Clip: listening to CDs with Hank Jones
History, Heard From the Inside
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: September 2, 2005
FOR Hank Jones, the last 60 years of jazz is not best explained by records. The entire period seems to be retained in his own head: a labor history of all the jam-session, studio, one-night and concert-hall gigs he has played since moving to New York in 1944.
Mr. Jones, a pianist, has been one of the hardest and most consistent workers in the history of jazz. As a result, his focused, organized, subtle touch - one device is to turn up the energy of his improvising while still playing softly - shows up everywhere in the music.
It begins with a Hot Lips Page session in 1944 and works through Charlie Parker and Billy Eckstine and Artie Shaw and Ella Fitzgerald. The trail dims a bit in the 1960's - he was working as a staff musician at CBS from 1955 to 1972 - but resumes in the mid-1970's, with a serious renewal of his trio playing.
Mr. Jones's long list of accomplishments ends, for now, with Joe Lovano's spectacular new quartet, in which he plays with the bassist George Mraz and the drummer Paul Motian, and with a new trio album, "For My Father," under his own name. Mr. Jones has become natural-sounding, as if hitting the highest level of small-group jazz playing was like riding a bicycle. He has the sound of wisdom.
Mr. Jones, 87, rarely listens to jazz at his home in Hartwick, N.Y., near Cooperstown, where he lives with his wife, Theodosia. When he isn't working, he prefers to practice, two to four hours a day. This isn't so surprising. What's the point of accepting a mediated version of jazz, when you can trace its family tree through your own life and work? (If you had been around Nat King Cole as a fellow musician, as Mr. Jones was, and heard him play at his best in jam sessions, most Nat King Cole records might sound to you like contrivances.) Anyway, Mr. Jones likes to keep his focus on what is to be done tomorrow.
Gracious in all he does, Mr. Jones still posed a slight challenge to the project I have undertaken recently: asking great musicians to select recordings of other people's music, then sit down and listen with me, explaining what they hear in the music and how the music works. He simply would not choose.
"I'm really not much of a listener," he said in a preliminary phone conversation. We finally isolated a few areas of interest to him, including solo style, small-group arrangement, unaccompanied piano and pianists backing up singers.
He had one other desire: "I'd like to choose something by Count Basie," he said. "Because everything he did was so unpretentious."
We met at his Midtown hotel room one evening, during one of his recent visits to Manhattan. His day's work was done, but he greeted me in a coat and tie. Mr. Jones spoke rapidly, with a melodious roll in his voice; when closing in on an opinion, his eyes widened and flashed. Records may not mean much to him per se, but when zeroing in on individual performances, he was an astute, original thinker.
Tatum as a Model
When Mr. Jones was a young musician working in Detroit during the late 1930's and early 1940's, Art Tatum was important to him, along with Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. But Tatum is the one he still talks about as a paradigm.
He first heard Tatum in the late 1930's, at his family home in Pontiac, Mich., on a radio broadcast from Detroit. (Mr. Jones is the last surviving of 10 siblings, who included two other superior musicians: the drummer Elvin Jones and the trumpeter Thad Jones.)
He was convinced then that the Tatum broadcast was actually two pianists with the gimmick of sounding like a single, invincible one. Later, after moving east, he finally saw Tatum in Buffalo, where Mr. Jones's band was working at the Anchor Bar, and Tatum was at McVan's, across town. Mr. Jones watched Tatum each night after work. "Funny thing is, he was playing on a piano which wasn't a grand, it was a spinet," Mr. Jones said. "But he made it sound like a Steinway D."
He never wanted to copy Tatum, though. "I never attained that level," he said. "But I don't want to play exactly like Tatum. I'd like to adapt some of his technical ideas, but as far as imitating him note for note, I don't think that's good for anybody."
I chose a solo performance of "Sweet Lorraine" that Tatum had made at a private party in Los Angeles in 1955. Mr. Jones had heard those recordings, and though he did not anticipate the details, he quickly picked up on them, as if they pricked his memory. Before the first bridge, Mr. Jones started chuckling; in the bridge, Tatum dislodges a titanic, disruptive run, like a little microcomposition in itself, referring to the song's chords along the way. Then, for comic effect, he quotes the melody of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Mr. Jones laughed again.
"One of the most impressive things is, of course, those runs," he said, "which he played at blinding speed with either hand, and he sort of sets up the next chord progression with them. And the run itself is, of course, a chord progression: you can hear the chords in there. A lot of people say, why does he play all those runs? Well, they're an integral part of his style."
So what a lot of people take as exclamation points, or pure ornament, was really functional for Tatum, a means of binding all the action together? "In a sense they're exclamation points," Mr. Jones said. "But without the runs, what he was doing would probably not be as effective. He made a lot of excursions. He'd spot a progression, and on the way there, he takes a little excursion and plays a run to illustrate his point; maybe he's describing something that he saw on the way there and on the way back. His playing is very descriptive, you know."
We listened to it again. During the longest, most percussive run in the performance, Mr. Jones's face lighted up. "You see? He's changing chords with every beat of that run."
Another bridge came along, with another excursion. "Everything he does is a concerto," Mr. Jones said, wonderingly. "He knows exactly what he's doing."
The Road to New York
Who else impressed Mr. Jones when he worked in Detroit? "There wasn't a lot of great music being played," he said. "They had a lot of studio bands, radio bands, and there was one guy, Bill Stegmeyer, who later became one of the writers for 'The Jackie Gleason Show,' an excellent arranger - he was working with one of those bands. He was an excellent teacher, by the way. I studied with him later. Wonderful." (Mr. Jones studied classical piano repertory, especially Chopin, with private teachers well into his 50's.) Mr. Jones left Detroit for Cleveland in 1942, working at the Cedar Gardens nightclub, where there were also dancing girls and a comedian. On Sunday afternoons, he said, a fight routinely broke out in the middle of Cedar Street, near the club's front door. "I think a lot of people came just to see the fight," Mr. Jones noted dryly. "It was very interesting."
Subsequently he took the gig in Buffalo, where he first saw Tatum, and then moved on to New York, where his first job - at the invitation of the saxophonist Lucky Thompson - was in a big band with Hot Lips Page, at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street.
The Basie Touch
We pushed on to Count Basie, another of his models. "The thing about Basie, which to me is very significant, is that the band was the main focus," Mr. Jones recalled with enthusiasm. "He integrated his style into the big band, which was usually a single-finger style - although I heard him play stride piano, by the way, and he was also a great organist. In a big band you play a lot less, because you have to play in the spots, and that has to relate to the whole. I think he used taste in the best possible way, you know. By not overplaying, and yet being effective."
We heard "Time Out," from 1937. Mr. Jones didn't recall the title but recognized the song after a few seconds. Each player in the Basie band contributes an equal share to the total sound, with slangy phrasing and a deep, relaxed groove. It's natural, and beautiful; you can almost hear a breeze rustling through it. Soloing, Basie starts out with his usual edited phrases, then begins a stride passage and grows more voluble. "Oh?" Mr. Jones said at that point, cocking his head and listening hard.
"I heard a certain amount of discipline there," he said, when the song ended. "Duke Ellington had a great band, but he didn't have that kind of discipline, in my estimation. Duke wrote a lot of great music. It's just that when the reed section was playing, you heard a lot of Johnny Hodges, but not a lot of the other horn players."
An Admired Accompanist
Starting in 1947, Mr. Jones played with Ella Fitzgerald in Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. (While many of his colleagues drank or gambled, Mr. Jones recalled, he read novels and practiced the piano.) During this period he developed an admiration for Jimmy Jones - no relation - who became Sarah Vaughan's regular accompanist in the 1950's. (Mr. Jones didn't work much with Vaughan: only two concerts and a record date.)
He wanted to hear something by that pair, and I chose Vaughan's "Embraceable You," from 1954. It has a fairly sleepy tempo - not necessarily the sort of performance where an accompanist shows what he's made of - but is certainly among the best-known pieces by Vaughan with Jones.
He listened as Jones played chords softly, on every beat, under Vaughan. "Jimmy's accompaniment on this particular tune isn't typical of what he could do," he quickly decided. "This is fairly subdued; he's providing a harmonic background, not interfering with her. But I've heard him play accompaniment that, to me, sounded as if he were thinking along the lines of Ravel."
He elaborated a little. "Here he's using what I think of as a continuous style. He's not playing just on fills. He's using a melodic foundation behind her, which is continuous, almost like a countermelody." Suddenly Jones picked out five treble-clef notes, a short, original fill, just before Vaughan sang the line "come to Mama, do."
"Now, I think Sarah liked those kind of fills," Mr. Jones said. "Single-line fills. In my estimation, if you do that, you run the risk of interfering with the singer's train of thought. But I think Sarah liked the pianist to lead the train of thought and for her to follow. Ella's preference was for block-chord fills, to make her feel comfortable - never leading, always playing in response to her."
Mr. Jones's next request was Charlie Parker, who fitted into the same category as Tatum - a virtuosic soloist - but whose music also qualifies as great small-band music. (Mr. Jones recorded with Bird in the early 1950's.)
I chose "Ah-Leu-Cha," which Mr. Jones said he didn't recognize, from a 1948 recording. "Perfect control," Mr. Jones muttered during Bird's first solo, with its clean, strong sound even through double-time runs. "He always had that beautiful tone. And he never played extended solos, maybe two choruses, but that would be all you wanted to hear."
The song banged shut, and Mr. Jones laughed again. "Bird would play a 32-bar song, and then he'd play a blues, but he always had that same kind of tone," he said. "That's what makes him distinctive. I think his tone is equally distinctive as his style. They go together. Without the tone, the style wouldn't be as impressive."
What did Parker want from a pianist in his groups? "He required a pianist to follow the chord changes correctly, and not to overplay but just play in spots," Mr. Jones said. "Bud Powell did that; Al Haig did it. Anyway, if you didn't listen for a while, you wouldn't know what he was doing. You had to listen to find out what direction he was going in, and you played the fills accordingly.
"Working with Charlie was quite an experience. You always heard something that made you think, and think in the idiom that he was playing in. He'd pull you along with him; you couldn't just play your own way. He'd get you used to the idea of getting outside of yourself, because that's what you have to do."
Racing Against Time
Mr. Jones is one of the few great musicians left from the early bebop era who can comment on what the greatest players were actually thinking about the new music.
"At that time," he recalled, "a lot of musicians put that style down. They didn't like it. You'd think that musicians would be the first ones to pick up on it, but a lot of them didn't - 'What are these guys doing?' I didn't think that at all. My ears were wide open, my brain was receptive. I thought it was a change for the better, harmonically and melodically. It was a very difficult style to learn to play, and it still is. I don't consider myself a master of the style. I consider myself a student of it."
When a jazz musician reaches his 60's, the race against time begins. In his mid-80's, Mr. Jones is still racing. "I know I can do better than I'm doing now," he commented, casually, toward the end of our talk.
You really mean that?
"Oh, yeah. There's another level that's reachable. I think it's just a question of time, perhaps, or dedication. I know it's there."
Do you know what it sounds like?
"What you do is imagine what it should sound like," he explained. "Once, I was working on 52nd Street with the Coleman Hawkins group." (Mr. Jones reckoned this was around 1954.) "In the group was Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Curly Russell was the bass player. I was living up on 101st and Madison, and I used to go to work every night on the bus. On this particular night I was a little bit late.
"When I walked in and started playing, I played something, I played things that I had not played before. It may have been caused by stress; I don't know what caused it. But I was on a different level at that time. That may sound a little screwball, but that's what happened. You can think thoughts you haven't thought previously.
"I think people like Charlie Parker could do it consciously." He laughed. "I've got to do it subconsciously."