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A Chat with Jazz Pianist Hank Jones

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A Chat with Jazz Pianist Hank Jones
© Michael Buckner / Getty Images
Pianist Hank Jones has been swinging since the dawn of modern jazz. When Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald were at their peaks, Jones was right alongside them. He has played with virtually every jazz star one can think of, from Coleman Hawkins in the 1940s to Joe Lovano in the '90s. At 90 years old, he is still one of the top pianists in jazz, and he continues to perform and record. Not surprisingly, he has recently been awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mr. Jones was kind enough to answer some questions I emailed him, and the below interview was carried out and transcribed by his manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc, on January 7th, 2009.

  • Jacob Teichroew: How do you think it turned out that, with a father who thought jazz was evil, you and two of your brothers turned out to be world famous jazz musicians? Did you have to be sneaky about learning and performing the music?

    Hank Jones: My father was a devout Christian, and it’s true he thought jazz was evil, but he did support the taking of lessons. My mother and father were both supportive of the learning process. My father liked that I played piano in church.

    I had to be less open about playing jazz to my father, but Elvin and Thad were not so restricted as I, being the eldest, had already “broken the ice,” if you will. I had a lot of respect for my father and so did my brothers.

  • JT: You grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, close to Detroit. Detroit is, of course, known for Motown in the 1960s, and blues guitarist John Lee Hooker lived there in the '40s and '50s, but was there a thriving jazz scene there in the 1930s, when you were beginning to perform?

    HJ: I wasn’t aware of Hooker. Although Detroit is 25 miles south, in those days that was a distance. I played in Flint and a few other towns in Michigan, but not the big city, so I wasn’t really that familiar with Detroit as a jazz centre. When Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and others were coming up, I was, of course, already in New York City.

  • JT: Were the seeds of Motown evident at that point?

    HJ: No. But I do know that Barry Harris went to school with Berry Gordy!

  • JT: When you moved to New York, the focus was transitioning from swing to bebop. Were you attracted to bebop artistically, or did you feel pressure to learn the style in order to work?

    HJ: I didn’t feel any pressure. I was attracted to it, as it embodied a sophisticated and inclusive harmonic approach. The lines were directly related to the harmony and often complicated.

  • JT: In the late '40s, you briefly played in Andy Kirk’s Orchestra, as well as Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). It seems that a common figure in your work with those bands was trumpeter Fats Navarro. Was that a coincidence, or was your career strongly tied to his? Which of those groups would you say did more to launch your career?

    HJ: Actually Fats was not in Kirk’s band, to my knowledge. I played some gigs with Fats in New York. One time with Fats, at the new Cotton Club, I was there when Fats jumped down from the upper tier of the bandstand. He came down to play his solo, but fell through the floor! The audience was in stitches – and Fats never stopped playing!

    My career was not tied to his, and our association was intermittent. I played with him in the Billy Eckstine band. With JATP, I started in 1947, and certainly that association helped my early career, and it continued up to 1951.

    Note: according to www.jazzdisco.org, Hank Jones and Fats Navarro played with Andy Kirk's orchestra on a 1946 Decca recording. The same website lists several more recordings of Andy Kirk’s orchestra that include Navarro.

  • JT: When you were performing with them, did you have a sense of how important Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker would be to jazz?

    HJ: It would have been impossible for me to predict at the time, but I can say that I had heard of them in Pontiac, so it was certainly a thrill to be able to work with guys like that. Today, I, of course, consider them icons.

  • JT: Who were your major musical influences when you were first developing as a musician? Did the pre-bebop masters influence your bebop playing? Who did you listen to in order to learn bebop on the piano?

    HJ: Long before bebop, there was Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines. These players were a big influence. Art Tatum, who, of course, came up later, is my all-time favorite player. I don’t believe in the term bebop, I’d rather just call it modern music or contemporary jazz. Even the term “jazz” I think unnecessarily pigeonholes what we do. Having said this, regarding what they call bebop, I listened to Bird, Bud Powell & Monk. I think Bird influenced Bud.

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