Remembering Hank Jones, 'The Dean Of Jazz Pianists' The pianist, a member of one of the most remarkable families in jazz history, died Sunday. He was 91. Fresh Air remembers the jazz legend with highlights from an interview conducted in 2005.
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Remembering Hank Jones, 'The Dean Of Jazz Pianists'

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Remembering Hank Jones, 'The Dean Of Jazz Pianists'

Remembering Hank Jones, 'The Dean Of Jazz Pianists'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Hank Jones, the musician Whitney Balliett said was widely regarded as the dean of jazz pianists, died yesterday at the age of 91. Jones and his two brothers became one of the most remarkable families in jazz history. Elvin Jones played with John Coltrane and became one of the most influential jazz drummers. Thad Jones played trumpet and co-led one of the most important big bands in post-Big Band Era.

Hank Jones was the oldest of the brothers, and he lived longer than they did. He was the first to leave home. He toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic, recorded with Charlie Parker, accompanied Ella Fitzgerald and worked for many years as a house pianist at CBS. He recorded many albums as a side man and a leader.

We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with Hank Jones in 2005. Let's start with his 1987 recording of "S Wonderful," featuring Eddie Gomez on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

(Soundbite of song, "S Wonderful")

GROSS: Hank Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. We're so glad to have you on the show.

Mr. HANK JONES (Jazz Pianist): Well, thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure being here.

GROSS: Let me start with is - with what I know is a very obvious question, and it's probably the question you've been most asked about your career, which is: What do you think is the explanation for the fact that you and your late brothers Elvin and Thad Jones became such great musicians? I mean, was there something in your water? Was there something in your house, in your family? What do you think explains it?

Mr. JONES: Well, the only thing in the water were parasites. But I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: ...the fact that both my mother and my father were musical had a lot to do with it, you know. And we come from a very religious background. Both my mother and my father were very religious. My father was a devoutly - devout Christian all of his life. And he taught us the things - moral values I think is something that some parents don't teach their children. We learned - I learned that early on. And my father, for instance, wouldn't even allow a pack of cards to be in the house.

He was against gambling, drinking, smoking, you name it. He was, you know, he was a very, very devout Christian, and I think that has something to do with it. You see, my father's main thing was that he didn't object to music per se, but he thought that no jazz should ever be played in the church. And he thought that if you had any kind of musical talent, it should be exhibited in the church in the form of accompanying a choir or playing church music and so forth like that. But never any jazz in the church, and never played on Sunday, by the way.

GROSS: Did you play in the church?

Mr. JONES: Yes, I played - I accompanied the church - the junior choir and the senior choir both on organ and piano. And later, many, many years later, I actually played a jazz concert at a church in Tenafly, New Jersey, and the audience loved it. In fact, they invited us to do it over again. But I felt somewhat guilty, and I just didn't want to do it again. I thought that my father might not have approved.

GROSS: What are some of the things you think you learned about the piano and about harmony and rhythm from playing in the church, accompanying the choir?

Mr. JONES: Well, all of the church hymns that were played and sung, some of which were written by Martin Luther, were all harmonically correct. And I think that some of that carried over into my musical thinking. The phrases and the -not the melodies, particularly, but the way the hymns were phrased and the harmony that was used I'm sure carried over into my musical thinking.

GROSS: How old were you when you went to New York to play in '43 or '44?

Mr. JONES: I was 21.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And - so you were performing, I think, on 52nd Street or near 52nd Street, which was really quite a music scene in that period. Who were some of the other musicians who were playing near where you were playing?

Mr. JONES: Well, right across the street was a club called the Three Deuces. I was working as with Hot Lips Page - Oran Hot Lips Page, at a place called - not the Cedar Gardens - the Onyx Club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And right across the street, on 52nd Street, was a club called the Three Deuces. Well, over there you had Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max, Roach, Bud Powell, sometimes Al Haig, sometimes, Stan Levey on drums, and they were all about the same age. Dizzy was a little older. Dizzy - Dizzy Gillespie, that is - had a big band about that time, and the big band had broken up into a small group, and the small group was playing at the Three Deuces. They were playing this new style of music called bebop, a term that I have never been really happy with. But I guess it described the music pretty much, but not accurately.

Anyway, this is the kind of - the style of music these people were playing. I was attracted by it. I thought it was an advance over what I'd been hearing previously to that time. So, I - unconsciously, perhaps, or maybe consciously -began to adapt some of this style into my own style of playing, which was basically a two-handed style, perhaps in the style of Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller at the time.

GROSS: Did you go through a period of frustration in which you were trying to adapt your style to this new bebop sound and, I mean, was there a period when you couldn't quite figure out what - like, how to get it?

Mr. JONES: It meant that I had to listened to these things repeatedly over time and perhaps, night after night, as long as I could. Because, you see, between the sets that I played at the Onyx Club and the sets that the other club was playing across the street, I had to - there was maybe - what? Maybe 20 minutes between. So I had to go over and listen in 20 minutes as hard as I could for several times during the night. And that way, at the end of the night, I'd have a pretty good idea of what was going on. I still couldn't play it, because I was still absorbing this style in my mind, you know. It took quite a while. It didn't happen overnight, and I sure don't really - I haven't mastered it yet, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's hear a recording that you made with Charlie Parker, and this is from 1952. We'll hear "This Song is You," and it features you, Parker and Max Roach on drums.

(Soundbite of song, "This Song is You")

GROSS: We heard my guest Hank Jones at the piano, with Charlie Parker. So, Hank Jones, when you were starting to record and when you moved to New York, how old were your brothers Elvin and Thad, and at what stage in their musical development were they?

Mr. JONES: Well, Elvin and Thad were both in Detroit at the time I came to New York, and they were working at a club called the Blue Bird. I think it was on Grand River Avenue. And they were working with musicians the likes of J.J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, maybe even at times Charlie Parker, people like that who came through Detroit to play. And Blue Bird was the club to play at, because it was one of the best-known - probably the best-known jazz club in Detroit at the time. And they were the house band there, so they had to play with all these people that came through to play at the club. So by the time they got to New York, they were already fairly familiar with the New York jazz scene, having heard all these people in Detroit, you see? So...

GROSS: And, as the older brother, what kind of advice or help did you try to give them when they were young?

Mr. JONES: Well, I guess I told them the same things that my father tried to tell me. You know, stay clear of all of these vicious habits that people get into that their health - that deprive you of your health, eventually probably, your life, as well.

And this is what happened to some of the younger musicians who came to New York and fell into that kind of thing. Probably they were unable - see, if they had been able to resist that first attempt or that first trial, they might've steered clear of it. But a lot of them couldn't resist. They wanted to try something new. So by the time they tried something new, it got to be a habit. And when it became a habit, they were slaves to the habit and it took them down. This happened to a few young players, unfortunately. But I tried to tell Thad and Elvin about things like this, because I'd seen it happen.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: And I had managed to steer clear of it myself because I had no desire to go that route. So they - I guess they listened, at least partially, and it probably helped them. At least I hope it did.

GROSS: I believe while you were in New York, that Art Tatum became something of a mentor to you. How well did you know him? What was your relationship to him?

Mr. JONES: I had met Art when he was playing in Buffalo. When I was playing at the Anchor Bar across town in Buffalo, there was a place called McVan's, another night club, and Art used to play there periodically during the year and a half I spent in Buffalo. And whenever he would come into town to play, after our last set at the Anchor Bar, we'd go over and catch his last set. And I got to hear a lot of Art Tatum in Buffalo.

After I finished playing at McVan's, he would often go to a restaurant down in Midtown or somebody's home - somebody would invite them to come to his home to play, and he would play until the early hours of the morning - or to say maybe the late hours, maybe 11 or 12 o'clock the next day. That's how he played. He liked to play like that. This happened almost every time I heard him play there. And he would invariably have a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer - maybe I shouldn't mention that. But anyway, he'd have a case of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Too late. He would always have a bottle of beer in his hand, or not when he was playing, of course, but after he finished playing. But he liked to drink beer at that time.

GROSS: So what was your relationship with him? Were...

Mr. JONES: Well, I had met him and, of course, I was fascinated. I was - what's the word? I was enthralled. I couldn't believe it. I, you know, I look at him and I'd say it's impossible to do what he's doing. But I'm listening and I'm sitting there and I'm looking at him and I'm watching him do it, and I still don't believe it. And, but it was just - it was almost magic. It was really magic, the things that he could do on the piano, and up until his demise, he was fantastic. He was, undoubtedly, the true genius that you hear the name flouted around so much. Art Tatum was a true genius.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Hank Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 91. We'll hear more of the interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz pianist Hank Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 91. He and his brothers - drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Thad Jones -became one of the most illustrious families in jazz history.

Let's get to our 2005 interview with Hank Jones.

Now, I know you met Thelonious Monk. I don't know how close you ever got to him. But when you first heard his playing, did it sound wrong to you? You know, because he was playing dissonances that most people would've thought of as mistakes.

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: And he was playing these kinds of, like, erratic rhythms that didn't fit the predictable rhythm patterns that people were playing. So did you get it right away, or did sound wrong to you?

Mr. JONES: Well, it never sounded wrong to me. It sounded different, and I -even the dissidences that he played, they were intentional, you know. So I - to me, it sounded, like, okay, he wanted to prove something musically, and this was the only way to do it. If you played conventional harmony at that point, it wouldn't have had the impact. So he used the dissidences to emphasize what he was doing.

GROSS: What impact did it have on you to hear him?

Mr. JONES: Well, it left a very, you know, I was in awe of what he was doing, because I had never heard anybody who thought, musically, in that way - used intentional dissonance. Oh, some composers have used it, but not to the extent that Monk used it. Monk used it on every composition he played. If he played "Body and Soul" or any ballad, you could tell immediately that it was Monk because his stamp was on it, the way he voiced his chords, his choice of chords, his choice of harmonic patterns and so forth, this was distinctive. You know, he was a stylist. He was an individual with a style that was just almost impossible to imitate.

GROSS: Now from 1959 to '76 you worked as a staff pianist for CBS Television and Radio. The show that you played for included "The Ed Sullivan Show." What else?

Mr. JONES: "Gary Moore Show," Jackie Gleason, and two radio shows and some television shows that didnt make it. And also, there was a television show called "American Musical Theater." Well, I conducted that show a couple of times, you know. But they played mostly classical music on that show. But the other shows: "The Ed Sullivan Show," the Jackie Gleason show and the "Gary Moore Show," were variety shows, that is they had comedians, they had dancers, they had singers, they had dog acts, sometimes elephant acts...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: ...and so forth, you know.

GROSS: Oh yeah, people juggling plates and all that stuff.

Mr. JONES: Like all - exactly.

GROSS: So you had to play for the elephant acts, and the people juggling plates, and walking the tightrope, and for Ella Fitzgerald probably and...

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: Was that fun?

Mr. JONES: It was, but it was interesting, you know, because from week to week you never knew quite what you were going to have to do that particular week. You found out during rehearsals, but sometimes things happened during the show that didnt happen at the rehearsal. Sometimes you had to improvise some things that something might go wrong during a live show. See, if it happened during a taped show you could always stop the tape. But if it happened during a live show you have to improvise as you go along.

GROSS: You did a lot of session work too. Did you record on any records that became big hits but nobody really knows that you were the pianist on the record?

Mr. JONES: I dont believe so. Not offhand. I've done some things with Ella Fitzgerald that almost everything she did was a hit record.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: And, of course, I recorded quite a bit with her. Also, I was lucky enough to work with Marilyn Monroe. Now ordinarily, she not considered to be a singer, but she did sing very well. She was...

GROSS: I actually like her singing. Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...primarily an actress. I had the occasion of playing for her when she sang "Happy Birthday" and "Thanks for the Memories" for President Kennedy at Madison Square...

GROSS: That was you at the piano?

Mr. JONES: That's right. And we - I tell you, she did 16 bars: eight bars of "Happy Birthday to You" and eight bars of "Thanks for the Memories." So in 16 bars, we rehearsed eight hours. So I think that's something like a half-hour for a bar of music, you know. She was very nervous and upset. She wasn't used to that kind of thing. And, I guess, who wouldn't be nervous singing "Happy Birthday" to the president.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: And she got through it very well, I think. But it was a very trying experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Well, we have this on CD, so let's hear it, Marilyn Monroe with my guest, Hank Jones at the piano - singing to the president.

(Soundbite of song, "Happy Birthday to You")

Ms. MARILYN MONROE (Actress): (Singing) Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Happy Birthday to you.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Marilyn Monroe serenading the president with my guest, Hank Jones, at the piano. Hank Jones, you know, we were about how you played at CBS for many years and did a lot of studio work. What was your reaction to John Coltrane's music when your brother Elvin Jones was the drummer with Coltrane? And, you know, Coltrane had been doing a lot of pretty far out experimentation playing -playing very free.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: Did you relate to that?

Mr. JONES: Well, to tell you the truth, I didnt relate to it very well. It was an approach that I had heard but I had sort of rejected. Because I had been listening - yeah, you have to understand, I had been listening to people like Lester Young, Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and this was quite a field from what John Coltrane was doing. I understood what he was doing, but I just didnt agree with it, musically, at the time. Later, I began to accept it, I think, more. And, of course, Elvin, my brother was with the band so I had another reason for listening to it more carefully, you know, and it began to make more sense to me as time went on. And I think it did. But it took a little bit of time for me to get use to it.

GROSS: You didnt record a lot with your brothers but what was it like when you did play with them, with Elvin and Thad Jones? Was there any kind of special connection? I mean your were older than they were, so I dont know if you played together much as kids.

Mr. JONES: Well, we didnt play very much as kids because remember, I left the Pontiac scene and the Michigan scene years before they did, maybe 10 years.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: I had been in New York for almost 10 years before Thad and Elvin came. Although, you know, when I first got to New York I mentioned their names to people like Leonard Feather and some others and they were included in Leonard Feather's, one of his books. Their names were in his book long before they got to New York, you know. But they, so they were not strangers when they arrived there. And, of course, they had already played with some of these people who had come through Detroit and played at the Blue Bird.

But we didnt play together because we just were not at the same place at the same time. And our musical tastes differed somewhat, but in many ways they were very similar. But it was just a question of being in the same place at the same time, and we just, unfortunately, we were not. We did three things together, three - two record dates. And, of course, I had played down at the Village Vanguard for a time with The Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Band and I had to cut that short because it didnt coincide with my CBS schedule. I couldnt stay up all night and then work all day at CBS so I had to give it up. But we didnt play together as often as I'd like to have and that's unfortunate because now it's impossible.

GROSS: Did you feel like there was any kind of special connection when you did play together?

Mr. JONES: Yes I did. I thought there was. There was always something special and thats one of the reasons why I regret that we didnt do more of it. I'm truly sorry about that.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with pianist Hank Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 91.

We'll hear more of that interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz pianist Hank Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 91. He and his brothers, drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Thad Jones, became one of the most illustrious families in jazz history.

Let's get back to our 2005 interview with Hank Jones.

GROSS: the jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who's quite a fan, as you know of your playing, once wrote: Jones' solos think. And then you once told Whitney Balliett, concentration is the difference between the great players and the players who are not great. Do you think when youre soloing?

Mr. JONES: Well, yes you do. You know, but see your thoughts are running ahead. Let's see, if you could separate your thoughts from your actions, they're tied together, of course, but your thoughts are ahead of what you actually do, because by the time you get to the place, your thoughts - see your thoughts are maybe four or five bars ahead of where you actually are, physically, at the piano. So by the time you get there, youve already played what you thought, like four seconds, five seconds before that, you see? In other words, youre thinking ahead. So yes, youre concentrating and youre thinking.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people might think oh its just intuitive.

Mr. JONES: I think that plays a part of it, but it's certainly not the main thing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: You have to know what youre doing. In order to know what youre doing you have to think about it, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: So, you know, you have to - first of all, you have to know the music that youre playing. You have to know the tune that youre playing. You have to know what the chord progressions are and then okay. Now the improvisations are intuitive. Of course, the intuition is based on prior knowledge isn't it? I mean how can you be intuitive if you dont have some prior knowledge of what youre doing? So the prior knowledge always comes into play there. You must have thought of it before that.

GROSS: As you approach your 87th birthday, does it surprise you that youve, you know, outlived and outlived for years, your younger brothers Elvin and Thad?

Mr. JONES: Well, I dont know. I tell you, it's certainly disheartening. But I dont know. I dont know whether I should feel surprised or not. I've always lived my life a certain way. I dont - perhaps, my life style has something to do with my longevity. Hopefully it did. But, you know, nobody lives forever, of course, and maybe it was just their time and it's not my time yet, you know? I intend to go on for until I'm 250. I'm working on that now, actively.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I hope to play better than I played the last time. That's my objective: to always do better, to reach another level, a higher level.

GROSS: Does mean that youre still practicing? I mean do you still like practice at home?

Mr. JONES: Oh, of course. Oh, of course. Yes. I dont see how anybody can do without practicing, you know? I do...

GROSS: What do you do when you practice now?

Mr. JONES: I do scales, exercises and I try to learn new material.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JONES: And review old material. You see, I try to be conversant with the piano. You have to be on good speaking terms with the piano or the piano will rebuff you, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I've heard the piano described as a man-eating monster with black and white teeth. And its true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. It's been wonderful to talk with you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Pianist Hank Jones recorded in 2005. He died yesterday at the age of 91.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, New York Times reporter Scott Shane tells the story of the American-born Muslim cleric known to have inspired the Time Square bomber and the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood. Once seen as a leader of moderate Islam, he's now a Jihadist hiding in Yemen; regarded as so dangerous he's targeted for killing by the CIA.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)

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