David Hazeltine: Making it Mean Something
'At first playing with these people it was just plain scary and intimidating.'
One of the outstanding jazz piano players in the world today, David Hazeltine grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was born 27 October 1958. Early in 2003, shortly before embarking upon a European tour with Jon Faddis, David took time to set down some comments on his career to date, and to where the future might lie for him. He also had much to say about the artists who have helped shape his musical thought and the life he leads in jazz.
He did not at first plan on a career in music. Through high school and later on in college, his eyes and mind were set on a career in electrical engineering, but beneath the surface other influences were at work. As a young child he had heard jazz through an older brother who was a fan, but it was not until his mother bought him a Jimmy Smith album that he began to take a serious interest in music, and in particular the organ.
'My first gig was when I was thirteen years old, it was a steady Friday and Saturday thing at an Italian restaurant on the west side of Milwaukee. It was solo organ and I played tunes and improvised on them, so technically it was my first jazz gig.'
When he was around fifteen, he switched to piano and during his high school and college days worked a lot of gigs and continued his practising and his classical music studies.
'It was only at the last minute, right before college started, that I decided to go to music school, instead of pursuing engineering, and I think I knew at that point that I was going to be a professional musician.'
David's switch from organ was prompted by the wide range of possibilities on the piano.
'There is the fact that just hearing one note on the piano doesn't tell me everything I'm about to hear. Stylistically, I think there are a lot more possibilities on the piano. All the variations in touch on the piano make it a much more interesting instrument for me.'
Thanks in part to his early start, but mainly due to his clearly apparent ability, at the age of twenty-one he became house pianist at in Milwaukee's Jazz Gallery.
'It was there that got a chance to play with Sonny Stitt, Pepper Adams, Chet Baker, Charles McPherson, Al Cohn, Lou Donaldson, Eddie Harris, a lot of great musicians who were at that time touring as singles with house rhythm sections. At first playing with these people it was just plain scary and intimidating but eventually I was able to relax and enjoy and absorb everything they were doing - or a lot of things that they were doing.
'I remember the first gig I ever did with one of these guys. It was with Sonny Stitt and I was very young and it was our first meeting of course and we were sitting upstairs from the Jazz Gallery. We had no rehearsal or anything, he just came in and we had to do it. Well, Sonny took out a cigarette and I pulled out a lighter to light it for him and my hand was shaking so bad. Sonny was so cool. He just kept his head down, then his eyes came up over his glasses and he just kind of looked at me, like "Wow! This could be interesting." But, you know, after just one set he was like my Dad. We went back upstairs and he was showing me tunes on the saxophone and he said, "Do you know this tune," and "Do you know that tune?" and I would say, "No" and he'd say, "Listen, I think you're going to like it." Then he'd play it for me and he'd improvise a chorus to show me how the changes went and we built a great relationship that way and went on to play a lot more gigs in the next few years before he passed away. I learned a lot from Sonny. Not just the obvious things, like tunes, and tricky changes, but on a more subtle level I learned the importance of being so much in command of the idiom that you can relax, groove and swing hard. You can have higher musical values than just playing the correct notes, or playing properly, or playing the hippest new thing. Probably the biggest lesson I learned in those years was the importance of musical maturity. What set those guys apart from the normal guys that I was playing with, was not only their mastery, but also their maturity, their choices, and the conviction with which they made these musical choices.'
'I felt that I owed it to myself to participate in the real world.'
In 1981, encouraged by Chet Baker, David moved to New York City, so that he could be around those touring musicians with whom he had played as they swung through Milwaukee. Two years later, domestic considerations prompted a return to his home town but by 1992 he was eager to be back in New York.