Since its emergence at the turn of the 20th century, jazz has always been blessed with an abundance of accomplished pianists. Looking over the names, it is truly an embarrassment of riches: Herbie Hancock, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Dave McKenna, Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines, McCoy Tyner, Art Tatum and Hank Jones– it’s an honor roll of glittering genius.
Jazz fans all have their favorites: this profile is about the exceptional Hank Jones.
When Jones sat at the piano, whether it was at Bemelman’s Bar on New York City’s upper east side or 20 blocks south at Carnegie Hall, an atmosphere of elegance permeated the surroundings. Jones had a sophisticated yet fun persona that was reflected in his music. The word “impeccable” comes to mind.
Jones, one of ten children, was born July 31, 1918 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The family soon moved to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Owing to the fact that Jones’ father was a Baptist Deacon, attending church as often as 7 days a week was common.
“He didn’t even allow a pack of cards in the house,” Jones said of his father.
At an early age, Jones began playing the piano; he took lessons and soon performed at church functions. By the time he was 13, Jones was playing with a territory band — a group of 8 – 10 seasoned musicians who toured a regional circuit of club dates.
It was on one these trips that Jones met a fellow musician, Lucky Thompson — recognizing the potential in Jones, Thompson promptly invited him to go to New York to join Hot Lips Page’s band.
At the age of 21, Jones went from very small gigs to the epicenter of the jazz world.
Despite his inexperience, Jones almost immediately found his groove: he paid attention to the soon-to-be-legends playing in the city, but he developed his own unique style.
“I always kept the melody intact,” Jones observed. “You can do all kinds of things with the harmonies but the melody must remain.”
He worked steadily from one project to another until the day he died, May 17, 2010.
“I have been lucky enough to work all this time, luckier than I deserved to be,” Jones said. “I tried to do justice to any job that I took, whether it was in a studio, a record date, a club or accompanying a singer. If you do that and you do the best you can, I guess good things follow.”
Among those good things were collaborations with Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Artie Shaw. He played behind Billie Holiday and was Ella Fitzgerald’s exclusive accompanist for half a decade.
Jones’ longest steady gig was at CBS, where for 17 years, he played for the likes of The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show and even Captain Kangaroo. This provided stable employment and also gave him the freedom to sandwich in club dates and recording sessions.
Record, he did. It is believed that Jones played on over 1,000 recordings. Sixty of those were his own albums. He was presented a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2009.
His most famous performance came in May of 1962, when he played for President John Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. The 15,000 in attendance watched Jones accompany Marilyn Monroe as she sang “Happy Birthday” to JFK. It’s a classic that is ubiquitous on the web.
Jones offered this behind-the-scenes glimpse of Monroe. “She only sang 8 bars of ‘ Happy Birthday’ and 8 bars of ‘Thanks for the Memories’ but we rehearsed for eight hours because she was so nervous.”
When talking about the skill set involved in playing really solid jazz, Jones sometimes just advised,” play the right chords at the right time.”
On a more serious note, Jones told New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett, “you have to stay in shape, so I do scales and exercises three or four hours a day, and then I practice sight-reading…every tune you play has its correct tempo, and you have to find it…it’s not what you think it should be, it’s what the tune demands. Improvising is instant composing…concentration is the difference between the great players and the players who are not great.”
Balliett dubbed Jones the “Dean of Jazz Pianists.” Precisely.