Octojazzarian profile: dick hyman

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

Our subject this month is pianist Dick Hyman.

By arnold jay smith

                          Dick Hyman by Suzanne Cerny

To call Dick Hyman merely a pianist sorely underrates his mien. Closer might be calling him a chameleon that wears pants and plays the piano. But then again that reptilian creature blends in for protection; Hyman stands out.

A small sampling: There was a ragtime craze during the 1950s where record companies asked pianists to recreate or create tunes played in that style. Some put coins between hammers and strings to eliciting a tacky sound; others played harpsichords. Some purposely played out of tune. Still others recreated ragtime melodies made famous during the twenties. Hyman went the whole route. I asked for and received a list of the pianist nom-de-recordings Hyman used on various labels. He sent a list no fewer than 27, “of those I could remember,” he said. Among them were Rip Chord, Knuckles O’toole, Peter Parker –was he the forerunner of Spiderman?—Puddinhead Smith, and my personal favorite Slugger Ryan, the Bil & Cora Baird marionette pianist on a vastly popular children’s television show called “Lucky Pup,” who played and narrated with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

Dick Hyman was musical director for CBS’s Arthur Godfrey and others. There’s a famous Dumont TV clip we’ve all seen featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with Hyman at the piano. There’s Dick Hyman artist and arranger for Command Records during which period he recorded hyper-stereo for that new medium with stars like Doc Severinsen, Tony Mattola, Bob Haggart, the Ray Charles Singers plus a host of percussionists. It was during the Command period that Hyman took Robert Moog’s invention, the synthesizer, and created contemporary and swinging electronica unmatched to this day. The difference was the size of the contraption far from today’s miniaturization, the original resembling an old-time telephone switchboard.

There's Dick Hyman the musical director for George Wein's New York Jazz Repertory Company, where he re-imagined the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner and Scott Joplin, re-scoring solos, small groups, and large ensembles. Hyman did a set of variations on Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born," where he demonstrated how a dozen different pianists might read it, all the way to Cecil Taylor. For Joplin Hyman recorded the entire piano works in a multiple LP box plus an additional recording of his own interpretations. For Waller Hyman demonstrated his facility on pipe and electric organs recording the heavyweight’s music extensively on both. Hyman played Fats and others on the Brooklyn Paramount classic theatre organ –now in the gym of Long Island University, which took over the building— for its last airing, which was quite pungent, I might add.

Hyman’s depth of knowledge of the Great American and Jazz Songbooks is so extensive that his CDROM on the subject, now a five-disc + DVD box called Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano, is available on Arbors.

Dick and his wife of –gasp! — 61 years, Julia, live in Venice, Florida but he makes frequent forays north as his services are forever required.

(Backstory: Over the years Dick and I have been meeting or speaking on the phone just to schmooze. It was during one of those calls on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2007 that the seeds of this series were planted. “How many are you out there?” I asked, meaning musicians still active in their 80s. Before we were off the phone we had a half dozen names. By the end of that day the column had sprouted: it had a title, a stalk that continues to grow, and its first flower, the always-supportive Dr. Billy Taylor.)

To formalize those schmooze sessions is not the goal of this column. So we sat over your typical Apple brunch, talking with mouthfuls, avoiding clanking dishes, with a mini tape between us in the fall of 2008. Dick was in town to do, as he put it a “potpourri CD of South American stuff called Danzas Tropicales, which was recorded with Meral Guneyman on 2 pianos. “She is a wonderful classical pianist. I did most of the arrangements. This was our second album,” he said. “I’ve grown deeply interested in Argentine tango Nuevo,” as he spoke about its creator Astor Piazzolla. “Particularly his arranger Pablo Ziegler, who now resides in Brooklyn, I believe. We did some Brazilian music and we were honored to have Ziegler visit us in the studio.”

Other pianists Hyman has recorded with in recent times are Ray Kennedy, Shelly Berg, Chris Hopkins, Bernd Lhodsky, one with Roger Kellaway and an appearance with Derek Smith, his most frequent partner, with whom he has created Dick & Derek’s Piano Party at the 92nd St. ‘Y,’ for which Hyman was the premiere music director for 20 years. Bill Charlap currently holds that chair. As if this much eclecticism isn’t enough Guneyman and Hyman have also interpreted the Gershwin preludes as performed by Earl Wilde. “They are intricate and difficult but the brilliant pianist [Guneyman] performs them while I follow with jazz improvisations.” (On Playful Virtuosity, Rykodisc.)

While he was in town he did Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" for the third time. "I do it once very ten years," he quipped. The NPR show has been on the air for an unprecedented 30 years. Not a whole lot of people, or programs, can say that.

I brought up the subject of his revolving musical piano bench. In Hyman’s case it’s when the music starts that he’s in another place. About the CDROM-cum-CD box, “there’s also a DVD. We move with the times,” he said without breaking a smile. All are on Arbors, the Florida-based label that is preserving tradition. “They have been posted on YouTube for some years; I get a lot of interest from them.”

Hyman’s universality of the music was not an accident. “I was interested in doing that from an early age,” he said. His brother had given him his huge record collection. “In it were all the early pianists. I followed up on that; it seemed the way to go. While doing that I tried to get my own way going, and now I have.” There are those who would disagree saying that, while Hyman is among the great pianists, to quote a famous quiz show, would the real Dick Hymn please stand up? “Everything is a part of it, but it takes a while,” he explained. He has his limitations. “I won’t play bebop with a Dixieland band and vice versa, for example.” To these ears that's a small concession to Jelly, Fatha, Monk, Ellington, Basie, Garner, Tatum, Peterson, Bud and the rest, whose style and attack are inimitable to themselves.

About his now-famous appearance with Bird and Diz, Hyman spoke about the show on which they appeared. “It was part of a show I had for about a year and a half on Dumont,” Hyman explained. [An early network wannabee, Dumont was named for one of the pioneers of television, broadcasting and TV sets, Allen B. Dumont. The NYC channel, which was broadcast out of the Wanamaker Dept. Store, was WABD.] “The show was called Date On Broadway,” Hyman continued. “We usually had singers. We preceded the big hit [for kids like me] Captain Video. [Wagner’s “Overture to the Flying Dutchman” was its theme music.] They were setting up as we were finishing, live, by the way. It was all live in those days,” he said. As I remember it, Jackie Gleason’s first endeavors were on Dumont as well.

Dick explained that there were many other little shows on television in those days. “I played organ on some of them. I played with Milton DeLugg.” DeLugg, a composer (“Orange Colored Sky”) wound up as late-night television’s first bandleader. The show was Broadway Open House and it starred Jerry Lester and a host of characters including TV’s first blond joke, a tall buxom affair named Dagmar. Hyman was not DeLugg’s pianist on that show. “That was Mort Lindsey,” he pointed out. Lindsey went on to musical direction for stars most notably Judy Garland. “Mort was playing piano for an early morning show with DeLugg starring Morey Amsterdam, a cello-playing comic who became second banana on The Dick Van Dyke Show. [The Amsterdam show introduced singer Kitty Kallen and soon-to-be the Gleason Honeymooners sidekick Art Carney]. Mort decided he didn’t want to do that anymore so he recommended me to Milt.” Hyman was on staff at N.B.C. at the time. That followed a staff position at M.C.A. “There was a band there which featured (reedman and friend) Phil Bodner. It was a really good band. All those studio bands were crack musicians. It was a good living,” Hyman observed.

Studio work kept New York Musicians hopping into the 1960s. Bassist Milt Hinton said that he could work one gig after another virtually ‘round the clock. They weren’t all jazz mind you. “There was live music of every stripe,” Hinton said. “Everybody had live musicians, radio, television, classical, pop, background, commercials. You name it.” Hyman had it much the same way. He left NBC for the CBS. Godfrey gig, which was the most popular personality-driven show on the airwaves. The ultimate pitchman Godfrey had a variety show first on the radio, then a TV/radio simulcast and at the last television shows. The ukulele-playing host hated jazz until Hyman persuaded him to listen to some trad stuff. Then you couldn’t keep him away.

But Hyman didn’t stop there. He did quiz shows, such as “Beat The Clock” in the 1960s and 70s. “The point of the whole [music] game was doing as many things as you could,” he said. About that Bird/Diz TV rarity Dick remembered, “my regular bassist was George Shaw, who couldn’t make it. So we hired Sandy Block. [That answers a Lou Gehrig-type trivia question: Shaw into obscurity; Block immortalized.] We picked up drummer Charlie Smith for that show.” If chronology serves correctly, Smith, a left-handed drummer, was playing with the Billy Taylor trio, the house band at the original Birdland. Hyman said that Block became a band contractor for the likes of Sy Oliver and Henry Jerome. “Jerome was an a & r man for Decca Records,” Hyman said. “He led a short-lived band at the Edison Hotel and other places in New York which featured [arranger/composer] Johnny Mandel on bass trumpet, [Nixon’s legal eagle] Leonard Garment on clarinet and [former Fed chairman] Alan Greenspan, Al Cohn and, we are told, Stan Getz on tenor saxes.” Mandel told me that Greenspan sat in the back of the bus doing everyone’s tax forms. “You don’t think I’m going to be a jazz musician forever, do you?” Greenspan was once rumored to have said.

Hyman remembered that Jerome had another band that was so Mickey Mouse as to defy description. “The saxes were melodious to a fault [malodorous is more to the point] And if it didn’t have an accordion, it should have,” he said facetiously.

That was not Hyman’s only Bird encounter. “I was at Café Society where I was playing with Tony Scott and Bird sat in. Another time at Birdland Bud Powell was late so I sat in with the band, which included Red Rodney, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes. I was there with Lester Young, so I was around.” Hyman played that Birdland bill with a band led by trumpeter Max Kaminsky. “The host was WNEW radio personality Williams B. Williams. The idea was to cover the whole history of jazz from Dixieland to bebop. [Jazz] history was a lot shorter in those days. They asked me to stay over.” Dick not only played with Prez that night but also with tenorman Flip Phillips and trombonist Bill Harris as well as drummer Jo Jones.

During that entire long period while being with Godfrey Dick played as much piano as he could. “It was a lucky time, a golden time,” he said. “You could hardly walk down Broadway or 57th Street and not find a gang of musicians going to another studio. For awhile I was even doing ‘Sing Along With Mitch.’”

(Sidebar: New York Philharmonic oboist –that’s him on Bird With Strings—Mitch Miller, a & r at Columbia at the time, found gold in early TV. He gathered a group of bodies that mouthed choral singers and a network bought the idea. It was a phenomenal success for the small screen as well as selling LPs by the millions especially at holiday times. It was the perfect soundtrack to the burning Yule log, still a Christmas staple. Miller was a musical enigma: he shit-canned Frank Sinatra’s mid-life crisis career, but he also orchestrated Erroll Garner’s “Other Voices.” He promulgated the careers of Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford and Rosemary Clooney making them record the country music of Hank Williams and he turned Johnny Mathis from a jazz singer to the ultimate make-out recording artist. In was under his and George Avakian’s aegis that the 1950s Columbia catalogue thrived. A checkered career, indeed.)

Hyman played piano and organ for the Miller shows. “We hoped not to have to appear on screen after we recorded the track, because the taping was done in Brooklyn, and it took an entire day. Sometimes we sent subs."

Hyman elucidated on his organ-antics vis-à-vis his radio career: “The first time I played Hammond B3 was for [alto saxist] Alvy West who had been with Paul Whiteman. He was a great arranger who had a small band and added another member, me on piano and organ. It was because of that small entry on my resume that N.B.C. realized that I could be trusted to do soap opera. I also did some radio dramas such as ‘Front Page Farrell.’ I parodied one for the Woody Allen film ‘Radio Days’ called ‘Tales From The Crypt.’ Hyman had a long association with Allen being the auteur’s music director for many years.

I don’t remember playing the organ for any of those long-running shows like The Shadow, or Inner Sanctum. The longest run I had was As the World Turns. I once made the Hartz Mountain Canary Training record. I’m playing ‘Tales From The Vienna Woods’ and someone is playing marimba, or something. Then they added canaries. The idea was to have your own bird impersonate its peers. [Still on organ] I made an album for one of Enoch Light’s labels (Command, Project 3) called 50 Famous Hymns. Another was called Christmas Favorites: David Harkness at the Organ.”

Like the ragtime fad, there was an organ fad, not quite as large. If it was generic most likely it was Dick Hyman. The upshot of it all was three years on “Beat The Clock.” “I was probably the last organist on a game show.” His voice rose as he seemed genuinely proud of the fact that canned music succeeded him. Another interesting factoid is that the original Beat The Clock host was Mr. Red Lines, a/k/a the voice of Superman, Bud Collyer with whom Hyman did not work. Jack Naars had already replaced Collyer and the show had moved to Montréal , Canada. Thanks to technology and the ingenuity of Bing Crosby—Crosby had introduced taped shows to the airwaves so he could drink and play golf at will—it was already possible to tape many shows at once to be aired later. “So we went to Montréal for two days to tape two weeks of shows,” Hyman said.

With DeLugg Hyman joined vaudeville-cum-Catskills-cum-variety TV comedian Jan Murray. The sponsor was Mogen David Wine. “[At about that same time] I got to make the demos for ‘Orange Colored Sky’ and another of DeLugg’s hits, ‘Hoop De-Do’”

Beat the Clock allowed Hyman to utilize a Baldwin synthesizer, which he incorporated into his piano and organ playing for Light’s labels. Owner and music director, Light‘s first was Waldorf, then Command, then Project 3. Initially, it trended towards sound effects, Monte Carlo racing cars, bullfights, like that. The vinyl was heavy and the grooves deep and wide to catch all the aural information. “Light cashed in on all of them, Hyman said. “Especially Command.” The bands consisted of studio cats. “I didn’t contract the musicians; I just arranged for them. Trumpets were liable to be Doc Severinsen, Bernie Glow, Mel Davis, Marvin Stamm and Clark Terry. Light and engineer Bob Fine really invented the stereo market. The big companies followed their lead, but Enoch was there first.” It was Light who got Hyman started in the Honky Tonk piano mode as the second Knuckles O’Toole. The first was Billy Roland, Perry Como’s pianist.

Light was also a savvy marketing person. He pioneered the sale of records in places other than record stores. Hyman: “He had a line of Knuckles O’Toole records sold exclusively in Woolworth’s, for example. He then would take those same masters, the same masters [italics Hyman’s] mind you, put them on another label under the name of Rip Chord. Then on another label in another store changing my name yet again.”

Super Market Records, as they came to be known, could be found in your local A & P, Safeway, Finast, suburban Korvette’s, or Piggily Wiggily. Usually found at the check out, where the fan rag mags reside today, they were impulse items for a dollar or two. And I’ll bet you thought Starbuck’s started all that. It became a habit of mine to check out the personnel on those LPs where I found names like Carl Severinsen and John Haley Sims, and not their better-known monikers Doc and Zoot. They remain in my collection.

Dick Hyman was a hit maker on harpsichord, principally the very first instrumental version of “Mack the Knife.” It was recorded under its original Kurt Weil-penned German title, “Moritat (Theme from The Threepenny Opera)” sans vocal. “I was under contract to MGM and I was asked to do some recordings on harpsichord. The Threepenny Opera, was breaking attendance records off-Broadway. Louis Armstrong had recorded ‘Mack’ just before me with the vocal, of course. Bobby Darin followed well after that [as did Ella Fitzgerald]. I had a big [charted] hit with that. The ‘B’ side was an arrangement of another Broadway hit ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ [Kismet] which I then rearranged for the Kirby Stone Four [and made it a hit].

“To make matters even more confusing, my alter ego Richard Hayman [who played the tune “Ruby” from the movie Ruby Gentry and went on to arrange for the Boston Pops] followed my ‘Mack’ with a harmonica version.” Keyboards, arranging and Command all came together when Hyman composed, arranged and played on two synthesized LPs, Concerto Electro and The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman. Concerto Electro was not on a synthesizer, per se. It was on a concert grand piano that produced its sound through a system of amplifiers. “The people at Command became interested in the synthesizer when they heard Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Switched on Bach. They asked me to create something like that.” Others aided his pioneering synth work notably Walter Sear. “The Moog was not all that you heard. We overdubbed three or four tracks, a process which was not fully understood then. The sounds you got were unearthly and beyond what any instrument could do.” “Minotaur,” from Electric Eclectics, became his second hit after “Moritat.”

Hyman’s association with Woody Allen began, as it should have, with his playing piano and organ for him in a Mundell Lowe-led band for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Bear in mind that Allen is a trad jazz clarinetist with large lobes, as Prez might have said. Woody liked his playing and he became not only a behind-the-scenes writer/arranger, but every now and again one might catch a glimpse of the piano player on-screen playing in the band. His last affiliation with Allen was Melinda and Melinda.

Hyman: “At that same time I had become associated with Twyla Tharpe. She had choreographed something called The Bix Pieces. The band was on stage and one of Woody’s people saw the dance and contacted me about doing the movie Zelig, which had that kind of period music in it.” Zelig remains Hyman’s personal favorite of all the Allen’s. “Although ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ is up there.” Writing for Woody Allen hardly seems a chore. “I write all the cues and the re-creations of the music used. Woody sometimes uses actual recordings. I do all the underscoring and wrote several songs which were actually used.” My personal favorite Woody Allen was the not very successful Sweet and Lowdown. Sean Penn played a guitarist dubbed by Howard Alden. “You would like that because of the jazz context,” Hyman remarked with a touch of irony.

While he was with the Tharpe Company Hyman subbed on her “Eight Jelly Rolls,” based on Jelly Roll Morton’s music that originally featured Bob Wilber. “The next time Tharpe did it Wilber was on the road with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band so I stepped in with Phil Bodner on clarinet this time. I rearranged them making them more exact. I also did a solo score for a Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith piece, which Twyla choreographed.” After having done it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music they reprised it when the Tharpe Company moved to Broadway. “It’s a very exacting piece. The piano was in a box in a corner of the stage. There were a series of red/green light cues. Red most of time nearly hypnotizing you then suddenly green and you began.”

(Aside: Dick had asked me to be a page-turned for one of the Tharpe’s. He said he would give me cues as to when to turn the music. I don’t read music all that well anymore, but he said that he had the music pretty well memorized anyhow. I humbly declined the invitation for fear that I would get involved in the dancing and pay less attention to the printed page. I pictured a Victor Borge musical train wreck.)

In addition to Terpsichore another Hyman muse is the classics. He had written a piano concerto in the ‘60s as well a Ragtime Fantasy, which is still performed with orchestras, not to mention the Concerto Electro. Lately, he has taken on chamber music. “I've written pieces for the Shanghai Quartet, and that association thrills me. Composing for me is an extension of arranging, which I did so much of. It’s another of my chameleonic traits.” We laughed at what was becoming the running gag of this long interview.

What else is in the pockets of Hyman’s coat of many colors? He quickly ran these down: “There’s a Sonata for Piano and Violin, some things for two pianos, a trio, a couple of string quartets, a quintet for piano and strings and several sextets with differing instrumentation.” Dick writes all his charts longhand. “I have tried Finale but it baffles me. I’m good with computers but Finale I don’t get.”

While researching I came across a cute title, which I’m sure had a story attached. “’The Longest Blues In The World’ is ideally a piece that goes on for an hour,” Dick began. “No, it’s not 12 bars and three chords. It’s more blues-y than real blues. I depend on the improvisations from the members of the band interspersed with the written stuff. In it’s shortened form it’s called ‘The Longest Blues In The World, Abridged.’ I’ve done it at the ‘Y’; I’ve done it with Ken Peplowski; I’ve done it a few times in Florida. It’s a fun piece.”

Speaking of having a good time, I asked about the New York Jazz Repertory Company George Wein’s 1975-6 attempt at preserving our music. “I had the idea of arranging Armstrong soli for three trumpets,: he said. “It was so successful that it led to two European trips, one to Russia. The original band had Mel Davis, Pee Wee Erwin and Joe Newman, trumpets, Kenny Davern, clarinet, Eph Resnick, trombone, Carmen Mastren, guitar and banjo, Milt Hinton, bass and Bob Rosengarden, drums.” There was a Jelly Roll Morton concert similarly re-imagined, but something interesting happened there. “The recording came first,” Dick remembered. “It was during the Scott Joplin craze when everyone wanted to record his music after it appeared in the film ‘The Sting.’ The producers thought that Morton was ripe for a similar revival. It was mostly a collection of small group things with some marching band arrangements.” The European and Russian tours of these shows were among the first jazz bus & truck tours. They had legs.

While on the subject of repertory, I asked about those 92nd St. ‘Y’ programs. “Producer Hadassah Markson heard me play on a couple of her Lyrics and Lyricists programs. She had the idea of putting on a jazz festival in the spring at the ‘Y’ but not on weekends.” On the weekends the ‘Y’ crowd [perhaps Bernie Madoff?] gets into their Cessna’s, roadsters and the Jitney and shuffle off to the Hamptons. Markson thought weeknights would work better. Hyman was musical director for that as well as another ‘Y’ series called Jazz In July for the next two decades. Bill Charlap has that gig now. “I’m down to doing only one a year with my friend Derek Smith. We call it ‘Dick & Derek’s Piano Party.’ It remains one of the most successful of the series.”

Hyman carried the idea clear to the upper left side of the country. For eight summers he directed the Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene. Peplowski continues that one.

We recently celebrated Benny Goodman's centenary. Hyman spent many years in and out of Benny’s presence. “I regret those uncomplimentary things people say about him. We got along and we did many things together. I was on that last big band he did on PBS called Benny Goodman: Let’s Dance.” It was really Loren Schoenberg’s rehearsal band that Goodman adopted. “Eventually, after many personnel changes Goodman dumped Schoenberg as well. Benny couldn’t make his mind up, his traditional four-sax section, or five with the addition of Danny Banks on baritone. In the end he had Banks play a fifth (really the fourth) sax part while Loren sat by playing only on the things I wrote.” (I guess it’s hard not relating uncomplimentary things about Benny Goodman.) "I was the musical coordinator of that show. I felt honored when Benny asked me."

While he continues to play and write, Hyman said that organizing those festivals “kept me up at night. Being artistic or musical director is a responsibility and that smacks of chore. I don’t want it to be that.”

Regrets: It took some cajoling but I got Dick to admit to something he had not done. “I would have liked to compose Broadway musicals. I just haven’t had the time. Ellington also wanted to do Broadway, but he didn’t want to do the hard work. You really have to be single minded. Cy Coleman [Little Me, City of Angels] said that every show from its inception takes five years. From the thinking to the stage, five years.”

After having composed “Oklahoma!” Oscar Hammerstein II asked, “What do I do next.” One wag responded, “Shoot yourself!” He was wrong, by the way.

Unfinished: “More writing. More playing. Jazz, chamber music. Here and abroad. More married life [there are three children and three grandchildren.] Still finishing all those.”

Check out the website of a man in motion: www.dickhymanmusic.com.

Coda: Bill Charlap

“Dick Hyman has been a huge part of my musical life for as long as I can remember. –[Hyman is a distant cousin on Charlap’s father’s side, his father being composer Moose Charlap (Broadway’s “Peter Pan.”)] My mother [singer Sandy Stewart] set up a meeting with him for guidance when I was a teenager. Dick was not my formal teacher; Jack Reilly was. But Dick was incredibly generous. He would take me around to record dates, performances, rehearsals with a singer, working on a film score. I was the fly on the wall watching this genius at work, as it were. That was training you couldn’t buy.

"We played two pianos, just generally sharing his experience. And the variety: from Shostakovich to Gershwin to Art Tatum to McCoy Tyner. Dick is the most comprehensive pianist, but what you don't hear too often said is that he is an extremely original pianist. That gets lost in his diversity; he loves so much music and he embraces it all. The originality lies in his touch, harmony, the melodic lines, the elements of his linear playing that don't sound like anyone else. You can hear influences of Teddy Wilson, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Carter, Art Tatum and what emerges is his voice. Melodically, he does things I have not heard any other pianist do. He seems not to have lost the thirst to keep developing. He's always practicing, trying something new. Remember, he's over 80 and yet there's always a new concept, like James Moody, or Hank Jones.

“I find Dick Hyman to be among the most influential of pianists: the harmonies, the approach to the tune, the attack. He sets the benchmark really high. It’s the love for the song, the history, and the future. I find a balance of tradition and forward thinking. He’s not closed-minded.” In effect, it’s not about Dick Hyman when he’s working for, say, Woody Allen.

“He is informed not only by the material, or the piano. It could be a commercial, a singer, even a mariachi band that informs him. The concept and imagination. Something that has the sound of surprise.

“The 92nd St. ‘Y’ was an amazing time. Dick had to put together six or more different concepts and concerts every year for 20 years. He developed a rapport [on both sides of the proscenium] with the musicians and the audience. He allowed people to be themselves. I consider myself very fortunate to continue that legacy. He hired me to play on concerts with Marian McPartland, Roger Kellaway, himself and other major pianists. It was terrifying but you learn more from those experiences than from a book or in a classroom.

“As a solo pianist Dick Hyman is peerless. It was on a jazz cruise tribute to Benny Carter and someone was commenting on how great some heavyweight pianist was and Benny, who would never say anything bad about anyone, ever, said, ‘Yes, but my favorite is Dick Hyman.’ No small praise, that. Another time Tatum was being praised when he interrupted and said that there was a young pianist you’ve got to hear, Dick Hyman.

"In one chorus Dick can give a lesson in the history of jazz piano. In that 'Hot House' TV clip [the one with Bird and Diz] there's some [Lennie] Tristano lines, some [George] Shearing, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, [the locked hands of] Milt Buckner and Nat Cole. And it's all in that one solo.

“Which brings up another point about his generosity: Dick Hyman celebrates the other artists who are with him. He shares unconditionally. His encouragement to me and others was always, ‘Do it your way.’”

Coda: Woody Allen (The New York Times, June 4, 1984, John S. Wilson Interview)—"He's a film director’s dream. He looks at the scenes and knows what works. He can do whatever you want. He can be Erroll Garner, or Bud Powell, or Fats Waller. He has a mastery of the tunes of Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke and the New Orleans Style that I Love (regarding “Zelig.”) I'm amazed at the scenes with music he has given us.”


July 20, 2009 · 1 comment

  • 1 Noel Smith // Jul 28, 2009 at 04:02 PM
    Fantastic. Incredibly long, but hey, it's Dick Hyman's history. Great to hear him tell his side of the early studio days. I heard some of that in bits and pieces from all the guys I recorded over the years. They would sit around and tell those stories, but Hyman's is incredible.

    Nice work.