Fatha's Day

Stop the clock: We have unfinished business from 2003. While much praise will be heaped, deservedly, on pianist Ethan Iverson for the Bad Plus' Give (the dynamics, the interaction, the unusual repertoire) and on Brad Mehldau for Joel Frahm's Don't Explain (the usual repertoire, but saxophonists inspire the pianist in a way that his trio does not), let us also praise the one man without whom they and their contemporaries would not-could not-play as they do. December 28 marked the 100th birthday of Earl "Fatha" Hines, an occasion that slipped by virtually without notice. The same year also marked the 20th anniversary of his death. How quickly we forget.

Centenaries are makeshift news events, arbitrary excuses to pay attention to individuals and events that command lingering attention, and it's a mistake to make too much of them or any other kind of anniversary. (Does anyone remember Armistice Day?) Few musicians-in classical, pop or jazz-receive the kind of centennial notice paid in recent years to Ellington, Gershwin and Armstrong. Still, it seems odd that Hines, who shaped the development of post-ragtime piano, created an influential big band and returned to center stage as a paterfamilias of 1960s modernism, now occupies a largely historical niche.

You can find many of his major recordings on imports, yet no representative selection of his great Bluebirds exists on BMG, nor can I find a domestic edition of the seminal 1928 QRS and OKeh sessions, which, in tandem with his Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone alliances, liberated jazz piano from the settled trappings of ragtime and the fixed rhythmic patterns of stride. Hines single-handedly shattered keyboard complacency with his promiscuous impulsiveness and vibrant attack, not to mention his head-spinning melodic and temporal juxtapositions. In 1970, he revisited the QRS numbers for an LP, Quintessential Recording Session, and the remarkable thing was not that he had kept up with the times but that he had changed so little and yet resounded with a defiant freshness.

Hines was once rumored to have had the webbing between his fingers surgically removed. This was supposed to explain how he managed large intervals, pounded out in ringing octaves and affirming his reputation for "trumpet style" piano-a phrase that appears particularly inappropriate, considering his thoroughly pianistic approach. Yet, in the 1920s, it was pretty wild to improvise linear melodies on harmonic structures, like a wind player, and to mimic the power and vibrato of a brass instrument through the use of octaves and tremolos. Myths like the one about the webbing comforted those he left in the dust.

Time has not dimmed the QRS and OKeh solos. The former consists of eight original pieces recorded on a December afternoon; though poorly distributed in 1928 and generally unavailable since, they abide as daunting evidence of Hines' genius. The myriad influences of jazz, blues, vaudeville and the classics are evident in "Just Too Soon," an example of his declamatory attack; "A Monday Date," which became a pop standard; "Chicago High Life," a bravura blending of stride and music hall melody; and "Blues in Thirds," Hines' gentlest and best-known blues. The OKehs (let's get on the ball, Columbia/Legacy) are also imposing: "Caution Blues" is a flashier version of "Blues in Thirds," "I Ain't Got Nobody" is disarmingly lyrical and "57 Varieties" renovates "Tiger Rag."

Yet Hines liked to call himself "just a band pianist," and his most creative years included the decade (beginning on his 25th birthday) when Hines led the orchestra at Chicago's Grand Terrace Ballroom. Often remembered as a seedbed for bop (Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray and Sarah Vaughan each played a role), it combined a loose, rocking feeling with precision execution, showcasing heady tenor saxophone solos and arrangements by Budd Johnson and crisp drumming by Alvin Burroughs. Hines wrote some of its best tunes, among them "Deep Forest," "Rosetta," "You Can Depend on Me" and "Jelly Jelly." The band had hits ("St. Louis Blues," "Stormy Monday"), and it would have achieved greater renown had it not been so long in one residence.

Later years offered the ups and downs of a roller coaster. Hines toured for three years with Louis Armstrong's All Stars (he did not relish his sideman status) and spent the better part of the '50s fronting Dixieland bands in San Francisco-the kind of groups he had helped put to pasture. In 1965, Leonard Feather reported that Hines had been reduced to playing "an obscure rock 'n' roll parlor," and that recent years had offered him "little exposure" to jazz audiences. A year earlier, however, he had recorded the revelatory Spontaneous Explorations (out of print), and garnered raves for a concert series at New York's Little Theater. In 1966, he played before an estimated 92,000 people on a tour of the Soviet Union. The Hines revival went red alert, and the complaint one heard most frequently over the next decade was that he recorded too much. Now that the final burst of glory has been succeeded by a long descent, it is time for the roller coaster to start ascending once again.

Originally published in April 2004

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