equally fascinating were the events of Hawes's personal life. After producing some of the most revered West-Coast jazz recordings of the 1950s, Hawes received a stern ten-year prison sentence on drug charges in 1958. Four years later, Hawes received a rather miraculous presidential pardon from John F. Kennedy, at which point he immediately returned to the jazz scene, where he resumed prodigious musical activity until his death from a stroke in 1977.

Hampton Barnet Hawes, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California on November 13, 1928 to a minister father and church pianist mother. He devotion to the church was evident early but ultimately short-lived. As he recalls in his autobiography, “When I was six I was given a little gold Sunday school pin which was the reward you got for a year’s good attendance. But three years later I had stopped going to church Sundays and was listening to Freddie Slack, Fats Waller and Earl Hines playing his ‘Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues’.”

Upon entering high school, Hawes studied with famed Los Angeles music educator Samuel Brown, whose other students included Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, Wardell Gray and Art Farmer, among others. By his mid teens, Hawes was already drawing interest as a professional player, and in 1944 was invited to perform with Big Jay McNeeley. Although McNeeley recalls Hawes as sounding a bit like Nat King Cole in his early days, his early days as a ragtime/swing/gospel pianist were about to be altered by his introduction to the burgeoning bebop style.

Childhood friend Eric Dolphy introduced Hawes to the recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and it was the latter that quickly became Hawes’s principal musical influence. From 1945 on, Hawes immersed himself in the bebop world, yet his location on the west coast and his fascination with adapting Parker’s playing to the piano allowed him to pursue a personal style that, while indebted to pianist Bud Powell, was never derivative of bebop piano's originators.

Not long after hearing and absorbing Charlie Parker’s playing by listening to records, Hawes found himself sharing the bandstand with Bird himself in 1947 as a co-member of trumpeter Howard McGee’s group. Later in the same year, Hawes also participated in some of the famed west coast “dueling” sessions between tenor saxophonists Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, most famously captured on record at the Elks Auditorium in Los Angeles on July 6.

Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, Hawes expanded his already strong resume by recording with childhood friend Sonny Criss, Shorty Rogers, Art Pepper, and Warne Marsh, among others. “Popo,” a Shorty Rogers track, features Hawes with Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, and Shelly Manne, among others

Hawes also released his first recordings as a leader during this period – The East/West Controversy, a 1951 trio date with bassist Harper Cosby and drummer Lawrence Marable, and The Hampton Hawes Memorial Album, featuring tracks from various dates in 1952 with bassist Joe Mondragon and famed West-Coast drummer Shelly Manne.

As quickly as Hawes’s reputation grew was as quickly as his personal life began to spiral out of control. His battle with heroin addiction began early and intensified rapidly, and his stint in Japan with the U.S. Army from 1952-1954 resulted in emotional attrition. These personal issues would soon consume Hawes’s personal and professional life, but not before the most critically acclaimed musical period of his career in the mid-to-late 1950s.

Upon his discharge from the Army, Hawes returned to Los Angeles and began performing with bassist Red Mitchell. Lester Koenig soon signed Hawes to a deal at Contemporary Records, and the Hawes/Mitchell tandem went on to record three trio recordings in 1955 and 1956 that are recalled today as highlights of the entire West-Coast jazz tradition. The first recordings, Hampton Hawes Trio, Volume 1, featured drummer Chuck Thompson and was recorded in June of 1955. The remaining two sessions, This is Hampton Hawes, Volume 2, and Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes, Volume 3, featured the same lineup and was comprised of two late 1955 and early 1956 session dates.

In November of 1956, Hawes and Mitchell joined forces with guitarist Jim Hall and drummer Eldridge Freeman for the aptly titled All Night Session, a marathon date that began on the 12th and ended on the 13th, leading to a three-volume set of inspired, jam-session style recordings. “Broadway” is a standout track from the first volume of this series.

Garnering increased attention from his first batch of Contemporary dates, Hawes was invited to record with bassist Charles Mingus on a 1957 trio recording, Mingus Three. The date featured Hawes, Mingus, and longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

In 1958, Hawes re-entered the studio for the Contemporary label, recording first with guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne on Four!, and then with tenor saxophonist Harold Land, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Frank Butler on For Real! “Hip” is an up-tempo swinger from For Real! that exemplifies the bluesy, virtuosic recordings from Hawes’s period with Contemporary

In late October, 1958, the rhythm section Hawes, Kessel, Mitchell, and Manne (straight from the abovementioned Four! sessions entered the studio with Sonny Rollins for the Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders session. The sympathetic rhythm section plays beautifully with Rollins on the date’s opening track, “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.”

On his thirtieth birthday on November 13, 1958, Hampton Hawes was arrested and convicted on drug charges after selling heroin to an undercover federal agent. Even though he pled guilty to the charges in hopes of less jail time, Hawes was sentenced to the maximum ten-year prison sentence.

In between his arrest and incarceration, Hawes recorded a collection of reworked spirituals and gospel-blues tunes with Leroy Vinnegar and Stan Levy entitled The Sermon.

After a serious drug conviction and the delivery of a maximum sentence, many wrote off the possibility of any significant musical comeback from Hampton Hawes. But in one of the more extraordinary historical developments in jazz history, Hawes was back on the scene and making records again in early 1964, five-and-a-half years into his 10-year sentence.

After watching President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on a prison television, Hawes decided he would pursue a presidential pardon. After years of preparing the required documents and garnering letters of recommendation, Hawes was miraculously granted executive clemency by President Kennedy in 1963. Hawes was released from prison and soon released The Green Leaves of Summer, his first post-pardon session, on February 17, 1964.

The second half of the 1960s was an expectedly intermediary period of Hawes’s career. His playing was noticeably not as sharp as it was in the mid-to-late 1950s, and it took him a period of time to get back into serious playing. He also quickly found that he was more highly regarded in Europe and Japan than he was in the United States upon his release from prison, so he spent the majority of this period recording and performing overseas. Some noteworthy recordings from this period include: Hamp’s Piano, a 1967 release recorded in West Germany featuring Eberhard Weber on bass; Key for Two, a French date featuring Hawes and fellow pianist Matial Solal; Jazz Undulation, a quintet date backing Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon; and Spanish Steps, a Hawes-led date from 1968.

In 1971, Hawes was featured on a fine date with Dexter Gordon, entitled Live at the Montmartre in Copenhagen. After relocating back to the United States shortly thereafter, Hawes recorded with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Roy Haynes on Live at the Jazz Showcase, Volumes 1 and 2, from Chicago, Illinois.

In the mid to late 1970s, Hawes experimented with the electric piano on his own Playin’ in the Yard (1973), Dexter Gordon’s Blues a la Suisse (1973), and Art Pepper’s Living Legend (1975).

He then returned to the acoustic piano for his final recordings. He recorded two duet albums with bassist Charlie Haden in 1976, As Long as There’s Music and Golden Number, the latter of which includes the strong interplay of “Turnaround.” In one of the last studio performances of his career, Hawes recorded a fine trio date with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne entitled Hampton Hawes at the Piano.

Hawes suffered a stroke and passed away on May 22, 1977 at the age of 48. His life is comprehensively documented in his autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, which was published in 1974 and won the ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award for excellence in music writing in 1975.

Hampton Hawes deserves to stand alone as an example of a bebop pianist who crossed genre lines and instrumental influences while retaining a traditional, ultra-rhythmic approach to his craft, as well as an inspiring story of personal and musical triumpth. His trio recordings from the 1950s will surely be recalled as highlights of the West-Coast jazz tradition.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

The East/West Controversy (1951)

Hampton Hawes Trio, Vol. 1 (1955)

This is Hampton Hawes, Vol. 2 – The Trio (1955)

Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes, Vol. 3 – The Trio (1956)

All Night Session! Volumes 1-3 (1956)

Four! (1958)

For Real! (1958)

The Sermon (1958)

The Green Leaves of Summer (1964)

High in the Sky (1970)

A Little Copenhagen Night Music (1971)

Live at the Montmartre (1971)

Live at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, Volumes 1 and 2 (1973)

Hampton Hawes At the Piano (1976)

Additional Recordings:

Wardell Grey Memorial, Volume 2 (1950)

Surf Ride (Art Pepper, 1952)

Short Stops (Shorty Rogers (1953)

Mingus Three (Charles Mingus, 1957)

Curtis Fuller with Hampton Hawes (Curtis Fuller, 1957)

Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (Sonny Rollins, 1958)

Art of the Ballad (Dexter Gordon, 1969)

Goin’ Down Slow (Sonny Stitt, 1972)

Blues a la Suisse (Dexter Gordon, 1973)

Living Legend (Art Pepper, 1975)

As Long As There’s Music (Charlie Haden, 1976)

Golden Number (Charlie Haden, 1976)

Contributor: Eric Novod