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Hank Jones: Havin' Fun

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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]

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