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Hank Jones dies at 91; jazz pianist who spanned styles and generations

The brother of drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Thad Jones was noted for his versatility, craftsmanship and the feather-soft precision of his touch. Among his many jobs: playing piano for Marilyn Monroe when she sang 'Happy Birthday' to President Kennedy in 1962.

May 18, 2010|By Don Heckman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Hank Jones played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other leading jazz artists. As new styles emerged, he transformed his playing without losing the creative essence of a jazz artist.
Hank Jones played with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other leading jazz…

Hank Jones, whose extraordinary combination of versatility, craftsmanship and creativity during his nearly eight-decade career earned him the reputation as a jazz pianist's pianist, has died. He was 91.

Jones died Sunday at Calvary Hospital in New York after a brief illness, publicist Jordy Freed said.

Praised for the feather-soft precision of his touch, Jones was equally adept at unleashing the piano's full, orchestral gamut of sounds. Rhythmic lift and propulsive swing were inherent to his playing, whether performing as an accompanist or in a solo setting. And his deep understanding of harmony was the foundation for a skilled mastery of the diverse material in the Great American Songbook.

"His style is as profound and defined as any of the major masters," jazz pianist Bill Charlap told the Detroit Free Press in 2006. "It's equal to Teddy Wilson, equal to Bill Evans, equal to Thelonious Monk, equal to Tommy Flanagan. It's as much a unique musical utterance and just as balanced in terms of intellectualism and feeling. With Hank Jones you hear the past, present and the future of jazz piano."

Jones' own evaluation of his playing was far more modest. Invited to become a member of alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker's group in the '40s and trumpeter Miles Davis' band in the '50s, he declined the offers.

"Both times I said, 'I'm not good enough to do that,' " Jones recalled in 2006. "Isn't that something? I probably missed the chance of a lifetime."

Nevertheless, he played and recorded with Parker and Davis, as well as other leading jazz artists including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Milt Jackson, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and numerous others.

Emerging on the jazz scene during the Swing Era years of the 1930s, Jones was soon engulfed in the new wave of bebop arriving in the '40s. As new stylistic patterns arrived, decade after decade, he continued to find a way to transform his own playing, without losing his creative essence as a jazz artist. In more recent years, he partnered with younger players — saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau among them. But his self-effacing view of his own skills never changed.

In a conversation with Lovano for DownBeat magazine in 2005, he discussed his desire to reach the musical "stream of consciousness" achieved by players such as saxophonists Young and Hawkins. "It's not the easiest thing in the world," Jones said. "I'm still trying to get there myself. Just give me a little more time. Maybe another 100 years."

As recently as 2008, Los Angeles jazz audiences heard Jones in a pair of Southland performances — in a trio concert at UCLA and a 90th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl — clearly illustrating that he had long ago ascended to the lofty level he described.

The extraordinary accomplishments of Jones and two younger brothers established them as one of the jazz world's most honored musical families. Thad Jones, five years younger, was a trumpeter, bandleader and highly regarded arranger/composer. Elvin Jones, nine years younger, was an innovative drummer best known for his ground-breaking work with John Coltrane. Both died earlier — Thad in 1986; Elvin in 2004; "I just wish they could have lived longer," said Jones, "because they both still had so much to say."

Despite the high level of fraternal talent and familial closeness, however, the three rarely performed or recorded together.

Born Henry Jones on July 31, 1918, in Vicksburg, Miss., he moved to Pontiac, Mich., with his parents in the early 1920s. His father was a Baptist deacon and a lumber inspector who also played the guitar; his mother played the piano.

Jones' skills developed quickly, and despite his father's belief that jazz was a "bad influence," Hank was working professional jobs with traveling dance bands based in the Detroit area by the time he was in his mid-teens. After graduating from high school, he continued working as a busy sideman, before moving to New York City in 1944 to play with the band of trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page.

Over the next 15 years he was a first-call accompanist for virtually every major jazz artist of the time, backing Fitzgerald, Davis, Young, Adderley, Hawkins, Holiday and Ben Webster, among others. A three-year run with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1947 to 1950 matched him with Roy Eldridge, Max Roach and Parker. In 1955, with the release of "The Trio of Hank Jones" (with Wendell Marshall and Kenny Clarke), he began a six-decade sequence of supplementing his busy sideman schedule with recordings under his own name.

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