Pianist Hank Jones Plays With Vitality At 91

Jazz pianist and composer Hank Jones celebrated his 91st birthday this summer by performing a concert in Japan. But when you listen to him play, you don't hear age; you hear wisdom and vitality. Jones still keeps busy: His discography's newest addition, Pleased to Meet You with Oliver Jones will be released this fall.

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Pianist Hank Jones and his late brothers Thad and Elvin will be honored at the  Detroit Jazz Fest. i i

Pianist Hank Jones and his late brothers Thad and Elvin will be honored at the 30th Detroit Jazz Festival next month. Paul Bergen/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Bergen/Getty Images
Pianist Hank Jones and his late brothers Thad and Elvin will be honored at the  Detroit Jazz Fest.

Pianist Hank Jones and his late brothers Thad and Elvin will be honored at the 30th Detroit Jazz Festival next month.

Paul Bergen/Getty Images

In September, Jones and his late brothers — trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Elvin Jones — will be honored at the 30th Detroit Jazz Festival, another in a long list of honors that include a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. He's also one of the few musicians that the National Endowment for the Arts has inducted as a Jazz Master. Hank Jones recently spoke to host Liane Hansen about his latest album and how, after all this time, he keeps his fingers nimble.

"I just try to live a normal life," Jones says. "I try not to do anything that would be detrimental to my health. I've always stayed away from drugs, liquor and wild women."

Jones once joked to Fresh Air's Terry Gross about his musical longevity, saying that his fingers used to be two inches longer than they are now.

"You know, it's almost true," Jones tells Hansen. "I used to do a lot of rock 'n' roll, and in rock 'n' roll you'd have to play triplets, like, 'dit-dit-dit, dit-dit-dit.' So gradually, you see, it wears down the tips of the fingers. Actually, it was four inches — it does have an effect."

Still, Jones says he's never had problems with his hands over the years, thanks in part to practicing three and four hours a day.

"You have to keep your fingers active," Jones says. "If there's any secret, that's it."

In his career, Jones has influenced countless musicians, but he credits pianists such as Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and the "great, immortal" Art Tatum for his own inspiration.

"I should mention my late friend Oscar Peterson," Jones adds. "He also was a student and admirer of Tatum. I don't know of any pianists today who didn't consider Tatum like sort of a god."

While Jones has had the opportunity to play with nearly every name in jazz, he still finds himself looking for new opportunities to play.

"You see, you never really accomplish everything you want to do," Jones says, "because I'm working on projects now that I'd like to complete, and when those are complete, there are others. So there's always something I want to do."

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