Jazz Profiles from NPR
Hank Jones
Produced by Ben Shapiro

Hank Jones  

According to Hank Jones, "when you listen to a pianist, each note should have an identity, each note should have a soul of its own." For nearly six decades Jones has taken his own words to heart, playing every one of his notes with a unique and deeply personal style.

Listen to pianists Sir Roland Hanna and Billy Taylor talk about Jones' personal approach to the piano

Born on July 31, 1918 in Vicksburg, Miss., Jones grew up in Pontiac, Michigan in a family rich with musical talent. Actively encouraged to play music by their parents were oldest son Hank, his younger brother, cornetist band leader, composer and arranger Thad Jones, and the baby of the family, drummer Elvin Jones, the poly rhythmic force behind John Coltrane's classic quartet.


Jones' earliest influence was pianist Fats Waller (left), who played in the bouncy ragtime stride piano style. During junior high school, Jones used to listen to Fats Waller records on the radio before he left for school and Waller's insistent melodies and driving beat had Jones dancing all the way to class.

Listen to Hank recall how he used to listen to Fats Waller on the radio

Jones also idolized Earl "Fatha" Hines and the great Teddy Wilson, spinning their sides as a teenager, emulating their styles. While these artists seldom came through Pontiac, he did see many lesser-known pianists perform. Often these performers played by ear, not having had formal training. By watching and listening to them, he acquired an early understanding of improvisation, a technique he himself would come to master.


Jones' greatest influence was the legendary Art Tatum (left). Hank was in awe of Tatum's energy, creativity, and flawless technique. Later, as a young professional in his early 20's, Jones was able to meet Tatum and watch him through hours of practice sessions.

Listen to Hank recall watching Tatum practice

I am the sum total of everything that I have experienced musically.

-- Hank Jones  

Always open to new approaches to music, Jones was one of the first pianists to take on the language of bebop. Many pianists were leery of making the transition to this "radical" movement in jazz. Hank saw the new style as an opportunity to enhance his own playing, and did so with great success. He recorded with bebop phenomenon Charlie Parker, and fast became an influential presence on the emerging bebop scene.

Listen to Hank talk about his immersion into bebop

Commercial success eluded Jones during most of his career -- some attribute this to his own modesty and self-effacing manner. During the 1950s, Jones kept busy as a freelancing accompanist, recording with Ella Fitzgerald and playing on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour with Parker and Roy Eldridge. He later became the staff pianist for CBS Television, backing guests like Frank Sinatra on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Listen to Hank talk about working on The Ed Sullivan Show

Though he hasn't achieved great fame, Hank Jones continues to leave his mark on jazz. His dynamic and diverse recordings reinterpret jazz in all of its varieties. But he also continues to expand his musical palette. In recent years he has collaborated with a West African group, fusing American jazz with African traditional folk music. Jones once again demonstrates his remarkable ability to adapt to any musical setting and shine.

Listen to Hank talk about his constant strive for excellence


View the Hank Jones show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Hank Jones' album A Handful of Keys