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Hinton Bio Mirrors the 20th Century

JAZZ

October 02, 1988|LEONARD FEATHER

The extent to which a musician's life can mirror the evolution of society in 20th-Century America has never been more graphically illustrated than in "Bass Lines: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton" (Temple University Press: $39.95, 328 pages).

His family links go back to antebellum days (his mother's mother was a slave on a Vicksburg plantation) and to Africa (his father came here with a missionary group from Monrovia). As an8-year-old, Hinton was exposed to the terrifying sight of a lynching near his Mississippi home in 1918.

As a bassist, Hinton has progressed from the traveling experience (on the road for 15 years with Cab Calloway's band) to the studio world (as one of the first black musicians to break the barriers in the New York studios) to the fulfilling life he now leads, at 78, lecturing, recording, playing festivals, concerts and jazz parties around the world.

As a photographer, he has been documenting these scenes for more than a half century. It is hard to determine whether his book is an illustrated autobiography or a picture book with text. Certainly his photos, which have been widely exhibited and contributed to museums, are as invaluable as the story he tells. Hinton's old friend David G. Berger, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, is listed as collaborator, but his job cannot have been hard, since Hinton's recall is prodigious and the conversational style sounds as though it stems direct from the tape.

Jazz musicians, particularly blacks, have been subjected to a series of myths that kept them out of the more lucrative jobs: they couldn't read music, they were unreliable, they were limited to improvising; in the case of bass players, they didn't know how to use the bow. Yet Hinton, playing violin in a Chicago high school band, "never played any jazz . . . the symphony played highbrow stuff . . . music was written out and there was no ad libbing whatsoever."

Switching to tuba, he landed his first steady job in 1929 during his senior year. As the string bass gradually replaced the tuba, he made the final change, and over the years never ceased aiming at self-improvement. Whenever the Calloway band was in Chicago, he studied with Dmitri Shmulkovsky of the Civic Opera.

Informative though Hinton's story is in chronicling the drama of his escape from Jim Crow and the rigors of the road, "Bass Line" is no less richly anecdotal as the author recounts the odd quirks of Benny Goodman, the personality traits of Lionel Hampton (who gave a sideman $10 extra to jump overboard during the climactic chorus when his band played "Flyin' Home" on a barge), Jackie Gleason (who got Hinton started in the studio world), Dick Gibson, whom Hinton credits with a vital role in earning respectability for musicians through his jazz parties; Jack and Bobby Kennedy, at a private party; and Eddie South, the pioneer violinist who would have been lost to jazz had the doors to classical music been open to black musicians.

The 186 photographs cover a great range of time and space. Here are the Calloway musicians in the 1930s standing by "For Colored Only" restaurants and "Motel For Colored" signs; here is Milton Dixon Hinton, the author's father, whom he never met until he was 30; throughout are shots taken in recording studios, and festivals; with Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson in the Middle East; an ecstatic Duke Ellington dancing with his sister at the White House; and such legends as Jimmy Blanton, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, and Hinton's classic shot of the moribund Billie Holiday. Count Basie, Joe Venuti, a very young Doc Severinsen in 1955, Gene Krupa, Phil Woods and others of recent vintage came within the scope of Hinton's cameras.

The most graphic story, recalling a one-night stand with Cab Calloway in Longview, Tex., ca. 1936, typifies the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situations that confronted blacks. A drunken white couple approached Calloway's pianist. The woman offered him a drink; he politely refused. "You mean you ain't gonna take a drink that's offered you, boy?" Reluctantly accepting the drink, he is then confronted by the woman's friend: "Nigger, you can't be taking whiskey from my girl."

Hinton, terrified as he looked on, sought an escape route. Cab Calloway was the object of attention, as one redneck shouted: "I'll give $200 to hit the nigger." (For a $200 fine, any white could attack a black with impunity.) The band rushed off the stage and hid in the cellar for hours before the tumult subsided.

The great irony, as Hinton points out, is that he can compare it with "things that happened in recent parties in Midland and Odessa, Tex.,--being wined and dined by town dignitaries, being made an honorary deputy sheriff, getting VIP treatment in one of the world's best eye clinics."

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