Dick Hyman: The Beat Goes On

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Composer, arranger, bandleader, pianist, soloist and accompanist Dick Hyman has already lived several jazz lifetimes, and as he contemplates his 86th birthday in March 2013, his career shows no sign of slowing down.

A New York City native, Hyman served as pianist with a Dixieland band and with Lester Young at the December 1949 opening of Birdland. He served as pianist for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they blew through "Hot House" on network TV in 1952 (the only known surviving video with audio of Parker).

If you add up his own live and studio sessions, orchestral compositions, and movie soundtracks and scores, you will find more than 100 titles under Dick Hyman's name. Early recordings such as Dick Hyman & His Trio (1961, Command) featured impeccable jazz turns through showtunes and standards by Cole Porter, Fats Waller and Rodgers & Hammerstein, all of whom continue to inspire his piano playing. The Eclectic Electrics of Dick Hyman (1969, Varese) stood among the first albums to explore the Moog synthesizer, and even scored a Billboard hit single ("The Minotaur"). In 1977, he recorded A Child is Born (Chiaroscuro), a solo piano album that transfigured its title track into the styles of eleven different pianists. A subsequent series of solo albums brilliantly reflected upon the compositions of Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and other writers of the Great American Songbook.

Hyman's soundtrack work includes The Wiz (1997, MCA), A League of Their Own (1992, Columbia) and the shimmering Moonstruck (1988, Capitol). His music has helped shape twelve different Woody Allen films, and his taste and dexterity for classic jazz play essential parts in some of Allen's most evocative, New York-centered cinematic visions, such as Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and especially Radio Days (1987). You can even see Hyman in front of the camera, in his cameo as a bandleader in Allen's Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001).

Even so, Hyman's own discography barely contains his lifetime of music. He served as arranger, conductor and pianist for Twyla Tharp's jazz-inspired dances Eight Jelly Rolls (1971), The Bix Pieces (1971) and Baker's Dozen (1979), and served in the same capacity for The Dance Theater of Dallas' choreographed production of Miles Davis: Porgy & Bess with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (1983). He won an Emmy® Award for his musical direction of a PBS television special on Eubie Blake, and another for his score to the children's special Sunshine's on the Way.

Session credits include work with such legends as Tony Bennett (Snowfall [1994, Columbia]), Ella Fitzgerald (1954—'55 [2008, Classics]), Coleman Hawkins (Hawk Talk [1996, Tradition]), Antonio Carlos Jobim (A Certain Mr. Jobim [1967, Warner Bros.]), Quincy Jones (Smackwater Jack [1991, A&M]), Wes Montgomery (Fusion! Wes Montgomery with Strings [1999, Original Jazz Classics]) and Perez Prado (Voodoo Suite/The Exotic Suite of the Americas [1990, Bear Family]).

And the beat goes on: Hyman has celebrated and spent his 85th year by wrapping up four new projects spanning 2012-'13.

Late Last Summer (2012, Left Ear Music) teams the pianist for the first time with his daughter Judy, on a series of original waltzes written by Judy and arranged by daughter and father to honor members and memories of their family and friends. Judy Hyman records and tours as violinist for The Horse Flies and for Natalie Merchant.

"Late last summer," Judy wrote in her liner notes, "my father and I spent a week in a studio recording some waltzes I've written over the past ten years or so. We had never recorded together before, despite his lengthy career as a jazz pianist, music director, and composer and my work as a violinist/fiddler, composer and teacher. With his 85th and my 60th birthdays approaching, this seemed like a beautiful way for us to connect and collaborate."

"The project turned out to be a deeply emotional experience for both of us."

Listening to this project turns out to be a deeply emotional experience, too. "Johnny's Gone" sings a haunting elegy for Horse Flies co-founder John Hayward in Dick's unmistakable, pristine yet soft solo piano voice. It is beautiful enough to make the hardest heart weep. "Julia" respectively celebrates their mother and wife; "Beth," for Judy's sister/ Dick's daughter, bounces on deeply rolling piano like she's surfboarding boogie woogie piano waves. And "Breathe" is splendidly if inscrutably notated: "For when you're not breathing, but ought to..."

Lock My Heart (2013, Red House) presents Hyman in another duet, with vocalist Heather Masse from the Canadian folk duo the Wailin' Jennys. The duo met when they appeared on the same episode of Garrison Keillor's radio show A Prarie Home Companion; Masse has also appeared with Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing ensemble and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Folk and swing may be Masse's standard trade, but on Lock My Heart she rolls and tumbles with her pianist through the blues. Full of breathless reverence and wonder, her voice haunts this thoroughly mesmerizing, opening version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Masse rips into the closing verses of a slow-rolling "Since I Fell for You," and wistfully wonders why "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," while Hyman adorns her in twinkling blue ripples.

Hyman allows his fondness for jazz-related showtunes to shine through the Kurt Weill medley "September Song/Lost in the Stars," which Masse grounds in her lower register, as solid and warm and polished as elegant mahogany.

Dick Hyman & Ken Peplowski...Live at the Kitano (2013, Victoria Records) captures the pianist's improvisatory duets with clarinet and saxophonist Ken Peplowski recorded live at the Kitano in New York City. This Peplowski live date echoes Hyman's series of duets with Dixieland/swing cornet player Ruby Braff, which includes Play Nice Tunes (1996, Arbors) and Music from My Fair Lady (1989, Concord Jazz) and Music from South Pacific (1991, Concord Jazz).

Hyman brings Peplowski back to the Richard Rodgers songbook for the opening "Blue Room," which steadily builds a lively monument to their joint taste, technique and telepathy. Hyman's rhythms lead the bluegrass traditional "Yellow Dog Blues" to roam through open fields of piano boogie, while Peplowski somehow finds space for his clarinet to thrive in between the pianist's quicksilver left and right hands.

The dynamic duo illuminates two Thelonious Monk tunes: Peplowski's playful clarinet sound energizes the whimsical, unique charm of "I Mean You," as Hyman dances through his unaccompanied break, and then they chase each other around angular circles until somehow arriving at the ending together. "Ugly Beauty" is more reflective and gentle, with clarinet and piano gently nuzzling, wandering off from and then returning to, Monk's melody.

Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano—Transcribed! (2012, Hal Leonard Books), the fourth project, provides exact transcriptions and notations of Dick's commentary and playing that he first recorded on the CD-DVD Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano for Arbors Records in 2009. It features thirteen theory and practice lessons that begin before Scott Joplin and culminate in modal post-bop; the DVD is filled with close-ups of Hyman's hands as he plays and dissects these tunes and techniques. Hyman's instruction and explanations are exquisite and profound (for example, using Tchaikovsky to introduce the lesson on Erroll Garner).

"In the 1990s, I recorded a history of jazz piano which eventually became the present book, Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano—Transcribed!," he wrote in its Preface. "When I began playing professionally in New York in the 1950s, jazz morphed from swing to bebop almost overnight, and in the recording, radio and television studios where I most often found myself, I came to understand that this evolution was a natural part of history, and that a professional player should be aware of the distinctions among piano styles and be able to play appropriately in whatever situation he found himself."

Who could possibly be more qualified to teach this course?

A Yamaha artist, Dick Hyman has won seven Most Valuable Player Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and is a member of the Jazz Hall of Fame of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies.

All About Jazz: There's a great line in one of your online biographies: "Dick Hyman once recorded an album on which he played A Child Is Born in the styles of eleven different pianists, from Scott Joplin to Cecil Taylor." Please share some of your recollections about this album?

Dick Hyman: It was recorded for Chiaroscuro Records, 1977, and the producer was my friend Hank O'Neal. I will read you what I wrote for this release: "A few years ago, John Gensel, Doctor of Divinity and Associate Pastor of St. Peter's Church in New York, whose jazz ministry has helped and inspired countless musicians, encouraged me to work up a concert lecture on the history of jazz piano. I had been preparing this material, in effect, for most of my career but hadn't realized until John's generous offer to have me perform that I could actually put it together. Since the first trials at the church and at John's class at Wagner College, I've played the history many times, usually selecting specific pieces from the various periods that illustrate the evolution of jazz piano. Once, however, a little before one of John's classes was about to begin, it occurred to me to play all of the styles I explore as variations on one tune: 'A Child Is Born' by Thad Jones. This song, which has lyrics by Alex Wilder, proved surprisingly adaptable, and the present recording was an outgrowth of this occasion—not the concert lecture itself, but an unexpected dividend from it."

Since that time, I've continued to do my "History of Jazz Piano," and that culminated in the package of discs for Arbors Records which was called Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano. And more recently, I transcribed the DVD that is part of that set of discs with text and everything I played on that disc; so, that's called Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano Transcribed. It's in book form, with the DVD inserted and published by Hal Leonard Music.

AAJ: Not yet: Who were the eleven pianists?

DH: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Cecil Taylor, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and myself. However, the record has never been reissued, even as a CD. I don't know the status of the company, whether it's still in business or not, but the recording remains only as a pretty obsolete LP.

AAJ: How did you get started? Did you take lessons as a child or was there a piano in your home or were your parents musicians or...?

DH: There was music in the family and my principal influences were two: When I got old enough to take lessons, I studied with my uncle, Anton Rovinsky, who had been a concert pianist. But more to the point, when I was a kid, I had a big brother, Arthur, six years older than me, and he actually showed me around the keyboard—and even more important than that, he began to bring home the reissues of all the classic jazz things from the 1920s and '30s. My brother has since passed. His middle name was Charlap (like Bill, who's actually a distant relative).
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