Hank Jones: I Haven’t Done My Best Yet

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Hank Jones
By Jimmy Katz

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Hank Jones says he’s lost a couple of inches in the length of his fingers over the years. A lot of “rock ’n’ roll dates, pounding the keys to play triplets” were the cause, he suggests. Two inches sounds like a lot—even for too many “rock ’n’ roll dates”—but it hovers on the edge of reason when one takes into account the fact that Jones celebrated his 90th birthday in July 2008. Shrinkage happens.

But when he reaches out for a handshake, and you feel your own hand—not exactly small—completely enveloped by his, you can only marvel at what his paws must have been like, say, a half-century ago. At the moment, they look as though they could cover the span of a major tenth on the keyboard. (For non piano-playing readers, that’s a reach from a C to the E beyond the next C; 10 white notes, in other words.)

Jones, a tall, slender, confident-looking man with an elegant manner, intense eyes and a face on which history is written in every line, simply smiles when the keyboard span of his fingers is mentioned.

“Wouldn’t matter how far you could reach if you didn’t have anything to say, would it?” he says with a smile.

Hard to argue with that. And it’s equally impossible to ask if Jones himself has something to say. The truth is he’s had a lot to say musically, reaching back to the ’40s, with his feather-soft touch, masterful harmonies and irresistible rhythmic lift. And he’s been having, in addition, something of a creative renaissance since 1975, when he wrapped up a 17-year stint as a staff pianist at CBS. Among the highlights, his “Great Jazz Trio” recordings, with players ranging from Ron Carter and Tony Williams to Jimmy Cobb and Christian McBride, as well as duo piano outings with John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan. He’s also recorded hymns with Charlie Haden, standards with singer Roberta Gambarini, collaborated with a Malian Mandinka band, and released numerous solo albums. His recent duet partnership with saxophonist Joe Lovano is a stunning and utterly timeless interfacing of musical generations. And, as a respected, in-demand jazz rhythm section sideman, he’s been at the top of the A-list seemingly forever. His indelible contributions to the music have earned him an NEA Jazz Master title in 1989 and a 2008 National Medal of the Arts.

Jones was in L.A. a couple of times last year, first for a gig at UCLA with bassist John Clayton and drummer Joe La Barbera and a few months later for a birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl with Gerald Wilson, also celebrating his 90th. While he was in town for the latter date, JazzTimes joined him in his suite at the landmark Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for a freewheeling conversation about the then and now of his nine remarkable decades, a conversation in which he was as articulate and illuminating in his verbal expressiveness as he is with his music.

He made it clear, up front, in his characteristically whimsical fashion, that he wasn’t viewing the birthday as a particularly momentous date. When asked how he felt about turning 90, he replied, in a deep voice, “You know something? I don’t feel a day over 89.”

Then, with a chuckle, he added, “I had to make that sound dramatic. Because actually, you don’t feel any different. If you’re catching a cold when you’re 89, you’re still going to be catching a cold when you’re 90.”

Whimsy aside, Jones was always spot-on serious when we talked about music, especially when the conversation veered, as it frequently did, toward the subject of creativity. Listening to him, fascinated by his physical and intellectual vigor, I was reminded of the utter unpredictability of the creative lifespan, of the manner in which it can arc through relatively short, star-crossed periods. Think Charlie Christian, Jimmy Blanton and Clifford Brown, Janis Joplin and James Dean.

And of how, far more rarely, it can reach across nearly a century. Think of Benny Carter, who was still a master in his early 90s, of Picasso, at 90, producing works anticipating neo-expressionism, of Verdi composing “Falstaff” when he was 80.

Add Jones to that second list. He was born in Vicksburg, Miss., to musical parents. His father played blues guitar and was a Baptist church deacon; his mother sang and introduced her children to sounds ranging from Sunday afternoon gospel songs and jazz pianists such as Fats Waller and Earl Hines to radio broadcasts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His lengthy résumé begins in Pontiac, Mich., where his parents moved in the early ’20s, and where he was raised as the eldest male in a family that ultimately produced two other iconic jazz figures: trumpeter/arranger Thad and drummer Elvin. Ironically, although the senior member of that remarkable triumvirate has been called a pianists’ pianist for most of his career, he was not a particularly avid beginner.

“I had classical lessons first,” he says. “But I wasn’t much for practicing. They always had to force me, tell me the teacher was going to give me a hard time.”

He soon got past the oppositional phase, however. By the time Jones was in his teens, he was already working professionally with big territory bands from Detroit. In 1944, he made the move to New York City with Hot Lips Page, performing with Jazz at the Philharmonic in the late ’40s. Gigs with Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and dozens of others followed, thoroughly establishing his street cred as a pianist who could adapt to almost any kind of musical setting.

His younger brothers took different paths, aided by the advance word that Jones was putting out.

“Believe me, they were well known in New York before they got there,” he said. “I made sure of that. I told everybody about them. And they lived up to all the advance notices I gave them.”

But even Hank was surprised by their rapid professional progress. “I knew they were both talented,” he continued. “But I had no idea they would get to the professional level as fast as they did. And then they just got better and better and better.”

His pride in both, as paternal as it is fraternal, glowed in his recollections of the accomplishments of each brother: Thad, five years younger, and Elvin, nine years younger.

“Thad was writing arrangements when he was 15 years old,” said Jones. “And he was writing for acts like Butterbeans and Susie—people like that, comedy acts. And he was not using a score. He was just writing out the instrumental parts individually. Add to that, he was an excellent player, too, one of the finest trumpet players around. You listen to some of those recordings, and you hear that he could play with anyone. He just didn’t play as often as I thought he should with that big band. He gave the solos to everybody else. But he was the genius. If there’s such a thing as an authentic genius, Thad was it.”

His praise for his youngest brother is equally laudatory. “Elvin developed that style that he had all by himself,” he continued. “And his style was very musical. A lot of people think drums aren’t musical, but I think drums can be very musical. The more sensitive a drummer is, the more sensitive his approach is. It’s not just about playing a beat, it’s about playing different shades of volume, intensity, varying the beat. All those levels of intensity in Elvin’s playing were to enhance the music, to enhance the soloist. When he was playing drums behind me it made me feel just that much better. I didn’t have to worry about what the drummer was doing behind me. Takes a load off your mind.”

Then why did the Jones brothers perform together so rarely? They made only a few recordings together.

“Good question,” said Jones. “Our paths just didn’t cross much. We all progressed, but in different directions. Thad had the big band, I was doing stuff at CBS and Elvin was doing his own thing.

“But one thing stands out clearly,” he added, pausing for dramatic effect before continuing. “I wasn’t good enough to play with those guys.”

“You’re kidding,” I replied, not entirely sure that he was.

“Well, sure,” said Jones, once again adding a kicker. “But it’s true. I wasn’t,” he said, before erupting into laughter.

Given his age, Jones has been present as a younger or older contemporary to a large number of jazz history’s finest pianists. He lists Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller as primary influences, with Tatum serving as a near-mythological model.

“He was the first one to use all those harmonic devices that later guys like Dizzy and Charlie used,” said Jones. “It sounded new to people who heard it for the first time. But it wasn’t new to someone who’d listened to Art Tatum. Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff—that’s what he was, all rolled into one. He had a great impact on me, especially harmonically. I couldn’t play lyrically the way he did—few people could—so I just worked to adopt his harmonic ideas.”

Oscar Peterson, he suggested, probably came closer, but with several provisos.

“In some respects, Oscar was very close to Tatum. He had the required technique to do it. And he admired Tatum, as we all did. But nobody played exactly like Tatum. We have to establish that he was in a class by himself. Players like Oscar, who play a fine piano, actually play a style that’s reminiscent sometimes of Tatum, but not completely. And Oscar would be the first one to acknowledge that.”

Jones’ view of his post-WWII contemporaries is, like his playing, precise, to the point and unaffected by ego. When asked if he heard anything in Thelonious Monk that became incorporated into his own playing, he paused thoughtfully for a moment before responding with a shrug.

“Sure. Some things,” he said. “But Monk had such a unique harmonic style that everything he did was pretty much his own. If anybody else tries to do what he did, it sounds unnatural.”

Queried about Bud Powell, he turned to a theme that courses through our conversation, his belief in the piano as a complete instrument, fully capable of melody, harmony, rhythm, percussion and more.

“Bud was unique,” Jones explained, “in that he played—you should pardon the expression—in the bebop style. But he played it as a horn player would play it. His playing was probably closer to Charlie Parker than it was to another pianist.”

And, when, in a sudden shift of gears, Lennie Tristano’s name came up, Jones touched upon another important personal theme, his belief in the specificity of the jazz art.

“He was a great technician,” says Jones, “made some wonderful records. But I didn’t think of them as jazz. They were jazz-related, but not true jazz.”

How, then, does he define true jazz?

“Well,” he replied, a modest look crossing his face, “bear in mind this is just my opinion. But to me, if it’s going to be pure jazz then it has to have what are commonly considered to be jazz figures. Syncopation, things like that ... harmonizations. It doesn’t have to necessarily have a blues style, although players like Charlie Parker played blues wonderfully, but a feeling for the blues. And it’s not all about the notes. It’s about what you do with them. You know, you can have great technique, and still not be a great jazz player. Now, I don’t want to be dogmatic. There are a lot of different ways to play jazz. But that’s my opinion of it.”

At least two of those different ways were embodied in the evolution from swing to bebop that was taking place when Jones arrived in New York City in the ’40s. Working with leaders such as Page, Hawkins, Andy Kirk and Billy Eckstine; as a regular participant with Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts; and as both a player and a habitué in the 52nd Street clubs that were the musical frontline of the decade, Jones was present, in the trenches, at one of the key transitional periods in jazz history.

In his typically modest manner, however, he is reluctant to describe himself as a bopper. “I really don’t see myself as a bebop player,” he said. “Not a complete bebop player, like Bud Powell was. I came to New York City at the end of when it began happening on 52nd Street. That’s when I began listening to Parker, Gillespie, Monk.”

But Jones seemed, almost from the beginning, to be destined for versatility, already capable of playing in a wide variety of settings by the time he got to the Apple. “I could adapt to things,” he explained, “I guess because I used to listen very carefully to what was going on. I had to pay close attention because I was so often in settings where I wasn’t familiar with what was happening.

“The funny thing is, I didn’t start out to be versatile,” he said. “That was just an accident. They’d call me to do something and I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll try.’ Trial and error. That fits it. And just a little bit of luck involved in everything.”

A little bit of “luck” has been a charm for Jones personally as well as professionally. In September 2006, an attack of shingles entered his left eye and infected fluid around his brain. In February 2007, a massive heart attack resulted in quadruple bypass surgery. Yet he still has the vigorous look of a man decades younger, and his approach to his playing has all the earmarks of a musician avidly romancing his muse.

“I don’t think I’ve done my best yet,” said Jones. “That’s a goal that I’m working toward, and I haven’t gotten there yet. It’s like the story, and it’s true, about the guy who was interviewing George Shearing, and asked George if he’d been blind all his life. And George answered, ‘Not yet.’ So, no, I haven’t done my best yet.

“You know,” he added, his dark eyes strong and focused, beaming 90 years of accumulated wisdom, “what I enjoy the most is when I don’t make too many mistakes. Because every time you sit down at the piano you’re challenging yourself. But it’s not a competition. What you’re doing is you’re trying to make each performance be better than the last one. That’s what you work for. That’s what you hope for, to make each performance better than the last one.

“Not perfection,” Jones concluded, with a wry smile. “Because I don’t believe there is such a thing as perfect. Perfection is something you strive for that you never actually reach. It’s a place where you and the instrument become one—your mind, your fingers, your body. I’m still trying to reach that level.”

Originally published in January/February 2009

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