The Nimble, 'Young' Hank Jones In a career that spans seven decades, pianist Hank Jones has worked with everyone who's anyone in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Billie Holiday. One of the last of his era, Jones celebrates the legends of his time, seeming to downplay his own genius.

The Nimble, 'Young' Hank Jones

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Pianist Hank Jones has seen and done it all in a career that spans seven decades. He has accompanied elephants on "The Ed Sullivan Show," a certain kangaroo, even a bird - that was Charlie Parker's nickname. Along the way, Jones has worked with everyone who's anyone in jazz - Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. Well, tomorrow, Hank Jones celebrates his 89th birthday and he has a new CD of his very own.

Tom Vitale reports.

TOM VITALE: At a rehearsal studio on West 55th Street, Hank Jones sits behind a Yamaha grand piano talking about Thelonious Monk, whose compositions Jones has tried to master.

Mr. HANK JONES (Pianist): Monk was difficult to imitate because his harmonic conceptions were so different. But there's one thing about Monk. No matter what he played harmonically, you can always recognize the melody, you know. Monk's mood is a prime example of that, you know. Allow me, please.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

VITALE: Hank Jones knew Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. They're all dead now, many lost to the ravages of drugs and alcohol. But not Hank Jones.

Mr. JONES: Never smoked. Never drank. Never run around with wild women. Tame was it, but, no, no.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Jones managed to stay clean despite working with Charlie Parker who died of an overdose, but who, Jones says was anything but a flake.

Mr. JONES: He played a very complicated style, you know, which required a lot of musical thought, you know. He didn't play just randomly in other words. Whenever he played something, he played it in strict conformance, let's say, to the harmony underneath. But whenever Charlie played, you understood exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Hank Jones is all about logic and order. He's the consummate professional, the perfect accompanist who never became famous as a leader of his own bands. Jones was Ella Fitzgerald's piano player for five years, beginning in 1948. In 1959, he became a staff pianist for the CBS Network, where he stayed for 17 years. His duties at CBS included playing "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Mr. JONES: Sometimes, you played accompaniments for singers. Sometimes, you played for groups. Sometimes, you played for operatic sequences. Sometimes, you played for elephant acts. Sometimes, you played for dog acts, no, no. So you did a variety of things, all of which, when you added them up, it contributed to your repertoire.

VITALE: He's serious. Another of Jones's job at CBS inspired his composition, "Lullaby."

Mr. JONES: I was doing a show called "Captain Kangaroo." And during that period, there was a sequence that they were doing. And there was, like, a doll, a rag doll, who is sitting in a rocking chair, rocking. And I can see the idea of "Lullaby."

(Soundbite of song "Lullaby"s)

VITALE: "Lullaby" is one of the tunes on Jones' new CD, which was recorded at a club date with saxophonist Joe Lovano. To celebrate its release, they returned to the club in May for a one-week engagement.

Unidentified Man: Joe Lovano and Hank Jones.

VITALE: It was Hank Jones's first gig in months following a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery this winter.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Saxophonist Joe Lovano says Hand Jones is fearless in music and life.

Mr. JOE LOVANO (Saxophonist): Touring with him was incredible. He carries like three suitcases with him and he'd be grabbing - you know, at the airport, he's like, I'd have to jump in front of him to try to help him with his bags and things, you know.

VITALE: The new CD is the third Lovano and Jones have recorded together in the past five years. The saxophonist calls playing with Hank Jones a high point in his career.

Mr. LOVANO: His imagination and flowing ideas is a continuous, spontaneous journey in whatever song he play. He's one of the most creative improvisers in jazz and has the deepest passion and searching approach as a player.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Hank Jones's musical search began in Pontiac, Michigan where he took piano lessons as a boy then played in church. As a teenager he began to work in local nightclubs. He wasn't the only musician in the family. His brother, Thad, went on to become a celebrated horn player and bandleader. Another brother, Elvin, played drums with John Coltrane and led his own high-powered groups. Hank Jones was the oldest son. He has outlived both Thad and Elvin.

Mr. JONES: I certainly, you know, when I look back in it, I certainly wished that we had worked together more often, you know. We went our separate ways. Once in a while, we saw each other, and we introduce ourselves. My name is Hank, how are you doing?

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: On the new CD, Hank Jones recorded three of his brother Thad's compositions, including "Kids aren't Pretty People," the inspiration for the record's title.

(Soundbite of music)

VITALE: Jones says he's managed to keep going by living in the moment and in his music. He dismisses any notion that 89 is old.

Mr. JONES: You're just a kid. Hey, does your mother know you're up this way? I mean, you know, I have no conception of time in the sense that I don't worry about my age. It just didn't occur to me. I'm thinking more about trying to do something at the piano, trying to play something different, trying to correctly analyze something and then, after analyzing, try to perform.

VITALE: Hank Jones says he plans to keep playing as long as he can move his fingers.

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

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: And you can hear Hank Jones play alongside Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and others at

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