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Interviews

Hank Jones

By Published: October 27, 2003
One of the first records I ever owned was Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else with Miles Davis, Sam Jones, Art Blakey, and the veritable Hank Jones. The fact that Jones was on that session didn't register with me completely - he was on so many records I just became used to seeing his name, not realizing at the time how this amazing musician contributed to recordings that have spanned jazz genres for seven decades alongside most of jazz' legends. A player of rare grace, sophistication and extraordinary poise at the keyboard, he has influenced scores of pianists, and like many of his contemporaries he possesses the type of keen creative insight that is rare and vital to the continued growth of the jazz art form. The way for younger musicians to really learn is through speaking with these elder players that have been there and seen it all first-hand. Suffice to say, it was my distinct privilege and honor to have the opportunity to speak with Mr. Jones about his amazing memories, artistic thoughts and upcoming performances at the Blue Note where he will be celebrating his birthday - turning 85 years young!

All About Jazz: What's it like to meet back up with those people that you've recorded and worked with so much?

Hank Jones: It's always a pleasure, especially the ones that I worked with. They all are top notch players, they're all professionals. Sometimes you can see progress, if you've known them for many years, or a difference in their performances...most people improve, Frank [Wess] is one of those people. I think in my estimation he plays greater now. Maybe I just hear more of him now. He has always played great because when he was with the [Count] Basie band, [he was a] great soloist. He played tenor saxophone [and flute], and also some alto, but I mean he's a great lead alto player, [and] most people don't know that. Most think of him as a great tenor saxophonist. He worked for a while with Thad Jones, my brother, and Mel Lewis down at the [Village] Vanguard. And he was sitting in [playing] first alto with the band. And to me the band [had] more life, more presence, and more precision.

AAJ: You've recorded with so many people, I mean it's ridiculous (laughter), it's a great long list of musicians!

HJ: Well my playing is ridiculous but...

AAJ: Ridiculously great is what your playing is! Did you ever happen to work with Frank Sinatra, whose music you'll be paying tribute to this month at the Blue Note?

HJ: Never. No never did a record date with him, never played a job. That's strange because I've [worked with]...a lot of [vocalists], but never with Frank. Frank had a pianist that had been with him for many, many years and I think he [had] worked with Frank on his recording dates as well as his club dates, movies, and so forth.

AAJ: What do you like about working with vocalists?

HJ: It's interesting because most vocalists like different backgrounds. For instance with Sarah [Vaughan] she preferred single line backgrounds, but Ella [Fitzgerald] preferred blocked chord backgrounds, sort of orchestral effects. Sarah didn't particularly care for that. With singers, you can play a mixture of both types depending on what the situation is. In any case, you should never overshadow the vocalist! (laughter)

AAJ: You spoke earlier of Frank Wess and about how he's developed and gotten even better over the years. What things have changed in your playing, or what things have you been able to really tweak?

HJ: Well, I certainly learned a lot more about harmony. Your knowledge of harmony really determines how well you play as a soloist. If you can organize the harmonic progressions then you can be a better soloist. You can be a better all around musician...About being conversant with harmonic progressions and correct timing, it seems that the knowledge of harmony just goes on and on. You can't talk too much about it, the more you know about it the more coherent your playing becomes given all the other factors that are in there: fluency on the instrument, your technique and so forth. But [with knowledge of harmony] you can express yourself much better. Your music has more meaning.

AAJ: You've worked with many interesting saxophone players. What was different in terms of some of those saxophonist's approach to harmony - say Coleman Hawkins versus Charlie Parker?

HJ: Well, I think harmonically they were probably equal, it was just their expression of musical thoughts was different. Charlie Parker of course was the "king" of bebop in a sense, if there is such a thing. I don't like to use those terms, "king", and all the other things, but he was certainly one of the best. One of the first players I heard that played that style - he and Dizzy Gillespie of course. Gillespie's style was a little different but it was still bebop. Charlie Parker's style was to me more coherent. To me he was more understandable, because I think he used his knowledge of chords in a way that most people could understand. And people like Bud Powell was also one of those people. Almost any of the great players did that. Coleman Hawkins - he had a wonderful knowledge of chords, [but] he expressed his harmonic knowledge in a different way. Had he played alto he may have sounded somewhat like Charlie Parker! But on the tenor it just sounds different anyway because the tonality is different....now Cannonball Adderley -he was a Charlie Parker devotee...and then there was Sonny Stitt. You can't mention Charlie Parker without mentioning Sonny Stitt! (laughter)...Sonny was perhaps his greatest disciple and Sonny played tenor equally as well.

AAJ: Did Sonny talk a lot about Charlie Parker?

HJ: No he didn't. He didn't talk a lot about him, but you could tell he admired the style, because that was the style that he emulated. They were contemporaries, so I don't know who's first or second because when I first met Sonny Stitt he was playing in Saginaw, Michigan. Sonny was playing that way then. It might have been one of those cases of parallel development and this happens I think frequently. Scientists sometimes do things like that, they make simultaneous discoveries or whatever, and I think it happens in music. Not a lot. But it certainly happens with things sometimes, and this could have been a case like that. It's just that Charlie Parker was in an environment where he could be heard and recognized much earlier and much more often. Sonny was in an environment where he wasn't being heard. Just playing that way, you know, you don't develop that style over night!

AAJ: What made you want to learn this language?

HJ: When I first came to New York I guess in the mid '40s, '44 or something like that, that's what I heard. That was the first thing I heard, other than playing with [Oran] "Hot Lips" Page right across the street at the Onyx club [on 52nd street] - he was definitely not playing bebop; Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the people that played at the Three Deuces were. And I used to go over and listen to them between sets, and whenever I wasn't working, I would go down there and listen. And that's what I heard, Charlie Parker with his group - Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell or Al Haig, or Max Roach, people like that. But that's the first style that I heard and of course I liked it. I thought it was great stuff.

AAJ: Was there any division between musicians at the time in terms of that style?

HJ: Most established musicians didn't care for the style. They had a hard time breaking in, [and] they sort of looked down on it, [as] sort of the "stepchild" of jazz music at that time. Actually I think it sort of took over, you can hear it in all places in [this] music. In arrangements, the better players more or less use that style. In other words it has seeped into the jazz pres-ence, [and] consciousness [of] most musicians of this period as well as during that period. It took a long time for it to be recognized as a musical form, [as] a lot of people just put it down all together. It wasn't widely accepted at first, but it gradually grew, [and] so it grew in acceptance. I think that means it has something of worth that's lasting and worthwhile, keeping and preserving. It will always be there. I think there will always be some form of it around.

AAJ: Well, it must tickle you a little to see that people can actually go to school to study [this] kind of music.

HJ: Well I think that's sort of the proof positive of the fact that [this music] is a positive thing, that it is a lasting form of music and that it has a future. Because what would be the point of teaching it if it had no future and if it wasn't worthwhile? I think they teach it because a lot of the students in colleges and music schools ask for it. This is what they want, and a lot of these people are converts from rock [music], by the way. I think [jazz] is viable, it's energetic, and to play it well it requires prodigious technique as you can probably imagine. [You need a] great knowledge of harmony, and flexibility, [and] fluency.

AAJ: I noticed that there was a younger pianist, Geoffrey Keezer that put out an album of your compositions [Sublime - Honoring the Music of Hank Jones, Telarc].

HJ: I was amazed. I said "oh my goodness!" It was a wonderful compliment to me. Not sure I deserved it, but I think it was quite an honor for me to have somebody do that, and Geoffrey is a fine pianist on his own.

AAJ: There's a bunch of different duos with four different pianists: Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, and Benny Green. He said he was inspired by the duo work that you did with Tommy Flanagan. What was it about duo playing with Tommy that was special to you?

HJ: Well Tommy had a very, very good knowledge of harmony. He played a great clean style you know, and his style was somewhat similar to mine although I think he was the better player. It was easy working with him. We thought along the same lines harmonically. The first time we did that was on a date that he owed to Fantasy [Records]. He owed them one date left on his contract for some agreement he had with them. I was in California at the time with Ella, and Tommy was there, I guess with his trio and he called me and said, "Would you like to do a [recording] date? I have a date to finish for this company." And so I said why not? We did the date without any rehearsal, any preparation, just walked in and did it.

AAJ: What's important to you as a rhythm section player?

HJ: With bass players obviously you have to be on the same page harmonically. At least if you are not on the same page, you have to be in the same ball park because there are so many variations of chords and bass notes. A lot of bass players don't play what we like to call pure bass notes, they run all up and down the scale. Well this makes it a little more difficult for pianists because it interferes with our musical train of thought. You don't have to play the same note, you don't have to play four notes of C or G or E whatever. You can move, but running up and down the scale playing irrelevant notes that are not primarily bass notes really interfere with the continuity of harmony because harmony is built on the bass note. If the bass isn't there you are building something in thin air. In other words the bassist has to be in harmony with the piano - no pun intended - otherwise it's going to sound pretty strange. The other thing is the bass play-er has to keep very, very, good time, and that applies of course, now we can move on, to the drummer. The first requirement to me for a drummer is to play correct good time, and keep, not necessarily perfect time, [but] at least not rush and not slow down.

AAJ: You like somebody right in the pocket.

HJ: Exactly. When that doesn't happen you can't do anything else. He might be a great soloist, but if he doesn't play good time the whole thing is baseless. The drummer shouldn't play too many [drumming] bombs. He should play interesting things. He can sort of feed the pianist, [and] do things that kind of stimulate the thinking without overshadowing.

AAJ: I've heard some musicians say that the bebop language would be nothing without the rhythmic aspect.

HJ: I agree with that, and it's primarily concerned with the drums and perhaps the bass. You can't play bebop on a horn by yourself, you know. It's effective only if it's done with the rhythm section, so naturally the rhythm plays a big part in that.

AAJ: Not only have you played alongside Parker, and Hawkins and Ben Webster, but you've also recorded with Anthony Braxton [Seven Standards 1985, Magenta-Windham Hill].

HJ: That's right. I was surprised. I didn't know Anthony before the date, and I didn't know anything about his reputation. I didn't know what style of music he played. When I first heard him I thought he sounded quite a bit different from the people that I had been used to playing with; we were playing something in the bebop vein [on that date]. There was a period of adjustment there for about the first hour you know, but we came close, as close as anybody can come to being on the same playing field. I think he did a great job on that album. A lot of people liked it, they were surprised to find that I was playing with him because his style was supposed to be so different than mine, because it is. But I think we managed to come pretty close together on that particular date...That's good for you. See it broadens your whole scope, it's a mind opening experience. It teaches you that there are a lot of things out there that are good to know about and to learn about. It gets you out of your own little small world...It's a mind expanding experience, and that's what I liked about that date.

AAJ: You've been around long enough to see so many different changes going on in the music, different things being pushed under the jazz umbrella in terms of Ornette Coleman and what Coltrane and your brother [Elvin] were doing in the '60s. But it seems to me that you've been pretty consistent with the music you want to play in the style you wanted to play. Were you making conscious choices in regards to that?

HJ: In a sense. But a lot of those things just happened. Whatever style I play is the style that is most compatible for me. I think it varies with each player. Some people don't want to stick to the straight and narrow sort of speak, so they branch out, they want to do something different [but] I always thought that something different is not always necessarily something good. Just being different for the sake of being different is not necessarily a good thing. If it means something, if it's viable, then do it. And I think in my case the things that I have tried to do are viable for me because they're the things that seem right to me. They seem compatible to my particular preferences. Even though my style hasn't remained static, I think it's changed over the years, and that I think falls in line with what I believe in: the things that I think I should be doing, [and] the direction I should be going in. In other words they conform to my train of thought. I've heard a lot of things [that] I don't agree with and therefore I don't want to go in that direction. I think that's true of anybody, any style.



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