Tuesday, May 18, 2010

R.I.P.: Hank Jones

From his official website:
Hank Jones, pianist and jazz legend, beloved husband of Theodosia, dear uncle to his nieces and nephews across the country, friend to music, inspiration to countless musicians, died May 16, 2010 in New York City, after a brief illness. He was 91 years old, and would have been 92 on July 31st. Today we celebrate his spirit, his gift, his joy, his wisdom and his friendship. Hank lived and breathed music, and was never far from a keyboard, even at the end. His incredible burst of productivity - concerts, recordings, fundraisers, clinics - these last few years was unprecedented and truly remarkable. He had gigs planned through next year and in fact was due to play Birdland in NYC next week.

NY TImes - May 17th, 2010 -Hank Jones, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Dies at 91
Hank Jones, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Dies at 91
by Peter Keepnews
New York Times, May 18, 2010

Hank Jones, whose self-effacing nature belied his stature as one of the most respected jazz pianists of the postwar era, died Sunday at a hospice in Manhattan. He was 91.

Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, confirmed Mr. Jones's death.

Mr. Jones spent much of his career in the background. For three and a half decades he was primarily a sideman, most notably with Ella Fitzgerald; for much of that time he also worked as a studio musician on radio and television.

His fellow musicians admired his imagination, his versatility and his distinctive style, which blended the urbanity and rhythmic drive of the Harlem stride pianists, the dexterity of Art Tatum and the harmonic daring of bebop. (The pianist, composer and conductor Andre Previn once called Mr. Jones his favorite pianist, "regardless of idiom.")

But unlike his younger brothers Thad, who played trumpet with Count Basie and was later a co-leader of a celebrated big band, and Elvin, an influential drummer who formed a successful combo after six years with John Coltrane's innovative quartet, Mr. Jones seemed content to keep a low profile.

That started changing around the time he turned 60. Riding a wave of renewed interest in jazz piano that also transformed his close friend and occasional duet partner Tommy Flanagan from a perpetual sideman to a popular nightclub headliner, Mr. Jones began working and recording regularly under his own name, both unaccompanied and as the leader of a trio. Listeners and critics took notice.

Reviewing a nightclub appearance in 1989, Peter Watrous of The New York Times praised Mr. Jones as "an extraordinary musician" whose playing "resonates with jazz history" and who "embodies the idea of grace under pressure, where assurance and relaxation mask nearly impossible improvisations."

Mr. Jones further enhanced his reputation in the 1990s with a striking series of recordings that placed his piano in a range of contexts -- including an album with a string quartet, a collaboration with a group of West African musicians and a duet recital with the bassist Charlie Haden devoted to spirituals and hymns. In 1998, he appeared at Lincoln Center with a 32-piece orchestra in a concert consisting mostly of his own compositions.

Hank Jones was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 31, 1918. He grew up one of seven children in Pontiac, Mich., near Detroit, where he started studying piano at an early age and first performed professionally at 13. He began playing jazz even though his father, a Baptist deacon, disapproved of the genre.

Mr. Jones worked with regional bands, mostly in Michigan and Ohio, before moving to New York in 1944 to join the trumpeter and singer Hot Lips Page's group at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street.

He was soon in great demand, working for well-known performers like the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and the singer Billy Eckstine

"People heard me and said, 'Well, this is not just a boy from the country -- maybe he knows a few chords,'" he told Ben Waltzer in a 2001 interview for The Times. He abandoned the freelance life in late 1947 to become Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist and held that job until 1953, occasionally taking time out to record with Charlie Parker and others.

He kept busy after leaving Fitzgerald. Among many other activities, he began an association with Benny Goodman that would last into the 70s, and he was a member of the last group Goodman's swing-era rival Artie Shaw led before retiring in 1954. But financial security beckoned, and in 1959 he became a staff musician at CBS.

Mr. Jones remained intermittently involved in jazz during his long tenure at CBS, which ended when the network disbanded its music department in the mid-1970s. He was a charter member of the big band formed by his brother Thad and the drummer Mel Lewis in 1966, and he recorded a few albums as a leader. More often, however, he was heard but not seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other television and radio programs.

"Most of the time during those 15 or so years, I wasn't playing the kind of music I'd prefer to play," Mr. Jones told Howard Mandel of Down Beat magazine in 1994. "It may have slowed me down a bit. I would have been a lot further down the road to where I want to be musically had I not worked at CBS." But, he explained, the work gave him "an economic base for trying to build something."

Once free of his CBS obligations, Mr. Jones began quietly making a place for himself in the jazz limelight. He teamed with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams, alumni of the Miles Davis Quintet, to form the Great Jazz Trio in 1976. (The uncharacteristically immodest name of the group, which changed bassists and drummers frequently over the years, was not Mr. Jones's idea.)

Two years later he began a long run as the musical director and onstage pianist for "Ain't Misbehavin'," the Broadway revue built around the music of Fats Waller, while also playing late-night solo sets at the Cafe Ziegfeld in Midtown Manhattan.

By the early 1980s, Mr. Jones's late-blooming career as a leader was in full swing. Since then he has worked frequently in the United States, Europe and Japan. While he had always recorded prolifically -- by one estimate he can be heard on more than a thousand albums -- for the first time he concentrated on recording under his own name, which he continued to do well into the 21st century.

Mr. Jones was named a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master in 1989. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2009.

Reaching for superlatives, critics often wrote that Mr. Jones had an exceptional touch. He himself was not so sure.

"I never tried consciously to develop a 'touch,'" he told The Detroit Free Press in 1997. "What I tried to do was make whatever lines I played flow evenly and fully and as smoothly as possible.

"I think the way you practice has a lot to do with it," he explained. "If you practice scales religiously and practice each note firmly with equal strength, certainly you'll develop a certain smoothness. I used to practice a lot. I still do when I'm at home." Mr. Jones was 78 years old at the time.
NPR- Remembering Hank Jones, 'The Dean Of Jazz Pianists'
Hank Jones, Jazz Pianist Who Spanned Styles and Generations, Dies at 91
by Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2010

Hank Jones, whose extraordinary combination of versatility, craftsmanship and creativity during his nearly eight-decade career earned him the reputation as a jazz pianist's pianist, died Sunday. He was 91.

Jones died at a hospital in New York after a brief illness, publicist Jordy Freed said.

Praised for the feather-soft precision of his touch, Jones was equally adept at unleashing the piano's full, orchestral gamut of sounds. Rhythmic lift and propulsive swing were inherent to his playing, whether performing as an accompanist or in a solo setting. And his deep understanding of harmony was the foundation for a skilled mastery of the diverse material in the Great American Songbook.

"His style is as profound and defined as any of the major masters," jazz pianist Bill Charlap told the Detroit Free Press in 2006. "It's equal to Teddy Wilson, equal to Bill Evans, equal to Thelonious Monk, equal to Tommy Flanagan. It's as much a unique musical utterance and just as balanced in terms of intellectualism and feeling. With Hank Jones you hear the past, present and the future of jazz piano."

Jones' own evaluation of his playing was far more modest. Invited to become a member of alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker's group in the '40s, and trumpeter Miles Davis' band in the '50s, he declined the offers.

"Both times I said, 'I'm not good enough to do that,'" Jones recalled in the 1997 Detroit Free Press piece. "Isn't that something? I probably missed the chance of a lifetime."

Nevertheless, he played and recorded with Parker and Davis, as well as other leading jazz artists including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Milt Jackson, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and numerous others.

Emerging on the jazz scene during the Swing Era years of the 1930s, Jones was soon engulfed in the new wave of bebop arriving in the '40s. As new stylistic patterns arrived, decade after decade, he continued to find a way to transform his own playing, without losing his creative essence as a jazz artist. In more recent years, he partnered with younger players – saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau among them. But his self-effacing view of his own skills never changed.

In a conversation with Lovano for DownBeat magazine in 2005, he discussed his desire to reach the musical "stream of consciousness" achieved by players such as saxophonists Young and Hawkins. "It's not the easiest thing in the world," Jones said. "I'm still trying to get there myself. Just give me a little more time. Maybe another 100 years."

As recently as 2008, Los Angeles jazz audiences heard Jones in a pair of Southland performances – in a trio concert at UCLA, and a 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl -- clearly illustrating that he had long ago ascended the lofty level he described.

Jones was the eldest of three brothers whose extraordinary accomplishments established them as one of the jazz world's most honored musical families. Thad Jones, five years younger, was a trumpeter, bandleader and highly regarded arranger/composer. Elvin Jones, nine years younger, was an innovative drummer best known for his ground-breaking work with John Coltrane. Both died earlier -- Thad in 1986; Elvin in 2004; "I just wish they could have lived longer," said Jones, "because they both still had so much to say."

Despite the high level of fraternal talent and familial closeness, however, the three rarely performed or recorded together.

Born Henry Jones on July 31, 1918, in Vicksburg, Miss., he moved to Pontiac, Mich., with his parents in the early 1920s. His father was a Baptist deacon and a lumber inspector who also played the guitar; his mother played the piano.

Jones' skills developed quickly, and despite his father's belief that jazz was a "bad influence," Hank was working professional jobs with traveling dance bands based in the Detroit area by the time he was in his mid-teens. After graduating from high school, he continued working as a busy sideman, before moving to New York City in 1944 to play with the band of trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page.

Over the next 15 years he was a first-call accompanist for virtually every major jazz artist of the time, backing Fitzgerald, Davis, Young, Adderley, Hawkins, Holiday and Ben Webster, among others. A three-year run with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1947 to 1950 matched him with Roy Eldridge, Max Roach and Parker. In 1955, with the release of "The Trio of Hank Jones" (with Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke), he began a six-decade sequence of supplementing his busy sideman schedule with recordings under his own name.

Although Jones arrived on the scene at the time when the dominant jazz style was transitioning from swing to bebop, he maintained his own sense of creative equilibrium, always declining to describe himself as a "full-fledged bebop player." Asked by Jazz Times magazine to name his primary influences, he listed Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller -- each a player with a unique, musically omnivorous style. His affection for Tatum, in particular, led him to maintain a degree of separation from the rush to bebop that was attracting the players of his generation.

"Tatum was the first one to use all those harmonic devices that later guys like Dizzy and Charlie used," Jones told this writer. "It sounded new to people who heard it for the first time. But it wasn't new to someone who'd listened to Art Tatum. He was Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, all rolled into one."

In the late 1950s, Jones was offered a staff position at CBS and opted for the security of regular employment. The experience -- which included playing assignments reaching from "The Ed Sullivan Show" to "Captain Kangaroo" -- further enhanced his already eclectic abilities.

"Sometimes, you played accompaniments for singers," he said on an NPR broadcast in 2008. "Sometimes you played for groups. Sometimes you played for operatic sequences. Sometimes you played for elephant acts. Sometimes, you played for dog acts.... So you did a variety of things, all of which, when you added them up, contributed to your repertoire."

One of the other "variety of things" Jones did during that period was to play piano for Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at his 45th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in May 1962.

When he left CBS in 1976, Jones embarked on a new phase in his career. He performed on eight new albums over the next two years, and -- in the late '70s -- was the musical director and onstage pianist for the Broadway production of the Waller revue, "Ain't Misbehavin'." His Great Jazz Trio recordings, which began in the mid-1970s with Ron Carter and Tony Williams from Davis' rhythm section, eventually teamed Jones with, among others, Eddie Gomez, Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb, John Patitucci and Christian McBride. A series of piano duet encounters matched him with John Lewis, Flanagan and Mehldau.

He also recorded "Steal Away," a set of hymns and spirituals with Haden; accompanied singer Roberta Gambarini in highly praised sets of standard tunes; collaborated with a Mandinka band from Mali; and recorded a set of Jones' celebratory interpretations of Tatum compositions -- one of his many solo piano outings. More recently, his duet partnership with Lovano was applauded as a remarkable interfacing of musical generations.

Among his many honors, Jones was granted a National Medal of the Arts, an NEA Jazz Masters Award, an ASCAP Jazz Living Legend Award and a Jazz Journalists Assn. Lifetime Achievement Award. He also was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and received five Grammy nominations.

Jones is survived by his wife, Theodosia.

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