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Hank Jones: Havin' Fun

By Published: February 15, 2005

AAJ: I was able to read the interview that you did with Art Davis ( Notes and Tones , Da Capo Press) in which you tell a story about Art Tatum and listening to him play for hours and hour...

HJ: ...after he finished his job. There's a place called McVan's, in Buffalo. I worked with a tenor saxophone, bass and piano trio. We finished an hour before McVan's closed so we'd go over and hear Art's last set. After he finished the last set, he would go into a little restaurant in town and play until daylight, maybe 10 or 11 o'clock the next day. He loved to play. That's after he finished his regular job.

AAJ: You're a young man watching this incredible pianist — are you intimidated by this?

HJ: Not at all. I considered it a learning experience. I felt this was the greatest opportunity in the world for me to learn from a master — the master — because there's nobody else who plays like that. And I'm sitting there listening and watching and wondering 'How does he do this? I hear it but I don't believe it.' He did some of the most amazing things you can think of, with no effort. Total genius.

AAJ: That inspired you, then?

HJ: Of course. He was a consummate artist — the greatest source of inspiration. If you cannot be inspired by Art Tatum, you cannot be inspired. He evoked awe in anybody who heard him that had any musical sensitivity at all. I have no words to describe him. He's beyond description. He's way up here and everybody else is down here.

AAJ: Did you ever try to talk to him about music?

HJ: It's a funny thing, Art never talked music. Now, if you wanted to talk about sports, he was your man. He knew everything there is to know about just about any sport you can think of. He knew who the great players were. He knew their averages. He knew everything about sports. He never talked about music. So that's the secret: You should never talk about music; you can talk about anything else. [Laughter]

AAJ: After playing in Buffalo, you came to New York.

HJ: Yeah, I came to New York in 1944 and I immediately got involved in that 52nd Street scene. I heard some of the greatest music I ever heard in my life there because all the guys were there—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Don Byas. I worked at a place called the Onyx Club on 52nd Street with Hot Lips Page. You could go right across the street to the Three Deuces and hear Art Tatum. In fact, some nights I would take Art Tatum down on the subway to the club because he couldn't go by himself. I'd take him to work, pick him up, take him back. I lived up in Harlem on St. Nicholas near 145th St. Art lived in a hotel on 126th St. and Eighth Ave. So I used to drop him off after his gig at The Three Deuces, and then go on up to 145th.

AAJ: A lot of musicians in New York in the 40s and 50 were taking drugs. Did you ever experiment with drugs?

HJ: Never. I stayed as far away from that as I could, because I could see what was happening to guys like Char-lie Parker and other people worse off than Charlie, if you could be any worse off. I saw what it did to them and I said 'What are they doing?' When you take that first step, that's the mistake. They'd come up to you and say, 'Hey, man, why don't you try this, man, it'll make you feel good.' I'd say, no, no thanks. At least I had that much sense. So I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't do any of that stuff and that's probably why I'm still here. That stuff will take you down fast. Charlie would be alive today if it hadn't been for that stuff. Bud Powell would be alive. I know some guys that broke the habit, a couple of them are still around, but it didn't do them any good.

AAJ: In 1977 you started with a group called The Great Jazz Trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Tell me how that got going?

HJ: Well, actually it originated with the Japanese. That was there concept of The Great Jazz Trio. In fact, that was there title. We worked at the Village Vanguard for a week, that's the only club we ever worked, and we recorded there, but we did several recordings in Japan. It was interesting. I'd never worked with Ron or Tony before.

AAJ: What was that like?

HJ: Different. I had to adjust to what they were doing because apparently my style was too far away from theirs, so I had to get with it and I managed to get at least partially there. Tony was very flamboyant, lots of drums. He had about 5 or 6 different tom toms, besides his snare and the bass drum. He had a thing going where he could play by himself. He could do a whole show by himself. He was very good, but it was difficult at first, because I don't think he had been used to trio playing. Trio playing is a lot different than playing with a big band, so we had to learn how to work together, which we did, and some things turned out pretty well. I wish we had done more club dates together. It would have been easier to assimilate our styles playing clubs, instead of going out on a record date and trying to get it all together in one sitting — three or four hours and you've got to do the whole thing.

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