[Dixielandjazz] Hank Jones, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Dies at 91

Robert Ringwald rsr at ringwald.com
Tue May 18 06:46:47 PDT 2010

Hank Jones, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Dies at 91
by Peter Keepnews
New York Times, May 18, 2010

Hank Jones, whose self-effacing nature belied his stature as one of the most respected
jazz pianists of the postwar era, died Sunday at a hospice in Manhattan. He was 91.
Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, confirmed Mr.
Jones's death.
Mr. Jones spent much of his career in the background. For three and a half decades
he was primarily a sideman, most notably with Ella Fitzgerald; for much of that time
he also worked as a studio musician on radio and television.
His fellow musicians admired his imagination, his versatility and his distinctive
style, which blended the urbanity and rhythmic drive of the Harlem stride pianists,
the dexterity of Art Tatum and the harmonic daring of bebop. (The pianist, composer
and conductor Andre Previn once called Mr. Jones his favorite pianist, "regardless
of idiom.")
But unlike his younger brothers Thad, who played trumpet with Count Basie and was
later a co-leader of a celebrated big band, and Elvin, an influential drummer who
formed a successful combo after six years with John Coltrane's innovative quartet,
Mr. Jones seemed content to keep a low profile.
That started changing around the time he turned 60. Riding a wave of renewed interest
in jazz piano that also transformed his close friend and occasional duet partner
Tommy Flanagan from a perpetual sideman to a popular nightclub headliner, Mr. Jones
began working and recording regularly under his own name, both unaccompanied and
as the leader of a trio. Listeners and critics took notice.
Reviewing a nightclub appearance in 1989, Peter Watrous of The New York Times praised
Mr. Jones as "an extraordinary musician" whose playing "resonates with jazz history"
and who "embodies the idea of grace under pressure, where assurance and relaxation
mask nearly impossible improvisations."
Mr. Jones further enhanced his reputation in the 1990s with a striking series of
recordings that placed his piano in a range of contexts -- including an album with
a string quartet, a collaboration with a group of West African musicians and a duet
recital with the bassist Charlie Haden devoted to spirituals and hymns. In 1998,
he appeared at Lincoln Center with a 32-piece orchestra in a concert consisting mostly
of his own compositions.
Hank Jones was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 31, 1918. He grew up one of seven
children in Pontiac, Mich., near Detroit, where he started studying piano at an early
age and first performed professionally at 13. He began playing jazz even though his
father, a Baptist deacon, disapproved of the genre.
Mr. Jones worked with regional bands, mostly in Michigan and Ohio, before moving
to New York in 1944 to join the trumpeter and singer Hot Lips Page's group at the
Onyx Club on 52nd Street.
He was soon in great demand, working for well-known performers like the saxophonist
Coleman Hawkins and the singer Billy Eckstine
"People heard me and said, 'Well, this is not just a boy from the country -- maybe
he knows a few chords,'" he told Ben Waltzer in a 2001 interview for The Times. He
abandoned the freelance life in late 1947 to become Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist
and held that job until 1953, occasionally taking time out to record with Charlie
Parker and others.
He kept busy after leaving Fitzgerald. Among many other activities, he began an association
with Benny Goodman that would last into the 70s, and he was a member of the last
group Goodman's swing-era rival Artie Shaw led before retiring in 1954. But financial
security beckoned, and in 1959 he became a staff musician at CBS.
Mr. Jones remained intermittently involved in jazz during his long tenure at CBS,
which ended when the network disbanded its music department in the mid-1970s. He
was a charter member of the big band formed by his brother Thad and the drummer Mel
Lewis in 1966, and he recorded a few albums as a leader. More often, however, he
was heard but not seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other television and radio programs.
"Most of the time during those 15 or so years, I wasn't playing the kind of music
I'd prefer to play," Mr. Jones told Howard Mandel of Down Beat magazine in 1994.
"It may have slowed me down a bit. I would have been a lot further down the road
to where I want to be musically had I not worked at CBS." But, he explained, the
work gave him "an economic base for trying to build something."
Once free of his CBS obligations, Mr. Jones began quietly making a place for himself
in the jazz limelight. He teamed with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony
Williams, alumni of the Miles Davis Quintet, to form the Great Jazz Trio in 1976.
(The uncharacteristically immodest name of the group, which changed bassists and
drummers frequently over the years, was not Mr. Jones's idea.)
Two years later he began a long run as the musical director and onstage pianist for
"Ain't Misbehavin'," the Broadway revue built around the music of Fats Waller, while
also playing late-night solo sets at the Cafe Ziegfeld in Midtown Manhattan.
By the early 1980s, Mr. Jones's late-blooming career as a leader was in full swing.
Since then he has worked frequently in the United States, Europe and Japan. While
he had always recorded prolifically -- by one estimate he can be heard on more than
a thousand albums -- for the first time he concentrated on recording under his own
name, which he continued to do well into the 21st century.
Mr. Jones was named a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master in 1989. He received
the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2009.
Reaching for superlatives, critics often wrote that Mr. Jones had an exceptional
touch. He himself was not so sure.
"I never tried consciously to develop a 'touch,'" he told The Detroit Free Press
in 1997. "What I tried to do was make whatever lines I played flow evenly and fully
and as smoothly as possible.
"I think the way you practice has a lot to do with it," he explained. "If you practice
scales religiously and practice each note firmly with equal strength, certainly you'll
develop a certain smoothness. I used to practice a lot. I still do when I'm at home."
Mr. Jones was 78 years old at the time.

--Bob Ringwald
Amateur (ham) Radio call sign K6YBV
Fulton Street Jazz Band

"Critics can't even make music by rubbing their back legs together."
--Mel Brooks

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