HOWARD MEGDAL: The passing of Hank Jones is a sad one from a musical perspective alone. Jones, who died last Monday at 91, was productive right up to his passing. Few artists can claim to release ten albums after age 80, including such gems as For My Father and Hank and Frank.
But for me, the bigger loss of Hank Jones is that of a keystone creator of so much of the jazz history of the 20th century. With Jones’ passing, it became that much harder to connect directly with those present at the creation of an art form that will live on long after all of us have left this earth.
Jones was an acolyte of Art Tatum, deservedly as close to a God figure as anyone in jazz piano, if not jazz period (with obvious nod to Louis Armstrong as well). Hearing Jones play meant hearing a man’s music that had been directly influenced by Tatum, by his time working with jazz greats of various timbres, from Coleman Hawkins to Cannonball Adderly, Charlie Parker to Artie Shaw.
Realistically, with Jones and Oscar Peterson gone, the one link remaining to that era is Billy Taylor. My daughter, eight weeks old, will grow up in a house filled with this music- but last Monday, I lost one of the few remaining chances to bring her to experience that music by the people who helped create it themselves. For her, Hank Jones will be like Abraham Lincoln- a man from history, that much harder to tangibly enjoy.
AKIE BERMISS: For those of us in the jazz world who keep one eye always turned back to the origin of this music, the passing of Hank Jones was like the quiet collapse of some great monument. Its possible that, as a piano player, I give greater weight to Jones’ death than other instrumentalists might, but if that is the case it is only slight. When a player lives to be 90 years old and plays great music throughout his entire life, there is no division by rank of what instrument he played. The loss is fundamental across the board.
As Howard said, Jones was a keystone creator of so much of what is jazz “history” in the 20th century. He came to New York when Bebop was a nascent jazz spin-off and hung out the God of jazz piano, Art Tatum. He took the lessons of Tatum and the innovations of Monk and created a style that is at once familiar, often-copied, and basic while still being innovative, original, and virtuosic. There is a sort of restrained elegance to the way Jones played piano. While he certainly took the lessons of muscular speed, articulation, and harmonic wit from Tatum, he also did some smoothing over of the delivery that makes his playing a little more approachable that Tatum’s. When I first heard Tatum on the piano I thought, “Holy crap — this guy is the gospel truth.” It was like Dante in the presence of God. Jones is more like an archangel — still devastatingly powerful, but able to cross the divide to the beginning or casual listener.
If Jones doesn’t stick out in the mind of most jazz fans, that is because he lead a pretty quiet, staid existence. No drugs, no wild claims to have supported himself as a pimp part-time (if you’ve not read Miles Davis’ autobiography…), and no dramatic and tragic death at the height of his career. He spent something like 15 years working a day (and night) job as a studio pianist for CBS. Meaning he was in the house band for all kinds of television programs and live events. Rare as it is, he was a jazz musician with a steady job and regular income. He chose to put that security above playing in clubs and putting out records. Still, when he did make records, they were like primers in jazz piano. When I think of the players a person should listen to get a basic sense of what “jazz piano” sounds like: Jones is at the top of my list. Of course there are tons of great pianists and when you reach back as far as Jones’ career goes, they all seem like giants now. But you can basically take any recording with Jones at the piano… on basically any tune… and say, well, that’s how its done.
Probably the chief attribute of Jones’ playing is his ability to improvise over long periods of time in a way that is not simply swinging, harmonically advanced, and pleasant to the ears — but also, for lack of a better word, articulate. The ability to make impromptu musical statements that run together in a cohesive way. In broad strokes. Like a painter who, starting with a blank canvas, makes a single stroke with his brush and then proceeds, in real time, to turn that single stroke into a complex visual narrative. It is the sign of a great artist. Now, this is not the ecstatic eloquence of someone like a Coltrane or a Herbie Hancock, nor is it the virtuosic displays of soul-searing musical mastery of a Charlie Parker or Freddie Hubbard. Its not even the straight up undeniable swing of a Louis Armstrong or Nat Cole. It something that, yes, those great players possess in their own right, but something altogether different. Jones’ playing is like hear Pericles persuade the Athenians in political debate, it is like watching Michael Jordan play with skill and grace from every position, it is like Mozart’s counterpoint — the raw skill is there enabling the artist to do practically anything, but it is tempered with a precision and attention to detail that betrays a great understand of the craft of the art form.
It is the relaxed mastery OF mastery.
It is said that the death of an old man is not a tragedy. I am inclined to agree. Hank Jones lived a long and fruitful life. If we feel any deep sadness, it is the sadness one associates with nostalgia for days gone by or perhaps, as Howard feels, regret that the younger generation won’t be able to know the heroes of our generation as we knew them. As one musician friend of mine put it, “Its a drag.” Seriously.
We’ll miss you, Hank. Sorry you had to go. Its a drag, but thanks for the music.