Hank Jones (1989)

My interview with Hank Jones was conducted live at WKCR on September 14, 1989, while he was performing at Fat Tuesday’s with a trio. I remember him as particularly kind and courteous, with a wonderful deadpan sense of humor.

My mistakes are typical of the young. First I tell him we’re going to discuss his “history” – always an undiplomatic approach. And with so little history of my own, I’m unprepared to help sift through the memories of another person. On the other hand, Jones responded graciously to my youth and inexperience. I was 21 at the time, and looked 17. My appearance could work to my advantage when it set expectations low or drew out paternal or pedagogical instincts in my interviewees.

My questions jump all over the place, and I usually fail to produce good follow-ups. At one point I mention that one of his earliest releases was called Hank Jones Bebop Piano. He replies that the title was a misnomer, since he was then playing “straight-ahead, two-handed piano.” The suggestion could be that bebop piano was sometimes too “one-handed,” but I didn’t pick up on it.

The first segment of the interview was not recorded, so the transcription starts with the second segment. The transcription omits some ephemeral comments, including gig announcements and a ticket giveaway.

Evan Spring: Hank Jones is with us today, he’s performing at Fat Tuesday’s this week, so that’s tonight, tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday at Fat Tuesday’s with a trio that includes Dave Holland on bass and Keith Copeland on drums. So you have four chances to see Hank Jones at Fat Tuesday’s, it’s at Third Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan. And we were just talking about the gig a moment ago, and we’re going to go into your history a bit now.

Hank Jones. Hmm. I knew it would come to this. [laughs]

Evan Spring: [laughs] Of course I have to ask you about your family, your famous family. Elvin Jones, of course, your youngest brother, and Thad Jones as well. So did your parents play a lot of jazz records? What did they do right?

Hank Jones: [laughs] Oh, I’m not – In my case I’m not sure they did anything right. Anyway, we had a lot of records, there were always a lot of records around the house. Some of them were jazz; some of them were of singers, vocalists. As I recall we even had some Al Jolson records around the house, you know. Eddie Cantor records. We didn’t have any rock ’n’ roll – see, rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist at that time. Actually, what did exist were records that they called – let’s see, they called [them] “race and blues” or – they weren’t called “rock ’n’ roll.” I guess “race and blues” probably was the forerunner of rock ’n’ roll. There’s a certain similarity there. But anyway, we had many records of blues singers and players, and blues pianists of course, and regular jazz pianists. We didn’t have any records of Fats Waller or James P. Johnson, but later we had Fats Waller records and Art Tatum records. Of course in my estimation Tatum is the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived, but a lot of people agree and some people don’t. But yes, there always was a lot of music around the house, and of course we had at that time – they didn’t call them record players, they called them “victrolas,” you see. And the victrola was a tall instrument that sat, sort of a cabinet, and on the top was the turntable, and inside the lid of the cover of the turntable was a picture of a dog, sort of barking into a big megaphone, and at the top was the caption, “His master’s voice.” [laughs] So that’s how we heard our records, we didn’t have the record players as they exist today, because they didn’t exist in those days. But yes, there was always a lot of music. My father played guitar, and my mother played piano and sang. You know, they didn’t consider themselves professional in the sense that they never went out and played jobs or concerts or did recordings or anything like that. But of course there was always music around the house. By the way Elvin plays guitar. Now he plays the T-Bone Walker style of guitar, you know, where you put the guitar behind your back and play twangy sounds, you know. [laughs]

ES: [laughs] Does he really do that?

HJ: No, that’s [unintelligible].

ES: You had seven siblings, I read. So are there any other lesser-known talents in your family?

HJ: No, I wouldn’t say so. You know about Thad and Elvin, of course. I have another brother named Paul, who plays piano, but not professionally. And of course all my sisters – I have three sisters, four at one time – and they all sang, and one sister played the piano.

ES: So you learned the piano from your mom?

HJ: No, I took lessons from one of the local teachers in Pontiac, Michigan, where I grew up. And later on of course I studied with teachers in New York and Detroit and so forth.

ES: So you were the oldest. If you had been the younger brother –

HJ: I wish you hadn’t said that.

ES: [laughs] – but do you think that’s why you’re on the piano? You think you would have ended up on a different instrument if, say, you had an older brother [who] already had the piano?

HJ: That’s hard to say, Evan. You know that’s a hypothetical question, there’s no point – actually, perhaps [laughs] I might not have even played at all, I might have gotten into something else, you know. But music around the house was definitely an influence on my decision to try to play the piano, ’cause I heard music – you know, there was always music being played, either recording-wise or in person, you know, by my mother or my father. So it’s questionable, it’s up in the air, it’s sort of a moot point. I may have not played [piano], although chances are I would have played some instrument, perhaps an easier instrument. Maybe bass or something [laughs].

ES: That’s easier?

HJ: I don’t know why I picked the piano – I guess because it was there, I suppose, you know.

ES: Now you came to New York in 1944, is that correct?

HJ: Yes, I think perhaps the latter part of 1943, into 1944.

ES: I guess you left your brothers back in Detroit.

HJ: Oh, that’s right. Pontiac, actually, although Thad and Elvin –

ES: Is that near Detroit?

HJ: – well, see I grew up in Pontiac. Thad and Elvin were born in Pontiac, and they worked in Detroit a lot more than I did, actually. And they were, I think, working at a place called the Bluebird. This was a club where people like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, J.J. [Johnson], Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins – everybody came through there and played at this club, and they were sort of like the house band at the time. They worked for all of the artists who played there, you know.

ES: Now later on in the forties you worked with Coleman Hawkins – we just heard one of those records a little earlier. And you toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic. So I’m curious if bebop was the big thing happening when you came to New York, did you feel compelled to establish your bebop credentials?

HJ: Of course when I first came to New York I didn’t have any bebop credentials. That was the style of music that I heard primarily when I came to New York. Like most musicians who come into New York, one of my first stops was 52nd Street. As a matter of fact, I came to New York and I was working with a bandleader named Hot Lips Page, you may have heard of him.

ES: Mm-hm.

HJ: He was a blues trumpet player, played excellent trumpet. And I worked at the – not the Three Deuces – the Onyx club, which was right across the street from the Three Deuces. And that was my first job in New York. So I was right on 52nd Street to begin with. In those days there were any number of little clubs along the street where you could hear people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and people like that. And so all you had to do was walk out of one club – two doors down the street another club, two doors from there another club, across the street another one, and so forth. There were about ten or twelve clubs within a two-block area.

ES: When you played with Charlie Parker, was that on 52nd Street?

HJ: No, I never worked in a club with Charlie Parker. I did Jazz at the Philharmonic with Charlie, as you probably –

ES: Yeah.

HJ: – heard. But no, I never worked a club date with Charlie, which is rather strange, really.

ES: Now you made an album for Norman Granz called Hank Jones Bebop Piano.

HJ: Yes, sort of a misnomer, because it really wasn’t bebop piano. I guess Norman felt that since bebop was rather popular at the time it would have some impact on the way the album sold, since bebop was popular. But technically no, it wasn’t bebop, it was just straight-ahead, two-handed piano.

ES: I guess that’s a rarity now [the recording], you can never find that one.

HJ: Well, I suppose so – let’s revive it. I happen to have a few copies out in the car I can bring.

ES: Now what about Ella Fitzgerald, you played with her for a few years, too.

HJ: For her.

ES: Yeah.

HJ: Yes. Well, four-and-a-half years to be exact, mm-hm.

ES: And what was that experience like?

HJ: Well, it was interesting. It was the first time really that I had worked as an accompanist for a singer, and it was interesting. I learned a lot. I think it was sort of a discipline kind of playing, because with Ella you had to play with a certain sort of harmonic approach. You used block-chord approaches. Many accompanists when they work for singers use single-line fills. Well Ella didn’t particularly care for single-line fills in the sort of open spaces. She preferred the block-chord, sort of orchestral type of fill. So I began to play like that, that sort of dominated by thinking at the time.

ES: More recently, especially in the late 70s, we have a whole bunch of albums recorded under your own name. And I guess playing with your own groups is more of a priority now, obviously.

HJ: I would think so, yes. Because all the years prior to that, I had been working as a sideman, and when you work as a sideman, you get to play solos occasionally. And the more horns there are involved, the less occasionally you get to play solos [laughs]. So you really don’t develop as quickly or as much, or at a pace that you would like to develop as a soloist. And the only way to become a soloist is to play solo.

ES: Right, so without the horns in the foreground, how has your piano playing changed then over the last –

HJ: It may have changed in the direction of, as you might expect, solo-wise. Rather than thinking background and supportively – which you always have to do anyway if you’re playing with a duo or a trio or a larger group – but you think more in terms of exploiting the capabilities or the possibilities of solo piano.

ES: We’re speaking with Hank Jones, he’s appearing this week at Fat Tuesday’s in a trio with Dave Holland and Keith Copeland…[details of upcoming ticket giveaway]…and we’ll be doing that giveaway in a moment, probably when we come back after the next recording that we’re going to hear. That recording is The Spirit of 176, which is a duo recording with George Shearing, and they recorded this just last year, March 1988. Now you’ve recorded in duos with Tommy Flanagan as well –

HJ: That’s right. And also John Lewis.

ES: Oh really? So what does this format bring out in your playing?

HJ: Well, I think probably the most significant thing that it does is – again, it exacts a certain discipline type of playing, because if you’re working with another pianist, you have to listen very carefully to what the other pianist is doing. You have to be careful that you don’t cause harmonic accidents, or events that might not be pleasing to the ear, to put it mildly. So you have to be very careful about what you play and when you play it. Actually you work it out on the basis of when the other pianist is playing a solo portion, then you play background, you support the soloist. In a sense it’s like accompanying; you accompany the other pianist when the other pianist is playing solo. When you’re playing the solo lines, then he becomes an accompanist. That way you don’t clash, you don’t have train wrecks. [laughs]

ES: Okay, the two tracks we’re going to hear is “Lonely Moments,” the Mary Lou Williams composition, and then “Star Eyes.” So let’s get right to this, it’s called The Spirit of 176, George Shearing and Hank Jones, both on the piano. This is a Concord record release, brand new. And again, Hank Jones is appearing…[details of gig].

HJ: Excuse me, Evan, maybe it might be a good idea to explain what “the spirit of 176” really means.

ES: Okay. Well, that’s two times eighty-eight I guess.

HJ: Exactly, right.

ES: Yeah, that’s a great title.


ES: Hank Jones and George Shearing, from a brand new album, The Spirit of 176. And you’re right, you mentioned people should know what the title of that means, you might not think of it right away. It’s two times eighty-eight keys on the piano. I thought it was a typo when I first looked at it.

HJ: Some people have said that they thought that was the collective ages of the two of us.

ES: [laughs] That’s a Concord record release recorded March 1988. Hank Jones is who you just heard, and he’s performing this week at Fat Tuesday’s…[gig details]…Now we’ve talked about the gig and your history a bit now, and just a few questions still outstanding.

HJ: Mm-hm.

ES: First of all, the “Detroit School.” People refer to the Detroit School, does that have any meaning besides just that you all came from Detroit, you and Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan?

HJ: Well Evan, I really don’t think it has any significance. I’ve heard this – you know, you get asked that question many times, and I really don’t have an answer for it, because I don’t believe there is any, I don’t think there is such a thing. It’s just perhaps coincidental, I suppose, that some of us have come from that area. You could probably make a case for some of the large cities around the country, pianists having come from that area. I don’t know, I don’t really think it’s significant at all. But it makes a good headline, you know. [laughs]

ES: And we also were talking about your brother Elvin. And people talk about how he’s changed the jazz drums. How do you think he’s changed jazz drumming?

HJ: Well, I don’t know, I think perhaps Elvin could probably best explain that, because as a drummer he could tell you exactly what he’s doing that might have had some impact on the style of drumming. The impression that I get is that I hear more things going on within the context of the given beat. At times it seems like he’s got more than two hands [laughs] that he’s playing with, about six hands. You hear a variety, a myriad of different beats and accents and so forth that are going on. He’s introduced I think a certain complexity to the style of jazz drumming that perhaps wasn’t there before.

ES: So, just what other projects are you working on now? I know you’re recording these duo albums, and your own trio albums that are upcoming releases on Concord, as you mentioned. Is anything else happening?

HJ: Well nothing other than the fact that I have continued to do concert appearances around the country and over in various countries, hopefully. And mixed in with it, some nightclub appearances. And perhaps some solo appearances. In other words, I would like to continue doing what I’m doing now, perhaps on a more or less reduced scale. After all, when you’re 176 years old, you don’t – [laughs]

ES: [laughs] And you said you’re a hundred-and-something miles away from New York, too.

HJ: Right, I’m a 188 miles plus another 12. So that’s roughly about, I’d say 200 miles north of New York City. [laughs]

ES: Now about your piano style, it’s been said by Leonard Feather, for example, that your primary influences are some swing-era pianists, like Art Tatum; you said he was the best pianist ever. And Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller.

HJ: Right.

ES: And you’ve also been obviously greatly influenced by beboppers like Bud Powell. Do you feel like there’s something missing from that description of your playing, or is that pretty good?

HJ: Well, I guess that’s a pretty accurate description of influences along the way. Of course, you know, you’ve listened to many other people, but I guess the people that make the greatest impact are the ones that are, let’s say, the representatives of that particular style that you’re interested in. I think what your style evolves into eventually is sort of a distillation of many, many different things that you’ve heard that have been impressed onto your mind, that you’ve adopted, that you’ve incorporated into your musical approach. And by the way I think you have to make the distinction between the style that you use for playing in groups and the solo style, and they’re two completely different styles. If you’re playing with a small group, you’re working usually with the bass and drums, or perhaps even a guitar as well. So you don’t utilize as much left hand – the left hand certainly complements your playing – if you’re playing solo, you must use the left hand to play a full, well-rounded style. But if you’re playing with a group, you don’t get a chance to use the left hand as much, because the bass and the drums sort of take over the function of the rhythm. They carry the rhythm, and your primary responsibility then is to carry the right-hand melody lines, so forth like that, with the right hand. So you almost evolve into a one-handed piano player, which is one of the dangers, one of the pitfalls of playing with groups exclusively. I think what you have to do is play solo. [laughs after bumping into the microphone stand]

ES: Are there modern pianists who have influenced you?

HJ: Oh yes, Oscar Peterson, I think, is certainly one of the greatest pianists around today. George Shearing of course. Got some very, very fine younger pianists around today – James Williams is one I’ve heard that I think has a world of talent also. Michael Weiss, Michael LeDonne. And there are some exceptionally well-talented young pianists around today that I’m sure you’re going to be hearing a lot more of in years to come.

ES: Now you’re performing at Fat Tuesday’s this week, as we’ve mentioned. We’re speaking with Hank Jones here at WKCR. And we played earlier from a live 1977 recording of your Ron Carter-Tony Williams trio at the Village Vanguard. I guess that’s a very different environment than Fat Tuesday’s would be.

HJ: The Vanguard?

ES: Yeah.

HJ: Yes it is, in a sense, but there again, they’re similar in the sense that you have listening audiences. Audiences come in to listen, because they’re primarily jazz rooms. Fat Tuesday’s has evolved into a jazz room from what it originally was in the beginning, but the Vanguard has always been a jazz room. [Note: The Vanguard started in 1934, moved to its present location in 1935, and became a full-time jazz room in 1957] So rooms like the Vanguard, Bradley’s, and Fat Tuesday’s, and I guess the Blue Note, are rooms of that type today, you know.

ES: Bradley’s, you feel that would be a listening room too?

HJ: Yes, I think it is. I think they have a very good policy there. The room used to be known for the fairly high noise level in the room, but lately – I’d say in the last year or so – the management has adopted a policy of asking the audiences to be quiet during the performances. And I think it works.

ES: Are you ever distracted by audiences that are talking loudly or eating or sitting very close to you?

HJ: Well, sometimes, yeah. Especially if they mention my name, they pronounce it wrong.

ES: How could they pronounce your name wrong?

HJ: I don’t know.

ES: Hank Jones?

HJ: We’ll have to ask them. [laughs]

ES: [laughs] And have you been playing at all recently in any big festivals in Europe or anything with very large audiences?

HJ: Well, let’s see, I guess the last one that I played at was one of the concerts celebrating the bicentennial, French Revolution. And I went over with a group of all-stars: Jackie McLean, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and some other people. I played for that.

ES: Well we know, as you mentioned, that Fat Tuesday’s is a great performance space, it’s very intimate and respectful of the music.

HJ: Exactly.

ES: When I come down to see your show – I’ll probably come down tomorrow or Sunday or something – I’ll make sure to sit where I can see your hands going, over on that side of the club.

HJ: All right. Very good. [laughs] I’ll have a special mirror set up, you know, so that no matter where you’re sitting in the room you’ll see the hands.

ES: That would be helpful. So before you perform somewhere, do you make any special requests about what piano they should have, or how it should be prepared, or anything like that?

HJ: Well, the main requirement, I guess, if you’d call it that, is that the piano be well-tuned, tuned to A440, and that all the notes work. And it has a reasonably good sound. And most pianos fit those requirements. And if they don’t, managements are usually very cooperative in that sense, they’ll always make sure that the piano’s in adequate condition. I think it’s very important.

ES: We’re running short on time now, so let’s announce the performance one more time and then get to this ticket giveaway…[gig details and ticket giveaway]…So do you have anything planned for the rest of the gig?

HJ: Well, I would like to complete the engagement without making too many more errors [unintelligible]. If I can cut down on the number of mistakes I make I’ll be happier. [laughs] Since I’ll never achieve that, and I’m not likely to ever be completely happy. But I’ll keep trying. [laughs]

ES: Well thanks very much for coming up.

HJ: Well, thank you Evan, it’s been a real pleasure, I’ve enjoyed it. Look forward to seeing you again.

ES: Well I’ll come down and check out the show, either tonight or Sunday.

HJ: Fine.

ES: Now, for those of you who want to go down and see him, it’s at Third Avenue and 17th Street – I hope that’s multitudes of you – and…[plugs upcoming record releases]

HJ: I would just like to say one more thing. The management has asked me to say that in the event that the lines waiting to get into the club stretch around the block, they will provide coffee and sandwiches during the waiting period.

ES: [laughs] [introduces the next Hank Jones record, Bop Redux.]