It’s the 93rd birthday anniversary of the pianist Hank Jones, who died last May at 91. His final years comprise a case study of a profile in courage — himself struggling with several illnesses, each of which might have felled a mere mortal, and living in somewhat reduced circumstances, he sustained a steady practice, performance, and recording schedule. While continuing to tour with his trio and do occasional solo performances, he also guest-starred in the duo function with Christian McBride and John Clayton, sidemanned extensively with Joe Lovano in an inspired quartet with drummers of stylistic proclivity ranging from Paul Motian to Lewis Nash, and also performed quite a bit in duo, both with Lovano (documented on the wonderful recording Kids: Live at Dizzy’s Club) and Roberta Gambarini (Lush Life).
Although Jones’ legacy will lie primarily in the hundred or so recordings he made after 1975, when he retired from an 16-year run as a first-call studio musician in New York City, he was an active professional from the thirties, and a New York mainstay from 1944. A consummate professional in any function, he found intriguing ways to meld the new sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that were in the air when he got to 52nd Street with his own two-handed roots in Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Nat Cole. Unparalleled as an accompanist helping other people tell their stories, he had no inhibitions about expressing own narrative, replete with ingenious harmonic formulations, rhythmic displacements, and a pungent-yet-dry sense of humor.
I met Jones for the first time in 1994 during an hour-long encounter on WKCR — he was promoting a gig at Sweet Basil that week. Thirteen years later, Jazziz assigned me to write a profile. That piece comes first in the queue, followed by a transcript of the WKCR interview.
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Hank Jones Jazziz Piece (2007):
“What I do most are the rudimental things,” said Hank Jones, describing the practice regimen he continues to follow on a daily basis during his eighth decade as a professional musician.
“If you’re not able to move your fingers, you won’t be able to play anything,” Jones continued. “So I concentrate on scales and exercises, then I play tunes that I might have to play at some future time. I try to play my interpretation. Sometimes I change the harmony, hopefully for the better, but I never change the melody.”
Just back in New York from a performance with singer Roberta Gambarini at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and looking forward to a two-week post-Christmas tour of Japan, Jones, 89, who described himself as in “advanced rehab” from quadruple bypass heart surgery at the end of 2006, spoke decidedly in the present tense. “It’s been rather quiet,” he said, referring to 2007, highlights of which included a week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with Joe Lovano to support Kids [Blue Note], their third album together, and, in early July, a four-night run before packed houses at Birdland with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Omar Hakim for a Japan-targeted CD.
“It was a different approach for me, but it was interesting,” Jones said of the latter unit, the latest in a three-decade run of “Great Jazz Trios,” usually assembled by Japanese producers for recording purposes. In previous iterations, he functioned in equilateral triangle fashion with young-enough-to-be-his-son bassists Ron Carter and Eddie Gomez and drummers Tony Williams, Al Foster, and Jack DeJohnette, as well as the slightly older Jimmy Cobb. It would be hard to imagine any of the latter four ever paying so little attention to dynamics as did Hakim, who seemed unable to shake the trappings of his fusion background, deploying a double snare drum setup and on-the-one eighth-note grooves that clashed with the laid-back swing that Jones favors. Unfazed, Jones navigated the terrain with characteristic aplomb and elegance.
“In a group like that, each individual is a stylist,” he explained. “Since my style is different than theirs, I try to bridge over whatever there is between us, and try to make a musical connection. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but hopefully it will work most of the time.” Without comparing the experiences, Jones segued to his four-year association with Lovano. “With Joe, I use almost the same approach,” he continued. “Joe is a consummate artist, and he plays a style that is like a picture in which the hues and colors are constantly changing. He compels you to use a full piano style, to use the left hand to provide the bass and the rhythm, which might be difficult if you’re not used to playing solo. He makes you think harder in order to play in his idiom.”
It is characteristic that Jones would embrace a situation that, as he puts it, “broadens my horizon,” and reference collective rather than individual imperatives when discussing his core principles. Famously the surviving older brother of the iconic trumpeter-composer-arranger Thad Jones and world historical drummer Elvin Jones, he himself is a key signpost in the evolution of jazz vocabulary, esteemed by his peer group since he arrived in New York in 1944 for a gig with trumpeter-blues singer Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, where he applied himself to absorbing bop avatars Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Thelonious Monk—on one occasion, after the Onyx closed, Monk invited Jones to his apartment to and played for him, as Jones transcribed the notes, a new composition called “Monk’s Mood.” A first-caller on 52nd Street by 1946, when he began a long association with Coleman Hawkins, and worked as well with Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and John Kirby, Jones began touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic the following year, sharing piano duties with Oscar Peterson, who credits him as a deep influence. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald from 1948 to 1953, and spent the remainder of the ‘50s freelancing, recording with artists as diverse as Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Artie Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Benny Goodman, and his younger brothers.
From 1959 to 1975, Jones worked at CBS as a staff pianist, playing on Captain Kangaroo, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and any other forum which required his services. In 1975, he retired, and launched the present phase of his career, as a solo artist, which he was conducting with unabated energy—among his recordings between 2004 and 2006 were the excellent trio sessions S’Wonderful [Sony], For My Father [Justin Time], and West of 5th [Chesky], and two quartet dates with Lovano (I’m All For You and Joyous Encounter [Blue Note]—until his recent involuntary hiatus.
“Hank is involved in every aspect of the piece,” says Lovano. “His rhythmic punctuations and voicings are free and spontaneous, and the feeling he plays with is so solid and beautiful that a certain flow happens that you feed off of. He never repeats voicings. As a duo, we spontaneously orchestrate, shape each tune as we go along. In the quartet, there’s a lot of counterpoint and clarity; his punctuations are always searching and swinging. He always feeds off the line you’re playing, and follows it in an almost telepathic way.
The results in all cases transcend era and style. Indeed, in a manner not unlike Coleman Hawkins, Jones plays—and composes—with an attitude that embraces and encompasses all the idioms that comprise the language of jazz from the stridecentric 1930s, when he absorbed Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Nat Cole, through the harmonic complexities of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Several fellow pianists, each young enough to be Jones’ grandchild, are happy to testify to the truth of this assertion.
“I tell my advanced students to get Tiptoe Tapdance, his solo piano record from 1978, which for me is a textbook of contemporary solo piano playing,” says Geoff Keezer, who presented Jones’ compositions in piano duos with Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller on the 2003 CD Sublime: Honoring The Music of Hank Jones [Telarc]. “Here’s this old-school stride-transitioning-into-bebop player playing harmonies that are as hip as anything that was ever done! His tunes are virtuoso pieces that stretch you to the limits of what you can do as an improviser.”
“If you compare what Hank Jones plays with Joe Lovano to what he played with anybody fifty years ago, it’s on a genius level of musicianship,” said Eric Reed. “I’m not talking about inventiveness or technique or style. I’m talking about pure musicianship. His pedal work is amazing, like he’s playing a player piano, and he understands harmony better than any living musician, as you can hear in the way he’s able to interpret and reinterpret songs. When you tell Hank Jones that a certain chord is C7, he’s not just thinking C7, but of the thousands of variations of C7 that can be played at any particular moment. Somebody—maybe me—needs to do a book of transcriptions of Hank’s changes and substitutions.”
“Hank contains subtleties upon subtleties,” says Bill Charlap, who had an opportunity to experience the Jones effect first hand on a two-piano version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Tonk” for Lush Life [Blue Note], from 2005. “Subtlety of touch, of inflection, in his rhythm, in his harmony. His music has layers upon layers. He’s uniquely put together the whole history of jazz piano playing. You hear the juncture of Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole and Bud Powell—but also it’s his own voice. He’s the premier living jazz pianist.”
Jones won’t cosign the assertion. “I can’t praise myself,” he said, asked about his quick breakthrough on the New York scene. “If anything, I had feelings of inadequacy. I didn’t think I was that great. All these guys who were in the JATP—Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young—were my idols. I was hoping that I could keep up with them.”
But asked to describe his stylistic first principles, he responds with characteristic logic. “I try to play a relaxed style,” he says. “It probably sounds less complicated than most. I try to play something that is understandable and still intelligent. I guess it has to be understandable to me as well. If there’s no harmonic or melodic or even rhythmic base, how can it fit together to form a composition that’s intelligible, that can be interpreted as music? I remember a sign in the Decca Records office many years ago, an Indian looking out over the horizon, saying, ‘Where is the melody?’ First you have to know what you’re playing. If you know that, you have a point of departure. If you don’t know it, what are you doing? You’re playing aimlessly. All improvisation is, is variations on a melody, variations on a theme.”
Jones referenced his 1959-1975 tenure as a staff pianist at CBS. “I played for a variety of performers—singers, instrumentalists—who all had different styles. You listen. You’d adjust to whatever style you’re playing at the time. If you’re listening to Charlie Parker, you don’t play his solos, but you play in that idiom. If it’s Monk, you try to do what he’s doing—but you may not be able to do it! I’ve been asked to play things in the style of Fats Waller or Teddy Wilson—I hope they never ask me to play anything in the Tatum style! You try to think like the performer. I try always to play something different, make the flow of ideas more continuous—in other words, make it more enjoyable, hopefully, for a listener…or two.”
He chuckled at his quip, then turned to his favorite subject, Art Tatum, with whom he spent quality time during 1944, when Jones, 25, in the process of working his way east from Pontiac, Michigan, his home-town, to New York City, got an engagement at an Italian restaurant in Buffalo, across town from Tatum, then in residence at a bar-and-grill called McVan’s.
“There are players who can play every note of Tatum’s solos exactly,” he noted. “But they didn’t create the solos. Tatum was a creative performer as well as a fantastic technical interpreter. Now, when you listen to his recordings, you’ll always hear the melody. He always identifies the composition. So my approach is: Play whatever you play, make it understandable, but don’t sacrifice anything in your technique, anything you would play that is individualistic to your style. Do what you think. If you play somebody else’s musical ideas, how can you identify yourself? As you grow older, you try to develop a consciousness, an identity, so that when someone hears you, hopefully they can say, ‘Oh, that’s Hank Jones’ or whoever you happen to be.”
A child of the Great Depression, Jones understands how to balance his creative impulses with pragmatic necessities, a talent that served him well during his long studio tenure.
“In the studio you’re playing by formula, playing music that’s written and set before, so the atmosphere tends to repress what creativity you have,” he remarks. “But not completely. Basically, I consider myself to be a creative player. I like to play things I haven’t done before, paint musical pictures, so to speak. So I guess I overcame that period of repression, you might say.”
He’s applied such pragmatism to other aspects of the jazz life, too. He recalls a moment down south in the spring of 1945, in the middle of a six-week tour with Hot Lips Page and a 15-piece big band. “We did all the little one-horse towns down there,” Jones recalls. “Some places we played had one side of the building missing. There were pianos that you had to transpose on, because they were always out of tune.”
They were in the railroad depot, waiting for a train to bring them to the next town. “The trains came on the same level where the passengers boarded the train, and we were standing next to the tracks with our bags lined up alongside them,” he recalls. “A pickup truck came along and ran right over our bags! Oh, I was fuming. If I had been the type that, excuse the expression, blew their top, that’s when it would have happened.
“I was able to keep it in perspective, even at that age. ‘I’m down here to work,’ I said. ‘This goes with the territory.’ That wasn’t the only incident. I thought there was no point in making it worse; all I could do was get myself, or maybe somebody else, hurt or killed—at the time, they were lynching people down there. I thought the best way to get through it was to keep my temper, hold it, remember it. I’ve never forgotten. But I didn’t raise my hand. Am I a coward? No. Because of my Christian upbringing, I was taught not to fight, but there times when I’d have to defend myself, and I’ve fought people who were 15-20 pounds heavier than I am and had them on the ground. Martin Luther King proved that there’s always a better way to do it. In other words, you can kill them with kindness, let’s say.”
Jones does not wear his faith on his sleeve, but walks the walk in his predisposition to perform hymns and spirituals, as on Steal Away [Verve], his 1994 duo recording of such repertoire with Charlie Haden. Indeed, he regards them as almost a birthright. “As a very young child, I remember hearing hymns whenever my mother sat down to the piano and at church, and as I grew up they were instilled in my mind. I can’t say I know every one, but I would say that I know the majority of hymns that were hung in the church from memory. During my teens, I played for the junior choir and occasionally the senior choir, so I had a lot of experience that way.
“My father was the greatest influence on me,” he adds, referring to Henry Jones, Sr., a factory worker and Baptist church deacon who had, Jones recalls, “read the Bible from start to finish,” took it literally, and applied its principles to daily life. “He was a very moral person. He spent the better part of his life in church. He was on the Deacon Board and the Trustee Board, attended the prayer meetings—every function the church had, he was there. He didn’t believe in gambling. We couldn’t even play cards in the house. He worked hard, but he would get up very early in the morning and tend the garden, because he believed in having fresh vegetables. He loved music, but he didn’t like it in the house.
“Once I was playing a dance in a little club in Pontiac on Saturday night, and after 12 o’clock midnight my father came down to the job and pulled me off the bandstand because I couldn’t play on Sunday. I had to leave. I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t protest too much. He’s being a father. It’s his call, not mine. The fact that he didn’t want me to perform on Sunday meant that he wanted to keep the Sunday holy—which it should be, I think. I got away from that in later years, but I always feel a tinge of regret, guilt that I didn’t follow his strictures. If I had lived the kind of life that my father had wished me to live all my life up to now, I think I would have been a much better person.”
Perhaps Jones inherited his father’s willpower—he did become a secular musician, and left home to do so, albeit at a relatively advanced age. In any event, it took great deal of strength to make that break, to hew to his own code of ethics in conducting his life, and to do so without engaging in self-destructive actions and retaining a non-judgmental attitude to others who did so engage.
Unlike his father, Jones, the great-grandson of African slaves, continues to ponder his true genealogical identity, a subject that was the subtext of his 1995 collaboration with a Malian unit headed by keyboardist Cheick-Tidiane Seck on the album Sarala [Verve]. “It’s the question of who am I, really,” he explains. “When we left Africa in bondage, what was our name there? I’m Henry Jones. My father was Henry Jones. But then, who was Henry Jones? Where did ‘Jones’ come from? Perhaps the former owner was of English descent. I think about this sometimes late at night, and I will never rest easy until I know this.”
Other fundamental issues claw at him as well. “What I regret most is that I didn’t play enough with Thad and Elvin,” he says. “We should have done 10 or 15 albums together, or been in the same group. Shoulda-coulda-woulda. Together, we would have made something good. And I wonder if I was true, let’s say, to my race. There were times when I wanted to join the civil rights movement and march, but I would have lost my job. I had a wife and stepdaughter, and I had to support them. With my temperament, something could have happened to me, because things were going on that I might not have been able to accept. Although my instincts were to do the proper thing, I repressed them.
“Perhaps music is a release. I don’t know. But I feel pain in a lot of ways. My wife, for instance, is in a nursing home. Alzheimer’s. She’s been there a year now. But you have to learn to live with pain. because that’s part of life. The pain that I feel from that experience in the South is DEEP. But then I say, ‘What can I do about it?’ All I can do is try to live my life in such a way that things like that might never happen again. Now, I’m not trying to set myself as some kind of model to live by. I have to do what I can. I can’t help somebody else. I can only help myself.”
But then there’s music, and Jones intends to continue to play it and to keep looking for the next step.”When you become satisfied with your playing, your creativity levels off and you don’t do anything,” he says. “That’s a bad place to be. I’ve never been there, and I never expect to. I was never the local phenom, although I suppose people thought of me as adequate. I hope, anyway. But I thought my playing could be improved by listening to other players, and I learned an awful lot from the time I first arrived in New York up til now.
“What I am trying to do is a life-long quest. I’ll never be able to play as well as I would LIKE to play. I always believed that I can do better, and I’ll always try to do better, but I cannot predict that that will ever happen. I just hope it will.”
Hank Jones (WKCR, 12-28-94):
[MUSIC: Jones/Mraz/Elvin, "Ah, Henry" (1993) - Jones/ Drummond/Higgins, "What Am I Here For?" (1989); Jones/ Holland/Higgins, "Blood Count" (1989); Jones/Duvivier/ Dawson, "Azure" (1977); Jones (solo), "Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me," "Prelude To A Kiss" (1976); Jones/Brown/ Smith, "Rockin' In Rhythm" (1977) - Jones/Mraz/Elvin, "Ray-El" (1992)]
New Yorkers are used to hearing you in duos and trios and so forth, but you don’t often appear with a larger group in New York. That’s been true for your recording career as well.
HJ: That’s true, although when I recorded a lot for Savoy, sometimes the A&R man would put horns, soloists with the trio. Basically, though, as you say, it was with the trio. At Savoy it was all trio, except a few instances of maybe a trombone being added or maybe a trumpet being added. But in New York most recently it’s always been trio.
How do you differ in approaching the quintet configuration as opposed to a trio?
HJ: Well, usually with a trio you have bass, drums and piano, and you get to hear a lot more of each instrument. With the quintet you don’t hear as much of the trio. The trio becomes the rhythm section, and accompanies the horn soloists, which is what the basic function of the rhythm section is. On the other hand, it’s more exciting, I believe, for audiences to hear the horns, and they seem to relate to horns quite well.
In this particular instance, we have two of the very best, and I don’t think there are any finer musicians anywhere than Tom Harrell, a trumpet player (and flugelhorn, by the way, and also cornet), and Ralph Moore. Ralph is a young player with wonderful technique and wonderful imagination and ideas, and he executes very well. Tom, of course, is just as close to a genius as you’d ever get. His approach is sort of a laid-back approach, but he’s thoroughly familiar with the chord progressions and harmonic ideas — as is Ralph. The two of them together work very well. They have a very good blend, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish that with the tenor saxophone and trumpet.
Especially on the first night.
HJ: Well, hopefully, even that will get better. But I’m sure there were first night, let’s say, observations that people like yourself could make, because you’ve had many, many years of experience listening to groups in that context. But I think that with this particular group, it can only get better. It’s started rough, but it will get better, I’m sure.
George Mraz is on your most recent recording, Upon Reflection [Verve], and I’m sure you’re familiar with his work over the years as well.
HJ: Oh, very, very much so. When George first came to this country I guess maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I was so much impressed by his work. I said, “George, where have you been all this time?” George said that he’d lived in Europe, I think Czechoslovakia, and then he told me that he’d placed second in European competition in a previous year. I said, “Well, if you placed second, who in the world placed first?” — and he said Niels Henning Orsted Pederson! George is one of those very few bass players who seem to have done everything that it’s possible to do on a bass, and he does it with great regularity and consistency.
He’s a very supportive player, and yet he’s capable of great solo flights when his turn comes.
HJ: Exactly. He has wonderful ideas. He’s a very creative bass player. He has an excellent tone, and his technique is flawless. In addition to all this, he has a great beat. He’s a perfect bass player for any rhythm section. And as a soloist as well, he’s just… He’s incomparable.
I guess you have one of the top-call drummers as well for this week, someone who is not so easy to get hold of any more, Lewis Nash.
HJ: Lewis Nash is one of the most sought-after drummers, perhaps the most sought-after drummer in the business. And understandably so, when you realize that he plays with such great imagination, his time is absolutely perfect, his solo ideas are clear, concise and always innovative and exciting.
I’ll tell you, this group is one of the most exciting groups, I think, ever. It’s certainly one of the most exciting groups I’ve played with. Every tune that you play is a new adventure, because you know that something different and something wonderful is going to happen, you know what I mean. So there’s a layer of expectation on our parts, as well as hopefully the audience.
Well, that’s something I’d like to address with you, because as a fan of yours over the years, and one whose appreciation of your music grows over the years, the thing that strikes me most is the way you seem to approach material you’ve probably played, you know, 18,000 times, freshly, as though it were fresh each time.
HJ: Well, I think the only way you can do that is in the context of the group that you’re playing with. Usually that’s it. In my case, for instance, although I’ve played many times in the trio format, usually it’s a different group each time — the personnel has been different. I think that, in and of itself, gives you a fresh approach to the material that you’re playing — although you may have played it maybe not 18,000 times, but perhaps 17,000 times.
So it’s the intersecting of personalities.
HJ: I think so, of personnel and styles and just whatever the relationship is between musicians who work together, perhaps for the first time, or the second or third time. But there’s always something new, it seems, that you can relate to in a group like this.
Well, it’s a very democratic approach to the trio. For instance, in some trios there, of course, the arrangements are pretty much worked out, although the musicians improvise and apply their imagination. But it seems that in your trios there’s always room for fresh approaches and new discoveries.
HJ: I think even that is based on the personnel. If you know that you’re going to be working, let’s say, at Club XYZ, and your personnel is A, B, C and so forth, you think, then, in terms of what this particular group will be able to do in relation to what you do. And sometimes you come up with new ways of approaching old problems, or old tunes, maybe changing some harmonies here and there, changing some progressions and so forth. There’s always something that you can do to make it different and more interesting for the listener — as well as for the musicians who are playing with you.
Another thing that’s impressed me over the years is the breadth of your repertoire, which goes from Fats Waller and James P. Johnson to the most modern harmonic developments.
I’d like to talk about how you develop repertoire, how you discover tunes, decide to use certain things, discard others, so forth and so on. [END OF TAPE SIDE]
HJ: Again, it’s according to the personnel. There’s a book, but you might add some original compositions if your group has people in it who are composers who write many tunes. For instance, Ralph Moore wrote a tune called “Hopscotch” that we played that I had seen for the first time. He is a very innovative writer, a very imaginative writer. Tom Harrell also contributed a composition of his called “Because I Love You.” I have written a couple of things. I keep writing things. Most musicians who are in this business, I think, always do a certain amount of writing, creative writing composition-wise. So I think this all adds up, gives you sort of a different approach. I’m sure it’s better for the listener to hear different material.
That was the approach of one the people you worked with early in your career, Coleman Hawkins, kept him fresh.
I guess I’ll use the mention of his name as a segue to jump back from the end of 1994 to the beginning of your musical experiences, and your education on the piano. Were you brought to it by your parents? Was there a piano in your house?
HJ: Always a piano. And I, along with two older sisters, studied the piano, in Pontiac, Michigan, where we grew up.
What were your sisters’ names?
HJ: My oldest sister’s name was Olive, and another younger sister was Melinda. They both studied piano, along with myself. We used to play two-piano duets, on the same piano, which is not the easiest thing in the world to do! My oldest sister, Olive, was quite accomplished as a pianist. She unfortunately had an accident skating on a lake, and she died at the age of 13. But even at that age, she was quite a pianist. My other sister, Melinda, was also a very fine pianist, although she apparently didn’t want to follow music as a career.
But there was always a piano in the house, and always music, and I guess that certainly must have had an influence on our decision, or certainly on my decision to try to go further with the piano.
According to my sources, you were born in Saginaw, Michigan…
HJ: No. As a matter of fact, I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Now, I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan. But I worked a while in Saginaw! [LAUGHS]
I misread some material. Did your parents bring you up from Mississippi at the end of World War One?
HJ: When I was quite young, nine months of age, as a matter of fact, my folks moved to Pontiac from Vicksburg. So I grew up in Pontiac. My two older sisters and I were born in Vicksburg. All the other members of the family — Thad, Elvin, Paul, Tom, Edith, Etta Mae — were born in Pontiac.
Vicksburg is Milt Hinton’s home town.
HJ: So I understand. And Milt always tells me that he knew my folks, even though I never heard of him. Because as I said, we moved from Pontiac when I was nine months of age.
Were your parents musical?
HJ: My father played guitar, and my mother played piano. But neither one of them played professionally. They just knew how to play the piano. I don’t know whether they had studied or not, but they both were able to play well — so I assumed that they must have studied. They never discussed that. I don’t know whether you know this, by the way, but Elvin can play guitar. Have you heard him play?
I haven’t, but I’ve heard that he plays wonderfully.
HJ: It’s Blues guitar, you know. Real down-home Blues. Interesting.
You mentioned that your experiences just within the family led you to explore the piano further. When did this start to manifest itself in working for pay?
HJ: Well, I must tell you at this point that the “pay” [quote, unquote] was…if you say it was minimal, I think that’s an exaggeration. [LAUGHS]
It may not have seemed so at the time, though.
HJ: Well, yes it did! [LAUGHS] Actually, we weren’t as concerned about that at that point. I think all of us, and we were all about the same age, we were more concerned about producing something that could be called music. I think that was our biggest concern. We were all going through the learning process — as we are today. By the way, this is something that never stops, Ted, at least in my case. I mean, every outing, every set, every appearance, to me, is a learning experience, especially when you’re working with musicians of the caliber of Ralph Moore, Tom Harrell, people like this…
Bringing our attention back to this week.
HJ: Of course, yes. Lest we forget!
We won’t, I promise. But moving back…
HJ: Yes, okay!
I’m just curious about the type of gigs that an aspiring teenage pianist, or musician, would be doing in that area.
HJ: Growing up in Pontiac, there were not an awful lot of places to play. I grew up, though, in a period when Prohibition was still in effect, and the clubs, or beer gardens as they were called in those days, served 3.2 beer. I suppose if you drank a barrel of it, you could probably get high, and some people did. But those were the kind of places that were available to work in. I used to work in places like that at a very early age. In fact, my father objected very strenuously to that. He was a very religious man.
How old were you?
HJ: I was about 14 at the time, and still going to school. It was kind of difficult to do. But those were the places. Whenever I worked with a band, I was always the youngest member of the band at that time. The situation is somewhat reversed today! Anyway, we worked in those types of places. Also, we played school dances, parties and things like that…
What sort of music did you play?
HJ: We played mostly stock arrangements. These were published arrangements that were available in the music stores, and they were written by famous arrangers. I remember Buck Clayton had written a number of them, Fletcher Henderson, Horace Henderson, all of the well-known arrangers of the day had written stock arrangements. Duke Ellington had written some. So that’s what we played.
Also we had musicians who were very good writers and arrangers who could arrange standard tunes of the day. We had one fellow, Jimmy Parker, who was about the same age we were, but he was an excellent arranger, he played all the instruments in the band — one of those rare people who seemed to do everything well. We played some of his things. But most of the things that we played were stock arrangements. The groups ranged in size anywhere from six pieces to twelve pieces.
Playing around Pontiac.
HJ: That’s right. During that period we never actually left the Pontiac area. Later on, of course, we did go out on tour. I worked in a band in Lansing, Michigan, led by Benny Carew, a drummer, who had what they called a territory band. They worked maybe certain areas of Ohio, Michigan, but never any further than that. It was a good band. At one time it had Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson, Art House, a trumpet player who used to work with Woody Herman. He had some good musicians in the band.
Was your first contact, let’s say, with Lucky Thompson or Wardell Gray, through this territory band?
HJ: It was, yes. That’s right.
Because they came up in Detroit.
HJ: That’s right. They were born and grew up in Detroit. They both went to the same high school. I forget the name of the high school, but they must have had an excellent music department there, because they produced musicians that were of professional quality just out of high school. So it must have been a great school.
Anyway, Lucky and Wardell and others played in this band, Benny Carew. We played many college dates in that area, in Lansing or Saginaw or Grand Rapids, Michigan. We never played any dates in Pontiac, by the way.
Did the big bands come through Pontiac and its environs, or only Detroit?
HJ: Surprisingly enough, big bands did come through Pontiac. Rarely, infrequently, but… I remember very clearly Nat Cole, who was playing piano with his brother’s big band….
The Eddie Cole Big Band out of Chicago.
HJ: That’s right. They played a theater I think called the Rialto Theater in Pontiac. It was my first experience of hearing a big band ever in person. I remember that they did an arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and Nat Cole was the featured pianist. He was very spectacular. I remember on the release of “Sweet Georgia Brown” he did sort of a pinwheel effect. He liked to play a lot of single-note lines, even then.
He was very influenced by Earl Hines, of course, being from Chicago.
HJ: I think so. A lot of people think that Earl Hines might be the forerunner of Bop, because he played a lot of single-finger lines. That was his style. And as you say, Nat Cole must have heard him and must have been influenced by him.
He recollected hanging out in the alley behind the Grand Terrace in Chicago in the 1930’s, and checking him out.
But this brings me to a question, which is the formation of your aesthetic, the pianists you heard, how you began to assimilate styles. The biographies say that you were mightily impressed by Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller, the main subject of your recent recording, Handful Of Keys. A few words about Fats Waller.
HJ: Well, I remember very clearly hearing Fats Waller on the radio every morning when I was going to junior high school. There were two radio stations, CKLW and KCLK; one of them was in Canada, in Windsor, and the other one was in Detroit. They used to play many records of Fats Waller. He always impressed me as a very rhythmic pianist, and he had a happy sound. Another pianist who had that same kind of sound, but a different sound, was Erroll Garner. Erroll Garner had that happy feeling. When you listened to his music, you felt uplifted, generally. It put you on a higher level of enjoyment. Fats Waller had that. And what a great way to start off the day! Because before we left the house to go to school, we were listening to Fats Waller.
Duke Ellington gave me a different kind of feeling. Of course, it was all big band. But Duke, in spite of what some people might think, was an excellent pianist. I guess when the band was playing, of course, he preferred to let the musicians in the band take the spotlight as far as solo playing was concerned…
They were extensions of him anyway.
HJ: Exactly. I always liked Duke’s piano-playing style. And his ideas, of course, were very innovative. Although Duke, if he were here today, would tell you that Willie The Lion Smith influenced him quite a bit. And when you listen to some of the Willie The Lion Smith piano solos (and I have some of them, by the way), you can hear the later Duke Ellington. So Duke was greatly influenced in that respect. I mean, everybody is. That’s not unusual. You have to have a role model. And I’m sure that Willie was one of Duke’s role models. The others were probably some other pianists that we don’t even know about…
Well, it’s very interesting how styles were disseminated even at a time when there was much less universal media from one part of the country to another, just because of the traveling life of musicians — and of course, from records.
HJ: Yes, records. There weren’t as many, but… Or just traveling musicians who would go from place to place. Some people like to describe them as itinerant. I don’t. [LAUGHS] Maybe they had to move from place to place because there was no work where they were, and so they were trying to find work. I’m sure the basic reason for their travel was not that they loved it; it’s just they had to do it in order to survive.
But you mentioned Earl Hines. Well, of course, Earl Hines was a single-line pianist. That’s the best way to describe his playing. He had a very good band in the 1930’s and early ’40s. As a matter of fact, Sarah Vaughan used to sing in his band at one time.
She got her start in that band.
HJ: That’s right. And he had violins at one time, by the way.
Well, he had to take care of a whole show at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, so a lot of his repertoire had to be geared toward the dancers and the comedians, and deal with the whole range of entertainment.
HJ: That’s right.
Art Tatum was in the Midwest quite a bit in the 1930’s. He was from Toledo, Ohio.
HJ: Yes, he was. There was another pianist, Lannie Scott, who you may not have heard of (or maybe you have). Lannie and Art used to work opposite each other in the same club, Val’s in the Alley in Toledo. Then later on I met Lannie in Detroit. As a matter of fact, I worked opposite Lannie Scott. But they had similar styles. Lannie had, you could say, a similar harmonic approach to playing that Art did, but Art, of course, was just more prolific. He had flawless technique with both hands, just a never-ending flow of ideas, and tremendous energy. Where it came from, I don’t know, because he was an ordinary-looking man. He wasn’t a huge man. He was on the small side.
But his playing is beyond description. Everything that he does… You know, I listen to records that he made forty years ago, today, and I still hear things that I didn’t hear the first time I heard them. When I first heard Art Tatum play, I said, “Aha. Here are three guys playing the piano, and they want people to believe that only one person is playing the piano. I won’t go for that.” But of course, later I found out that there was only one person! Of course, I had even more respect for him then.
But he was just a tremendous player. Flawless. Keys didn’t mean anything. He could play in any key with the same technique. Of course, he was blind. He was legally blind, now. He could see a little bit. I’ve seen him play cards, pinochle, and he’d hold the cards up to eye level and then pull out a card, and so forth. I was really amazed when I saw him do that, because I had thought he was totally blind. He wasn’t totally blind. Legally blind, which meant he’d lost maybe 75 or 80 percent of his sight. But his playing certainly didn’t reflect that. If anything, you might have thought he had four eyes and sixteen hands!
An octopus of the piano.
HJ: Octopus, exactly! A good way to describe it.
Now, Teddy Wilson was a very methodical pianist. He had flawless technique. I got a chance to hear him at greater length when he played with the Benny Goodman Trio, back when they were doing the Camel Hour on the radio. Remember radio, the little box that used to sit…
Well, no, that I don’t remember.
HJ: That’s right. You’re much too young. But this is how I first became aware of his playing. By the way, Teddy used to travel in Michigan, in the area of Flint and Saginaw — I don’t think he ever came to Pontiac. But he was widely known in that area. People in Flint that I met later knew Teddy very well. In fact, I think he lived in Flint for a time. Flint is about forty miles north of Pontiac.
Teddy as a pianist was flawless. Whatever he played was very clear, distinct, harmonically absolutely correct, and flawless. His technique was flawless. Now, I won’t say that he made the Benny Goodman Trio, but he certainly made it a viable group of musicians. Because they were playing without a bass. Teddy provided the bass, because he had this two-handed approach to piano, playing the Stride with the left-hand, and coordinating the right hand with the left hand to create a very fluent, flowing style. He didn’t play with the huge, great volume of notes that Art Tatum played, but distinct and clear and very, very listenable.
Well, in analyzing these pianists, were you trying to, let’s say, copy solos or memorize solos, and apply those ideas to functional situations?
HJ: I think most people do that to a certain extent. When I first heard Teddy, and I tried to emulate his style… Actually there were folios that somebody had published of his piano work, and I played some of them until I got the style in my head, so to speak. After that, then I would just try to play in that idiom. I tried to do the same thing with Tatum, with no results whatsoever. [LAUGHS]
Well, some, some people might think.
HJ: But I mean, with Tatum it was much, much more difficult to do. There are pianists who specialize in that. They might even play some of his solos. But you see, the difference there is that Tatum was creating the solos, and somebody else is playing a solo that’s written out as if you were playing a Classical piece that was written. There are pianists who can play any Classical piece. There are pianists, perhaps, who could play any of the Tatum solos. But again, they’re just playing something that’s already been created.
I’d like you to comment on some of your experiences as your professional career began to emerge, I guess, in the late 1930’s. It sounds like Benny Carew’s band was a springing-off point for you.
HJ: Yes, I think it was, to a great extent. Because I did spend a good deal of time in Lansing, which was where the band was based.
What was Benny Carew’s sound like as a drummer?
HJ: Well, I think it may have been close to the Chick Webb sound, drummers of that period, of which Chick was a pretty good representative. He had excellent time (I think that’s the first requirement of a drummer anyway), and he played very good solos. He was a good bandleader. He was a good leader in that he knew how to get the most out of his personnel, the people who played with him, Lucky and Wardell and others. He knew how to organize a concert or a dance or whatever it was. I think that the guys who played with the band liked him because he was affable; I never heard Benny raise his voice to anybody. He was a nice guy to get along with.
A perfect leader. He always stayed in the background, and always called tunes at the right tempo. That’s an art, by the way, finding the right tempo for a tune. Benny Goodman was very good at it. Count Basie was very good at it, very good. They always found the right tempo for a tune. It’s not easy to do. There are, let’s say, an endless variety of tempos that you can use, only one of which is right.
Not two, not three, there’s just one correct tempo?
HJ: I think so, yes.
Well, between the late 1930’s and your recording debut in 1944 there were I’m sure many musical experiences. Let’s talk about some of them.
HJ: Not in the Thirties, really. I didn’t even start… Well, I was playing around Pontiac in the late Thirties, playing in beer gardens where they served 3.2 beer. But I started out when I left Pontiac, and came to Cleveland, Ohio, in about 1943.
So you were about 25 years old then.
HJ: Just about, yes. The ripe old age of 25. I played with the Tommy Enoch Band. We played in a nightclub in Cleveland called the Cedar Gardens. This club had a show. It was a rather small club, but it had a line of showgirls. Sort of a miniature Cotton Club type of club. By the way, one of the guys in that band was Cesar Dameron, who was the brother of Tadd Dameron — Tadd was from the Cleveland area. It was a good band, and I spent maybe six or seven months then. From there, I went to Buffalo, New York.
A natural progression, along the Great Lakes.
HJ: Right, exactly. And I swam all the way there. [LAUGHS] It was, as you say, a natural progression. Actually, I was really on my way to New York, because I had heard from Lucky Thompson, who was then working with Hot Lips Page in New York, that Hot Lips might be needing a pianist. So that was in the back of my mind. So I was sort of working my way down to the New York area. I spent maybe a year in Buffalo, during which time I met Ray Brown, who was 17 years old at the time. Ray was working with a band in Buffalo, I forget the name of the band; it might have been Jimmy Hinsley or one of those bands. Anyway, he was working there in a club. We would meet after we got off of work, I from my club called the Anchor Bar — I forget what his club was. We’d meet and have a couple of glasses of whole milk. Neither one of us drank liquor, so we drank milk.
One of the interesting things about being in Buffalo is that Art Tatum played in Buffalo quite often, and our night ended before his did. So Ray and I would always go over and catch Art Tatum play his last set in Buffalo. That was really my first experience of hearing Art in person. I’d heard many of the records, but when I saw him in person and watched him play, I couldn’t believe that he was doing all of those things that I heard on the records — but he was, though! Because he played effortlessly, just completely without effort, no conscious effort, no pyrotechnics. He just sat there as if he was reading a paper.
What did Ray Brown sound like at the age of 17?
HJ: Pretty much the way he sounds now, although his tone is much better today, of course. He had just as much stamina and just as much energy then as he has today. But his harmonic sense has improved over the years, as anyone’s will. Don’t forget, he was only 17 at the time. I was amazed at his ability at the age of 17. You know, 17 is quite a young age to be playing at a professional level. And he did that very well.
But the very short time that I spent there I think helped me a lot. I got to listen to some great music from Art Tatum and others.
Then I finally came to New York, and Ray followed shortly thereafter, and I believe he started working with Dizzy Gillespie. I introduced him to Dizzy, Dizzy needed a bass player, and I think he hired him on the spot just like that.
Well, now I’m going to have to ask several other questions, because you brought up…
HJ: Okay! [LAUGHS]
First of all, in 1944 and 1945 the first recordings of what was called Bebop were emerging, although, of course, that had been in the air.
So I’d like to talk about your exposure to it. Indeed, you were a major player in some of the early recordings.
HJ: Perhaps. Although I think there were others, like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Al Haig who were in New York; by the time I arrived, they had already been there for several years. For instance, Bud Powell and Al Haig alternated in the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker small band, the quintet…
Which you first saw when?
HJ: When I first arrived in New York, about 1944. They were working at the Three Deuces, and later they worked at the Spotlite, which was on 52nd Street, both clubs — which was called Swing Street at the time, you know. There were many clubs along there. That’s another story. But these guys would go from one club to the other, just continuously. I worked at the Onyx Club, which was on the other side of 52nd Street.
Anyway, Dizzy and Charlie played Bebop; it was described and understood as Bebop at the time. A lot of musicians and a lot of people didn’t really understand it. Many musicians didn’t understand it, and they rejected it more or less. Of course, many listeners, lay people, didn’t understand it, because they knew it was something different. But it was highly technical, it required a high degree of harmonic sense, and a high degree of technical facility in order to be played correctly, which both Charlie Parker and Dizzy had — and of course, to a great extent also, Bud Powell and Al Haig. Max Roach was the drummer in the band, and he alternated with Stan Levey on drums. The bass players were Gene Ramey or Curley Russell. They were all in that same mental state. They all played in the same idiom. They thought alike.
What was your response, though? Obviously, you had an affinity.
HJ: It was quite different. I had been listening to people like Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and things, so my approach was from that standpoint. Although I brought a two-handed approach to the style. Later, actually, sort of to play in the idiom, I played less of my left hand and more of the right hand. Usually if the pianist is playing it, it’s in conjunction with a bass player or a drummer, so it’s a trio or a duo format. If it’s a duo format, and you’re playing with a bass, the bass then is responsible for the bass line, or the left hand, and the pianist is responsible for the right hand.
So in that context, I listened, and in my mind I was trying to relate how I could then adapt this style to my playing. And certainly it didn’t happen overnight. I think I have more of it now than I did then. It took quite a while for me to finally figure out how to incorporate this style in my playing. Perhaps I did it gradually… I don’t think you do it overnight. It happens over a period of time. I think you first have to think the style, and then you have to execute the style. Well, it may take a while for that.
[ETC.] In the next set of music we’ll explore some of Hank Jones’ performances of music from the period we’re discussing now, which is the mid-1940’s in New York City. The first track is from a 1955 trio session for Savoy, the Hank Jones Trio featuring Wendell Marshall and a drummer with whom you worked frequently on these Savoy dates, the great Kenny Clarke. Before we begin, just a few words about his attributes as a drummer and stylist.
HJ: Well, Kenny was one of the very few drummers (and Elvin is another one) who was very proficient at the use of brushes. It’s almost become a lost art. By the way, Lewis Nash is also one of those very few drummers who do this well. Kenny played the kind of drums that were particularly, I think, adaptable for pianists to play with. He never really got in the way. He never intruded, let’s say, into a pianist’s line of thinking. So he was very good for a trio format, or even a quartet format. I enjoyed working with Kenny very much, and also with Wendell Marshall. Wendell had played with Duke Ellington for a time. He was an excellent reader, of course, as was Kenny; most of the musicians were. The two of them were just perfect for me to work with, because my style was compatible with what they were doing. Kenny could sense maybe rhythmic patterns that you might play even before you’d play them, based on what you’d played previously, and I think Wendell could also do that. That was a very interesting period working with guys like that at Savoy. They did most of the work that I did at Savoy. They were on most of the LPs. They were called LPs in those days.
Were you also working outside as a unit, or was it strictly for the studio setup?
HJ: Strictly for recording purposes. We recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, which at that time was in his home in Hackensack, New Jersey. I always say that that piano we used to record on was one piano in a hundred thousand. It had that kind of tone. All pianos are different, you know. This particular piano had a response and a feel and a tone and a sound that almost no other piano has. I think it’s probably still being used. It’s probably not as good as it was, but probably better than most.
[MUSIC: H. Jones/W. Marshall/K. Clarke, "Now's The Time" (1955); H. Jones/R. Mitchell, "I'll Remember April," H. Jones/T. Flanagan, "Au Privave" (1983); Thad Jones/Hank Jones/Mickey Roker, "Groovin' High" (1977); H. Jones (solo) "Round Midnight" (1991)]
That set brings up so many questions. I think you have a very special affinity for Monk’s music.
HJ: Well, Monk’s music is certainly distinctive. That’s the most obvious thing about it. Monk was the definitive stylist. I mean, haven’t heard anybody that even approaches the style that Monk played. Many pianists have tried to imitate that style, but so far I have not heard anybody who does it successfully. And no matter what tune Monk would be playing, whether it was “Stardust” or “Body and Soul,” you would hear particularly the innovative and distinctive chords, the harmonizations and harmonic progressions that Monk used, which are totally different from any other pianist that ever played. This is the most distinctive thing about him.
I liked his music. I still love his music. And I liked him as a person. Because I think Monk was completely honest in his approach.
I got to hear Monk, maybe I was introduced to his music in perhaps the best way. One night after I had finished work at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, Monk invited me to come to his home and listen to him play his piano. So we went to his home, and he played “Monk’s Mood.” I didn’t know the song at the time, but he played it, and he asked me to write it as he played it. So this was my introduction to Monk’s music. This was my final exam, beginning and final exam! But that was perhaps the best way to become acquainted with his style, his voicings, his harmonic voicings, his leading tones and his… Oh! Everything was totally different.
He had his own style of fingering, actually, didn’t he, to…?
HJ: I suppose he did, perhaps to accomplish the groupings, the clusters that he played. I’m not sure about that, because I never really watched him play that much. I certainly have listened to a lot of his music. There is nothing like it. It’s innovative, it’s interesting, it’s exciting, and harmonically stimulating. You listen to his music, and you say, “Oh, yes, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s wonderful.
You chose Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangement of “Round Midnight” and played “Groovin’ High” on the previous track with your brother Thad and drummer Mickey Roker. By the way, when Hank heard that performance of “Groovin’ High” initially, he said, “That’s Dizzy.”
You mentioned meeting Dizzy Gillespie when you got to New York.
HJ: Yes, of course. He was working with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street with the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet, which was perhaps the greatest quintet that was ever organized.
What did the quintet sound like in person? I know that’s sort of a gratuitous question. But I mean, it must have been stunning to hear a band like that in 1944, if the records are any… Of course, it’s stunning to this day!
HJ: Of course. At that time, it was equally stunning, and it had never been done before. The group had a light sound. Some people think of quintets as being heavy and ponderous, but this one was like… Dizzy played a very light, airy kind of style. Charlie Parker was, of course, innovative in every sense. His tone, which is I think something most musicians forget about… His tone was absolutely perfect. A lot of saxophone players, particularly tenor players, don’t get a true tenor sound. They sound more like altos. In Charlie’s case, he sounded exactly like an alto should sound, and the tone was absolutely pure. In addition to his fantastic ideas, his tone was just perfect, you know. It’s what you expected to hear and what you did hear.
The group itself was just… Well, how could you describe it? As I said, I don’t think there’s ever been another group like it, and perhaps there never will be. I think that group was unique because they all thought the same way. Dizzy and Charlie had the same approach. They all played in the same idiom. And everything dovetailed. Everything fit. There was nothing that was out of place. I think that’s what made that group sound so good.
Of course, they had been in Earl Hines’ Band and with Billy Eckstine before this, and were able to work out their ideas together. What were your first interactions with Dizzy Gillespie like? Musically, he was, of course, famous for sharing information with other musicians and so forth.
HJ: At a later date I did come in contact with Dizzy through his changes, through the tunes that he had written and so forth. Sometimes you’d be playing a tune, and Dizzy would suggest a different progression or a different chord change that would certainly be different and perhaps a lot better than the one that you had previously played. He had his own harmonic ideas, and his ideas about arranging were certainly circumspect. The best example of that is that introduction on “Round About Midnight,” which is a classic! As I’ve said, I’ve heard the tune played hundreds of times; I’ve never heard a better introduction than that one! So his ideas musically were very sound and correct, absolutely correct. And of course, Charlie Parker’s were, too.
They both thought alike. You wouldn’t even… During those days, when I first came to New York, you didn’t think of one without thinking of the other. Of course, they worked together in that same group, and even before that in Earl Hines’ band, and they formulated a lot of their ideas. That’s interesting, too, because we talked a little bit before about Earl Hines’ style on the piano being a single-line approach. So maybe that had something to do with their thinking, because they had both played with that band previously. I didn’t know them prior to the 52nd Street period. But maybe something that Earl played or something he said or suggested, or maybe some style of the band might have influenced their thinking towards Bebop, as it was called.
By the way, I’m really not happy with the term “Bebop.” I am not even happy with the term “Jazz,” for that matter.
Why is that?
HJ: Because I don’t think it accurately describes it. You see, the term “Jazz” is really an offshoot of a term that was spelled “jass,” and it referred to music that was played in bawdy houses, you know, back in Chicago and in those days, you know. The word “Jazz” came from that. So the connotation is almost disrespectful in that sense. To label an entire class of music as “Jazz” that sprung from a label that was less than respectful seems a little bit disingenuous to me…
Do you think the word still has that connotation?
HJ: I don’t think so. I think it’s grown from there. But that’s in the back of my mind. When I think of it, I think of the early beginnings of it, and I think somebody should have come up with a better name. Well, they didn’t, so we’re stuck with the term “jazz,” for better or worse. But it doesn’t have to mean that, of course.
Well, your talking about the origins of the word “Jazz” made me think about your association with Coleman Hawkins, who was around from just about the beginnings of its recorded origins, and who kept fresh and current with what was happening really all through his career. What were your first encounters with Hawk like? I know you recorded with him maybe in ’46 or ’47?
HJ: My first contact with Coleman Hawkins was on a JATP tour in 1947. He was with that tour, as well as Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and Joe Harris. Later on, back in New York, I played with his group. He was working at the Spotlite, with a group that included J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, and Curly Russell, the bass player, and myself. Did I mention Miles Davis?
HJ: Miles also was a member of that group. It was a very good group. We did, oh, maybe a month or two at the Spotlite. We also played in Philadelphia with that same group. Later, Fats Navarro became the trumpet player…
And he recorded with the group for RCA.
HJ: That’s right, yes. It was a great period. I learned a lot during that period. How could you fail to learn, playing with people like that?
Well, what was Coleman Hawkins’ approach to new repertoire? If he was hiring people like Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson, was he encouraging them to bring in music?
HJ: Well, what I think he did was, he listened to their styles. He liked their approach and he liked the kind of music they were playing. So he wanted to play the same kind of thing. His mind was always open to new ideas. I think that’s the key. You mentioned that he always stayed fresh. That’s the only way you can do that. You have to keep an open mind to various styles that perhaps might be at variance with your own style. If you think it can enhance your own playing, then you adopt that portion of it that you think might be beneficial. I think that’s what Coleman Hawkins did. Maybe not consciously, or maybe consciously. Either way, it worked for him. I think that’s a great way for anybody to approach this kind of music.
You know, improvisation is just that. It’s a new way of doing something perhaps different from the previous way of doing it. You improvise. You substitute. You play a variation here or there. And that’s the essence of improvisation anyway, a variation of a melody or theme. But this is what Coleman did. His ideas were always fresh, because he was constantly groping, searching for new ways to express an idea, new ways to develop a theme, new ways to approach the overall melodic content.
By the way, Coleman Hawkins was a great ballad player, in addition to being a great Jazz player. There is a difference. They’re related somewhat. But you can be a great ballad player without being a great Jazz player. But at the same time, you can be a great Jazz player without being able to play ballads well. So the two are different.
Being able to do both is…
HJ: Yes, then that’s the epitome, isn’t it?
I’d say that holds true for Mr. Jones as well. I know your time is short, but I’d be remiss, having you here and not asking you about your two younger brothers, who both achieved such heights on their instrument. I’ll ask you about Thad Jones first, who was closer to you in age, and I’d imagine you spent more time together coming up.
HJ: Well, Thad was very innovative in his thinking and his writing.
What were his early influences on the trumpet? Can you illuminate his musical thinking for us a little bit?
HJ: Well, Thad loved the Duke Ellington band. So I believe that he probably listened to Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, and just… You know, you can be influenced on an instrument without listening to somebody play that particular instrument. He was influenced by Duke’s writing, for instance, and the overall style of the band, all of the players — Johnny Hodges, for a while Ben Webster, of course, was in that band. You can be influenced by their approach without being influenced by, in Thad’s case, any trumpet players. Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart were there, I don’t know who else was on trumpet, maybe Ray Nance, who was a good player, but not in the same sense that a Dizzy Gillespie or a Miles Davis or a Fats Navarro was. But those were his early influences, I’m sure.
They all had very specialized sounds, very distinctive sounds. They had singular identities within the band.
HJ: Yes, that’s true. I think Duke picked his men for that very characteristic, and he could blend them… He knew each one’s capabilities and characteristics, and that’s how he wrote. He wrote for the band. That’s why his arrangements always sounded different and innovative, because they were a perfect fit with the musicians who were to play them. I think that’s one reason for his great success.
And he adapted his classic arrangements to fit the new personnel of his later bands as well.
But getting back to your brother, Thad, when did it become evident that music would be his future? Did he always have a facility for the trumpet?
HJ: You know, his first trumpet, or his first horn (actually it was a cornet), was given to him by his uncle, Bill Jones, who played cornet and trumpet.
Bill Jones would have been on your father’s side.
HJ: Yes, he was my father’s youngest brother, as a matter of fact. Bill was a cornet and trumpet player. And I think Thad, of course, just took the horn and went from there. He never stopped, never looked back. Thad never had a great deal of formal training as a trumpet player, as a horn player.
Or as a writer, I gather.
HJ: Or as a writer either. This ability that he had was completely natural, influenced of course, by people like Duke and other great arrangers of that period. But what came out of it was, of course, completely original as far as Thad was concerned. Because he did things that are still being copied, and that’s a true mark of greatness — I mean, to be imitated. Isn’t the phrase, “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery?” You ask any arranger, anywhere in the world about Thad’s arrangements, or anybody who’s played any of Thad’s arrangements, and they’ll say… I was speaking to Slide Hampton just recently, who is a great arranger on his own, and he says that Thad is one of the greatest innovators to come along in our time. When a guy like that says that (and I don’t think he was saying it for my benefit either), you have to put some stock in what he’s saying. I believe that, because I was always prejudiced about Thad’s ability! I think other people appreciate his ability as well, though.
Did you work together as youngsters, or was he a little too young, and by the time he came of age you were on the road?
HJ: By the time he and Elvin and people like Tommy Flanagan and some other people in Detroit were working at this…
Billy Mitchell, Kenny Burrell…
HJ: Right. I had already gone to New York. I was doing tours with JATP at that time, and I had already played in New York. So I was there several years before they arrived on the scene. In fact, I mentioned Thad’s name and Elvin’s name to Leonard Feather in that first book that he wrote, and I think that’s how a lot of people probably became aware that there were two other brothers that played whose last name were Jones.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about your youngest brother…is Elvin the youngest?
HJ: Elvin is the youngest, yes.
He’s been one of the great innovators on the drums for over thirty years now. That’s as an innovator. He’s been a great drummer for longer than that.
I know that being nine years younger than you, you may have been less in touch with him as a youngster. But do recollect whether his musical facility immediately evident as well?
HJ: I think so. I noticed it, of course, right away. Then Elvin spent some time in the Air Force band. He did a lot of traveling all over the country with one of the Air Force bands. He was based in Ohio, near Columbus; Lockborn, I think it was. He got a lot of playing time there, as you will in a Service band, you know! There again, Elvin never really had a great deal of formal training on the drums, certainly not to the extent that my two older sisters and I had a certain amount of formal training, and lessons and so forth. But it didn’t seem to matter. I think both Elvin and Thad have this great, great natural ability. I’m sure that formal training would have enhanced it, but it couldn’t have made it much better. I don’t think it would have increased their creativity any more, let’s say.
I don’t think this is something you can learn. You can’t learn creativity, you can’t learn the natural ability to think ahead and create ideas. You can learn the mechanics of how to write. You can do counterpoint music on the paper. But actually, that’s the end result of the creativity. The creativity starts before that. When you put notes on paper, you’ve already thought of it. Right? So in order to put something down, you must have created it in your mind, at least, ahead of time. So I think that’s what Thad and Elvin had that no amount of formal training could have taught them, I don’t believe.
Finally, I’d like to conclude my questions with what may seem like a rather general or maybe unanswerable question. You’ve spoken several times about the sounds of each individual piano, the organic nature of the instrument. I’d like you to conclude with some observations on sound and the role of sound in musical creation.
HJ: Well, as it applies to piano, the ability to alter the sound of the piano is extremely limited. Piano is not a wind instrument or a stringed instrument that you can affect the sound by manipulating the hand or controlling the breath or this sort of thing. Piano is basically a percussion instrument, so you approach it from the percussion point of view. If the instrument is responsive, all you can do, then, is to play within the confines of your own approach to the piano, that is, your fingers, your arm-drop… You can control the volume of the piano to a certain extent, but not the actual tone. The tone itself has to be in the piano to begin with. In a piano similar to the one that Rudy Van Gelder used to have in his studio, if it’s that kind of piano, then the piano is producing the tone. The pianist is a part of the process, but the tone is already there. All he has to do then is to release it from the piano by controlling the force of his arm-drop or his fingers, and so forth. The fingers are actually the last point in the process; it starts from the shoulder and so forth.
But on the other instruments, the wind instruments, they can materially affect the sound, because they have control with their lips, with the breath and so forth.
It’s an extension of the body, or the voice.
HJ: Yes. With piano, the only extension of the body that has any effect on the tone is the arm — the upper arm, the forearm, the hand, and then finally the fingers. The fingers are the end product that starts with the arm. So you can control the volume or the percussive effect with your arm, but you cannot do anything about the tone itself.
But a lot of people say, “Well, that pianist produces a great tone.” Well, actually, the pianist doesn’t create a tone! Because the ability to create a tone on the piano is extremely small.
But I guess the room for variation of manipulation of sound is as infinite as the personalities who think to put the fingers in those certain places.
HJ: You can use a lighter touch, you see. I think people confuse tone with touch. Yes, the touch is variable, and that’s controlled by the arm and the pressure and so forth. But not the tone, you know.
Well, Hank Jones has played on probably 22,000 different pianos or so in his career….
HJ: Actually, 23,000.
[MUSIC: H. Jones (solo) "Ain't Misbehavin'"; H. Jones/Benny Carter, "People Time", H. Jones (solo), "Sweet Lorraine"]