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Pianist Hank Jones

Matt Schudel

The great jazz pianist Hank Jones has died at the age of 91. He had been a professional musician since the 1930s, and few performers could match his long and admired career, but Hank Jones never got his full due as a musician until relatively recently.

I knew him slightly and had interviewed him a few times for jazz articles. Most people know that he was the oldest son of a famous jazz family that included his younger brothers Thad Jones (a trumpeter, composer and bandleader) and Elvin Jones, who was one of the greatest drummers in jazz history, known particularly for his work in the 1960s with John Coltrane.

Hank Jones was a living connection from the earliest days of jazz -- his first major influences were Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, who first gained fame in the 1930s -- to the present day. Here's a clip from 1950, showing Hank accompanying saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. (Buddy Rich is on drums, Ray Brown on bass, by the way.)

In 1947, Hank was the pianist in the legendary Billy Eckstine big band, which featured Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Art Blakey, bassist Oscar Pettiford, trumpeter Fats Navarro, singer Sarah Vaughan, saxophonists Sonny Stitt and Wardell Gray and other giants of the fast-evolving bebop movement in jazz.

He was one of the last surviving members featured in Art Kane's famous group photo from 1958, "A Great Day in Harlem," in which many of the world's foremost jazz musicians gathered on a street in a remarkable image that has only grown more meaningful with time. (Jones is standing on the curb, the second person from the left. He is directly behind the boy sitting on the curb at the far left.)

In recent years, he had been working such stars as saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassists Christian McBride and Charlie Haden. (In the Lovano video, which is of exceptional quality, you can see the economy of Jones's fingerwork at the keyboard and the wide-eyed communication between him and Lovano.) Here's another video, in which Lovano talks about Jones and vice versa.

Hank was a true gentleman of jazz, never appearing in public without a jacket and tie. He had a wonderful speaking voice and was always precise and thoughtful in his choice of words. Here he is discussing the development bebop, illustrating the music at the keyboard. (This video was made in 2007, by the way, when Hank was 89.) He could be somewhat grumpy and opinionated; when I interviewed him in 2004 about the death of his brother Elvin -- my first bylined obituary for the Washington Post -- Hank let it be known that he was not pleased with the way Elvin's wife had managed his career in recent years. He and Elvin occasionally recorded together, but I think Hank would have relished the opportunity to do more.

The writer Gene Lees, who died April 22, included a chapter about Jones in his book "Waiting for Dizzy." Jones was never a bitter man, but he was old enough to experienced some of the worst indignities of segregation and he made it clear that he never forgot. "Most musicians, especially the younger musicians today," he said, "really can't conceive of this, but believe me, it happened."

In recent years, Hank worked a lot with the Italian singer Roberta Gambarini. He had worked for six years with Ella Fitzgerald and had also performed extensively with Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln. I remember talking by phone with Hank from Japan and hearing him describe Gambarini as the best vocal talent he had heard in 60 years, saying in his rich voice, "And, as you may know, I have had some experience with singers."

Finally, as a fond farewell, here's Hank Jones playing "Willow Weep for Me" at Carnegie Hall in 1994.

By Matt Schudel  |  May 18, 2010; 12:57 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Sad to see the passing of this great musician and great man. I was lucky enough to see him perform about six or seven years ago and he looked great and his playing was wonderful. Not many left of this great generation of jazz musicians who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s. As Schudel notes, he was one of three extraordinary brothers all of whom were outstanding musicians. The Heath brothers are the only other example of this that I can think of. I believe Hank was the oldest of the three Jones brothers, but the last to go. NPR's Lee Ann Hanson played an interview with Jones in which he said he avoided "drugs, alcohol and wild women." I guess that's why he was so good for so long. Thanks for the clips and the link to the wonderful Kane photo.

Posted by: twm1 | May 23, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

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