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Interviews

A Fireside Chat with Hank Jones

By Published: October 27, 2003

By the way, Fred, he was one of these people who could sit down and write a score and write out the instruments one by one without using the score. In other words, he would take a piece of paper and write out a first saxophone part in its entirety from start to finish without the score. He would do the same thing with the trumpets, the trombones, the piano, the bass, without a score. He did that when he first started arranging and so he had a great, natural talent for arranging. At that time, perhaps his talent for arranging was equal to his playing ability. I think they were both rather equal. It was just that he relegated the solo work to the other guys in the band, which was pretty generous of him because he himself was such a great soloist.

Later on, when he began to play with the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones band, he wrote a lot more. His arrangements are outstanding and unique. Almost every college band in the country has a full supply of Thad Jones arrangements and high school bands as well. They are pretty difficult to play so many high school bands can't play them, but college bands love these things. Every place I go, they have some Thad Jones arrangements in the book. His arrangements are quite popular in Europe as well. So his talents were just phenomenal.

He was also a very unique conductor. His conducting style was very visual. When you watched him conduct, you expected something great to happen and certainly, it did. Thad passed much, much before his time, but he certainly left a great legacy with his music and his playing.

FJ: Did you have any indication when Elvin was younger that he would become an icon of the music?

HJ: I had a thought that he might. Of course, you never know these things. You are not psychic, but I think the interest that he showed in the music and drums early on was an indicator that he might make it a career and he certainly has. He has gone a lot further than, I am sure, he even expected to go. He's become an icon. He is regarded as one of the trendsetters in the drum category and he is an excellent player. We did a date not too long ago, maybe six months ago with Richard Davis playing bass, Elvin on drums, and myself on piano. [The Great Jazz Trio, Autumn Leaves (441 Music, 2003)]

FJ: Did Elvin have trouble keeping up with you?

HJ: I had a hard time keeping up with him (laughing).

FJ: I find that hard to believe.

HJ: (Laughing) He has energy to burn. If you've watched him play, he has endless store of energy. It comes out in bursts, sustained bursts. There is fire in the belly with him. He has got it going.

FJ: Has anyone you have collaborated with made more of an impression on you than the others?

HJ: There are several people. Of course, there are some people that I didn't play with like Art Tatum, whose influence still is part of me. I think he is the greatest pianist who ever lived as far as jazz is concerned and maybe the greatest pianist period because he was improvising. He was creating at the same time that he was performing.

Anyway, the person who made the greatest, lasting impression on me was Charlie Parker. I had this brief experience with him on JATP. I never worked a club date with him, but the experiences on JATP was overwhelming. Everything he played was a masterpiece. I think that applies to most of his recordings. I did one recording with him. His creative ability and he had technique to use all his ideas and he had endless stream of ideas. He was like Tatum in that respect.

And his tone, which a lot of people forget, his tone was extraordinary. He had a perfect alto saxophone tone. A lot of the players today don't have that tone. He had a certain smoothness and a certain ease of playing that made it seem ridiculously easy, but we both know that it is not easy, but he made it sound easy. I think that is one of his chief assets. This is the way Tatum played by the way, without effort, just phenomenal. Words don't exist to describe his playing. When I first met Art Tatum... of course, I had heard Art Tatum long before I came to New York.

When I first heard Art Tatum, they were playing some of his recordings on a radio station in Detroit. I had thought that this was a gag and that they were trying to make us believe that only one man was playing this and I knew that there were at least three or four people playing this. I didn't see how one man could do that. This was my first impression of Art. Later on, when I was in Buffalo, Art Tatum used to work at a place in Buffalo on the other side of town from where I worked. We played our last set before Art played his last set, so when we finished, we would go over there and listen to Art play. What a thrill that was to listen to maybe thirty minutes. He wasn't playing the best piano in the world, but he made it sound like a concert grand. After that, after playing his last set there, he would go into downtown Buffalo and play until eleven that day, solo, just playing and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.



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