Hank Jones

Some people just have the touch. This became clear to me one day in late 2004, when Hank Jones was conducting a piano master class in an auditorium at New York University. Young pianists from various music schools would play for Mr. Jones, and he would comment on their playing.

A young Juilliard student came up and played an Art Tatum-like extravaganza on the blues, impressive in all its decorations and fast runs. From my seat in the auditorium, the sound was rather cold and brittle. I figured it was just the condition of the Steinway or the acoustics of the room. When the student was done, Jones applauded with the audience and congratulated the student on his talent and hard work. Then he said, "In that bridge section that you played, why don't you try something like this?" Jones put his then-86-year-old hands on the keys and played a few simple chords, and the whole auditorium filled up with a warm, full sound that just bathed you. Same instrument, but it sounded like an entirely different piano.

Maybe Hank Jones was born with the touch, but he certainly spent a lifetime working on it. At that master class, the jazz writer Gary Giddins introduced Jones, saying his career stretched back to the 1940s. Jones thanked him for the introduction but said he had a correction to make. He said he played his first gig at age 9, in Pontiac, Michigan, so his career actually started in the 1920s. Everyone in the auditorium inhaled in astonishment.

Jones was so charming in his demeanor -- making little harmless jokes and puns from behind the back of his hand, like an old, mischievous uncle at the dinner table -- that it was easy to forget that he was not just an excellent pianist but one of the all-time greats. He played the ballad "The Very Thought of You" and ended the tune with a tasteful little note in the bass register. He said, "That last little note you heard is called a 'button.' Without a button it all gets..." Then a gesture of the tail of his jacket coming apart. Then he shakes his head at his own joke.

He played his highly chromatic arrangement of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and carried the rhythm with chords, playing only occasional bass notes. He played "Don't Blame Me" with some light-fingered stride action. On "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," he was working both pedals and keeping time with his left heel. He did "Monk's Mood" with warm pads of chords -- he let some chords ring out to comic effect, and put a "button" at the end. And he ended with a gently swinging "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Jones said his own style is "a distillation of influences. I hope there's not too much influence." He had come to New York in the 1940s, just as swing was evolving into bebop under the leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and Hank Jones performed and recorded with both. He said he wanted to be identified with the bebop trend without losing his two-handed pianism.

A month previous to the master-class event, I had seen Jones perform with a quartet at a little joint called Fat Cat on Christopher Street. Surely this was a misprint -- that little hole-in-the-wall in the back of a pool hall couldn't book the one and only Hank Jones, could it? But there he was, and on tenor sax was Frank Wess of the Count Basie band. All for ten bucks.

The music that night was simplicity itself, all connected to the blues, all very comprehensible. No showing off, no wasted motion. When he wanted to emphasize something, he played it more softly. It was Christmastime, and during "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," he quoted "You better not shout, you better not cry" from "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," then broke off, shaking his head at his own joke. You left the place walking on air.

The the spring of 2005, Jones conducted another master class on a Saturday afternoon at the Blue Note. He sat at the Bosendorfer and played tunes and excerpts from tunes and fielded questions from the audience. He said a two-handed style is essential if you're going to play solo, not so much if you have a rhythm section. He said the stride style gives you a balanced presentation -- you can supply the rhythm and the harmony at the same time. Try to keep the melody intact, he said, but the rhythm can be changed any way you want.

He said the better the technique, the better the improvisation, and technique comes first. He said lyrics can help in interpretation of a ballad. He played some of "The Talk of the Town" and recited some lyrics before playing each part of the tune.

Someone asked if he had a favorite among his own recordings. He mentioned the "Something Else" album with Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis.

He said some bass players are possessive about the lower range. He said that if a bass player wants him to stay out of the bass range, he pretends he didn't hear that and plays in that range anyway. You have all 88 keys to choose from, and the bass player shouldn't inhibit you. He'll just have to find other notes to play!

Someone asked him about Charlie Parker, and he said, "Charlie Parker was a consummate musician. He knew harmony backward and forward, he had an unlimited supply of ideas and such facility on his instrument that he could play anything he could think of." A rather definitive statement, no?

Someone mentioned Thelonious Monk, and Jones said, "We used to call him "Thelonious the Onliest." A little bad English there.”

Someone asked him if he liked any rock music, and he said there's some good rock music -- not the early stuff, but after it developed.

He played "If I Had You" and turned the beat around on purpose, "Just wanted to see if you were paying attention."

I'm typing from notes I took at the event, and I won't keep you much longer. This is by no means a definitive statement on Hank Jones. But I do want to pass along what he said about the "continuation system," as he called it:

Extend whatever phrase you're playing. Not chromatically -- stay in the parameters of the chords. To illustrate, he played an improvisational passage with a recurring figure that moved through the chords. This gives your playing more of a "line." This was all so simple and effective, and it was news to me.

That's it for now -- no big wrap-ups or conclusions. Hank Jones had a great career, and he appeared on hundreds of records, and you should try to hear some of them. A couple of years ago, I saw him with his trio at the Blue Note, and as he was swinging out on Charlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche," I couldn't help but think that he was playing that tune in 1946, when it was brand new. He kept performing all the way to the end and passed away last Sunday at age 91.

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