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A Fireside Chat with Hank Jones

By Published: October 27, 2003

HJ: That was some time later. The year actually was 1947 because that was the first year that I started touring with JATP (Jazz at the Philharmonic). It was interesting because the singer with JATP at that time was Helen Humes. She was quite a singer and quite a star. Ella came on after her and of course, Ray Brown, at the time was in the process of being married to Ella and so Ray was, of course, the bassist in the group.

We had a little trio. That was a pretty good trio, Charlie Smith on drums, Ray Brown on bass, and I was holding up the piano end and so that was interesting. That was during the periods when she wasn't touring with JATP. When we were with JATP, that was a special group with Buddy Rich on drums and Ray Brown on bass and myself and maybe Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Charlie Shavers or Roy Eldridge. That was a very interesting musical group. I learned a lot. I kept my ears wide open and learned quite a bit on that tour. We did two tours a year, one in the spring and one in the fall.

FJ: Accompanying a vocalist is audibly refined when compared to improvising within a tenor or trumpet group.

HJ: It is. It is quite different than any other mode of playing, whether it is a big band or small band. Accompanying is a special art. You have to learn it. The usual instincts that you have for playing piano don't apply when you are accompanying because you have to support the soloist. You have to support the soloist and you can't really be yourself so to speak because you have to always provide background and foundation for the singer. I learned a lot about accompanying from Ella. It was really a learning experience the whole time I was there. She liked to have blocked chord fills in the background, sort of like an orchestral like sound, rather than the single line fills that some people use. Ella didn't like that so much.

FJ: How long was your tenure at CBS?

HJ: I was the staff pianist and also acted as rehearsal pianist at times and audition pianist at times. There were four of us on at the time. I got a lot of work because the others were assigned to do other things and we also played for people like Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan and a couple of other shows that didn't make it. It was quite a busy period. During the rehearsals, playing for auditions, and playing with the big shows, I was pretty well occupied. Also, we did a radio show for part of that time. We did two radio shows. One was a Dixieland show and the other was the modern jazz show. It was a very interesting period. I learned a lot there too.

FJ: Being the house pianist for CBS, one has to adapt to any situation that may arise.

HJ: That's true. Usually, but not always, there was a rehearsal. As you said, you have to be able to adjust to the different styles, which, of course, is another learning experience. I think all of this goes into making you more versatile pianist, in that you learn how to do a variety of things in a variety of situations. I think that all helps you and I am sure that it helped me.

FJ: Do you have a preferred setting?

HJ: Actually, I prefer the trio setting because not only do you have a lot more chances to play, but you also have the support of the bass and the drums. The group that I have now, which is an excellent group, you couldn't find better musicians in the world than Dennis Mackrel on drums and George Mraz on bass. I am very fortunate in that respect. I enjoy the trio format more. There is greater opportunity for versatility. You can play a greater variety of things than you can do in other formats just because you have a chance to play a lot more.

FJ: On A Handful of Keys, you play the music of Fats Waller.

HJ: I played solo. I had done the Broadway show "Ain't Misbehavin'" prior to that time and Jean-Philippe Allard, who was the A&R man for that section of the company, suggested that I do a Fats Waller album. I tried to play as many of his compositions as I could. It had a certain swing that was typical of Fats Waller. That was an interesting thing. I am not sure I did it so well, but I did the best I could.

FJ: Then came Upon Reflection, an album of your late brother Thad's music. Give me your thoughts on the music of Thad Jones.

HJ: Many people don't know this, Fred, but when he had the big band, he didn't play so much. He let the other trumpet players play the solos. He had some great soloists, Pepper Adams and people like that. But he was a great soloist. Prior to the time he left Detroit, he played almost continuously as a soloist. He played a lot more than what he did when he got to New York. When he arrived in New York, he reverted to his other great talent, which was arranging.

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