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Vol. LXIV, No. 21
 
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
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Record Review

Still With Us In or Out of the Spotlight: Getting to Know Hank Jones

Stuart Mitchner

“He captures you with every note, every phrase, every sound.”

— Joe Lovano on Hank Jones

Thanks to the collective good graces of YouTube, Hank Jones (1918-2010) and his music are still very much with us. All it takes is a few easy online manuevers, like a visit to the Mecca of jazz sites, (http://sites.google.com/site/ahsjazz/youtubevideolinks), and you can meet him face to face, see him perform, and get to know him at least well enough to realize that even in his 90s he was still possessed of that quality D.H. Lawrence called “the quick” of being, alive with something like the clear touch and tone of his playing. Whatever the situation in the various conversations and interviews online, he’s a lively, witty, unaffected presence, his gestures emphatic and spontaneous, his manner upfront and self-deprecating, amused with others and himself. His sense of humor is always there, as when he’s bantering with bassist Christian McBride, or simply holding forth with a nice, forthright energy about bebop (a word he finds unworthy) to the Dutch interviewer for whom he’s demonstrating why “How High the Moon” has become, as he puts it, “a musician’s bible.”

Jones is at his most personable in playful, affectionate conversations with 53-year-old tenor man Joe Lovano, who appeared with him at the 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival, which is where I saw this remarkable duo. The interplay between two such unlikely kindred spirits was moving to behold: the elegant, impeccable master at the keyboard and the lumbering bearish virtuoso, and at the end, basking in three standing ovations, hand in hand, arms raised as one, triumphant.

Hank Jones’s extraordinary career has not (as far as I can tell) merited a message of national condolence like the one President Obama released when Lena Horne died the week before. This is no surprise, given Jones’s lifelong resistance to the limelight even as he was bringing American music to audiences all over the world, Japan most recently, right up to his final months. Though he was the first black studio musician at CBS, he was never an activist, never one to draw attention to himself. His most visible political moment probably came at Madison Square Garden in May 1962 when he accompanied Marilyn Monroe as she sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at a Democratic fund-raiser. Well knowing how nervous Marilyn was, Jones picked her up as soon as she began to falter. You can’t see him, and you can barely hear him over the noise of the crowd, but he’s there, moving merrily along, helping guide her into the “Thanks for the Memory” portion of one of the more bizarre chapters in the Camelot saga.

That odd moment in the shadow of the spotlight was typical of a man who spent the first half of his long career as a low-profile accompanist supporting Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and other high-profile performers. As the obit by Peter Keepnews in the New York Times points out, his “self-effacing nature belied his stature.” Nor did it help that he worked in relative obscurity at CBS from 1959 into the mid 1970s, when, finally, gloriously, around the time he was approaching 60, he embarked on a new life as solo artist and leader.

Getting to Know Him

I didn’t wake up to the greatness of Hank Jones until I read Gary Giddins’s account of his “gentle, deep, and often starkly beautiful” 1995 album with bassist Charlie Haden, Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns, and Folk Songs. Giddins finds the music “subtle and sober without being dusty and politic, solemn but never somber, performed with a purity beyond the reach of the kind of pianist who can’t resist flashing over the keys to cover a lapse in thought.” Intrigued by the idea of an album that “underscores a fundamental ingredient in the spiritual life of jazz,” I went looking for it. Giddins always makes you want to hear what he’s talking about.

While “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is the only piece from Steal Away I could find on YouTube, it’s more than enough to show you what Giddins means when he speaks of Jones’s way of getting “to the core of each piece.” Singers of this song, a cultural artifact like several of the others (“Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace”), naturally assume the “I” of the title. Jones stays outside, gently and reverently exploring the melodic possibilities. As with Joe Lovano, Jones’s rapport with Charlie Haden is at once paranormal and down to earth. After the bass fully expresses the depth of the melody, the piano goes beyond the “core of the piece” to the core of creation and beauty and truth, the terms of the lyric falling away, all woe dispelled by converging, exquisitely figured harmonies that suggest a heavenly resolution, the divination of a peace past all understanding. In this exalted region, an American jazz musician not known for his composing skills is at one with Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, and Teddy Wilson, and beyond jazz to Debussy and Chopin and Ravel and Keats (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”) and Yeats (“their eyes, their ancient glittering eyes, are gay”) and T.S. Eliot, whose “notion of some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing” came to mind just now, listening to Haden’s deeply felt response to Jones’s poetry.

Ever wary of another sort of notion — that of imposing high-art analogies on jazz — I found this quote from Artie Shaw in the interview that accompanies the double CD set of his last recordings with the last Gramercy Five. To describe what it was like to play with Hank Jones (“I’m lost in admiration of Hank”), Shaw compared it to the experience of playing “with a string quartet” (“Hank had concert playing ears”). In the liner notes to Kids, Jones’s indispensable 2006 album with Joe Lovano, Loren Schoenberg, who also wrote the liner notes (with Dan Morgenstern) to the Artie Shaw CD, compares Jones’s left hand to “an orchestral voice” and quotes Shaw as once having likened that same left hand to “a choir of cellos.”

In His Room

He switched on the light and there was the room: suitcases, sheet music, and jazz awards cluttered around an unmade bed. On the cluttered night-table was a book of Sherlock Holmes stories. Scattered about were CDs of Debussy, Ravel and Chopin.

“He would practice while listening to classical music — classical was his favorite music,” said Hank Jones’s “roommate and landlord” Manny Ramirez when he showed two New York Times reporters the pianist’s room a few days after his death in a hospice in the Bronx. The story (“Jazzman’s Refuge When Not on the Road”) appeared on page A22 of the May 18 Times and can be found, along with a City Room blog marked by angry denunciations of the reporters and the paper for invading Jones’s privacy and dishonoring him in death.

I have to admit I saw nothing dishonorable in the story until I read the blog. Certainly, it was nice to know about those CDs and Jones’s devotion to classical music, not to mention the bedside Sherlock Holmes. It reminded me of Schubert’s last letter asking for more novels by James Fenimore Cooper, the composer’s last room and last days graced by the unlikely presence of American literature. I recommended the article to friends, little knowing that people who loved Jones (including his manager, his family, and Charlie Haden) would be condemning it as tabloid opportunism. While there are ambiguities in the situation about which friends and family in mourning are understandably sensitive, the two reporters, Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman, seemed genuinely intent on telling a New York story that involved opening the door to a genius’s living space, a last impression, like a death mask of a room. If you love New York, how can you not love the idea of this 91-year-old musician, like some supremely dedicated artist out of Balzac, holed up in a 12-foot-by-12 space in an apartment at 108th Street and Broadway, ordering three meals a day from the diner downstairs and practicing incessantly on an electric keyboard plugged into a headphone. Is there something sordid or suspect in the reference to Jones’s neighbors (a woman and her three daughters) talking about how it’s been “a real New York experience living next to him”? and “You never know who your neighbors are in this city.” The piece ends with the words of the note the neighbors taped to Hank’s door, still there after he died, “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.”

I’m pleased that Loren Schoenberg, whose liner notes have been helpful in the writing of this column, thinks that while the piece “raises larger issues about how we treat elders and how artists are largely marginalized,” there’s “nothing objectionable” about it, “and it makes Hank’s story more amazing.” As Schoenberg goes on to say, “In the end it’s his music that will linger as long as there are people with ears and a sensitivity for elegance.”

In fact, more music is coming. Hank Jones and Charlie Haden recorded a sequel to Steal Away called Come Sunday this past February. The best way to deal with the death of Hank Jones is to listen to him, still going strong at 91, and most likely very much as Haden described him at the time of the 1995 session, where he “seemed … closer than ever to the reverence of the songs that we played…. He was — and will always be — a beautiful soul.”

Once again, if you want to hear the music and meet Hank Jones (and just about any other jazz musician you can think of) you should explore this incredible site, http://sites.google.com/site/ahsjazz/youtubevideolinks.

There’s also a thorough, eloquent video appreciation of Hank Jones by Gary Giddins on www.artistshousemusic.org.

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