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Jazz pianist Hank Jones has died. He is the last of a musical dynasty, the central figure in the history of jazz. Jones played with everyone from Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Hank Jones died last night in New York after a brief illness. He was 91 years old.

From New York, Tom Vitale has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of music)

TOM VITALE: In the summer of 2007, just before he turned 89, Hank Jones sat at a grand piano in a West Side rehearsal studio and said he had no plans to retire.

Mr. HANK JONES (Jazz Pianist): No. None whatsoever, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Not as long as I can move my fingers, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

VITALE: Hank Jones made good on his words, practicing every day, performing and recording into his 90s. He said his style was not intricate.

Mr. JONES: It's more of a style that people can listen to and say, oh, yes, I know that tune, you know?

VITALE: Jones loved finding the melody, even in the most angular bebop.

Mr. JONES: "Monk's Mood" is a prime example of that, you know? It's an -allow me to play this.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Hank Jones' engagement with melody began in Pontiac, Michigan, where he took piano lessons, played in church and grew up in an astoundingly musical family. His brother Thad went on to become a horn player and band leader. Another brother, Elvin, played drums with John Coltrane. In 1944, Hank Jones moved to New York, where he heard a new sound, bebop.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: I listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at The Three Deuces, where they were working. And I began to think, well, maybe there are parts of this that I can incorporate into my style without changing my basic style.

VITALE: Jones ended up playing with Charlie Parker.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Hank Jones became the quintessential sideman who appeared on hundreds of records. He played piano for Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins. He was Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist for five years.

Jazz historian Phil Schaap.

Mr. PHIL SCHAAP (Jazz Historian): He was pliable to the glory that their music was trying to reach. He would extend himself for their music.

VITALE: He even extended himself for less lofty music as a staff pianist for the CBS network. For 17 years, he played for "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," among others.

In 1962, when Marilyn Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, Hank Jones was at the piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Happy Birthday")

Ms. MARILYN MONROE (Actress/Singer): (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

(Soundbite of applause)

VITALE: In the mid-1970s, Jones' career took another turn. He left CBS and started leading his own bands for the first time.

Ben Ratliff is jazz critic for the New York Times.

Mr. BEN RATLIFF (Jazz Critic, The New York Times): To come out of that after spending more than 10 years doing that kind of work, and work himself back into the touring and recording life of a small group jazz band leader, and to take that again very seriously is pretty remarkable.

VITALE: In 2007, Hank Jones said all of his experiences made him a better player.

Mr. JONES: Every time you perform, you learn something. I think that's the way it should be.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)


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