A jazz pianist gifted beyond belief

DistlerFri 21st May 2010

Hank Jones remembered

Gifted beyond belief in music, jazz pianist Hank Jones was equally gifted in years, and seemingly immortal. That’s why his obituary in the New York Times this past Tuesday morning took me aback. He would have turned 92 on July 31st, and I was looking forward to his upcoming New York shows.

Célia and I most recently caught him in November 2008, when he led a quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center during a week’s run at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola. At 90, Hank’s rich, clearly defined tone remained proudly intact; ditto his nimble runs and breathtaking reharmonizations. As always, Hank’s body language mirrored his playing, especially when he came up with irreverent quotes mid-solo (Charlie Parker riffs, Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise, and so forth).

I noticed one concession to age: Hank’s solos generally didn’t last more than one or two choruses. But who cared? Born in 1918, Hank was the eldest of three brothers who significantly contributed to jazz - trumpeter/composer/arranger Thad Jones and the great drummer Elvin Jones. Hank first came to prominence in the 1940s, playing with all of the bebop icons, accompanying Ella Fitzgerald, doing a stint with Norman Granz’ Jazz At The Philharmonic, and participating in countless recording sessions. For years Hank was a mainstay of the New York studio scene, and enjoyed a long stint as a CBS staff musician. By the mid-‘70s Hank’s elegant, tasteful, witty jazz artistry came back into the limelight, launching a 35 year Indian Summer filled with tours, recordings, club dates, and accolades.

Recommending one Hank Jones recording is like recommending one Haydn Symphony – impossible. Still, I’d go for any of his solo piano CDs, any trio recordings he made in the mid-to-late seventies, and his more recent duo collaborations with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano.

I first met Hank in 1980. At the time he served as onstage pianist for the hit Broadway musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin’, and I had a job music directing an off-Broadway show that closed after two weeks. Our company manager was involved with Ain’t Misbehavin’s manager on some level (Married, dating? I can’t recall.), and since I was a budding jazz pianist, and a huge fan of Hank’s, the powers that be determined that old Jed should meet young Hank. After the show, Hank went across the street from the theatre to Café Ziegfield and play solo piano. Sometimes cast members from Ain’t Misbehavin’ sat in to sing. Hank graciously invited me to warm the piano bench, and one night we played a four-handed blues. How I got through it I’ll never know!

Hank also extended this courtesy to me and other pianists during his early-‘80s gigs at Bradley’s, the fabled jazz piano bar on University Place. And almost always after he finished, we’d hang out, and he would drive me back to my Upper West Side apartment on his way back to Cresskill, New Jersey, where he lived at the time. Because he’d drive very slowly, we had more time to talk about music and shoot the breeze.

When we went backstage to greet him at Dizzy’s, it had been years since we’d last caught Hank live. I didn’t think he’d know me, but I re-introduced myself, and thanked him for the music. He was charming and polite, but did he truly remember? I commented on his “dangerous chord changes,” Hank retorted, “they’re not as dangerous as your chords!.” Yes, he remembered!

Distler

Composer, pianist, concert presenter and Gramophone contributor Jed Distler looks back, present and forward about the piano in our lives, and the lives of the piano.

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