This is FRESH AIR. In 1928, Chicago friends of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines recorded their classic duet "Weatherbird." Then the two went their separate ways. Armstrong moved to New York and became a star. Hines stayed in Chicago and later said he hated visiting New York, where people acted so superior. But our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Earl Hines showed even New Yorkers a thing or two.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: By 1928, Earl Hines was jazz's most revolutionary pianist. There were two good reasons: His right hand played lines in bright, clear octaves that could cut through a band. His left hand had a mind of its own. Hines could play fast stride and boogie bass patterns, but then his southpaw would go rogue. It seemed to step out of the picture altogether, only to slide back just in time.


WHITEHEAD: Earl Hines might have focused on a career as a dazzling pianist, like Art Tatum. But after working in various orchestras, Hines itched to lead one of his own. He opened at Chicago's Grand Terrace ballroom in time for New Year's 1929. Jazz's center of gravity was shifting to New York, but the Grand Terrace would be his home base till 1940. Al Capone invited him not to leave.

Hines was outside the jazz capital. But by 1933, two years before the swing era exploded, he was that rare bandleader who had all the pieces lined up: the precision drills, the bantering dialogues between brass and reeds, the way every detail pushed the music on and the dancers onto the floor.


WHITEHEAD: "Take It Easy" by Jimmy Mundy, who became one of Benny Goodman's top arrangers. This music's from a new Mosaic box, "Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945." Seven CDs is a lot, though it's fascinating to track one leader's progress from the incubation of the swing era to its decline. But even top bands recorded some nothing tunes, dubious vocals and numbers that mimicked competitors' hits. The Hines band's "Ridin' and Jivin'" is a perfect mash-up of Cab Calloway strutting and Duke Ellington's torrid brass. Walter Fuller is on trumpet.


WHITEHEAD: That's nice, but where's the piano? Band leading put Earl Hines in a box. Swing orchestras were smooth and synchronized, but he was at his best fighting conformity. So he'd lay low, restraining himself, until one of those features when his piano beat back the band.


WHITEHEAD: If only some smart producer had recorded more solo or small-group Earl Hines back then. There were a few of those sessions, like a 1940 jam sparked by the great New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds. On "Ain't Misbehavin'" Hines leapfrogs Ellington band cornetist Rex Stewart.


WHITEHEAD: By the early '40s, the world and the music world were in turmoil. The big bands were doomed, but didn't know it yet. The spotlight was shifting to singers, and Hines had one of the best: Billy Eckstine set the style for a raft of bedroom baritones. Together, they helped lay groundwork for postwar rhythm-and-blues.


BILLY ECKSTINE: (Singing) If you read my letters, baby, you sure musta read my mind. If you read my letters baby, you sure musta read my mind. Then you wouldn't have left me to sit alone and pine.

WHITEHEAD: In 1942, the musicians' union called a strike on recording, to leverage benefits for its members. That successful campaign wreaked havoc with Earl Hines' legacy. It kept him from recording his legendary band with young beboppers Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn. Hines quit band-leading after the war to tour with Louis Armstrong, before leading smaller groups. Even in the 1960s, when Earl Hines had an acclaimed solo act, he still yearned to lead a big band. He could not get that sound out of his system.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new mosaic box set "Classic Earl Hines Sessions 1928-1945."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Patricia Volk's new memoir "Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me." That title refers to the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

This is FRESH AIR.

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