Jake Hanna: A Book About the Man Who Wrote the Book on the Integrity of Swing

A review of "Jake Hanna: The Rhythm and Wit of a Swinging Jazz Drummer"

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Bruce Klauber

Jake Hanna

Woody Herman led a band for six decades, and in those six decades, granted complete musical freedom to only two sidemen: Drummers Dave Tough and Jake Hanna. Because of their taste, time, ability to swing, support and play for the band, the Old Woodchopper let them play any way they wanted. In the process, Tough and Hanna became legends.

There’s a new book out about one of those legends, Jake Hanna, and it stands as essential reading. For anyone who can read.

Maria S. Judge, Hanna’s niece, has written her uncle’s biography, Jake Hanna: The Rhythm and Wit of a Swinging Jazz Drummer (Meredith Music Publications) and like the subject, the work is as much a “production” as it is a bio. That’s because Hanna, who sadly left us only two years ago, was quite the multi-faceted “production” himself, fondly remembered as a story teller, humorist, sports fan, family man, teacher, mentor, talent scout, and a versatile percussionist who virtually stood for the concept of swing.

And the concept of swing he stood for was his concept of swing.

Obviously, a regular bio could not do in this singular case, which is why Ms. Judge enlisted the contributions of, count ‘em, 192 friends, fans, family members, fellow musicians, students and admirers. As a whole, they tell of the drummers’ many sides, ranging from genial family man and uncompromising musician, to rabid sports fan and hilarious raconteur.

Indeed, a good majority of the 192 contributors herein say something about the man’s famed sense of humor, whose pinpoint, spontaneous wit rivaled that of any professional humorist. His lines and his stories, liberally sprinkled throughout, will have you laughing until you gasp for what’s left of breath. Start with the story he tells about Buddy Rich with Sam Most and the sextet in Chicago.

Above all, of course, Hanna was a drummer, with legions of admirers in and out of the business. Drummers of every style and age—including Charlie Watts, no less—worshipped him. Though Judge’s work is not an instructional book or educational manual, there’s plenty of meat here for drummers about Hanna’s style, philosophy, technique, drum tuning, the art of playing brushes and cymbals, his thoughts on equipment, and opinions on other drummers, musicians and singers.

And sure, though he revitalized the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman much in the same way as Louie Bellson revitalized Duke’s band, he was a superb small group player and accompanist to singers, was instrumental in the formation and ongoing success of the Concord Jazz label, was responsible for convincing Rosie Clooney to come back to the business, and set an example for jazz and for integrity by becoming the first player to leave a lucrative studio position to play jazz exclusively.

As just one example of how highly he was regarded in and out of the jazz community, when Bing Crosby returned to live performing for the last several years of his life, he only wanted one drummer backing him: Jake.

In describing Jake Hanna, two of the phrases that crop up again and again are “one of a kind,” and “they don’t make them like that anymore.” How true. But as funny as he was, to Jake Hanna, it was all about music.

Guitarist Howard Alden was right on the mark, saying, “…He was all about music. There was a sincerity and honesty in his playing, and if you played sincerely and honestly with him, he would like it and respect it. He had no tolerance for bullshit. When he played he was behind every note, there was no trying to put on airs. He was completely in service of the music, the beauty and the swing.

“Jake was the most sincere, no-nonsense musician on any instrument, not just drums. Every note was from the heart and was full of integrity.”

It’s not certain whether awards are given out for books like these. If they’re not, there should be. If they are, Maria S. Judge should win it.

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Bruce Klauber