Who Was Hampton Hawes?
Although one rarely hears of Hampton Hawes today he was a significant presence on the jazz scene in the mid- 50s then again from the mid-60s on until his death in 1977. A direct descendant of bebop who had been variously classified as "West Coast" and "funk-jazz" or "rhythm school," Hawes transcended all these categories. He was famous for his prodigious right hand, his deep groove, his very personal playing, his profound blues conceptions, and his versatility within a mainstream context. He remained anchored in chord-change based jazz with chord changes his whole career.
A mostly self-taught musician, he matured early musically and late personally-by his own admission. His life unfolded as an impassioned story of a rise from poverty into prominence, then a fall due to a heroin addiction, which had come right out of his native culture, five years in prison and a miraculous Presidential pardon, then personal transformation and return to world-wide artistic prominence for a decade before his early death.
Hampton Hawes was born in Los Angeles, November 13, 1928. His father was a very successful pastor and his mother played piano in the church. Hampton was raised in a strict religious environment. As a child he would sit on the piano bench next to his mother and watch her play. His earliest musical influence, therefore, was gospel piano music. The street environment was not a particularly wholesome. He later reflected that most of the people he knew in his neighborhood growing up were heroin addicts.
Hawes taught himself piano as a child. His earliest musical influences were boogie-woogie, which was intensely popular in the U. S. between 1938 and 1946, Nat Cole, Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Later he came under the spell of Bud Powell, and came to play more in his style. Throughout his life he regretted that he never acquired a classical background and never became a fast music reader. Perhaps as a result his music remained intensely personal.
Growing up with music he learned by jamming with his friends. They would hang out at each other's houses and play. Fascinated with bebop, they fervently pursued it as their form of teenage rebellion against the music of their parents. Hawes regretted that his family never understood his music, never attended his performances. When he sent them his albums later on, if they liked the cover art they'd frame it and put it on the wall.