One of the first records I ever owned was Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else with Miles Davis, Sam Jones, Art Blakey, and the veritable Hank Jones. The fact that Jones was on that session didn't register with me completely - he was on so many records I just became used to seeing his name, not realizing at the time how this amazing musician contributed to recordings that have spanned jazz genres for seven decades alongside most of jazz' legends. A player of rare grace, sophistication and extraordinary poise at the keyboard, he has influenced scores of pianists, and like many of his contemporaries he possesses the type of keen creative insight that is rare and vital to the continued growth of the jazz art form. The way for younger musicians to really learn is through speaking with these elder players that have been there and seen it all first-hand. Suffice to say, it was my distinct privilege and honor to have the opportunity to speak with Mr. Jones about his amazing memories, artistic thoughts and upcoming performances at the Blue Note where he will be celebrating his birthday - turning 85 years young!
All About Jazz: What's it like to meet back up with those people that you've recorded and worked with so much?
Hank Jones: It's always a pleasure, especially the ones that I worked with. They all are top notch players, they're all professionals. Sometimes you can see progress, if you've known them for many years, or a difference in their performances...most people improve, Frank [Wess] is one of those people. I think in my estimation he plays greater now. Maybe I just hear more of him now. He has always played great because when he was with the [Count] Basie band, [he was a] great soloist. He played tenor saxophone [and flute], and also some alto, but I mean he's a great lead alto player, [and] most people don't know that. Most think of him as a great tenor saxophonist. He worked for a while with Thad Jones, my brother, and Mel Lewis down at the [Village] Vanguard. And he was sitting in [playing] first alto with the band. And to me the band [had] more life, more presence, and more precision.
AAJ: You've recorded with so many people, I mean it's ridiculous (laughter), it's a great long list of musicians!
HJ: Well my playing is ridiculous but...
AAJ: Ridiculously great is what your playing is! Did you ever happen to work with Frank Sinatra, whose music you'll be paying tribute to this month at the Blue Note?
HJ: Never. No never did a record date with him, never played a job. That's strange because I've [worked with]...a lot of [vocalists], but never with Frank. Frank had a pianist that had been with him for many, many years and I think he [had] worked with Frank on his recording dates as well as his club dates, movies, and so forth.
AAJ: What do you like about working with vocalists?
HJ: It's interesting because most vocalists like different backgrounds. For instance with Sarah [Vaughan] she preferred single line backgrounds, but Ella [Fitzgerald] preferred blocked chord backgrounds, sort of orchestral effects. Sarah didn't particularly care for that. With singers, you can play a mixture of both types depending on what the situation is. In any case, you should never overshadow the vocalist! (laughter)
AAJ: You spoke earlier of Frank Wess and about how he's developed and gotten even better over the years. What things have changed in your playing, or what things have you been able to really tweak?
HJ: Well, I certainly learned a lot more about harmony. Your knowledge of harmony really determines how well you play as a soloist. If you can organize the harmonic progressions then you can be a better soloist. You can be a better all around musician...About being conversant with harmonic progressions and correct timing, it seems that the knowledge of harmony just goes on and on. You can't talk too much about it, the more you know about it the more coherent your playing becomes given all the other factors that are in there: fluency on the instrument, your technique and so forth. But [with knowledge of harmony] you can express yourself much better. Your music has more meaning.
AAJ: You've worked with many interesting saxophone players. What was different in terms of some of those saxophonist's approach to harmony - say Coleman Hawkins versus Charlie Parker?
HJ: Well, I think harmonically they were probably equal, it was just their expression of musical thoughts was different. Charlie Parker of course was the "king" of bebop in a sense, if there is such a thing. I don't like to use those terms, "king", and all the other things, but he was certainly one of the best. One of the first players I heard that played that style - he and Dizzy Gillespie of course. Gillespie's style was a little different but it was still bebop. Charlie Parker's style was to me more coherent. To me he was more understandable, because I think he used his knowledge of chords in a way that most people could understand. And people like Bud Powell was also one of those people. Almost any of the great players did that. Coleman Hawkins - he had a wonderful knowledge of chords, [but] he expressed his harmonic knowledge in a different way. Had he played alto he may have sounded somewhat like Charlie Parker! But on the tenor it just sounds different anyway because the tonality is different....now Cannonball Adderley -he was a Charlie Parker devotee...and then there was Sonny Stitt. You can't mention Charlie Parker without mentioning Sonny Stitt! (laughter)...Sonny was perhaps his greatest disciple and Sonny played tenor equally as well.