Hank Jones, R.I.P.

George H. Smith

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The great jazz pianist Hank Jones died on May 16th, at age 91.

The video below, recorded in Japan, has some comments by Jones at the end. Jones was regarded as one of the great gentlemen of jazz. The tune is Jobim's "Wave."

Here is an obit that was written by Steve Cerra and posted on the Yahoo list JazzWestCoast:

The cavernous echoing and banging of folding seats at the almost empty

ground of Middlesborough Football Club is hardly a good setting for

recitals by two of the most gentle and cerebral of all jazz pianists.

Yet it was at a jazz festival held at the ground that both Hank Jones

and Bill Evans made their British debuts in 1976.

Like Evans, Hank Jones was a delicate and thoughtful improviser, more at

home in the concert hall or recording studio. So much in demand was he

throughout his career that it's estimated that he appeared on over a

thousand recordings. His keyboard technique was colossal – the result of

powerful concentration whenever he played – and he was regarded as the

accompanist par excellence, working for Ella Fitzgerald for almost five

years and for Marilyn Monroe for one night.

He accompanied Miss Monroe in 1962 at Madison Square Garden on that

famous night exactly 48 years ago today when she sang "Happy Birthday"

to President Kennedy.

"She did 16 bars," he said. "Eight bars of 'Happy Birthday' and eight

bars of 'Thanks for the Memory'. We rehearsed those 16 bars for eight

hours. So I think that's something like a half-hour for a bar of music.

She was very nervous and upset. She wasn't used to that kind of thing.

And I guess who wouldn't be nervous singing 'Happy Birthday' to the

president? She actually was a very good singer; however, on this

particular occasion I think she was somewhat hampered by having imbibed

rather freely. And it was very interesting. I didn't know that Kennedy

was in the audience until she sang this song, 'Happy Birthday to You,

Mr. President'."

But that was trivia to the stoical pianist, who in his time had played

for every jazz musician of note, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker

to Frank Sinatra. His playing was like silk, delicate and flawless, but

with a tough spine. He knew his own worth, but was modest and dignified,

never once showing off or indulging in piano pyrotechnics. His

improvisations were ever a model of clarity.

"When you listen to a pianist," he said, "each note should have an

identity; each note should have a soul of its own. I try to play evenly.

I don't take too many excursions. I don't go too far away from the

melody, I don't go out into 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 interesting."

Jones was the third of 10 children in a family that was both musical and

deeply religious.

"My father thought all my energies should be directed towards playing in

the church," he said. "He thought playing jazz was the work for the

devil." Jones inherited his father's fastidiousness, always saying grace

before a meal and never drinking, swearing or smoking. His two younger

brothers matched his talents in jazz, Thad Jones being a gifted

trumpeter and arranger and Elvin one of the best of the post-Buddy Rich


He was born in Mississippi but the family moved to Pontiac in Michigan

where he grew up. He took sporadic piano lessons from the age of 12 and

began playing professionally across Michigan and Ohio when he was 13. He

stayed in the area until his mid-20s. In 1944 he was working with a

territory band that had Lucky Thompson on tenor sax. Impressed, Thompson

invited Jones to New York, where he arranged a job for him playing with

the trumpeter Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club.

Jones found plenty of work around 52nd Street, the jazz centre that had

become the crucible of bebop. His playing style had emerged from his

listening to Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Art Tatum, and

although deeply rooted in swing he was already filtering in ideas from

the new music. He joined groups led by Andy Kirk, John Kirby, Billy

Eckstine and, at the Spotlite Club in 1946, by Coleman Hawkins, who also

had in his band the young Miles Davis and Max Roach.

In 1947 Norman Granz enrolled Jones in his "Jazz at the Philharmonic"

(JATP) road show, where he worked with Buddy Rich and Ray Brown backing

Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton and a host

of giants including Ella Fitzgerald. Granz moved Jones gradually to play

solely as the singer's accompanist.

One of Jones' ambitions was to make a two-piano album with Oscar

Peterson, the man who succeeded him in JATP. But Jones always drove a

hard bargain, and although he regarded Peterson as the finest of all

living jazz pianists, over years of trying Granz was unable to come up

with a contract for the partnership that would satisfy him.

Jones joined trombonist Tyree Glenn's band in 1953 and that year was

pianist in the Gramercy Five, Artie Shaw's last small group before he

walked away from jazz. Jones stayed with Shaw until June 1954. From

March 1955 to January 1956 his trio with bassist Wendell Marshall and

drummer Kenny Clarke became the house band at Savoy Records, recording

many albums backing the label's stars, but also producing a multitude of

trio recordings including the masterful Have You Met Hank Jones? solo

piano album (1956). In 1956 he also joined Benny Goodman's band,

beginning an off-and-on working relationship that lasted for 20 years.

In 1959 he became a staff pianist at the CBS studios, holding the job

for 14 years.

"It was very confining," he said. "There was no time for any other

playing because you were on 24-hour call." He worked for long spells on

the shows of Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason before CBS closed their

music department in 1974. Now free to tour, he appeared annually at the

Nice Jazz festival until the end of the decade. "I did freelancing too,

but very few nightclubs."

It was appropriate that in 1979 he became musical director of the

Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin', a show built on the music of his

first love, the pianist Fats Waller. He stayed with the show for five

years – leaving, typically, over a dispute about his contract.

By now his stature was recognised and he played concerts as a soloist

and in duets with many other pianists, including John Lewis, Marian

McPartland, Tommy Flanagan and George Shearing. Jones continued to

record and appear in concerts until fairly recently, forming a

particularly potent partnership with Joe Lovano, a saxophonist more than

30 years his junior.

He continued to play at festivals and last year performed in the Newport

Festival in New York and toured Europe, appearing in Vienna, Paris,

Geneva, Prague and Istanbul. Among his many awards he was nominated for

five Grammys and last year received a Grammy for lifetime achievement.

He was given the National Medal of Arts and the National Endowment of

the Arts' Jazz Masters Award.

"Hank was the perfect pianist," said Bill Charlap, one of Jones' younger

successors. "He was a consummate artist and a consummate professional.

He had it all – he played the past, the present and the future all at

the same time."

Henry "Hank" Jones, pianist: born Vicksburg, Mississippi 31 August 1918;

married Theodosia (one daughter); died New York 16 May 2010.

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The great jazz pianist Hank Jones died on May 16th, at age 91.

I regret to say I never knew anything about the man or his music. Dave Brubeck. Herbie Hancock. Bill Evans. Oscar Peterson. Hank Jones?? Makes me think of the words of another pianist, Oscar Levant: "What the world needs is more geniuses with humility. There are so few of us left."

Looks like we just lost another one.

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