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A Fireside Chat with Hank Jones

AAJ Staff By

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When I first heard Art Tatum... 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.
An icon of the music, but one so humble, his accolades and achievements are never heard above a whisper. His impact, however, is elephantine and certain to linger long after I am six feet under. Take Master Class (a reissue of Bebop Redux and Groovin’ High ), a testament to the pianist’s sensitive lyricism and gentle swing, Jones is a personal fav. I am pleased to present the Brother to Thad and Elvin, mentor to numerous, and favorite of mine, Mr. Hank Jones, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.

Hank Jones: I think the biggest influence on me was the fact that both my parents were musical, my father and my mother. My father played guitar and my mother played piano. There was always music in the house. We had a piano and we had a record player. There was always in the house and I think that inspired me. The records that I heard at the time with Duke Ellington and a lot of blues records as a matter of fact. I think some Earl Hines records were around at the time, so there was always music there.

I took lessons. I was ten or eleven years old when I first started to take lessons. However, my two older sisters had taken lessons prior to the time I took them. The same teacher, as a matter of fact, taught all of us. I took lessons as long as the funds held out. We were a poor family. My father managed to work during the Depression, which is the period in which I grew up, or part of the period. But his income was not that large and the amount that was set aside for lessons was relatively small because we did have to eat and we had a fairly large family at that time. At the time, it was six and it later grew to ten. There was always a lot of places for money to go, too many places and not enough money. They did provide lessons for me for a considerable period. When I grew older, when I moved to New York, I began to take lessons on my own.

FJ: Brothers Thad and Elvin are recognized figures in the music. You mentioned your two older sisters played the piano. How many others members of the Jones family were musically inclined?

HJ: Well, there were six boys and four girls. My oldest sister was a very talented person and was considered a child prodigy at the time. Unfortunately, she died in a ice skating accident on the lake. That was at an early age. She was only twelve at the time. My next oldest sister took lessons, but she was not as interested in the piano. Then I was next and I was very much interested in piano and music. I couldn't hear enough records. I listened constantly to everything that I could get my hands on. I had a very good teacher, who encouraged my playing and my getting into jazz. Of course, most piano students start off not studying jazz, but studying Bach and Beethoven and so forth and exercises. These things all helped.

FJ: Tell me about your move to New York.

HJ: Well, I did in a series of steps, incremental steps. First, I worked local places in Flint, Michigan and Lansing, Michigan, but then I began to move west, you might say. I went to Cleveland for about a year and a half with a small band, working a nightclub there. One of the better known players in New York, Tadd Dameron, his brother was a member of that band. From Cleveland, I moved to Buffalo and worked in a small club with a bass, tenor, and piano trio, a rather unusual trio. I stayed there for about a year and a half and then moved onto New York, where I had a job waiting for me with Hot Lips Page. Lucky Thompson, who used to work in the small groups I worked in in Lansing and Flint... and Lucky Thompson had gone to New York a year or so before I did and he joined the Hot Lips Page Orchestra.

Shortly after that, I guess Hot Lips Page needed somebody to play piano and so Lucky mentioned my name and I got a letter from Hot Lips Page saying that if I came to New York, I would have a job waiting for me and so my first job in New York was with Hot Lips Page. I was lucky in that respect.

FJ: Have you heard any news of Lucky Thompson?

HJ: He was a great player. Lucky was one of the unique players. His idol was Don Byas and of course, Coleman Hawkins. He had a phenomenal style.

FJ: Did he ever indicate to you as to the reasons behind his departure from the music?

HJ: We never really got into that, but I think, in my opinion, it had something to do with his two sons, whom he was raising because his wife was not around at the time. I think she had passed. He had to raise these boys and I think he had a very difficult time raising these two boys. Of course, he tried to do the very best job that he could, but it is very difficult for a man to make a living playing music and also take care of the family end of it, raising the boys and providing a good home for them and making an income. I think that is one of the reasons why he dropped out. There may have been other reasons, but I am not aware of them.

FJ: How did you get the gig with Ella Fitzgerald?

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?

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