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 his age; you hear wisdom and vitality. Jones' latest album, Pleased to Meet You, will be released this fall.
NPR logo

Pianist Hank Jones Plays With Vitality At 91

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/112330985/112385666" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Pianist Hank Jones Plays With Vitality At 91

Pianist Hank Jones Plays With Vitality At 91

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/112330985/112385666" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Pianist Hank Jones celebrated his 91st birthday this summer. But when you listen to him play, you don't hear age, you hear wisdom.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is from Hank Jones's newest addition to his discography. The CD, "Pleased to Meet You," will be released this fall on Just In Time Records. And in September, Hank 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, which 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.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Pianist and composer Hank Jones joins us from our New York bureau. What a pleasure to talk to you. Welcome to the show.

Mr. HANK JONES (Pianist, Composer): Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: First of all, when I was listening to the soon-to-be-released CD, you know, I felt as though I was hearing a young man play. How, after all this time, do you stay so nimble?

Mr. JONES: Well, I don't know if there's any special reason for that. I just try to live a normal life. I try not to do anything that would be detrimental to my health. I've always stayed away from drugs, liquor and wild women.

HANSEN: Well, that'll add to your longevity.

Mr. JONES: Yes, well, I think it all helps, you know?

HANSEN: Yeah. You once told Terry Gross in an interview about four years ago that your fingers used to be two inches longer than they are now?

Mr. JONES: You know, I didn't want that story to get out. Actually, it's almost true. I used to do a lot of rock and roll, and rock and roll, you'd have to play triplets, you know, like…

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. JONES: So, you gradually see it wears down the tips of the fingers. Actually, it was four inches.


Mr. JONES: But…yes, it does have an effect.

HANSEN: I guess so. But you don't have, like, tendonitis? You've not had any problems with your hands after playing all these years?

Mr. JONES: No, I haven't. I manage to practice. When I'm at home, I practice just, oh, three, four hours a day. But you have to keep your fingers active in order to keep them active. You know, if there's any secret that's it.

HANSEN: Even if they're four inches shorter than they used to be?

Mr. JONES: Well, you get accustomed to that. You have to buy different sized gloves.

HANSEN: You wrote the song called "Ripples."

(Soundbite of song, "Ripples")

Mr. JONES: But it's a very light, happy kind of song.


Mr. JONES: The last song is written - some of them are happy sounding, some of them are somber or morose. In that (unintelligible) case, "Ripples" represented a happy feeling.

(Soundbite of song, "Ripples")

Mr. JONES: You can imagine something else - rippling water, rippling stream.

HANSEN: That could describe sometimes what you do on the piano, you're rippling.

Mr. JONES: Well, actually, on the piano, I get ripped up. No, I actually don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: It's that monster piano about to eat your fingers, right?

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, somebody described the piano as a man-eating monster with black and white teeth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Pretty close to the truth.

(Soundbite of song, "Ripples")

HANSEN: I want to ask you about a very famous moment in history, and I don't think a lot of people know this, but you played the piano for Marilyn Monroe when she sang happy birthday to President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. JONES: I'm afraid that's true, yes.

HANSEN: What do you mean afraid?

Mr. JONES: Well, I mean, one never knows (unintelligible).

HANSEN: Yeah, that's true. Thank you, Fats Waller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, that happened because a friend of mine called me from California. He said that somebody was coming - he didn't say who it was -coming to New York and needed an accompanist. I said, whoa, okay. So, this person arrived in New York. Only then did I find out that it was Marilyn Monroe. And she sang "Happy Birthday to You" and "Thanks for the Memory."

(Soundbite of song, "Thanks for the Memory")

Ms. MARILYN MONROE (Singer, Actress): (Singing) For all the things you've done, the battles that you've won, the great deals with U.S. steals and our problems by the ton. We thank you so much. Everybody, happy birthday.

HANSEN: Was it a lot of rehearsal?

Mr. JONES: Well, let's say, as George Washington said, I cannot tell a lie. Anyway, it took about, oh, I'd say, six hours to rehearse.

HANSEN: Eight bars of music, six hours?

Mr. JONES: I'm afraid so. I'd hate to say that but it's true. She actually was a very good singer, however, on this particular occasion I think she was somewhat hampered by having imbibed rather freely. And it was very interesting. See, I didn't know that Kennedy was in the audience until she sang this song, "Happy Birthday to You, Mr. President."

HANSEN: You've influenced so many pianists over the years. Who had an influence on you?

Mr. JONES: Well, there had been several, actually. Starting with, let's say, Earl Hines and Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and, of course, the great immortal Art Tatum.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: So, I think all of these people. And then I should mention also my late friend Oscar Peterson. He also, he was a student and admirer of Tatum. I don't know of any great pianists today who doesn't consider Tatum, like, sort of a god.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: When you started performing at the age of 13, could you have imagined that you'd be where you are today?

Mr. JONES: I certainly not - had no idea, you know? I worked with a group of guys who didn't know very much more than I did. So, we made our mistakes together. That's one thing we did - we were together on.

HANSEN: Yeah. What kind of music do you listen to today?

Mr. JONES: Oh, I like classical music today. Sometimes I listen to jazz. But, you know, for instance, Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers, Tchaikovsky, Dibstay(ph), Ravel. These are the people I listen to.

HANSEN: Is there anything that you want to do that you haven't done yet?

Mr. JONES: Well, let's see, yes, there is.

HANSEN: I mean, with regard to the piano, Mr. Jones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I beg your pardon. Well, anyway, there are things that I would like to do. You see, you never really accomplish everything that you want to do. Because I'm working on projects now that I'd like to complete. And when those are complete, I'd like to work on others. So, there's always something that I want to do.

HANSEN: You're playing all the time now, aren't you, still?

Mr. JONES: Quite often, yes. I just got back from a tour in Japan. And, in fact, I went to Japan on my birthday. I was in a plane going to Japan. And on the plane, the flight attendants got together and sang happy birthday to me. I thought that was kind of nice. They had a little cake, you know, that was kind of nice.

HANSEN: Well, let me wish you a happy 91st birthday.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Pianist Hank Jones - he and his late brothers, trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin Jones, will be honored at the Detroit Jazz Festival in September. His new CD "Pleased to Meet You" will be released in October. Hank Jones joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.