Roland Hanna, a classically trained jazz pianist and composer known for his inventiveness at the keyboard and his thorough understanding of the roots of jazz and other styles of music, has died. He was 70.
Hanna died Wednesday in a hospital in Hackensack, N.J., as a result of a viral infection of the heart. He became ill several weeks ago while on tour with his trio in Japan, said his agent-manager, Abby Hoffer.
Billed as Sir Roland Hanna since being knighted in 1970 by the government of Liberia in recognition of benefit concerts he had performed in the African nation, the Detroit native worked briefly with Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus and Sarah Vaughan in the late 1950s, while also leading his own small groups in New York City.
In 1967, he joined the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, which played regularly at the Village Vanguard, and continued as a regular until 1974. In 1965, he also became a member of the New York Jazz Sextet, which played about 20 concerts a year. By the early 1970s, the group became the New York Jazz Quartet which, in 1975, became known as Sir Roland Hanna’s New York Jazz Quartet.
Hanna, jazz critic Don Heckman wrote in The Times in 1997, “is a far-too-little-recognized jazz great.... He comes from a generation of pianists who prided themselves on the ability to play hard-swinging bebop as well as rhapsodic ballads.”
In the 1980s, Hanna melded his love of classical music and jazz by forming a trio of cello (he had learned to play the instrument in high school), flute and French horn. The trio appeared before jazz and chamber audiences, performing Hanna’s original music, which, he quipped, included “everything from Bach to Hanna, from 1685 to 1988.”
It’s essential, Hanna said in a 1988 Times interview, “that we try to pull people that play classical music into the area of what we call jazz -- make them see that it’s one music.”
Hanna, who recorded more than 30 albums, questioned why he should be expected to prefer one type of music over the other.
“For the average person, music is separated into categories, but not for me,” he told The Times. “To me, music is food, and I don’t have to say, ‘These are apples and these are pears.’ I can say, ‘This is music, and it tastes good,’ or vice versa. Others have to know what they’re eating.”
For Hanna, it broke down this way: “Classical music has always been a driving force for me, but jazz is my natural music. It’s the music of my people; it’s the music of my soul.”
Hanna used his flair for jazz improvisation as a launching pad for composing. “Improvising is a way of getting the adrenaline flowing, to make sure there are new and fresh ideas to be written down,” he told The Times.
Although he was a serious composer and adept at playing cello, Hanna considered playing piano his strongest suit. “I try to bring to the performance a kind of spiritual dignity that I hope comes across,” he said. “Whether I’m playing the blues or a Rachmaninoff concerto, I want people to see that music is not just entertainment, but it’s a self-contained entity that’s to uplift all of us, one way or another. It’s given to help people through this very difficult life.”
Hanna’s father taught him to play piano early. By age 11, he was studying classical piano, and while in high school, he met future jazz great Tommy Flanagan, who became a major influence. “He sort of made it seem like I could do it too, so I jumped in,” Hanna told The Times in 1988.
After serving in the Army in the early 1950s, Hanna studied first at the Eastman School of Music and then at the Juilliard School of Music, where he graduated in 1960.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hanna worked with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. He also toured as a solo pianist with the Smithsonian’s traveling Duke Ellington exhibition in 1999. Although Hanna continued to play in jazz clubs and at festivals, he primarily earned his living teaching. He taught music at the Manhattan School of Music, the New School and Queens College, regularly taking time out to tour.
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Ramona; four children; six grandchildren; two sisters; and three brothers.