Hank Jones: Havin' Fun

Jason West BY

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I wanted to reach a certain level [of playing]. But then, after you reach that level, there
Hank Jones last performed at Jazz Alley in the summer of 2002, appearing each night of his week-long residency buttoned up in a black tuxedo. On that Saturday evening, July 20, the venerable 84-year-old was warmly welcomed by his first-set audience as he took the stage and settled himself at the piano bench, looking less like a jazz musician than a classical maestro about to begin a recital of masterworks. Which, of course, he did.

But instead of Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven, the pianist offered melodies penned by his 52nd Street contemporaries. Jones, Dennis Mackrel (drums) and Darryl Hall (bass), bopped like butterflies in Central Park to Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk,"? Charlie Parker's "Au Privave,"? Dizzy Gillespie's intro to "Star Eyes"? and Denzil Best's "Allen's Alley."? And, unlike the stereotypical classical pianist whose on-stage persona suggests dramatic distance and cool perfection, Jones seemed at ease as the life of the party, evoking smiles from his trio mates while acknowledging choruses of approval for great musical moments as they occurred.

The next afternoon I discovered that Jones' good nature flourishes off-stage as well. When asked about playing piano he replied, "Gee, I wish I knew how to play the piano—I've been trying for years."? When faced with my onslaught of prepared interview questions he volleyed, "Fire when ready, Gridley."? And the laughs came long and often as he recalled the sublime details of shooting a TV commercial for Panasonic in Japan, wrapped in a kimono, declaring "Yakamundo!"? (roughly translated: "It's cool, man!"?) take after take.

In fact, a steady diet of music and laughter helped the Jones family survive Jim Crow racism in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Hank was born, and Depression-era poverty in Pontiac, Michigan, where Thad and Elvin joined their older brother. A failed Army physical during World War II (flat feet), the hustle and rush of 52nd Street, and 17 years with the CBS orchestra (auditioning singers, dogs and even elephant acts) were met with a smile—never a bottle, cigarette or needle.

Today, at home in Hartwick, NY, his grin has grown to include a wife of 40-plus years, a daughter, grandson and countless accolades as a jazz pianist. And, to Hank tell it, there's always more music to study, a better player to become.

All About Jazz: Tell me a little about your family life as a child.

Hank Jones: My mother and my father were both musical. My father played some guitar, not professionally, mostly for his own amusement. My mother played piano, again, not professionally. They both read music well. My mother played mostly church songs and at that time a lot of the church music was written with what they called shaped notes — they were not oval shaped, they were triangular shaped notes, and I had difficulty reading because I was not used to seeing that kind of stuff. They both were musical. My mother loved music. My father loved it too, but he didn't particularly care for jazz. He liked religious music. If I played at all he wanted me to play at church, which I did for several years. He was happiest when I was doing that.

AAJ: Was your mother your first piano teacher?

HJ: No, not really. I started taking lessons early on from a young teacher who was actually going to school herself at the time. She was a brilliant pianist and also a very fine singer.

AAJ: What was her name?

HJ: Pauline Frisbee. Her maiden name was McCaughan. She was excellent. She was giving concerts all over town. I guess she was still a teenager. She was teaching us. She taught both my older sisters and myself on the same day. We got the economy plan. My oldest sister, Olive, became a concert pianist. She was child prodigy. She later drowned in Lake Michigan — broke my mother's heart — because she was so talented, unbelievable. But, you know, the rest of us carry on.

AAJ: I imagine with your father not being particularly fond of jazz, and yet you clearly were interested in it and pursued it — how did you get the confidence to do that?

HJ: Well, my mother gave me a lot of encouragement. And when you grow up in a small town like Pontiac where everybody knows everybody else in town, news gets around if they think you can play or play halfway decently, then you get a lot of offers to accompany the local singers and that's what I did. I played on a lot of local programs and so forth. Inevitably there's always a small group that forms, a little jazz group. The oldest guy in the group was 16. I was 13 and we played all over town. That's how I got started.

AAJ: You didn't feel pressure from older musicians?

HJ: No, because there weren't any older musicians playing at parties. We were the only ones. We were the only game in town so we had it all to ourselves — what little there was in those days.

AAJ: Did you have a name for this group?

HJ: Well, I think one name we had was The Agony Provokers. [Laughter] What was it? The Bernard Brown Quartet. Bernard was the leader. He was the drummer. He had a huge set of drums. You couldn't see him behind the drums. He was invisible.

AAJ: I was able to read the interview that you did with Art Davis ( Notes and Tones , Da Capo Press) in which you tell a story about Art Tatum and listening to him play for hours and hour...

HJ: ...after he finished his job. There's a place called McVan's, in Buffalo. I worked with a tenor saxophone, bass and piano trio. We finished an hour before McVan's closed so we'd go over and hear Art's last set. After he finished the last set, he would go into a little restaurant in town and play until daylight, maybe 10 or 11 o'clock the next day. He loved to play. That's after he finished his regular job.

AAJ: You're a young man watching this incredible pianist — are you intimidated by this?

HJ: Not at all. I considered it a learning experience. I felt this was the greatest opportunity in the world for me to learn from a master — the master — because there's nobody else who plays like that. And I'm sitting there listening and watching and wondering 'How does he do this? I hear it but I don't believe it.' He did some of the most amazing things you can think of, with no effort. Total genius.

AAJ: That inspired you, then?

HJ: Of course. He was a consummate artist — the greatest source of inspiration. If you cannot be inspired by Art Tatum, you cannot be inspired. He evoked awe in anybody who heard him that had any musical sensitivity at all. I have no words to describe him. He's beyond description. He's way up here and everybody else is down here.

AAJ: Did you ever try to talk to him about music?

HJ: It's a funny thing, Art never talked music. Now, if you wanted to talk about sports, he was your man. He knew everything there is to know about just about any sport you can think of. He knew who the great players were. He knew their averages. He knew everything about sports. He never talked about music. So that's the secret: You should never talk about music; you can talk about anything else. [Laughter]

AAJ: After playing in Buffalo, you came to New York.

HJ: Yeah, I came to New York in 1944 and I immediately got involved in that 52nd Street scene. I heard some of the greatest music I ever heard in my life there because all the guys were there—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Don Byas. I worked at a place called the Onyx Club on 52nd Street with Hot Lips Page. You could go right across the street to the Three Deuces and hear Art Tatum. In fact, some nights I would take Art Tatum down on the subway to the club because he couldn't go by himself. I'd take him to work, pick him up, take him back. I lived up in Harlem on St. Nicholas near 145th St. Art lived in a hotel on 126th St. and Eighth Ave. So I used to drop him off after his gig at The Three Deuces, and then go on up to 145th.

AAJ: A lot of musicians in New York in the 40s and 50 were taking drugs. Did you ever experiment with drugs?

HJ: Never. I stayed as far away from that as I could, because I could see what was happening to guys like Char-lie Parker and other people worse off than Charlie, if you could be any worse off. I saw what it did to them and I said 'What are they doing?' When you take that first step, that's the mistake. They'd come up to you and say, 'Hey, man, why don't you try this, man, it'll make you feel good.' I'd say, no, no thanks. At least I had that much sense. So I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't do any of that stuff and that's probably why I'm still here. That stuff will take you down fast. Charlie would be alive today if it hadn't been for that stuff. Bud Powell would be alive. I know some guys that broke the habit, a couple of them are still around, but it didn't do them any good.

AAJ: In 1977 you started with a group called The Great Jazz Trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Tell me how that got going?

HJ: Well, actually it originated with the Japanese. That was there concept of The Great Jazz Trio. In fact, that was there title. We worked at the Village Vanguard for a week, that's the only club we ever worked, and we recorded there, but we did several recordings in Japan. It was interesting. I'd never worked with Ron or Tony before.

AAJ: What was that like?

HJ: Different. I had to adjust to what they were doing because apparently my style was too far away from theirs, so I had to get with it and I managed to get at least partially there. Tony was very flamboyant, lots of drums. He had about 5 or 6 different tom toms, besides his snare and the bass drum. He had a thing going where he could play by himself. He could do a whole show by himself. He was very good, but it was difficult at first, because I don't think he had been used to trio playing. Trio playing is a lot different than playing with a big band, so we had to learn how to work together, which we did, and some things turned out pretty well. I wish we had done more club dates together. It would have been easier to assimilate our styles playing clubs, instead of going out on a record date and trying to get it all together in one sitting — three or four hours and you've got to do the whole thing.

AAJ: You mentioned Tony, what about Ron? Was it hard to lock in with him on bass?

HJ: It was easier with Ron because Ron had done trio work before. But, finding the right kind of rhythm for trio work for a drummer who's used to playing big bands is not a very simple thing. You've got to work at it, so we had to work at it.

AAJ: You're generations older that the guys in your trio but there seems to be no age difference.

HJ: And there shouldn't be. There shouldn't be in music. Music is a universal language. It doesn't matter whether you are 6 or 60, if you can think musically. Then you combine what you think with what you play. It's all mental; it's in the mind. You transfer what goes on in your mind to your fingers and then you hope that the audience receives what you're transmitting.

AAJ: Is there a spiritual side to playing music?

HJ: Yes, I think so, to a certain extent. What ever you are, your personality comes out in your playing. That's why Charlie Parker could play the way he played. I like to think that Charlie had what I call a quiet mind. Regardless of what he did in his life he had a quiet mind. His mind was at rest when he played, because if it wasn't, he couldn't have played the way he played. He had an orderly mind. I think that's what any great performer has to have. You have to isolate yourself from your surroundings and focus on what you're doing. It has to be a pinpoint focus.

AAJ: If you don't play for a couple days, do you feel like to have to play?

HJ: Yes, very much so. I'd rather play something every day. There's a very famous quote by Paderewski about practicing. He said, 'If I miss one day I'll know it. If I miss two days my wife knows it. If I miss a week everybody knows it.' That's kind of the way I feel about playing. You have to play every day. It's better if you play on a job, but at least you have to practice every day, two, three hours. Minimum two hours just to stay in shape, arpeggio scales, fundamentals. And then when you go on a job you'll feel more comfortable.

AAJ: Music, on one hand, has been a career for you, but on the other hand I imagine it's more than just a job...

HJ: It's a way of life. I think that happens after you've been in it for a number of years. It didn't start off that way. It started as an ambition. I wanted to reach a certain level [of playing]. But then, after you reach that level, there's another level. There's always another level. Then it becomes a way of life. That's what's happening in my case. There's always that other level that I'm trying to reach.

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