Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hines, Earl "Fatha" (Kenneth)

Over a career that spanned sixty years, pianist Earl Hines embodied the changing fortunes of jazz. His ability to bring out the best in musicians from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie earned him the nickname "Fatha," and until the end he remained a surprising and agile improviser with the ability to make his piano sing like a horn.

Earl Kenneth Hines was born on December 28th 1903 in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. Duquesne is a suburb of Pittsburgh, located approximately twelve miles south of Pittsburgh. Hines’s parents were both musicians, as were his some of his siblings. Hines received his first music lessons on from the trumpet from his father, while still a toddler. Later, he switched to the piano and studied informally with his mother. As a teenager, the young musician studied classical music and attended Schenley High School in Pittsburgh.

Hines first performed as a professional in 1922, with vocalist Lois Deppe. He traveled with the group around Pittsburgh and into the Midwest and Ohio Valley, and recorded with the band for Gennett Records in 1923.

In 1925, Hines moved to Chicago, where New Orleans musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver were the stars of the new music called jazz. Hines’s first gigs in Chicago were with violinist and bandleader Carroll Dickerson, who had played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

Hines first met Armstrong while playing with Dickerson’s band, and the two became fast friends. The band toured the United States for almost a year then ended their tour in Chicago. During their last engagement there, Hines and Armstrong played with the Erskine Tate Orchestra as well as with Dickerson. By 1927, Armstrong had taken over Dickerson's band, with Hines as musical director.

In 1928, Hines’s career was on the rise, and he recorded with clarinetist Jimmie Noone on the record “Four or Five Times.” along with guitarist Bud Scott and drummer Johnny Wells.

During the summer of 1928, Hines recorded several sides with Armstrong's legendary "Hot Five" for Okeh records, including “West End Blues” and ““Weatherbird,” which was a duet with Hines on piano. These tracks, along with others such as "Muggles" and "Tight Like This," are some of the most influential in all of jazz history, and count among the genre's highest achievements.

Also in 1928, Hines recorded 14 solo sides, and formed a big band at the Grand Terrace Café, which was controlled by mobster Al Capone. Hines’s newly formed band held court the café for well over a decade, and he recorded prolifically through this period, for Victor in 1929, then for Brunswick from 1932 to 1934, and for Vocalion from 1937 to 1938. Some recordings of note from this period include “Cavernism,” which featured the big band and included Jimmy Mundy on tenor saxophone and Wallace Bishop on drums.

Hines's big band recorded and played around Chicago during most of the 1930s and participated in many radio broadcasts, which further added to Hines’ influence over young jazz listeners. Pianists like Jay McShann, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Teddy Wilson were highly influenced by Hines’s style, which included an extremely agile left hand and the prominent use of octaves in the right hand.

Hines’s big band featured many up and coming stars, including trumpeter Ray Nance, saxophonist Budd Johnson, and vocalist Billy Eckstine, who joined the band in 1940 as the lead vocalist. Always interested in new sounds, Hines recruited trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker for his band in 1942. In 1944, Hines briefly led Duke Ellington's orchestra while the bandleader was ill.

By 1947, the popularity of big bands was on the wane, and Hines disbanded his group. Many Hines alumni, including Gillespie and Parker, went on to become pioneers of the bebop style.

In late 1948, Hines joined Louis Armstrong's small group, the All Stars. He played with the group through 1951, although he was dissatisfied with his role as a sideman to the trumpeter.

In 1955, Hines took a gig at the Hangover Inn in San Francisco, California. He continued to tour around the United States and Europe, but he primarily stayed in the Bay Area and played at the hotel. In 1959, Hines appeared with vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon at the Monterey Jazz Festival, held on October 2 of that year. He appeared along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge, tenor sax legend Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Woody Herman, and tenor sax giant Ben Webster on the song “’Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

In the early 1960s, Hines opened up his own nightclub in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. However, as musical tastes changed, Hines resolved to open a cigar store, take up bowling, and he almost retired from the music business.

In 1964, music writer Stanley Dance arranged for Hines to give a series of solo recitals at the Little Theatre in New York. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive, and Hines was voted the "world's No. 1 jazz pianist" by Down Beat magazine in 1966, an award he subsequently won an additional five times. He received similar accolades and awards from the Jazz Journal, Jazz, the New Yorker and the New York Times. Hines was back on the scene.

In 1966, Hines toured Russia with sponsorship from the U.S. State Department. He also recorded with wide variety of musicians during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He recorded a duet album with pianist Oscar Peterson in 1966, as well as a duet album with pianist Jaki Byard in 1972. Hines musical output during this period was by far the most intense of his life. In 1966, Hines recorded Once Upon A Time for the Impulse label, which featured a number of alumni from the Ellington band, including tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, trumpeter Ray Nance, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and Jimmy Hamilton.

Hines also recorded with Ellington himself, as well as trumpeter Roy Eldridge, pianist Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, cornetist Rex Stewart, and pianist Marian McPartland. In 1973, Hines recorded an album with trumpeter Jonah Jones which featured Buddy Tate on clarinet and Cozy Cole on drums. The group can be heard on the song “Pennies From Heaven.”

In May of 1977, Hines joined his former sideman Dizzy Gillespie, as well as Stan Getz, composer David Amram and blues guitarist Ry Cooder on a historic cruise from New Orleans to Cuba, where he performed with Cuban musicians for the first time since the Communist nation was embargoed by the U.S. government.

Through the early 1980s, Hines toured and record with his own small combo. The pianist passed away on April 22nd, 1983 in Oakland, California at the age of seventy-nine.

"Fatha" Hines influenced an entire generation of piano players, from Nat Cole to Count Basie and Horace Silver. Perhaps equally important was his ability to nurture the talents of younger musicians, such as Parker and Gillespie. Even late in life, Hines displays a depth of imagination and creativity at the keyboard that can still surprise listeners.

Select Discography

As Earl Hines

Earl Hines Solo (QRS, 1929)

Earl Hines and His Grand Terrace Orchestra (RCA, 1939)

Once Upon A Time (Impulse, 1966)

Jazz From A Swinging Era (Fontana, 1967)

Earl Hines In New Orleans (Chiaroscuro, 1977)

With Louis Armstrong

The Louis Armstrong Collection, Vol. 4: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (Sony, 1989)

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars (Decca, 1950)

Contributor: Jared Pauley