Octojazzarian profile: hank jones

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is pianist Hank Jones.

by arnold jay smith

I call him STB, short for “Save the Bones” from the title of the song “Save the Bones for Henry Jones (‘cause Henry Don’t Eat No Meat)” popularly recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, and Lou Rawls and Ray Charles. “Not many people call me that and I wouldn’t respond to them if they did,” the affable Mr. Jones said recently. “But in your case…” A faux scowl crossed his mustachioed face, and then broke into that bright, patented smile. Hank has a droll sense of humor. How droll? So droll that you have to wait some seconds before the punch line sinks in.

                                Hank Jones
                    Artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Like Benny Goodman, of whom we shared some stories, Hank Jones was one of a large family, flying in the face of population control advocates. Both the Goodmans and Joneses boasted multiple professional musicians, Hank and his brothers setting trends as they went. (For the record: arranger/composer/bandleader Thad, and drummer/leader Elvin. But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

Trying to catch up with this now 90-year old sprite is, well, trying. “He has a cell but he’s out of range right now,” came one response. “His mailbox is full.” “He’s closing up his upstate New York home (near Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame) so he’ll be incommunicado for a minute.” “He’s tidying up some personal business.”

Oh yes, he also plays the piano, at festivals in New York City, Montreal, and points West, North and South, particularly with saxophonist Joe Lovano and vocalist Roberta Gambarini. He has recorded duets with them both. At the recent Jazz Journalists Association Awards, at which he pocketed Pianist of the Year, he partnered with Lovano for a trio of tunes and drew a standing ovation. Hank was the headliner at a JVC/NYC Festival concert honoring none other than Hank Jones. Then he was off to the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal where he was honored at the 2008 Invitational. Each year an artist is given a week of concerts all to him/herself. Sometimes retrospective, sometimes introspective -- these are multifarious affairs with solo, small combos and larger units each night. Lovano went north with him. Hank squeezed our chat in between the two festivals, after a hearty Sunday brunch.

At that same JJA Awards luncheon there was a demonstration on a digital piano of Art Tatum recreating a concert. Hank and I picked up our discussion from there. “The first time I heard Art Tatum I really thought there were two pianists,” he said. “One guy could not play like that. He had to have help. When I found out otherwise, then I really was impressed.” He was 20 at the time and already he was accompanying singers in and around his native Pontiac, Michigan.

Jones’ father, a minister, was dead set against jazz, pronouncing it the Devil’s music. That unfortunate sobriquet was well on its way to becoming cliché. “He may have been right,” he said with a guffaw. “He came around, accepting jazz as a form of music, although he never allowed it in church. He was not wrong about that either. Sometimes religious music should be the only form of music in church. But more and more you’re hearing jazz and other music there.”

So it certainly wasn’t in church, or even at home that Hank first heard jazz. “There was nothing much happening in Pontiac so you had to go Detroit. It was at the Greystone Ballroom,” he remembered. “All the bands came through there. That’s where I first heard Louis Armstrong. There was an amusement area around Walled Lake which had an amphitheatre where some bands played.” But one time in Pontiac I did hear Eddie Cole’s big band which had his brother, Nat, at the piano. On one of the tunes, I think it was “Tea For Two,” there was a part where he would roll his hand and hit one note repeatedly. It was great visually. That’s about the only thing I can say about Pontiac, musically.”

The other two Jones brothers did not play in their father’s church. “They played in Detroit’s Blue Bird club. In the house band there were Billy Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was a stop over for the guys from New York: J.J. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker. Thad and Elvin worked in the house band there too.”

By the time his brothers came along Hank had already been in New York for some five years. (He’s roughly ten and fifteen years older than Thad & Elvin, respectively; there were other Jones kids in between.) “My mother used to have to go to work. On the way home she’d stop to buy some records for us to listen to. After making a miserable wage.” Being the oldest, Hank would stay home to watch the kids. “I remember carrying Elvin around in my arms. Not much later he could carry me around in his arms.” It was Elvin who took after Jones pere, “My father played some bluesy guitar and that’s what Elvin initially took up.” Thad, on the other hand, came to cornet via the hand-me down track. “Cornet-playing Uncle Bill [Jones] whom he admired, gave him one when Uncle Bill decided tennis was more his thing.”

Elvin decided on drums when he was in the Army and heard Buddy Rich. . Hank: “We were on a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour and we passed through Cleveland where Elvin was stationed. Now, Elvin didn’t play like Buddy, no more than Thad wrote like Duke Ellington. It was inspiration. And each went on to create his own style.”

Both Elvin and Thad were strong of body. Thad was quite the gentle man, but Elvin could hurt you. “If you met Elvin for the first time and he hugs you you’d best break away as soon as you’re able because you might not be when he’s finished with you,” Hank warned. Tenor saxist Zoot Sims didn’t break away in time and suffered a couple of cracked ribs from an Elvin hug. I knew of that love trap so after a set at a Finnish night club I came at him from the side. He grabbed me anyhow and the whiplash caused me to lose my breath. Gasping out a distress call to Keiko, his wife, who managed to break us up like a ref at a prize fight, I hobbled away. Interestingly, Buddy Rich and his big band were the closing act on the bill. A photo of the three of us plus Buddy’s manager Stanley Kay remains in my collection.

Like Elvin who never emulated anyone let alone Rich, Hank also had his idols. Like Tatum. “I never played anyone’s solos just as they had,” Hank said emphatically. “There are those players who do. For me it’s the style which is important. If you play in the same idiom you can do things that are similar. The whole idea of improvisation is to induce some creativity. If there’s no creativity there’s no improvisation, and vice versa.”

While Tatum was classically trained, Hank was considerably less so. But Hank played a Baroque-cum-Classical period instrument. On two memorable occasions he switched to the harpsichord, one was with the second edition of Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five and the second on an album arranged and conducted by Oliver Neslon called “Happenings,” a ‘60s title if ever there was one. Its unique sound is obtained by plucking the strings rather than striking them. In the original Gramercy Five, it was played by Johnny Guarnieri. A scion of Italy’s second family of string instruments artisans, I had heard that he was disowned by the family when they found out he was in America not to craft more violins, but to play jazz. Or that could be apocryphal. Hank clearly remembered that the Gramercy Five harpsichord was acoustic. On the Nelson recording he used an electronically induced instrument. “In any case, it was Oliver’s idea; he just wanted that sound.”

More to the classical point, some decades ago I asked him why he used a particular phrase which I remembered as having come from either Stravinsky or Prokofiev. I deedle-dee-deed it for him. His reply: “Am I still doing that?” My answer decades later: “Yes, you are.” Hank: “You know if the composer was alive he would probably approve so long as it’s the proper harmonic sequence.” Quotes are always appropriate and are as old as the music itself. Dexter Gordon did it so often that I thought his auto-bio might have been entitled “And Then I Quote.” Hank remembered that he did a recording with Artie Shaw which was “quotes and nothing but quotes.

“Artie was quite the intellectual,” Hank continued. “Like Tatum and Bird he could be conversant on any topic: current events, politics, sports, history, religion, philosophy. I asked him once why he got married so many times. [N.B.: Between playboy Tommy Manville, actor Mickey Rooney and Shaw there wasn’t a legsome beauty left for anyone else.] He said that it’s a moral issue. ‘It’s better to marry ten times than to marry once and have nine affairs.’”

Shaw was a perfectionist, and as such he had one of his more embarrassing moments. Composer Norman Della Jolla had composed a piece for him which he was to perform live at Bop City in New York with a 40-piece orchestra from Juilliard. Hank finished the story: “It was a difficult clarinet piece and Artie had to stop the orchestra three times. The notes just would not come out. The result was that it never got played.” You could see the pain in Hank’s face as he related the incident and he let out a sigh.

While on the topic of bandleaders, inevitably the conversation turned to the late 20th century’s greatest jazz big band: the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Thad had once told me that Hank was the pianist object of his desire. Hank demurred. “Roland Hanna,” was Hank’s emphatic replay. Then why was Hank on that premiere Solid State recording? “He was my brother, that’s all. I didn’t play any better than Roland.” Roland Hanna, also a Detroiter, was, indeed, the perfect piano interpreter for Thad’s music. Every pianist in that band followed his mold. “When someone is the first of anything you tend to want to follow, especially something as ground-breaking as that band became,” Hank noted.

That was 1964 and Hank was working for the CBS network in New York. In those days every network had a working band. Radio and television were live and even when it went to tape the bands played on. As a matter of fact, it was the Tonight Show band which sprung the TJ/MLJO. When they shut down in NYC, gloom and doom was forecast. “Hey, we’re big band people,” Mel admonished Thad. “Let’s form our own band.” Shades of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

“It was difficult for me to join them,” Hank lamented. “It was very difficult to fit them in to my schedule. I didn’t want to miss too many days [at CBS]. Those guys got off at 2 o’clock in the morning. If I had a 9 o’clock rehearsal I didn’t get any sleep. I had to drive back to and in from my Cresskill, NJ home; there was always a traffic jam so I had to leave two hours before that.”

The CBS stable of musicians included fellow pianist Dick Hyman, who was with Arthur Godfrey and the bands of Ray Block for Ed Sullivan and Archie Bleyer for Godfrey. “Ray Block was always listening to the ballgame so he would have his thumbs up against his headphones conducting with his pinkies.” Hank demonstrated. He looked like a moose.

CBS was light years from the chittlin’ circuit of Hank’s early years. “We did the South: Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, the Carolinas, segregated hotels, if there was one, more likely the bus, water fountains, toilets, restaurants, everything you see in the documentaries,” Hank painfully remembered. But there was humor. “We went to Paris later and found that they were serving chittlins at the finest places -- are you ready for this -- at a premium. And you had to order them in advance. Of course, they were vacuumed out.” We laughed. It became the running gag for the rest of the afternoon. I promised Hank I wouldn’t use the scatological term for what was inside those porcine intestines, but in French it’s merde. “You couldn’t pay me to eat that stuff, but [trombonist/vibist] Tyree Glenn loved it,” Hank said. “We were doing a telethon, seven hours. We got off at five in the morning. When we got to my home my wife, who doesn’t eat it either, made him a bowl this big.” [There was at least eight inches simulating a circle between his thumbs and forefingers of both hands] “He ate it all with gusto. It was difficult to watch.”

We were having so much fun with the chittlins episode that we forgot about the tour story. Meanwhile, back on that Southern tour, “We were doing one-nighters, 35 days, no days off, and if we got one it was to do laundry with the hopes that we’d get it back in time for the bus to leave. The instruments I had to play on were suspect at best: keys missing, ivory that would cut up your hands, keys that wouldn’t come up, or down, action gone completely, and sometimes so out of tune…how out of tune? It was on that tour that I learned how to transpose. After a few days I said to myself, ‘Henry. You’ve learned a valuable lesson here, never do this again!’”

It’s one thing for the physical hardships to affect your performance, but it gets worse. Everything was segregated in 1954. Only San Antonio wasn’t. “We had our bags lined up on a train platform which was street level. Along comes some guy in a pick-up truck and runs over our bags, on purpose. That did not make any of the guys very happy.” And not being able to do anything about it didn’t make them any happier. Therein lays the psychology and morale issues of the segregated south. “And if you’re in your car you’re pulled over for ‘DWB, driving while black.’ The other guys drank a lot, mostly to escape I imagine. That stop in San Antonio, though, was a welcome respite.”

Then there were the other kinds of tours, the ones led by Norman Granz of JATP fame. Hank: “Norman treated us well and stood up for us. Once he pulled us out of a concert because the audience was segregated. Paid us too.” Some bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey also tried. And let us not leave out Benny Goodman, the man who, with John Hammond helped integrate jazz on a grand scale.

Hank played with Benny off and on for some time. A BG story from Hank: “We’re sitting in a dressing room after having finished a gig in Alaska. Noticing my new coat Benny says, ‘Hey. What a nice coat. Mind if I try it on?’ Remember now we’re in Alaska. ‘Sure go ahead,’ I replied.’ He wore my coat back to the hotel while I froze. I didn’t get it back until the next day on our way to the airport.” I suggested that so many of us had similar experiences with Benny and I suggested to Hank that the incident was more forgetfulness rather than purposeful. “I sure would like to believe that,” he replied, but he did not seem placated.

Hank replaced Prof. Mel Powell in the BG band and groups. “He wanted me to play like Teddy Wilson as Powell did,” Hank said. Wilson was the pianist who along with Lionel Hampton on vibes integrated the small groups and later the big band. “I tried, but it wasn’t me. I remained true to my style.”

The topic turned to segregation in the movies. Lena Horne was turned down for the part of Julie in Showboat, even though the movie put a spotlight on miscegenation laws. I asked if he could imagine what would have happened if Lena was in that role and she kissed Robert Sterling, who played her husband? “We might still be hearing the reverberations,” he said. It doesn’t end in the south. Hank related an incident of not being served in a diner in Jackson, MI. “The owner paid a hefty fine rather than serve blacks,” he recounted.

As the topic turned to African-Americans in the mainstream we found ourselves talking baseball. Hank’s home is in Hartwick, NY a fast ball on the corner from the Hall of Fame. A former Brooklyn Dodger fan, he now roots for the New York Mets. (We share both of those afflictions.) “I got to see Jackie Robinson play when he was with the Kansas City Monarchs. There was a shortstop named Willie Wells; he used to play with the Chicago American Giants. I frequently saw him play opposite the (Pontiac) Michigan Giants. He has a vacuum cleaner. Nothing got by him and no one reached if the ball was anywhere near Willie. I only got to see the other Negro Leagues teams when they came through Pontiac.”

Regrets: “Funny you should ask. I wrote a tune called ‘No Regrets’ [not the Phoebe Snow hit]. I regret that I didn’t know Tatum for a longer period of time. I wish I’d known him sooner. I might have gone in another direction. I might have picked his brain. Would he have let me? That’s arguable.” I mentioned that I had heard that sometimes he covered his hands with a towel so as not to let anyone cop his style. “Perhaps,” was Hank’s reply. “But it was a pretty towel. Seriously, I spoke to him many times and I never saw him put a towel over his hands. How could anyone copy him? He was so fast. You couldn’t learn anything from watching him, but you could learn from listening to him.

While Tatum never changed his style, sometimes style evolution can be part of the essence of jazz. In 1944, Hank played the Village Vanguard with Oran “Hot Lips” Page, “and I was playing boogie-woogie, would you believe? That’s what was going around then so I played it. It was always natural for me to be a two-handed pianist [anyhow]. There was a two-handed piano player who never much left Detroit named Lonnie Scott. If there was anyone who could rival Tatum this was the guy. Another was Nat ‘King’ Cole. I went up to Andy Kirk’s house for something and I heard this piano from the other room. I thought, ‘My God Tatum is in there.’ Turned out to be Nat.”

Our long afternoon ended abruptly when three Japanese journalists/fans walked in to greet Hank. As will this.


July 30, 2008 · 3 comments

  • 1 Carla Rupp // Aug 13, 2008 at 05:35 PM
    Thanks, Arnold, for a great article on Hank. You really captured Hank in the quotes. I saw you at Birdland for opening night. It's a wonderful series of interviews.
  • 2 Gnancou Amandan Thierry // Aug 21, 2008 at 04:58 PM
    recherche de document de musique consernant le Piano jazz
  • 3 Mike Wofford // Sep 16, 2008 at 07:04 PM
    Wonderful piece on Hank, one of the nice guys. A longtime fan of Hank's amazing prowess, I also really enjoyed his comments on Art. Hank, like Tatum of course, is one of the pianists whom one can identify immediately upon hearing. And, like Tatum, his left hand is miraculous. Thanks so much.