April PBS Special Honors Life, Music and Photos of Milt Hinton

Chris M. Slawecki By

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I only wanted to be a good bass player. I wanted to support people. My whole theory of life is about that.
You don't have to be a great person to be a great musician. It's great if and when it happens, but it seems that it rarely does.

Milt Hinton seems a joyous exception to this rule. By all accounts a great person AND musician, he is celebrated with the new documentary Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton, scheduled for April 12 broadcast on most PBS television stations as part of Independent Lens' April Music Month on PBS.

Keeping Time was produced by David G. Berger and Holly Maxson, directed by the pair with Kate Hirson, who also edited the film, and narrated—powerfully —by Emmy Award-winner Jeffrey Wright. Berger holds a long personal history with his subject: As an aspiring teenage bassist, he first met Hinton in 1955 to pursue lessons with the master. The two remained friends through subsequent decades and Berger eventually served as Hinton's collaborator on two books of photography: Bass Line: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton (Temple University Press, 1988, honored as JazzTimes Book of the Year) and Over Time: The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton (Pomegranate Art Books, 1991). Maxson, degreed in photography and printmaking, was hired by Berger to help preserve and catalogue Hinton's original photos in preparing these books for publication. A veteran film editor who recently won an Emmy Award in editing for Judy Garland - All By Myself, Hirson herewith makes her directorial debut.

Keeping Time documents and honors Hinton the person, the bassist, and the photographer, telling his story in words (through interviews with Hinton, Branford Marsalis, George Wein, Quincy Jones and others), in photographic and video images, and in music. Hinton took nearly every photograph and played on almost every song that appears in this documentary, and so plays a large part in telling his own story.

What a story! From the late 1920s through the late 1990s, Hinton held the bottom down for music's best. It began in earnest in the 1930s, Keeping Time maintains, when "his percussive innovations" on bass landed Hinton in Cab Calloway's orchestra. He stayed with Calloway until the early 1950s, many musical lifetimes in jazz.

The Bass Player

Hinton thereafter turned a chance meeting with old friend Jackie Gleason on the streets of Manhattan into opportunity and became the first black artist to perform as a CBS staff / studio musician. He also continued to play in small and large all-star jazz festival ensembles—Keeping Time showcases a mean Hinton bass solo from a 1984 performance with, among others, Clark Terry—until his passing in 2000. "I never wanted to be an orchestra leader," Hinton tells the camera. "I only wanted to be a good bassist. I wanted to support people. My whole theory of life is about that."

Review of one online Hinton discography (pages upon pages!) shows him supporting almost every major, jazz-shaping artist—he's found, for example, on such jazz classics as Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul, The Billie Holiday Songbook, and on Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars in Concert, 1954. Hinton recorded with great artists outside of jazz, too, such as Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis, Sam Cooke, Bill Haley and numerous others. His most successful sessions as a leader include Here Swings the Judge with Ben Webster, Jon Faddis and Budd Johnson (Famous Door, 1964) and Old Man Time (Chiaroscuro, 1990), a reunion with Terry, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Big Joe Williams and other longtime friends.

Just one of several great stories from Keeping Time: The ring finger on Hinton's left hand was saved by none other than the legendary Al Capone! One of Hinton's uncles ran liquor through prohibition-era Chicago for Capone, and young Hinton was in his uncle's car when it suffered a serious accident. Hinton's left ring finger was almost severed; he wanted to save it but the emergency room doctors wanted to amputate. When Capone arrived at the hospital to check on the safety of his people, he told the doctors that if Hinton did not want the finger cut off, they were NOT to amputate it. The doctors listened. And obeyed.

The Photographer

Hinton received a camera as a birthday gift around 1935. "Milt understood the historical significance of the world he had become a part of," narrates Wright. "With his new camera, he set out to document it, bringing to photography the same passion and humanity which he brought to his bass playing." Hinton's body of photographic work eventually totaled more than 60,000 pictures.

"Everybody didn't get to travel like we did, to be in all these wonderful towns, these little cities, and the wonderful people," Hinton explains, "So I decided to take pictures of all the guys and the places where we were playing, not thinking of ever using it for any publicity. I just wanted to make a record and have it on hand. I was only thinking of seeing us as we see ourselves."

He repeats later, "I just wanted to take the musicians, the way we see each other, not the way the photographers see us."

By presenting Hinton's photographs and videos, Keeping Time documents events that Hinton himself documented. These include the sad final session recorded by Billie Holiday ("It just wasn't there any more," allows Hinton) and, more happily, video footage of the legendary 1958 A Great Day in Harlem cover photoshoot for Esquire Magazine, video shot by Hinton's wife Mona on a small, hand-held camera.

It also displays a stunning array of candid portraits from his countless studio sessions, featuring Streisand, Franklin, Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, Cannonball Adderly, Benny Goodman, and Harry Belafonte, and concludes with a "now and then" photo sequence of Hinton's greatest jazz associates, including Calloway, Gillespie and Williams, ending with a warm and wonderful portrait of Hinton himself.

The joy Hinton found in photography is as obvious as the joy he discovered in bass playing. "I say that's the closest that a man can come to having a child, is to create something like that, to see it grow," he enthuses about watching film develop.

Says author and documentary filmmaker Richard B. Woodward: "I think he photographed very much as a bassist. He's selfless, a supporting player. A bassist stands in the back and sees everything that's happening, and observes."


Keeping Time justly brims to bursting with praise for Hinton the person. Marsalis, one of dozens of younger musicians counseled by the elder bass statesman, cogently wraps up the bassist, the photographer, and the person in this single statement: "The blues are the consummate statement of optimism. Always! Because, no matter how bad it is, the way the man or woman is singing, there's always another tomorrow. And I think Milt captured that better than anybody. You don't get the sense that it weighs on him too much. He sees the good in people. He's an eternal optimist and you see it in the pictures. It's awesome."

Independent Lens' April Music Month will also feature the broadcast premiers of Parliament Funkadelic: A Lion's Trail and End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones.


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