Milt Hinton: The Judge

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Milt Hinton
By Mona Hinton

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The undisputed dean of bassists and long one of the most beloved and respected members of the jazz community, Milt Hinton is jazz history personified. As he approaches 90 (he was born on June 23, 1910), the man known to myriad friends and fans as “Judge” (he once joked that he earned his nickname because he “sentences everyone to 30 days of listening to good music”) stopped playing his demanding instrument a while ago, but he is still a vibrant presence on the jazz scene.

You might encounter him as an honored guest at a concert, a festival, a jazz party or a cruise, where he may consent to take a solo chorus, or sing what became his theme song late in life, “Old Man Time.” Or you’ll find him as an invaluable participant in a seminar or panel discussion. Just this past December, he shared his keen insights with those present at a Local 802 Jazz Advisory Council meeting billed as “A Conversation Between Generations” on the theme of “Building a Jazz Career in New York.” No one, it’s safe to say, knows more about that subject than Milt Hinton, whose truly astonishing career spans most of the 20th century.

His encounter with jazz began in Chicago, where his family had moved in 1919 from his native Vicksburg, Miss. He started on violin at 13, but by then he’d already heard and seen most of the great bands and musicians active in his Southside neighborhood. He was good at the fiddle, but as a sophomore in high school he decided to join the marching band, noting that it “gave a boy with a name like Milton who was really skinny and carried a violin around all day” more and better visibility with the girls. He wound up on tuba, the instrument on which he made his recording debut on Nov. 4, 1930, with the band of pianist Tiny Parham (so named because he weighed about 350 pounds). By then, however, Milt had been playing string bass for a couple of years. He’d turned pro during his final year of high school and then went on to study music at Crane Junior College, and briefly at Northwestern University. (He continued his bass studies intermittently for another 15 years with private teachers.) Milt wasn’t very pleased when the rare Parham 78s were reissued on LP in the 1960s. “I was never much of a tuba player,” he said, “and you can hear me running low on wind before the records are over.”

On his next record date, with a group led by one of the two musicians Milt has said were his greatest influences, the wonderful violinist Eddie South (the other was drummer Zutty Singleton), Milt was not only playing bass but also took one of his rare vocals, on “Old Man Harlem.” This was in the spring of 1933, and the young bassist already had under his belt experience with the legendary trumpeters Freddie Keppard and Jabbo Smith, the brilliant but troubled pianist Cassino Simpson, and with Erskine Tate’s big theater orchestra. Milt had already acquired the habit of listening intently to the conversations among elder musicians, and even asking questions when that seemed appropriate. And he remembered, years later when his nascent interest in jazz history had ripened, much of what he had heard.

After several years with South, Milt went to work with Zutty Singleton’s band at the Three Deuces, then one of Chicago’s hottest jazz spots. The intermission pianist was Art Tatum, and Milt listened, and sometimes sat in with the great man. One night in 1936, Cab Calloway, already one of the most successful swing band leaders, heard and saw Milt, and (with Zutty’s kind permission) hired him on the spot.

The association would last for some 15 years, during which a host of fine players passed through the Calloway ranks. Among them were some of the greatest tenor saxophonists in jazz: Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Illinois Jacquet and Ike Quebec. The trumpeters included a young firebrand named Dizzy Gillespie (and another survivor from Milt’s generation, Jonah Jones, who recently turned 91). And for a long time, Milt, guitarist Danny Barker, drummer Cozy Cole and the unsung pianist Benny Payne made up one of the swing era’s great rhythm sections.

Gillespie and Milt struck up a lifelong friendship. “Milt Hinton—that guy is a real musician,” the trumpeter told The New York Times’ Peter Watrous on the occasion of the bassist’s 80th birthday. “I’ll tell you something. In 1939, I was a modern guy, and he was from the Art Tatum school. I was showing him what we were doing, and he went for it... he’s incredible.” Sometimes, Milt recalled, these informal seminars would take place between sets on the roofs of hotels where the band was playing. It was with Calloway that Milt recorded one of the very first (maybe the first) bass features, “Pluckin’ the Bass,” in Aug. 1939—some two months before Jimmy Blanton came on the scene with Duke Ellington. (It may or may not be a coincidence that Blanton’s first recorded duet with Ellington, made in Nov. ’39, is called “Plucked Again.” According to Gillespie, “Jimmy Blanton was crazy about Milt.”)

In 1941, Milt cut a splendid bass showcase created for him by arranger Andy Gibson, “Ebony Silhouette,” and a bit later on came his third Calloway feature, “Bassically Blue,” not recorded commercially with the band (though airchecks exist), but done in 1946 with his friend Ike Quebec for Blue Note.

During his Calloway years, Milt had many opportunities to record in other settings when the band was on location in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Thus he appears on some classic Billie Holiday-Teddy Wilson dates; with Billie’s early influence, Ethel Waters; with Coleman Hawkins; with Benny Carter; and notably with Lionel Hampton (these two great survivors first met when both were members of the Chicago Defender’s Newsboys marching band). Check out “Shufflin’ at the Hollywood,” with the great Chu Berry (whose pipe and tobacco pouch Milt retrieved when the tenorman was fatally injured in a car accident, hoping to return it to him; it occupies a place of pride among Milt’s memorabilia). And then there was the truly all-star Hampton date, with a saxophone quartet of Carter, Berry, Hawkins and Webster; Gillespie, and Charlie Christian on guitar, pianist Clyde Hart and Cozy Cole. That was in 1939, a banner year for Milt because he met and quickly married Mona Clayton, a pretty schoolteacher. Milt and Mona have been together ever since, and if there is a closer couple, I’d be surprised.

When their daughter, Charlotte, was born in 1947 they found a house in Queens, N.Y. Milt’s qualms about being away on the road too much ceased when Calloway was forced by economics to break up his band in 1951. Then came the only brief period of scuffling in Milt’s long career. As he tells us in the second of his two marvelous books, OverTime, “there were nights when Danny Barker and I would take the ferry to New Jersey and go from bar to bar playing for tips.” But before long another Calloway friend, Cozy Cole, recommended Milt to Louis Armstrong, and after driving a hard salary bargain with Joe Glaser (wonderfully described by Milt in his first book, Bass Line, and settled by Louis in his inimitable way), Milt joined the hard-working Armstrong All Stars for several months that included his first visit to Japan. He left when he was offered a steady job with the band on a CBS radio show.

Milt had already begun to break into the charmed circle of New York studio players a bit earlier on, and he credits Jackie Gleason, a jazz fan whom he’d first met in the comedian’s struggling days, with helping to open that door (closed to all but a very few African-American musicians) for him. Once at CBS, Milt’s musical flexibility, reading skill and dependability led to more and more broadcasting and recording calls. Milt estimates that he spent some 15 years in the studios, during which he became the most recorded bassist in history, appearing in every imaginable musical setting on almost every label. “I might be on a date for Andre Kostelanetz in the morning, do one with Brook Benton or Johnny Mathis in the afternoon, and then finish up the day with Paul Anka or Bobby Rydell. At one time or another, I probably played for just about every popular artist around in those days,” Milt wrote. After a while, he had to keep two instruments in daily circulation, and hire a reliable man to make sure that one would always be on hand in time for his arrival at the next studio—often a close call.

In addition to the commercial and broadcast work, there was no shortage of jazz record dates. For quite a while, the team of Milt, pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Barry Galbraith and drummer Osie Johnson was known as “The New York Rhythm Section,” a quartet of stellar pros that could adapt to many different artists and even contribute on-the-spot arranging touches. They even made an album, The Rhythm Section (on Epic), from which my favorite is Milt’s “Mona’s Feeling Lonely.” Milt’s recorded jazz work covers the entire spectrum of the music, ranging from traditional New Orleans style with Pee Wee Erwin to cutting-edge music with George Russell. And Milt’s live work, which he by no means neglected during his studio period but which picked up when the recording business and the use of live music in broadcasting started to decline, is just as multi-faceted. He toured with Paul Anka, went to Russia and the Middle East with Pearl Bailey and participated in Bing Crosby’s very last go-round, in Europe and on Broadway.

At this point in time, the jazz party phenomenon was starting up, and Milt was in on the ground floor, at Odessa, Texas, and then at Dick Gibson’s Colorado affairs, always helping to broaden the musical horizons of these events by recommending younger players. For a lengthy stretch in the mid-’70s, he was the bassist-in-residence at Michael’s Pub, backing such luminaries as Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett and an old acquaintance from the Eddie South days, the irrepressible Joe Venuti. Here he also encouraged and nurtured young talent. The singer and pianist Daryl Sherman recalls that when she first arrived in New York and began to hang out at Michael’s Pub, “Milt introduced me to lots of musicians, sometimes let me sit in, and would give me a ride home. A bit later, he invited me to play for and talk to the jazz class he was teaching at Hunter College.”

Always aware of and concerned about the welfare of musicians and the future of jazz, Milt not only taught at various colleges and music camps, but also became active in the International Association of Jazz Educators and the International Society of Bassists. And for several years, he served first as panelist and then as co-chairman (with me) of the National Endowment for the Arts’ jazz panel. Though I had known Milt for some time, it was through our work together at NEA that I became fully aware of his true stature as one of the most righteous of men and of his profound knowledge of jazz history and human nature.

Milt also played a central role in NEA’s Jazz Oral History Project, for which he became a peerless interviewer, but this was nothing new for Milt. For years he’d been conducting a jazz oral history project of his own, inviting musicians to his home and interviewing them in the comfort of his den, surrounded by Milt’s memorabilia, and his marvelous photographs—yet another way in which he had long been documenting jazz history from a unique perspective.

Milt got his first camera—a 35mm Argus C-3—as a present for his 25th birthday. From the start, he wrote, “I was never much for taking formal pictures. I always tried to capture something different. I’d sneak up on people and capture them when they were off guard.” Hamstrung in the early days by the lack of a flash feature and the slow film speed, he graduated to a Leica, inspired by his friend and Calloway colleague, trombonist Keg Johnson. For a while, the two would process their own film while on the road—no easy task. Once settled in Queens, Milt set up his own darkroom. By the early ’60s, his
camera of choice had become a single-reflex Nikon F; he’s always preferred black and white photography. With characteristic modesty, he downplays his technical acumen and formal knowledge of photo history, but he takes just pride in many of his pictures, which grace his two books, were the subject of a calendar, have frequently been exhibited and have appeared in many publications.

In 1959, Milt and Mona, the latter armed with a recently acquired 8mm movie camera, copiously documented the now-famous gathering of jazz greats for a centerfold in a jazz issue of Esquire magazine. While the formal shot was being set up, Milt and Mona captured the informal interaction between the musicians, and this treasure-trove eventually became the cornerstone of Jean Bach’s terrific 1994 documentary film A Great Day in Harlem. Just as Milt’s keen eye captured the essence of his photographic subjects, so his oral history interviews often focused on the everyday aspects of musicians’ lives, yielding priceless vignettes, some funny, some tragic. And his Bass Line is one of the essential jazz books, required reading for young musicians for what it can teach them about music and life. It is history as observed by a participant and worth a bushel of academic product.

One of the friends and colleagues Milt interviewed for NEA and wrote about in Bass Line was trombonist Quentin “Butter” Jackson. In the foreword I had the honor of writing for that book, I quoted Milt on Butter because I felt that the words applied equally to him. I do so again:

Musically, his mind was always working. He could hear everything that was happening when the band played... I don’t know of any better sideman. [He] played with just about everybody... and when you look back on his career you realize that his greatness came from an ability to adapt to the changes happening in music throughout his lifetime.

Amen. In what may well be the earliest magazine piece about him (in Music and Rhythm, August 1941), Milt advised his fellow bassists: “Be in tune at all times.” Milt Hinton has been in tune with the world throughout his long and rich life and we are lucky to have shared time with him. Walk on, Judge!

Originally published in April 2000

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