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Hyman Hears History When He Plays

January 17, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

To call Dick Hyman a jazz pianist is akin to calling Woody Allen a comic. The two men, whose careers have interacted off and on for more than a decade, are so multitalented that any single categorization seems absurd.

The Hyman-Allen connection goes back through many years and films. At first he was hired mainly as pianist, on the tracks of "Manhattan" and "Stardust Memories," but, starting with "Zelig," he also composed and arranged. "That happened," he says, "after I directed a number known as 'The Bix Piece' for a dance routine by the Twyla Tharpe company, which I guess established my credentials with him for 1920s style music. This involved arranging, playing piano and considerable composing; I also wrote the lyrics for a song, 'Doing the Chameleon.' "

Next came "Broadway Danny Rose" (arranging, piano and little composing), "Purple Rose of Cairo" (full score, 1930s music, plus lyrics for "One Day at a Time"), then "Hannah and Her Sisters" (some piano work) and "Radio Days" (music supervisor). Most recently he has been at work on some new music for a Steve Landesberg film, "Leader of the Band," about a high school marching band.

Nevertheless, it is as a jazz pianist that Hyman, who appears at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks tonight, is best known, and has been hailed by his peers as the most astonishingly versatile and brilliant performer in this very crowded field.

Though he has the demeanor of a professor (which in effect he is, having given jazz history lectures/recitals at many colleges), Hyman can outswing any man in any house, in any style from ragtime and stride to the School of What's Happening Now.

Hyman has tackled just about every conceivable assignment since his debut playing at a Harlem bar in 1948. First came jazz experience with Red Norvo, Benny Goodman and others, then mainly commercial studio work through the '50s and '60s--musical director on radio for Arthur Godfrey, on TV for David Frost, staff jobs at NBC, some pioneering work on synthesizers, and countless pop piano records, one of which, "Mack the Knife," was a chart topper. (It was in the Top 10 for 15 weeks in 1956.)

He continued to perform at jazz concerts and festivals, and during the 1970s, as he recalls, "I made a deliberate effort to concentrate on the jazz aspects of my work, and not be quite so much all over the place. Years ago I wasn't comfortable playing in public; today I do so with great pleasure."

Hyman owes his encyclopedic awareness of jazz history to a record collection owned by his elder brother, which he played continually. Extensive classical training (and some studies with Teddy Wilson) prepared him for a career that led to dozens of albums, among them a complete set of the works of Scott Joplin (he also did the music for the movie "Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime'), a James P. Johnson and a Jelly Roll Morton LP, as well as an album dedicated to Louis Armstrong. For this, Hyman painstakingly transcribed Satchmo's solos and harmonized them for a trumpet section. He toured the Soviet Union in 1975.

Eager to disseminate his knowledge through every available medium, he wrote a series of witty and informative articles for Keyboard magazine and has presented his own annual mini-festivals of traditional and mainstream jazz in New York.

An insatiable perfectionist, Hyman can most often be found working out wherever he can find a piano. Though he admits to many influences, the legendary Art Tatum was "my primary idol--the guiding star--the unattainable." Hyman once played in a group that worked opposite Tatum, who soon afterward spoke approvingly of him during a radio show. ("I treasure the tapes of that interview!")

Hyman says his finest hours came with the recording of an album in which he interpreted the song "A Child Is Born" in the styles of Tatum and 11 others: Joplin, Morton, Johnson, Earl Hines, Waller, Wilson, Garner, Shearing, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans and himself.

As any encounter with Dick Hyman makes clear, the difficult he'll do right now; the unattainable may take a little while. But don't bet against him.

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