[Dixielandjazz] Howard Mandel on Hank Jones

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed May 19 07:37:38 PDT 2010

Here is an article Howard Mandel wrote after an interview with Hank  
Jones in 2009. Courtesy of Mr. Mandel and the Jazz musician chat line  
moderated by DJML list mate Norm Vickers. This one says it all and  
contains lots of inside information about the man and the music..


Steve Barbone


Pianist Hank Jones is a courtly gentleman of the old school, who wears  
a coat and tie for an interview conducted in his own lodgings and is  
forthright about his approach to music in the 21st century.

"I try to play evenly," Jones says with genuine humility about his  
style, which is widely regarded as maintaining the highest standard  
for keyboard playing in the contemporary vernacular. "I don't take too  
many excursions, I don't go too far away from the melody, I don't go  
out in the deep water. I want the listener to understand what I'm  
doing. I try to stay pretty much right down the middle and yet keep it  

In these efforts he has succeed magnificently, though he understates  
the depths he's mastered -- as well as the progressive broadening as  
well as continuity of what's "right down the middle" of jazz that he  
has established and documented in more than 450 recordings under his  
own leadership and with the greatest vocal and instrumental stars from  
the '40s through today. At age 91, Hank Jones is universally  
acknowledged to be what his frequent collaborator Joe Lovano calls "a  
treasure": a man of experience who embodies the wit, warmth, elegance,  
swing, sagacity, ongoing productivity and open-minded creativity we  
hope for from all artists and too rarely find. Besides the respect --  
no, awe -- of his colleagues and international audiences, Jones has  
been the recipient of numerous honors, being designated a Jazz Master  
by the National Endowment for the Arts, given a Grammy Lifetime  
Achievement Award and now inducted into Down Beat's Hall of Fame.

The pianist takes this all in stride (pun intended) as befits a man  
who began professional life at age 13 under the esthetic sway of Fats  
Waller, Art Tatum, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Teddy Wilson. "I'm just  
trying to keep up with the other guys," he insists, those "guys" being  
the pianists he's known and admired. His conversation is laced with  
references to the late Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans Tommy  
Flanagan and John Lewis, as well as George Shearing, Barry Harris,  
Marian McPartland and diverse next-generation players. But one  
wonders: Who can keep up with Mr. Jones?

His schedule of bookings is the envy and would be a challenge for much  
younger musicians. When he sat down to talk for an hour in the  
comfortable but unfussy apartment he sublets in Manhattan while his  
home in Cooperstown, New York undergoes long-term renovations, he was  
in preparation for a concert in The Hague with the Metropole  
Orchestra. He was scheduled to perform in July in Donostia-San  
Sebastian, Spain, fronting his trio with bassist George Mraz and  
drummer Willie Jones III, as well as at the San Sebastian Jazz  
Festival in duet with Lovano (they issuedKids: Duets Live at Dizzy's  
Club Coca-Cola in 2007).

He and Lovano are performing at George Wein's reconstituted Newport  
Jazz Festival, and in Monterey with a co-led quartet completed by  
bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Jones is also the  
guest of honor at the 30th Detroit International Jazz Festival, which  
has built its Labor Day weekend programming around the theme "Keepin'  
Up with the Joneses: A nod to Thad, Elvin and Hank, and a celebration  
of other family dynasties."

While it's accurate to describe Hank Jones as a titan of a dynasty,  
and he grew up with musical parents and siblings, his status does not  
rest on the achievements of a family band. Rather, he is a "patriarch  
of the Detroit piano legacy," as the pianist Geri Allen, a fellow  
Detroit-area native and one of Jones' most ardent followers, puts it.  
Hank worked only occasionally with his younger brothers Thad and  
Elvin, innovators of big band composing and traps drumming,  
respectively, over the course of their parallel careers. They're  
deceased -- Thad since '86, Elvin since 2004 -- and Hank misses them,  
of course, speaking enthusiastically about their unique sounds. "I'd  
rather listen to what they do than play myself," he mentions. But Hank  
Jones doesn't live in the past so much as the present and foreseeable  
future. He knows who he is, where he's come from, what he's done and  
how to continue.

"You've got to live your age," he says -- wisdom that has many  
possible interpretations, but seems to mean to him mostly that time  
travels on and if we're lucky, we go with it. He's been lucky and  
isn't about to stop.

"It takes a lot of concentration," Jones continues, in response to a  
comment that he seems to be capable of every opportunity,  
collaboration and repertoire directed his way. "If there's any secret  
-- and I don't think there is -- it's certainly that: Whatever you're  
doing, give it 100 per cent concentration. Really focus on that thing.  
That's what I believe, that's what I have to do.

"I took that idea, I think, from my father, one of the most upright  
men I've ever known. He used to play a little guitar around the house,  
not professionally, but he served as a great role model. He was a  
clean living person. He didn't drink or smoke, and he was a Christian.  
I've followed his way of doing things, and it's worked out pretty well  
for me.

"You see, there is no magic involved in playing the piano. It takes  
hard work, continuous hard work. Whatever skills are involved, it's a  
matter of practice. You can never say reach a point where you don't  
think it's necessary to practice anymore. It's always necessary to  
practice everyday. If you can do that, then you can maintain whatever  
skills you have, and perhaps even increase your skills. To me, that's  
the only way to do it.

"That's something I learned over time. At first I hated to practice.  
My mother had to threaten me, saying 'Either you practice or you don't  
have dinner.' At that time, I practiced because I had to. I practice  
now because I want to. And it's been that way for many years -- a  
minimum of two hours a day. If I have more time I'll spend more time.  
If I'm working on something specific, like songs I'm going to be  
playing, I'll spend a lot more time. I work on technical things like  
scales and exercises, then combine them with the tunes I'm going to be  
playing that I may be learning. I can spend eight hours at the piano  
easily, and not even know where the time went.

"A performance depends on how much I practice. It works that way. If  
you want to be able to do the things you want to do, you have to  
practice. Then the performance comes easy. I think if you're really  
going to play to your best, in any style, you have to be aware of what  
your fingers are doing. Your fingers have to be in shape or you can't  
play anything. That's why it's necessary for me to practice. I feel  
that in order to do anything -- certainly to play my own ideas -- I  
have to practice. Otherwise I can't execute properly."

He emphasizes the most tried-and-true dictums of music pedagogy. "When  
I first started I studied classical music," he recalls. "I think that  
gave me a foundation, something every pianist needs. If I were asked  
for some guidelines, they would be: Study, know the piano, study with  
the best teacher you can find at the very beginning. That's important,  
because if you don't learn the right way to play, it will be pretty  
hard to change that way later. If you use the wrong technique, it's  
very hard to get rid of. Yes, that's what I would advise young people."

As a young person himself, Jones evidently practiced what he preaches,  
because he began gigging with upper midwest "territory bands" while in  
his teens. In his early 20s he left home on saxophonist Lucky  
Thompson's promise of a gig on 52nd Street with Hot Lips Page. Promise  
realized, Jones went on to work with Andy Kirk, Billy Eckstine,  
Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown, enlist in Norman  
Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic touring cast with Brown and Max Roach  
supporting Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Flip Phillips,  
et al., and by the 1950s was much in demand.

He accompanied, recorded and toured with Sarah Vaughan, Artie Shaw,  
Benny Goodman and Cannonball and Nat Adderley's band. He anchored the  
rhythm section for virtually everyone who recorded for the Savoy label  
(Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Frank Wess, Kenny Clarke, et al). Then he  
served for 17 years in the CBS television studio band, limiting  
himself to sessions close to home -- Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin,  
John Coltrane's Bags and Trane, Dakota Staton's The Late, Late Show,  
Wes Montgomery's So Much Guitar, Roland Kirk's We Free Kings, dates  
with Johnny Mathis and Bobby Darin. He sat in with the Thad Jones-Mel  
Lewis Orchestra when it was established at the Village Vanguard in  
1968 (Roland Hanna took over his chair). In the mid '70s Jones emerged  
from his staff job to labor on Broadway in Ain't Misbehavin'. That  
lasted five years. One might say Hank Jones two-handedly restored Fats  
Waller's reputation -- hear his utterly enjoyable Waller tribute album  
A Handful of Keys.

After leaving the show over a contract dispute, Jones re-engaged with  
personal pursuits that he'd put on hold during his CBS tenure (among  
the advantages of steady employment he counts learning discipline,  
improvising his sight reading and being able to have a homelife). He  
immersed himself in solo piano club and concert bookings and albums,  
acclaimed duets ("A very difficult format to work with. . .the problem  
being two pianists seldom think alike harmonically"), tours and  
records with the Great Jazz Trio (combinations of Ron Carter, Buster  
Williams, Eddie Gomez and Tony Williams, Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb), one- 
offs with brilliant, original talents (for instance, Charlie Haden on  
Steal Away, Dave Holland and Billy Higgins on The Oracle, Mandinka  
bandleader Cheick-Tidiane Seck on Sarala,). He also sustained long  
relationships such as that he has with tenor sax and flutist Wess ("he  
still sounds great after all these years") most recently co-starring  
on Hank and Frank (2004) and Hank and Frank, Vol. 2 (2006). Whatever  
he does bears dependable attributes: the Hank Jones stamp of  
excellence, style and taste.

"My style? How did it come about?," Jones is surprised to be asked.  
"What happens is, after you've heard a lot, when you've digested many  
different styles, sooner or later you develop an idea of your own. You  
want to play your way. Which may or may not be similar to somebody  
else. If you're lucky, it doesn't sound like somebody else. That's  
what students should aspire to: Develop their own style, their own  
interpretations. They can play the same compositions, but their own  
way. And it should be pleasing to listen to. Although that's another  
matter, a matter of taste, and how you develop that. I must say most  
of my ideas come from listening to people like Tatum, Teddy Wilson,  
Earl Hines, Fats -- the piano players of my day.

"The way I look at it, taste comes from listening to a great variety  
of people, and either accepting or rejecting portions of it all. What  
you retain is what you embody in your conception of what that  
particular composition should sound like. That becomes known as taste.  
The method you use, the dynamics, everything that goes into  
performing, that becomes you, your taste. That's what I bring to every  
situation, even when I played Fats Waller's music in Ain't  
Misbehavin'. I took some liberties with it. You're not supposed to do  
that, but if it enhances the performance, or let's say the likability  
of the audiences towards what you're doing, then it's proper. I don't  
think you should go too far out, though. I try not to do that.

"My idol is the great Art Tatum, there's nobody like him. Maybe  
somebody will come along years from now or who knows, maybe they're  
already here and I haven't heard them. But he is absolutely the  
greatest pianist I've ever heard for ideas, technique, stamina,  
everything. He has a wonderful sense of humor, it's there in his  
interpolations, and he plays in such a way that anybody who never  
heard him before can understand what he does. He's always listening  
carefully, and he has a great ear. He has that blinding technique, can  
do anything he thinks of, and with either hand. His technique, I  
think, is a gift from God. Put all that together, you've got an Art  
Tatum. That's how he was.

"I don't have anything like that kind of technique. I usually focus on  
the melody. I establish the melody because unless you do, nobody's  
going to know what you're doing. Then the harmony may or may not stay  
the same. You may find instances where you vary the harmony, but you  
don't get that far away from it.

"I try to use my imagination and try to think of something that's  
relevant, not only to the harmony, but to the melody, then you try to  
make something out of it. It's like building a house or anything. You  
start with a basic design, then you try to build it and embellish as  
you go.

"You've got to use common sense about it. You should always keep in  
mind that somebody is listening to what you're doing. If you're going  
to play something that nobody understands, it's pointless. I believe  
you play for yourself but you're also playing for the audience. If the  
audience wasn't there, you wouldn't have any reason for being there.  
You want to play something the audience is going to understand.

"I try to coordinate everything, but I don't pre-plan everything.  
Whatever you do comes from what you've learned in the past. What  
you've learned is on the way to where you are at this time. Wherever  
that performance takes place, it involves everything you know at that  
point of time. What you do may change over time, because you may  
absorb something else into your style. You may always say, 'I'll go in  
that direction, orthis direction.' Nothing really stands still. Time  
moves on.

"It seems to me that one of the basic tenets of jazz is that you have  
to listen to what's going on. How can you adapt to or accommodate  
something or someone if you don't listen, and very carefully? It's  
critical, absolutely essential, if you're working in the duo piano  
format, But even if you're working in a trio or quartet, you have to  
listen to what the other musicians are doing.

"I think the rhythm section is really the key to what the horn players  
play, because the horn players react to what the rhythm section is  
doing, harmonically and rhythmically. That's just my interpretation of  
it. Maybe in some groups they don't think that's true, but I think the  
piano and the bass are the most important instruments in the band. The  
pianist and the bassist must be in total, complete harmony. If they  
don't play the same notes, they must play the same chords. There are a  
lot of bassists I've really enjoyed playing with," he says, dropping  
names from his early days (Tommy Potter) and his current engagements  
(Mraz, John Clayton).

Asked about what he wants to do next, Jones says, "Oh, so many  
things," but doesn't detail them beyond, "I have more records in  
mind." Asked what he likes to do besides make music, he pauses.

"I like to watch tv, certain programs I like. I used to play golf a  
little bit, but I don't do that any more. I never played any other  
sports. I don't drink, don't gamble, don't play cards, don't smoke,  
don't do anything like that. Chase girls? No, I don't do that!

"But you know what? We were talking about concentration, right? What  
does it take to concentrate? First of all: Interest. You have to have  
interest in what you're doing, absorbed in what you're doing,  
completely focused. That, combined with knowledge, with ability, with  
perception, with creativity -- all of that's involved. But when you  
sit down to try to think about it, I don't think you do think about it.

"You think about what's put before you, that's what you concentrate  
on. You don't think about why you're doing it or how you're doing it,  
but when you are doing it, you see the results. It's a very strong  
force. I don't know what's involved. But when you have it, you can  
hear it. If you don't have it, you can hear it. You can't hear it if  
you don't have it."

Hank Jones has it. You can hear it.

*                   *                   *

At the 2009 Jazz Awards, Hank in accepting his statuette for Pianist  
of the Year mentioned that as far as his music went, he promised to  
keep trying. He had hopes that he would improve over "the next, oh, 25  
years." That is not to be -- because it's quite hard to improve on  
perfection. Thankfully, we have a lifetime of perfect pianism by Hank  
Jones to enjoy.

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list