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Artist Profiles

David Hazeltine: Making it Mean Something

By Published: October 16, 2003
'When I was about ten or eleven years old, my mother bought me my first jazz record. It was Jimmy Smith Plays The Standards, and I fell in love with jazz at that point'

Beginnings ...

'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.'

Maturity ...

'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.

'By this time I wanted to be a major player in the New York and international scenes. I was frustrated in Milwaukee, and I felt that I owed it to myself to participate in the real world and not waste my talent in a place like Milwaukee. I'd invested too much of myself in jazz to do that, so what's why ultimately I came back to New York and I've stayed ever since.

'At first, I had a little gig at the Star Cafe at 23rd and Seventh, it's not there anymore, in fact they gutted the whole building, but at the time I was playing a lot with Junior Cook there. Also, I played with Curtis Fuller, and for a time I was on the road with Jon Hendricks.

'More recently, I have played with One For All. Besides playing collectively, I have a special individual relationship with each guy in the band. We've played a lot together; and we've all played and recorded a lot with each other. Eric Alexander and I have recorded and worked together many times, as have Steve Davis, Jim Rotondi, Joe Locke and I. Also, I have a funk band with Jim and we play at Smoke every Thursday when we're in town.

'Long-term musical relationships are very important and I feel blessed to have had so many, especially since coming to New York. Jazz is a communally made music, and I think that the stronger, more long term and meaningful the bonds between the players are, the more profound the communal approach will be.'

Teaching and learning ...

'There is a great thrill in sharing musical ideas with someone.'

From the early years of his career, David has had a deep interest in and an intense commitment to the advancement of jazz culture and awareness. This has been manifested by his involvement in education. In Milwaukee, he was co-founder and direct or of The Jazz School, and the Program Coordinator of Jazz Studies, and later Department Chairman at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. For a time, he was also an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music. Latterly, he teaches privately in his own studio.

'I have been involved in music education since the first time I realized I didn't really know anything. That's when I got hip to Charlie Parker, and learned everything I could that he played. I was always itching to show it to somebody else because it was so exciting for me. I think that has been my motivation all along; the details of this music excite me so much I just want to share it with other people and that motivation comes before any financial consideration. There is a great thrill in sharing musical ideas with someone. In a way, it is kind of like when I'm performing. A similar kind of thing, although teaching is less emotional and more intellectually stimulating. And, of course, teaching is not just a one-way experience. When a student starts to get it, the challenge becomes trying to figure out how to make it better. I learn something from that. In fact I've learned things that I would apply to myself and my playing from figuring out how to make things better with students.'

Influences ...

'I like the things that they can do melodically and expressively ...'

Among many profound influences on David have been saxophonists, notably Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Eddie Harris.

'Melody is very important to me and I like saxophone players more than piano players. Definitely. I prefer to listen to horns. Playing the piano is what I've done and obviously there are many things I like about it, but I really like the freedom of a horn. I like the things that they can do melodically and expressively, almost like a voice, that a piano just can't possibly do. They have profound melodic rhythmic shapings to their lines. Guys like Parker and Coltrane and Rollins are my main influences. I've sat down and studied and learned to p lay, to improvise in their styles. They are, I think the most original. You know, after Charlie Parker it becomes a matter of who is most original in his approach to what he laid down. Because everybody plays more or less the voicings of Charlie Parker. I t's just a matter of what's been done with it as far as I'm concerned.

'The pianists who have influenced me the most are Art Tatum, Barry Harris, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton, Buddy Montgomery. They are the top guys for me.

'Tatum, for his harmony and his presentation of ballads, especially the rubato, impromptu-sounding intros. Amazing. Harris, for his flowing, melodic, effortlessly articulated, swinging melodic lines. Evans, well, it's so obvious, his voicings, his majestic touch, his Chopin-like approach to the piano. It's beautiful. Tyner, for his completely original approach, his fourth voicings, his angular, ultra-rhythmic improvisations. Hancock, for his beautiful musicality, his swinging and his almost impressionistic harmony. Walton, for his precisely articulated, Charlie Parker-like lines on the piano and his pretty voicings and his writing style, a true master of the idiom of jazz, in my book. Montgomery, for his incredibly unique shaping and phrasing in his improvisations. He approaches the piano melodically like a vibes player, which he is also, and you know Buddy is one of the most profound writers that I know, so in that way, compositionally, Buddy is also a very big mentor.'

Composing ...

'Some of the best improvisers were great composers.'

'You see, composing to me is very important and very gratifying. However, I should say that it doesn't come easy. I work hard at composing. I spend a lot of time doing it and am almost never satisfied with what comes out. It's only maybe years later after I've recorded the things and I go back and listen to them and think, That's not a bad tune. I get a lot of pleasure from playing things I've written after I've recorded them. Playing gigs, I get a chance to perform my written music and they become sort of like standards in my mind. They flow very easily and that's kind of a kick to think, Hey, I wrote that. But the process of doing it, when I actually sit down and record it, I'm never happy with what comes out right away. But I think it's also very important because our focus in jazz is always improvising and, you know, some of the best improvisers were great composers. In fact, even if they didn't compose a lot, their improvisations are almost like compositions. So composing is kind of like a blown up version of what happens when we're playing. Although, obviously, in composing you get to go over it and change it and correct it. When you're playing, it happens real fast, from moment to moment, so it's interesting to approach the music in a slower manner and that's something that very much appeals to me.'

Shaping the future ...

'I love the way my idols play and hope some of that love and respect comes out in my playing.'

Speaking of David's playing, Cedar Walton has said, 'His style has a deep-seated commitment to jazz history while communicating a wealth of "today's" ideas.'

This commitment, in particular to the great tradition of jazz piano playing, results in David's audience hearing an artist whose playing is not only highly sophisticated, but is also highly accessible.

'Two natural musical inclinations of mine are to feel good and to make it mean something. Maybe that's where the apparent contradiction arises. I think that music that feels good has some kind of joy. Even if it's melancholy, even if it's sadness, it can still be joyous at some level. That's my main underlying motivation. But right after that there is also another motivation - and I think maybe that's the engineering side of me - to want something deeper from my music, some intellectual satisfaction. I can't just play three choruses of a blues and satisfy myself intellectually. It's got to be interesting to me as well.'

Among the results of this musical policy have been a growing body of critical acclaim and an ever-expanding audience for his work, whether live or on record. It is not hard to understand why. Immediately apparent is the fact that, never, at any time, does he lose his great attachment to the melodic core of his artistry. Equally important, is David's consummate skills as a performer, skills that are underpinned by an unfailing sense of the needs of the music, an ability to swing at all times, a questing musical intelligence, and the enormous technical ability to bring off his ideas with understated flair and great aplomb.

Anyone who worries over the future of jazz need only listen to this immensely talented musician to know that this future is in safe hands.

Let David Hazeltine have the last word on how he sees his future:-

'It's tough to survive doing what I do. I would have to be successful enough to keep doing what I do and in so doing hope to contribute to this glorious art form.'


Among David's recordings have been half a dozen as leader for Sharp Nine Records, including Four Flights Up, The Classic Trio Meets Eric Alexander, and The Classic Trio Volume II. Four for the Criss Cross label, the most recent being Good Hearted People. And three trio sessions, appearing on the Venus label in Japan, include tributes to Bill Evans, Waltz For Debby, and Horace Silver, Señor Blues.

Bruce Crowther has written 30 books, including several on jazz. Since its inception, he has been a senior contributor for The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, with special responsibilities for jazz entries. He has also been a contributor to Jazz Journal International for 20 years, reviewing for the magazine many hundreds of albums. He has his own website , which is where this interview with David Hazeltine first appeared early in 2003.

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