Fran Kaufman photo
Hank Jones performs at the 2009 Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards in New York, N.Y.
Hank Jones performs at the 2009 Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards in New York, N.Y. Fran Kaufman photo
Twice, the late Hank Jones was profiled in The New Yorker: by Whitney Balliett in 1996 and Gary Giddins in 2007. Read them in reverse chronological order, from Giddins' "Hank Jones can be said to have had the most impressive second act in jazz history" to Balliett's "Jones's solos think."
His voice is energetic in a 2005 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Hank says that hymns were a foundation of his piano playing — hymns and piano rolls. James P. Johnson, Fats Waller (who died in 1944, just before Jones came to New York), and then Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson were influences and mentors.
Hank then absorbed the new music of Dizzy Gillespie and his generation of modernists. Hank referred to that style as "you should pardon the expression 'bebop'" during a talk at the 2009 Detroit Jazz Festival. At some point Hank also spent a year in Buffalo, N.Y.; that's where he first saw Mary Lou Williams play. And he drove a Chrysler, I do believe. I picture it as having fins and a deep dashboard, but that's my imagination taking over.
Any chance I could get to hear him — including at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with Joe Lovano last year — I would try to. The 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival presented him in an extraordinary duo concert with Brad Mehldau; it seemed as though they were dancing with one another.
I may have first seen him in Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway in 1979, and perhaps a few years later at Bradley's. In 1998, we recorded Hank Jones at the Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich. for my program JazzSet. He played music by Mary Lou, Thad Jones (his brother), Oliver Nelson, Sonny Rollins, and standards like "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "On Green Dolphin Street."
"Hank is kind of like the musical equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the most senior officer that you can possibly be around," said his drummer at the time, Dennis Mackrell. Bassist John Clayton pointed out, "He's really famous for his touch." Hank had just turned 80, and joked that, "It reminds me of something Eubie Blake said when he just turned 101: 'If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken care of myself.'" Hank Jones loved to introduce a song with an old joke, charmingly told.
After a show, Hank had a way of seeing you and making sure that he spoke with you. He always said something warm, something self-deprecating, some thoughtful answer to a question about what he had played or why. Hank was reserved but generous at the same time.
In Kalamazoo, I asked him a possibly exasperating question about his perspective at 80. He told me, "Well Becca, you hope that you've done something worthwhile ... you hope that you've been able to make some meaningful contributions to the art form. What else can you do? If you do whatever you can on a daily basis, then the rest takes care of itself."
Based at WBGO in Newark, N.J., Becca Pulliam is the producer of NPR Music's JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater.