Dick Hyman: The Beat Goes On
AAJ: Not yet: Who were the eleven pianists?
DH: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, George Shearing, Cecil Taylor, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and myself. However, the record has never been reissued, even as a CD. I don't know the status of the company, whether it's still in business or not, but the recording remains only as a pretty obsolete LP.
AAJ: How did you get started? Did you take lessons as a child or was there a piano in your home or were your parents musicians or...?
DH: There was music in the family and my principal influences were two: When I got old enough to take lessons, I studied with my uncle, Anton Rovinsky, who had been a concert pianist. But more to the point, when I was a kid, I had a big brother, Arthur, six years older than me, and he actually showed me around the keyboardand even more important than that, he began to bring home the reissues of all the classic jazz things from the 1920s and '30s. My brother has since passed. His middle name was Charlap (like Bill, who's actually a distant relative).
AAJ: You have created a tremendous body of work. Can you articulate verbally some of the principles to which you've been true artistically?
DH: Principles? Do the very best you can. Whatever the particular project is, try to get inside it, study how it's been done before, see how you might do it in some related way, and just do your best. And make sure that you practice a lot.
AAJ: I've seen your work without actually seeing you play: A friend has a player piano and last week we listened to your Dick Hyman Plays Blues & Boogie disc. Do you remember recording that?
DH: That was for Pianodisc. I've actually done several others for Sony in their Pianosoft catalog as well.
AAJ: Do you tend to approach the music differently when you're recording one of those player discs compared to "a regular" recording session?
DH: No, it's very much like a sound recording. It is a recording: You may do each tune in more than one take, probably at least two, maybe three, and you try it out in different ways. It is very much like recording a solo piano album. I can't think of a significant difference.
AAJ: You did a series of solo albums devoted to such composers as Cole Porter, George Gershwin and so on, including Duke Ellington. Would you share your thoughts on Ellington as a composer, and as a pianist?
DH: Well, the Ellington project was a little bit different from the others, "the others" including Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Rodgers, and Berlin. Ellington's tunes were ingenious, and more to the point, they came out of a jazz background. You can't say that for some of the othersyou can make them into jazz, and they're wonderful vehicles for jazz playing, such as Richard Rodgers' earlier songs with Lorenz Hartbut Ellington was already there, in the jazz world, when he composed his pieces.
On that Ellington album I liked going back to some of the things he did in the 1920s, as well as his later standard songs. Some of the older ones are very much like the trial improvs that a jazzman would make in approaching a set of chords. Ellington has a certain catalog of devices he'll apply to a series of harmonies. Which is the jazz way: You take a set of chords and pretty soon, after you've tried them out a number of times and probably changed them a bit, you start to make up your own melody, as opposed to the other process of decorating and embellishing the original melody.
AAJ: Was there or is there anything about Ellington's technique that made him such a special pianist or is it something different?
DH: His background was that of a stride pianist, and if he had done nothing along the lines of being a bandleader, he would have been another one of the wonderful group of people like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie the Lion Smith. But Ellington's piano style, I think, evolved from his band. He was always leading a band. Many of his piano solos were introductions or interludes or alerts to the band as to what was about to come. He was cueing the band.
Some of his arrangements were a little loose in that regard, so that they could be expanded here and there or have interludes put into the middle by piano. And of course the people in his orchestra, having played with him for so many years, were very responsive, and it was to a very interesting degree an improvising ensemble. Some of the things were not even arranged to begin with, I think. Later on, perhaps they were notated, but if you listen closely to some of those older records, they sound as though everybody is faking it, but with Ellington in charge, of course. They're not exactly following the well-thought out harmonies that an arranger might assign them. And sometimes that collective process is what we like the most.