Hank and I met at Bradley’s maybe 25 or 30 years ago. He was always so busy and he didn’t play a lot around New York until he started working there at Bradley’s. It was an incredible place for jazz pianists and jazz musicians in general.
Later, in the ’90s, we started doing this tour in Japan with 10 pianists. It was called “100 Gold Fingers,” organized by a Japanese promoter. We did it for quite a few years. Usually we’d go to Japan in mid-May to play for about three weeks. So I got a chance to play with him a lot during that period, and I got to know him as well. That was a great experience. He was the acknowledged master among everybody; he was the top dog, so to speak.
Watching him night after night, I’d see the space he used and how thoughtful his lines were. It was like every note had a purpose. And his touch was very important to me. The way he touched the keyboard, everything was very light and everything was crystal clear. Listening to Hank, you learn how to fill in just the right spots and not overplay or be overbearing. You learn those sorts of things listening to Hank accompany not just singers, but anybody. He was a preeminent accompanist but he played in all kinds of groups and situations, from leading his own trio to working as the house pianist for CBS television.
“Elegant” is the word always used to describe Hank, and it fit him perfectly. I never saw him without a suit and tie. Ever. This was a guy who would get up in the morning and put on a suit and a tie just to go to the store. It was the way he carried himself. He was such a gentleman, and he definitely had a great sense of humor. On that tour, Harold Mabern started calling him “King of Kings.” Hank smiled slyly and said, “Well, you remember what happened to him.”
I think future generations will remember the things that are important about his playing—his touch and his lyricism. It’s unfortunate that a lot of younger players don’t even know who he is, or think of him as an old fuddy duddy. These are young people who think that music started with John Coltrane. A lot of young people get wrapped up in technique and playing fast. With Hank you can hear the way he used space. He realized that space is an important part of music. The silence you hear between one note and another is part of the music too. As you get older, you learn what not to play. Hank was truly a master of that ability.
[As told to Lee Mergner]