Jazz Pianist Hillery’s Sound Emerges From Shadows

Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

With all the cold and rain on a recent Friday evening, the cozy lounge at Granita in Malibu was a particularly welcome spot, as warmth came from crackling logs in the fireplace and the pulsing treatments of standards by pianist Art Hillery and bassist Pat Senatore.

Unless you’re an ardent follower of the Southern California jazz scene, chances are that Hillery’s name won’t ring any bells.

But the quiet-voiced, resourceful pianist, a native of New Orleans who has lived in Los Angeles since 1955, is typical of the players who are the heart and soul of any jazz community.


A man equipped with good hands and good ears, Hillery is embraced by his fellow musicians. His nickname is “Artillery,” a testament to his creative prowess.

One jazz notable after another makes up the list of those who have hired Hillery during his four-decade career.

Among these are saxophonists Sonny Stitt, Teddy Edwards and Jerome Richardson, and vocalists Big Joe Turner, Joe Williams, Ernie Andrews and Johnny Hartman.

Still, Hillery has remained in relative obscurity, maybe because the pianist has always been a sideman.

“Oh, sometimes I might get called to lead trios at private parties, but never in a nightclub,” said Hillery, who appears Sundays with the Pat Britt-Wilbur Brown band at the Cat and Fiddle Pub in Hollywood and Thursdays and Fridays as a duo with bassist Senatore at Granita.

It’s harder to get your own music heard when you’re not leading, but otherwise “it doesn’t really bother me,” said the medium-built 67-year-old Hillery, who lives in Lynwood.

“I write a lot of music and I like to play it,” said Hillery, a graceful proponent of the melodic be-bop style who has yet to record on his own.

He has made 19 albums with the likes of Stitt, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and Edwards--including the latter’s latest pair, “Mississippi Lad,” and the soon-to-be-released “Blue Saxophone,” both on Antilles Records.

He’s also joined a rehearsal band formed by drummer Washington Rucker. It gets together once a week at the Musicians Union on Vine Street. “Now I’m getting to hear some of the things that I have written over the years,” Hillery said.

The band was established strictly as a rehearsal vehicle for the members, who include trumpeter James Smith and bassist Richard Simon, to play new material.

“There’s nowhere to sit in and jam and play. There used to be after-hours jam sessions, Sunday morning jam sessions. We don’t have that anymore. That’s why it’s hard for groups,” Hillery said.

On that recent Friday night, Hillery and Senatore played softly, and without much notice. Even if the guests weren’t paying much attention, the pair found each other’s musical company rewarding as they explored such evergreens as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Embraceable You,” “Softly, As in a Morning’s Sunrise” and an original by pianist Gerald Wiggins, “Sonar.”

Hillery employed a firm touch, not hitting the keys hard yet achieving a dark, resonant sound. He added blues colorings to many of his statements, and often soloed with chordal melody, where he crafted moving, evocative passages, utilizing all 10 fingers simultaneously.

Senatore, who also plays with the Britt-Brown band, said Hillery was his first choice when it came to hiring someone for Granita.

“Art’s a sincere player; he plays from the heart,” said Senatore, former owner of Pasquale’s, the now-defunct Malibu jazz room. “He’s really serious about music, is sophisticated and has good taste. And he can get a groove going. That’s especially important in a duo.”

Hillery singles out saxophonists--Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Hank Mobley--as having the most influence on his style. “The single notes, rather than the chords, are what I listen for,” he said. “There’s more in a line than in a chord, more expression.”

Hillery turned pro soon after he began playing piano at age 13, when he lived in Jackson, Miss.

He moved to Dallas at 26 and found work with Joe Johnson, whose band backed most of the touring R & B acts, including Lowell Fulson and a young up-and-coming pianist-singer: Ray Charles.

In Los Angeles, Hillery made the rounds, working at such venues as La Chris club, Marty’s on the Hill and the Parisian Room, where he was the pianist with sax man Red Holloway’s house band in the early ‘70s. Hillery backed many stellar performers at the Parisian, and he considers that experience a highlight of his career.

Art Hillery plays 7 to 11 p.m. Sundays with the Pat Britt-Wilbur Brown band at the Cat and Fiddle Pub, 6530 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. No cover, no minimum. (213) 468-3800. He also plays 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays with Pat Senatore at Granita, 23725 W. Malibu Road, Malibu. No cover, no minimum. (310) 456-0488.