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Hasaan Ibn Ali: Requiem (And Praise) For A Heavyweight Pianist

Hasaan Ibn Ali: Requiem (And Praise) For A Heavyweight Pianist

Courtesy Alan Sukoenig


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Listening to the solo tracks... just confirms... that Hasaan is an unjustly neglected musician who was way ahead of his time.
—Uri Caine, Pianist/Composer
"The new release of Hasaan's Retrospect In Retirement Of Delay: The Solo Recordings (Omnivore Recordings, 2021), which features him in privately recorded performances from 1962 to 1965, reveals his profundity, his overwhelming power, his mighty virtuosity. It does more than put him on the map of jazz history—it expands the map to include the vast expanse of his musical achievement."—Richard Brody (The New Yorker, December 2021)

Hasaan Ibn Ali was a brilliant pianist and composer, legendary among those who knew him but destined to fade into obscurity, withdrawing from his career before he could gain wider recognition. Like prize fighters, there are any number of jazz musicians who "could've been a contender" and who contributed significantly to the development of jazz but who got lost in the shuffle. The inventor of "jass" rhythm, trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was forgotten for many years. And except for a coterie of fans, few remember tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray who pioneered in the development of bebop and hard bop. Truth be told, jazz is a collective enterprise, and many talented, innovative musicians have never received due recognition.

Hasaan was one such neglected figure. Hasaan Ibn Ali (1931-1980; given name, William Henry Lankford, Jr., a.k.a. William Langford) was a true "heavyweight" among jazz pianists. He played in ways that were so advanced that the tradition-based players couldn't keep up with him, some of whom abandoned him alone on the stage at the Woodbine and other Philly jazz clubs during the 1950s and early sixties. But more advanced musicians like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Odean Pope, and others played with, listened to, and learned from Hasaan, especially in people's homes in North Philadelphia during a time when so much of the music came out of talking, jamming, and performing in family residences.

In this article, we try to assess Hasaan's playing, his hidden contribution to the jazz legacy, his personality, and the contexts which both nurtured him and led to his disappearance from the scene. But we must start out with a brief summary of the recordings that have led to the renewed interest.

Hasaan Ibn Ali's Small but Significant Recorded Legacy

This writer first heard the name Hasaan Ibn Ali a few years ago in a casual conversation with saxophonist Odean Pope at Chris' Jazz Café in Philadelphia. Pope said that Hasaan was a close friend of his in the North Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods where they lived, and they would spend hours playing together at Hasaan's and others' homes. He told me that he himself, Coltrane, Tyner and others learned important things from Hasaan's advanced approach to the music.

At the time of the conversation with Pope, there was only one available recording by Hasaan, The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Atlantic, 1965). His pianistic approach commanded attention, and the album later received 4 ½ stars by Scott Yanow who stated "This is a classic of its kind and it is fortunate that it was made, but it is a tragedy that Hasaan would not record again and that he would soon sink back into obscurity," reinforcing the sense that Hasaan was a mystery man of great musical genius but largely forgotten in the music world.

Other than his recording with the Max Roach Trio, Hasaan remained a hidden wonder until much later when Coltrane biographer, author, and pianist Lewis Porter, and Alan Sukoenig disclosed the existence of a 1965 recording that Hasaan made as leader under the Atlantic label with saxophonist Pope, iconic bassist Art Davis, and drummer Kalil Madi. Atlantic withheld its release because Hasaan was embroiled in drug charges immediately following the recording. The album languished, and the master recording was lost in an Atlantic warehouse fire in 1978. However, a tape copy of the 1965 sessions was long rumored to exist. In 2017, Porter and Sukoenig, with the help of Patrick Milligan, located and obtained a copy for Cheryl Pawelski at Omnivore Recordings.

Omnivore, after negotiations with Warner/Atlantic, had the music re-mastered and released it on April 23, 2021 as Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album . For the first time in years, Hasaan received well-deserved attention. The album was reviewed in Audiophile, All About Jazz, The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and in other publications. A video of a discussion was posted on YouTube that included Sukoenig and Pope and was led by the former head of Philadelphia's Jazz Bridge, Suzanne Cloud. As a result, Hasaan came into wider recognition.

Soon after that, on November 19, 2021, Omnivore released a 2 CD set, Hasaan Ibn Ali— Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings. These were re-mastered recordings originally made on a Norelco portable tape recorder and similar equipment by Dave Shrier and Sukoenig, who were friends and fans of Hasaan, between 1962 and 1965 at the University of Pennsylvania's student union building, Houston Hall, and other sites. Hasaan had no agendas other than to document his solo playing, revealing himself to be a jazz master and innovator comparable, some even say, to Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor. Such encomia is what led this writer to want to get a better picture of Hasaan, what made him tick, and what might be his lasting contribution to the jazz legacy through the likes of Pope, Coltrane, and Tyner—and others like Benny Golson, Kenny Barron, and Jymie Merritt who also knew him.

Independent, "Blindfold" Opinions and Observations

Before doing that assessment, however, it seemed important to be convinced that the enthusiasm was justified. Critics, like all of us, may be influenced by the "in-crowd" effect of liner notes and other blurbs by the aficionados. To obtain relatively unbiased appraisals, a kind of "blindfold" test, in this case of expert listeners who had little or no knowledge of Hasaan, was arranged for three outstanding musicians. They are musicians of great integrity who have garnered the universal respect of both their cohorts and fans: Tom Lawton, universally regarded as one of the top Philadelphia pianists and teachers; Richard Lawn, Dean Emeritus of the University of the Arts, baritone saxophonist, composer/arranger, historian, scholar, and author of Experiencing Jazz (2nd edition, Routledge, 2013); and Uri Caine, master pianist, composer, and award winning innovator of new forms of musical expression. Lawton and Caine knew Hasaan only by name through Odean Pope and the Max Roach Trio recording. Lawn had no familiarity with him. On my request and with an open mind, they listened to tracks from the solo recordings and gave me their impressions.

The responses of all three were enthusiastic. Lawton wrote: ..." to rise to the level of a 'true' innovator is rare. Hasaan achieves this. Almost every artist carries the heritage of the past into their present, but Hasaan's synthesis is so integrated, seamless, and blended with so many original, non-derivative utterances that he probably would have been a big influence himself had he been heard in the mainstream while alive."

Lawn excitedly opined: "Wow! Very original style. Amazing technique though a bit unorthodox. Independence of hands is astounding; some very twisted, rapid right hand lines that are stunning, and it all fits harmonically when he's playing on a standard... I'm embarrassed I hadn't heard much of anything about this Philadelphia treasure."

Caine noted a number of specific aspects of Hasaan's playing, for example: " 'It Could Happen to You'— the dramatic stops and starts, the ominous tremolos in the left hand and the virtuosic Tatum-esque right hand runs, and the combination of a semi-stride style combined with a freer rubato style; or in 'Body and Soul' -the Monkish dissonances, the hints of Chopin, and the unexpected chord 'substitutions' that modulate to the bridge while quoting Gershwin at the same time; or in 'Atlantic Ones'— shades of Bud Powell mixed with some outness and Tatum at the same time, shifting between the blues in major and minor, the creative use of the circle of 5ths, and advanced polychords and the sudden ending."

These independent responses fully confirm the recent reviews and what Odean Pope has said for years, that Hasaan Ibn Ali was a master pianist, composer, and improviser. As Lawton suggests, he was a "consolidator" of other's music, but in the context of his own original understanding. This is what we mean when we say that Hasaan was a "heavyweight."

Hopefully, our current musicians will begin to integrate his playing into their own. Pianist Jason Moran, himself a consolidator and innovator, has already done so. A large part of studying and playing jazz comes from listening intensively to recordings. Hasaan's recently released records can now be included in the mix. (Jazz educators, take note.)

Hasaan's Influence on Coltrane, Tyner, and Others

Thus, we conclude that Hasaan was a brilliant and innovative pianist. The next question is whether Hasaan had already influenced the jazz legacy back when he was active. Pope says he knew personally that Hasaan had an impact on Coltrane and Tyner. What could he have specifically given to them and others?

Some of Hasaan's influence on them likely came from Hasaan's modernity, which they themselves were on the verge of attaining. Hasaan's playing certainly had "shock value" even to advanced musicians. Hasaan was a role model for pushing the limits, taking risks, and finding a unique voice.

In addition, it is likely that Hasaan, through Trane and others, contributed to specific advances in jazz harmony and theory, already emerging at the time, going beyond bebop and hard bop to something new but not quite Ornette Coleman's "free jazz." Hassan's innovations were contemporaneous with and compare with the likes of Monk's dissonances and rhythmic asynchronicity, Miles Davis' modal playing, Cecil Taylor's rugged use of clusters, playing "outside" the key signature, and so on. And there were specifics in Hasaan's music that astute players could easily have copped for their own use.

[Note: This paragraph requires knowledge of music theory:] Hasaan utilized advanced harmonies and sequences. Pope points to Hasaan's use of augmented, diminished, and perfect 4ths, which became a trademark of Tyner. He adds that Hasaan was a master of the 3rd system, the 4th system, and some pentatonic scales. "He utilized Phrygian modal concepts and 5, 7, 9 tone scales. And he had a chord he called the Bflat25 that he created.... [In addition,] Hasaan gave McCoy his first minor 7th flat five." Lawton added Hasaan's use of 2nds, which Cecil Taylor also employed to dizzying effect. Caine points out Hasaan's "shifting between the blues in major and minor, the creative use of the circle of 5ths and advanced polychords and the sudden ending, [and]...the bold harmonic substitutions."

Pope has also said that the so-called "4th principle" used by Coltrane, was taught to Trane by Hasaan. Coltrane experimented with ideas such as these, also possibly echoing Hassaan's brilliant runs in creating his own "sheets of sound." His "Giant Steps," "Ascension," and other breakthroughs in the use of intervals could have been partly the result of Hasaan's influence. Pope tells us that Trane spent considerable time listening, playing, and talking with Hasaan during the late 1950s and 1960. He was working in the Miles Davis Quintet and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. He must have been excited to discover how much he could use Hasaan's knowledge of these intervals, modes, chord progressions, and scales in his emerging new musical vocabulary that changed the face of jazz.

Suggesting a more general impact, Pope states that "Hasaan's left hand playing influenced a lot of piano players. Rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically, Hasaan was very unique. He is profound in all those areas." This kind of playing became a steady diet for pianists after Hasaaan and for much ensemble playing. Admittedly we'll never know how much Hasaan had an influence, or whether he was just in tune with what was happening in the 1960s. But bassists like Reggie Workman and Jymie Merritt and pianist Kenny Barron all heard Hasaan, and they certainly contributed significantly to how the music was and still is played.

Thus, a strong case can be made for Hasaan's lasting influence on jazz, given the caveat that jazz is a collective effort, and there were many others coming up with similar ideas at the time. Still, in retrospect, Hasaan's playing retains its unique qualities that no one can duplicate.

Hasaan's Life, Personality, and Historical Context: Who Was This Masked Man?

Hasaan was a brilliant musician, but never likely to harbor ambitions, hang out with the others, get gigs and record dates. A comparison of the African American Hasaan to the decidedly Caucasian "Lone Ranger" is not totally absurd. The Lone Ranger came into town on his white horse (Hasaan was an idealist, a mystic with Muslim and Sufi ties), and accompanied by his sidekick Tonto. (Akin perhaps to Pope for a while?) He helped a lot of people, remained almost anonymous, and then rode off into the sunset. Hasaan, like the Lone Ranger, charmed and befriended people, and was yet in many ways a loner. He spent endless hours practicing on the family piano and going to the Philadelphia Free Library to listen to their record collection. He read many books, including one on metaphysics (that became the title of one of his songs), and he wrote poetry and notes on various subjects. He had very little interest in being popular, entertaining, or attracting people's attention. These are my impressions, based on what I learned about him from Pope and other sources.

Kenyatta Thompson, a guitarist, drummer, record producer, and a friend and fan of Hasaan, compared him to the painter van Gogh. Van Gogh was appreciated during his lifetime only by his brother Theo, fellow artists, and an occasional art dealer. Both suffered enormously towards the end of their lives. Thompson believes Hasaan was at the same level of genius as van Gogh. And like van Gogh, he was a sensitive soul and had a deep spirituality. This comparison between the two also supports a suspicion that Hasaan was influenced by European art and literature. Within the solo tracks, he speaks a few times with the perfect diction of a man of the world. He also recites one of his poems, and it is in high modern form, describing an everyday scene in a park with economy of words (think of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway). Much remains to be learned about Hasaan, his background and interests.

On another level, Hasaan was an African American of his own time and place. During the first half of the 20th century, African Americans had moved from the deep South to Philadephia and other cities. They found jobs and saved money that enabled them to buy homes. They established schools and other institutions of excellence. The musically inclined had a piano, record player, and radio in their house. Music making and listening was part of the family life. These were homes in which so many jazz careers were birthed: Coltrane, Tyner, Golson, the Heath Brothers in Philadelphia, Monk in New York, Clifford Brown in Wilmington, Dexter Gordon in Los Angeles, and so many others. Hasaan was a musical prodigy in such a home with an upright piano in the living room, and his parents sensed and nurtured his talent.

As part of another major development in African American communities, Hasaan converted to the Muslim religion. He once described himself as a "mystic," which helps explain his apart-ness from the nightclub scene and the recording industry. He was a misfit on the jazz scene, never blended with the others, never played or recorded regularly. His playing reflects his purity, lacking in gimmicks, clichés, and laid back swing, instead giving every note its equal significance as an expression, one might say, of his Creator. Although Hasaan started out playing in rock 'n roll bands and other popular idioms, including, as Golson tells us, boogie woogie, he withdrew from such trends and became absorbed in expanding his musical consciousness. One of his heroes was pianist Elmo Hope, who similarly focused on musical ideas without regard to public recognition.

A Tragic End

In the 1960s, Hasaan had a chance to ascend in the jazz world beyond Philadelphia when he went to New York to record with Max Roach and returned there periodically. However, he had a long-standing addiction to heroin and other substances, which, as with others of his generation, stood in the way of success. During his New York stays, he received support from Max Roach, and on one occasion, at the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks Place, as reported by pianist Steve Kuhn, Coltrane allowed Hasaan to substitute for Kuhn on one number. But Hasaan never obtained regular work there. He might have found greater acknowledgement had he seized the day.

After that, Hasaan faded from the jazz scene, and in 1972 (dates vary depending on the source), a house fire destroyed his family home. His mother died, and his father was severely injured and never recovered. Surviving a tragedy like this is overwhelmingly traumatic. After the fire, Hassaan was never the same. He took up residence at a rehabilitation center or a shelter for homeless people (again, sources vary). Pope, always supportive, visited him and later paid for his proper burial.

But Hasaan had thirty years before that to make a name for himself, and others too numerous to mention rose in the pantheon in the midst of their addictions. We still must conclude that Hasaan had a different set of motivations and personality traits from those of his more successful peers. He was a loner and a free spirit who went his own way with the music, his life, and his career. He took the road less travelled.

Lessons Learned

To conclude, there are lessons to be learned from Hasaan's story, lessons about life, under-recognized talent, and jazz.

For one thing, there are among us many gifted talents who go by the wayside. We need to embrace these talents and gifts in all of us, nurture them, and allow them to flourish. Every human being is a flower waiting to bloom.

Second, it is a great credit to Odean Pope, Dave Shrier, and Alan Sukoenig that they sensed Hasaan's genius and supported it when he was dismissed by others. Worldly success was less important to them than the music itself. When they heard something great, they knew and encouraged it.

Third, outliers like Hasaan exist in every field of endeavor. Einstein's high school teacher told him he didn't know anything about mathematics. Joseph Conrad honed his writing skills while a seaman on a freighter. Darwin made his great discoveries on an isolated island in the Pacific. Don't be fooled by outward appearance. Great things often happen in the privacy of the individual soul. Pulitzer Prizes and Grammys are belated recognition for a few. Look to those struggling with their creativity, often marginalized, for the real innovators and soul-fed geniuses.

Finally, jazz, more than any other art form, is a collective enterprise. We need to document and honor the under-recognized musicians who make a difference.

Hasaan, you will not be forgotten.

[Note: Based on reliable information, some points of fact about the discovery of the lost 1965 Hasaan recording, later called Metaphysics, were modified by the author after publication.]

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