Photo by Tom Pich
Hank Jones talks about his long career in jazz, including playing with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and fellow NEA Jazz Master Ella Fitzgerald. [24:52]
[Brief piano segment]
Josephine Reed: That was Jazz Master and National Medal of Arts recipient Hank Jones playing âBluesetteâ written by Toots Thielemans and Norman Gimbel. Welcome to Arts Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artist to explore how art works. As you heard Hank Jones is an elegant and lyrical jazz pianist. Born in 1918, he embodies jazz history. He's made thousands of recordings both as a soloist, and as an accompanist, playing with many of the greats including Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie parker. Hank Jones is still at the keyboard both recording and touring internationallyâ¦hitting 4 continents in 2010 alone. When he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008, he stopped by the studio to reflect upon his career. Here's our conversation.
Okay, Hank Jones, I'm going to start with a very easy question.
Hank Jones: It will have to be easy because I, I don't know the hard answers. <laughs>
Josephine Reed: <laugh> What makes jazz, jazz?
Hank Jones: âOoooh,â you started out with a hard question, right? Well, I think the fact that there is a lot of improvisation like to, you have toâ¦ See when you play jazz you, of course, you have to know the melody of course, whatever you are playing. Then you improvise on the melody, which means you play variations of the melody. And it's a sort of freestyle, it's a loose style. It's relaxed, I think. That's theâprobably the short answer. I don't know the long answers.
Josephine Reed: I know as you say one needs to be very relaxed. But it always seems like an incredibly brave thing to do.
Hank Jones: Well, in the senses that you're always exploring new territory. You're always doing something else. What you try to do is you try to vary your playing so that you, you're always playing something different. You don't want to keep playing the same thing. You don't want to get into musical clichÃ©. So I think that's, that's one of the problems you have to watch.
Josephine Reed: Now you come from a very musical family.
Hank Jones: Well, I was lucky enough to be in a family that included Thad, my brother, and Elvin. And also I had two sisters. I had a younger sister, she also played piano. And then my youngest sister, Edith, who didn't play but she sang. You know, of course that and Elvin, and my father played guitar. And my mother played piano.
Josephine Reed: Now, there was a lot of church music in your home?
Hank Jones: Yes, there was. Early on, I heard a lot of gospel music; hymns, spirituals, and I was particularly fond of spirituals. And I still am to this day.
Josephine Reed: Can you talk about the crossover from moving from a house with a lot of church music to then exploring jazz, and how you ended up being a jazz pianist.
Hank Jones: Well, it's not that well defined because the crossover was gradual. I started playing church music gradually. I took lessons and my teacher taught the scales and exercises. And also short pieces that were not jazz related, that were short, semi-classical pieces. And later more classical pieces. But then when I started hearing all the jazz being played by the player pianos and also by recordings, see, my mother and my father had a tremendous collection of records, records of all types; blues, jazz records. So I heard a lot of music. And I, I think in hearing this music, it was a gradual transition let's say to something in my mind said, âWell, maybe if these people can play this way, why can't I do this?â You know, so, I started to experiment. And that's how you start. And experiments resulted in disaster as you can see.
Josephine Reed: Hardly. Now you mentioned Fats Waller. He was an early influence.
Hank Jones: Yes, he was. Certainly. Fats Waller, I think influenced my playing a lot early on. And then there was Teddy Wilson, and of course later on the great Art Tatum.
Josephine Reed: Tell me the first time you heard Art Tatum?
Hank Jones: The first time I heard Art Tatum <laugh>, I, I couldn't believe it. I said to myself, this is a trick. No one person can play like this. There has to be at least two or three people. That, that was my impression of Tatum. And, it lasted a long, long time. Probably when I first saw him in person. I realized that it was just one person. I was still amazed. And when you watch him play as I got a chance to do later, you could not believe the things he was playing because there was very little arm motion, body motion. He did it all with his fingers, everything he did. And it was quite amazing. And still is to this day.
Josephine Reed: Your brother, Thad, was a horn player.
Hank Jones: A great horn player. Played trumpet, and cornet also.
Josephine Reed: And Elvin, a drummerâ¦
Hank Jones: Yes, yes, Elvin was a fantastic drummer who never studied drumming officially taught by a teacher. He learned. He was in the Airforce and was in one of the Airforce bands. And that's how he learned to play. Also he was a great fan of Buddy Rich. He loved Buddy Rich. I used to be with J.T.P., and whenever we'd play Cleveland, Elvin was stationed at a Airforce base near there. Elvin would be at the concert listening to Buddy Rich.
Josephine Reed: Did you get a chance to play with your brothers often?
Hank Jones: Not as often as I would like to have, you know, because I preceded them by a few years, you know. They were quite a bit younger than I. Elvin and Thad played a lot together more than the three of us ever played together. See, in Detroit, where Elvin sort of got to have most of his activity, he played in a band, like a house band at a club there in Detroit. Where a lot of players came through, playâ players like J.J. Johnson, several of the horn players, Dizzy, Miles Davis, people like that. They came through and Elvin was playing in the house band at this club The Detroit. So, he got to play with a lot of people. And he absorbed, a lot, I think in, during that period.
Josephine Reed: You moved to New York in 1944?
Hank Jones: Yes, late 1944.
Josephine Reed: Can you talk about the difference in the music that was being produced in Detroit at that time and the music that was happening in New York?
Hank Jones: Well, in Detroit, of course you know we had people like Barry Harris, you know, Tommy Frank who had played there. The music that I heard was primarily music in Detroit. But I guess it was a sort of, sort of jazz. It wasn't the kind of jazz that, that I heard later on. It wasn't called Bebop at that time. You know, because Dizzy Gillespie hadn't made his appearance with by then <laugh> But it was, it was two-handed jazz, you know, it, the Teddy Wilson style, the Fats Waller style. And that was the style then. When I got to New York I started to be influenced by Bud Powel, people like that, and Monk, Thelonius Monk, players of that type, you know. And then, what I wanted to do was to, to retain some of the style that I had previously. But also to absorb some of the, of the different styles that I heard, which was called erroneously, I might add, Bebop.
Josephine Reed: You know, you don't like the term Bebop. Tell us why?
Hank Jones: Because I really don't think it adequately describes the type of music that is being played. I think a better term would be, I don't know, you could even, you'd use the term experimental music, although that has certain connotations that I don't want to get into, and not the extreme. But I think it was different, yes. It was a little more complicated. You had to have, let's say, a deep understanding of harmony. And you had to also have certain flexibility in playing what other instrument you played the piano, or trumpet, or saxophone, whatever. You had to be very, very fluent. The style was very complicated. So, when they call it Bebop it doesn't describe what they're really doing. What theyâ what they're doing is actually playing an advanced form of jazz, at that time.
Josephine Reed: I think, was it Dizzy Gillespie who said Bebop was, you were playing the notes between the notes?
Hank Jones: I don't know that I agree with that or not because if there is no space between the notes but you couldââ that you could play. <laughs>
Josephine Reed: But when you listen to Charlie Parker, it kind of makes sense?
Hank Jones: Well, Charlie Parker, yes, of course. Charlie played a nice, moving style. Don't forget, Charlie's roots were from Kansas City, so you could say, his playing had aââ was a very strong blues influence because there was a lot of blues played in Kansas City. So everything that he played came out of that.
Josephine Reed: And you played with him?
Hank Jones: I played with him on certain recordings but never in a nightclub.
Josephine Reed: And what was it like recording with him?
Hank Jones: Fantastic, exciting, and stimulating. You had to think in order to play with him because he, he played such a variety of things. Changes, we call them; core inhibitions, substitutions, and so forth. And you had to be really on your toes to play with him. I enjoyed it but it was a mental exercise for me. <laughs>
Josephine Reed: <laughs> Yes. And you also played with Ella Fitzgerald for five years.
Hank Jones: Four, it was actually about four and a half, you know. It was a great experience for me because of the different mode of playing. You had to learn how to accompany, you see. Accompanying is quite different from playing solo. When you're accompanying a soloist, be it a vocalist, or an instrumentalist, you have to play in a manner that is complimentary to the soloist, but you'd never interfere with the soloist. You'd provide support but you'd never overshadow. You play in the background. You play, you'd provide a platform for them to play; harmonically and melodically, and whatever it takes. So, it means that you have to listen very carefully to the soloist. You compliment the soloist but you never interfere. You play in the open spots perhaps. But sometimes you lead a little bit but never to the point where you interfere with the train of thought of the soloist.
Josephine Reed: That's the difference between being a soloist and playing for someone, or with someone. What about the difference between playing for someone like Ella Fitzgerald and playing with Charlie Parker, for example. The difference between playing with a singer?
Hank Jones: Accompanying Ella Fitzgerald, you see. You had to think in two modes. You see, Ella was a very fine ballad singer. She was one of the greatest. Also, she could skat sing with the best of them. So, when she played skat, you had to alter your style just a little bit, you know. My style basically, in accompanying was the chord style, you know. That is, I didn't use the single finger fills that a lot of pianists use. I think when you use single finger fills this is not a criticism. But I think you tend to interfere with the train of thought of the, the singer. You don't want to do that. So I played sort of block chord fills. I did that quite a bit also with playing behind Charlie Parker and soloists of that type because you had to provide that harmonic background, exactly. So there had to be sort of a floor for them. It's hard, it's hard to describe. But it, it means that you had to lay down, as I, if I may say that a pattern of chords that is complimentary to what they were doing.
Josephine Reed: Can we play something of yours? I'd actually like to play âBluesetteâ written by Toots Thielemans and Norman Gimbel.
Josephine Reed: Well, Hank Jones?
Hank Jones: Well, I, I don't know. Who was that playing?
Josephine Reed: Who was that playing first of all? I've listened to that and I think whosever playing this is bringing so much joy to it.
Hank Jones: âHmm,â well you know, I, when I'm playing something, I think of something pleasant. I think it requires thinking in a certain mode. It may be, might be better to say, âthinking in a neutral mode,â because you don't want to be influenced by anything that you've ever heard before. So, I think you're starting from zero and you can go from that to wherever you're going, wherever it ends up.
Josephine Reed: What strikes me is â¦
Hank Jones: Hopefully it won't remain at the zero level of that song. <laughs>
Josephine Reed: But it seems to me with jazz it's always a collaboration, no? Between the composer and the musician.
Hank Jones: It is because what you're doing is you're playing on a format that was created by the composer. And that's one thing I always try to do. I try to establish the melody that the composer had in mind because that, if you don't then you're really playing in a vacuum because the composer must have had something in mind when you wrote to him. So you try to be true to what the composer had in mind even with your improvisations. Because you always have to keep that melody in mind. And also that harmonic progressions as well. Well, that's what improvosation is. I mean, you have to create a different line. A variation of the original line, of the original melody, so to speak.
Josephine Reed: How often do you practice?
Hank Jones: When I'm at home I try to practice about three hours, if I have the time, you know. When you're on the road it's hard to do unless you have a, a portable keyboard that you can take it with you. But when I'm at home I practice three hours, three and half, or four, or something. I try to keep in shape. If you can't play what you think of then something is missing. It all happens very quickly. You don't have time to think so to speak when you're playing. Because you will have established all of that prior to that. And your, your technique then follows. Your technique is first, because if you don't have that you can't perform, you can't play anything.
Josephine Reed: That's the thing that always impresses me because not only is it being improvised but it happens so quickly.
Hank Jones: Yesâ¦ it happens instantaneously. You'd think of it as you play it. And so you're always thinking ahead. I think that may be the key. I'd, for instance, if you, if you're sight reading. I think one of the keys is, is you have to think maybe two or three measures ahead. Just to look ahead to see what's there. While improvisation is almost like that because you're thinking of the chord progressions, two or three bars ahead. So, when you get there, you know, you're in, you're prepared for it.
Josephine Reed: You spent, what did we say, almost 20 years working at CBS?
Hank Jones: Seventeen to be exact.
Josephine Reed: Seventeen to be exact. Why did you choose to work at CBS?
Hank Jones: Well, it happened, sort of by accident, you might say. I had first done some recordings with Andy Williams, the singer. And after the recordings Andy did he moved to CBS. And he asked me to play on that show. So, I was fortunate because Andy Williams brought me along and I got the job at CBS. And then subsequently I was put on the Gary Morris show. And I did that for oh, about 17 years. So I was pretty busy, you know.
Josephine Reed: And then you left CBS and you went back to playing clubs.
Hank Jones: That's right. And we called it freelancing. I used to freelance. And I'd get calls from a contractor they say, âAre you free next Thursday at two o'clock?â I said, âWell, I'm not free but I'm reasonable.â [laughs] Sorry about that. But, I did a lot of freelancing, and recordings, and so forth. I did some work with bands like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Coleman Hawkins small groups. And of course there was a bit of recording connected with any, each of those. So, I got a lot of experience in various formats.
Josephine Reed: Is there any format you like best?
Hank Jones: Well, I have to say that I like solo playing best, although a close second would be duo with bass. As a close third would be playing with trio base, and drums. But I think, I believe I like the solo form best that's because I think it gives you more freedom that you can explore things that you wouldn't dare to do if you were playing with somebody else because they couldn't possibly follow what you're doing, unless they knew it in advance what you were doing. So I like, I like the solo format best.
Josephine Reed: And tell me how did you hook up with Joe Lovano with him?
Hank Jones: I had, I had heard of Joe, strangely enough, when I was doing some things out in Idaho, with doing the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival out there a few years ago. But Joe was on one of the, one of the programs there. I didn't get to play with him at that time but I knew about him. So, consequently when he came to New York to do a series of engagements he called me. And he was doing, calling me to do a duo. And thereâ there's the duo format again that I enjoyed doing. So I played with Joe during which time I also had a chance to play solo. Because when Joe wasn't playing it was solo. So, I was able to do both things. I had the best of both worlds.
Josephine Reed: And you also made a great CD of spirituals, called, Steal Away.
Hank Jones: That was with Charlie Hayden, a bass player.
Josephine Reed: And that seemed like an unlikely duo as well. I mean, Charlie Hayden doing this. But yet, it's absolutely gorgeous.
Hank Jones: Well, thank you. I enjoyed doing it because asâ as you know, I think I may have mentioned the spirituals. I grew up listening to spirituals. You know, the strange thing is Charlie and I actually played a concert in Montreal together, during which we played half the program spirituals, the other half, jazz. It was a sort of a combination of two things. When we went into the recording studio, the A and R man said, âWell, why don't you record the things that you did in Montreal?â So, that's something we did. It's how that came about. And it was a great experience, and I loved doing it at night. I liked playing with Charlie. So, it was, it was great. I loved playing the spirituals. I love spirituals. Yes.
Josephine Reed: And 1974, you went to the White House. Tell us about that?
Hank Jones: Yes. They were, they were doing at that time a celebration of Duke Ellington's 75th Birthday, I believe it was. So he was invited to the White House. And I played it with an orchestra there.
Josephine Reed: And that was a great evening at the White House. Duke Ellington, I worship at the altar of Duke Ellington.
Hank Jones: As we all do. <laugh> Yes, you know, by the way, Duke Ellington was one of, was Thad's inspiration for writing. Although he did not write like Ellington, Ellington inspired him. And Thad was a really great arranger and composer.
Josephine Reed: And you've often felt that he has not gotten his due.
Hank Jones: I believe that. I think he should have been more appreciated, the band. The band should have had, gotten more recognition. Of musicians, people that, that know about music appreciated that. But not the general public I think and that, that's too bad, because he was a great composer, and arranger and player. A lot of people don't know that Thad was one of the greatest trumpet players that ever played. You see, when he had the Big Band he had three or four trumpet players in the band. He allowed them to do most of the solo work because he was conducting. But the cognoscenti recognized his ability and his talents.
Josephine Reed: Your brother's side. If you had to name any two or three composers you just love to play, who would they be?
Hank Jones: J.J. Johnson, Charlie Parker, of course; Tad Domeron, perhaps, yes. Because they were the foremost composers of that, of that kind of music at the time. Their music still exists. People are still playing it. Sometimes they don't even realize that they're playing it but they are.
Josephine Reed: And is there anyone that you particularly loved playing with?
Hank Jones: Well, of course, you know, I loved playing, accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. I loved playing with the Benny Goodman Trio when I was working with Benny, and the quartet. And of course I enjoyed working with Joe Lovano, who I think is one of the greatest tenor saxophone players around in any time. Oh, with Charlie Parker of course, but, see, my work with Charlie Parker was very limited because I only did recordings for him. See, he did the tours, a couple of tours I guess was it, with J.T.P. at the time. When you did tour the Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic. During the off time you did the recordings.
Josephine Reed: Can you talk a little bit about Norman Granz. He's had such an impact on jazz.
Hank Jones: Well, I have to give Norman Granz credit for bringing jazz, let's say, to a lot of people that might never have heard it before. He brought jazz to concert halls. He brought jazz to a lot of communities that probably had never heard jazz with players like Charlie Parker or Bill Harris, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Buddy Richââ people like that, in person. Norman Granz was responsible for that. Also, he broke the color line, in some places in the south. The color line was a very real thing. He insisted on mixed audiences. Previously that had not occurred, you know, so he deserves a lot of credit for all he did.
Josephine Reed: And the body of recordings that he left behind is, it's monumental.
Hank Jones: Yes. And I guess it were a series of what? Eight, or seven, or eight, I'm not sureââ of recordings of J.T.P. I think, close to Volume 8, I believe. I should know. But I did, I did a lot of them. It was always a great, it was a great experience, because sure, I mean, you got to play with people. When I first came to New York you see I had heard about people like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young by reputation. I had never seen them before. And look, on J.T.P. I got not only to see them but to work with them. So, it really was a great experience for me. And a great learning experience. As everything else is. Everything that I do is a learning experience. I'm still reaching for that, goal.
Josephine Reed: You made your first album 61 years ago.
Hank Jones: Did you have to bring that up?
Josephine Reed: I'm sorry, I was just wondering. And you're still working?
Hank Jones: Yes, I am as a matter of fact. I will continue to do so for the next, let's say, give or take 50 years; about 250 years.
Josephine Reed: And we look forward to hearing it for many years. Hank Jones, thank you so much. It was really, really a privilege to talk to you. Thank you.
Hank Jones: Thank you, my privilege.
Josephine Reed: Jazz Master and National Medal of Arts recipient, Hank Jones. Hank is gearing up for his 92nd birthday this summer at New York City's celebrated Birdland. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The music is âBluesetteâ written by Toots Thielemans and Norman Gimbel and played by Hank Jones. It's from Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 16.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov; next week, David Stull, Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. To find out how art works in communities across America, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow the NEA on Twitter.
"Bluesette," composed by Norman Gimbel and Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, is used by permission of Words West LLC d/b/a Butterfield Music [BMI, 50%] and Reuter & Reuter Forlags AB, adm. by Songs Of Universal, Inc. [BMI, 50%].