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.
Although Jones arrived on the scene at the time when the dominant jazz style was transitioning from swing to bebop, he maintained his own sense of creative equilibrium, always declining to describe himself as a “full-fledged bebop player.” Asked by Jazz Times magazine to name his primary influences, he listed Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller — each a player with a unique, musically omnivorous style. His affection for Tatum, in particular, led him to maintain a degree of separation from the rush to bebop that was attracting the players of his generation.
“Tatum was the first one to use all those harmonic devices that later guys like Dizzy and Charlie used,” Jones told this writer. “It sounded new to people who heard it for the first time. But it wasn’t new to someone who’d listened to Art Tatum. He was Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, all rolled into one.”
In the late 1950s, Jones was offered a staff position at CBS and opted for the security of regular employment. The experience — which included playing assignments reaching from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to “Captain Kangaroo” — further enhanced his already eclectic abilities.
“Sometimes, you played accompaniments for singers,” he said on an NPR broadcast in 2008. “Sometimes you played for groups. Sometimes you played for operatic sequences. Sometimes you played for elephant acts. Sometimes, you played for dog acts.... So you did a variety of things, all of which, when you added them up, contributed to your repertoire.”
One of the other “variety of things” Jones did during that period was to play piano for Marilyn Monroe when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at his 45th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in May 1962.
When he left CBS in 1976, Jones embarked on a new phase in his career. He performed on eight new albums over the next two years, and —in the late ‘70s — was the musical director and onstage pianist for the Broadway production of the Waller revue, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” His Great Jazz Trio recordings, which began in the mid-1970s with Ron Carter and Tony Williams from Davis’ rhythm section, eventually teamed Jones with, among others, Eddie Gomez, Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb, John Patitucci and Christian McBride. A series of piano duet encounters matched him with John Lewis, Flanagan and Mehldau.
He also recorded “Steal Away,” a set of hymns and spirituals with Haden; accompanied singer Roberta Gambarini in highly praised sets of standard tunes; collaborated with a Mandinka band from Mali; and recorded a set of Jones’ celebratory interpretations of Tatum compositions — one of his many solo piano outings. More recently, his duet partnership with Lovano was applauded as a remarkable interfacing of musical generations.
Among his many honors Jones was granted a National Medal of the Arts, an NEA Jazz Masters Award, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an ASCAP Jazz Living Legend Award and a Jazz Journalists Assn. Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jones is survived by his wife, Theodosia.
Heckman is a freelance writer and jazz critic.