Rob McConnell: Boss of Bosses
What can one say about Hank Jones that hasn't been said hundreds or even thousands of times before. Suffice to say he was one of the pre-eminent jazz pianists of the 20th century, the oldest and last survivor among three brothers (trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin were the others) who not only made their mark as musicians but blazed new trails that others pursued with a mixture of awe and aspiration. Hank played almost to the end, performing in the U.S. and around the world until shortly before his passing on May 16, 2010, a little more than two months before his 92nd birthday. Aside from his superb technique and feather-like touch at the keyboard, Hank Jones was a gentleman, widely admired as much for his graciousness as his talent. So much in demand that he can be heard on more than five hundred recordings, he played with a who's who of jazz greats from the early bop era onward. His extraordinary skills as an accompanist made him especially sought-after by singers. A contemporary, the legendary Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, once said, "Everything I know about comping I learned from Hank Jones." One of Jones's more memorable moments as an accompanist occurred in 1962 when he valiantly supported actress Marilyn Monroe as she sang "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
Jones's most recent awards include a Congressional Achievement Award, NEA Jazz Master (1989), induction into DownBeat magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame (2009), the Jazz Journalist Association's Pianist of the Year award (2009) and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement (2009). The awards came after a lifetime of performing with groups of all shapes and sizes in venues from Europe to Asia as well as in nightclubs, arenas and concert halls from one end of the U.S. to the other. Included was a 15-year tenure (1959-74) as staff pianist with the CBS Television orchestra. Jones's most recent album, Pleased to Meet You, with Canadian pianist (and Peterson disciple) Oliver Jones, was released in October 2009 on Justin Time Records, and another, an album of duets with bassist Charlie Haden, is scheduled for release later in 2010 on Universal France.
Jones was enormously popular in Japan, which he visited at least once a year. At the 1987 JVC Jazz Festival in New York City, he shared an evening of solos and duets with the great George Shearing, having performed previously in duets with John Lewis, Marian McPartland and fellow Detroiter Tommy Flanagan. As late as 2009, at age 90, Jones performed in Vienna, Paris, Geneva, Prague and Istanbul. While his singular voice has now been silenced, the music lives on, as indeed it shall for many years to come.
Lena Horne, who was not only one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century but one of the most beautiful as well, died May 9, 2010, in Manhattan. She was 92 years old. Had she been white, or born a generation or more later, there's no telling how brightly her star may have shone. Even so, there was no denying Horne's enormous talent, and though Hollywood cast her in films wherein she was able to do no more than add a song that could easily be cut when said films were shown in the South, she radiated star-power in such 1940s films as Thousands Cheer, Broadway Rhythm, Two Girls and a Sailor, Till the Clouds Roll By, Ziegfeld Follies and Words and Music. When in 1951 MGM turned the play Show Boat into a musical for the second time, the role of the mulatto Julie was given not to Horne but to a white actress, Ava Gardner, whose singing voice had to be dubbed. It was another in a series of disappointments for Horne, whose only starring roles had been in two all-black films, Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1946).
While touring Army camps for the USO during World War II, Horne was outspoken in her criticism of the way black soldiers were treated. This, she later said, was one of the reasons she was blacklisted and unable to find work in films or on television "for the next seven years" after her contract with MGM ended in 1950. Her marriage in 1947 to the white conductor / arranger / pianist Lennie Hayton may have been another reason. Once away from Hollywood, Horne found success in nightclubs and on records. Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, recorded in 1957, reached the Top 10 and became the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor's history. In 1978, Horne played Glinda, the good witch, in The Wiz, a film version of the all-black Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz, and scored another triumph three years later with her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for 14 months and for which she earned a Tony Award.