Hanna, Sir Roland
Sir Roland Hanna
Roland Hanna began learning music from his father, a saxophone player and minister, at an early age. He began studying classical piano at the age of 11. Surrounded by a burgeoning, regionally distinctive bop scene, Hanna began playing with some of the Detroit area's noted jazz musicians, including Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Hank Jones, and Woody Anderson, while still a student at Detroit's Cass Technical High School. In the newsletter published by the Institute for Studies in American Music (ISAM), Mark Tucker described the characteristics of the postwar Detroit school of piano playing: "advanced harmonic knowledge, a strong relationship with bebop, a percussively accented touch, economy, elegance, and unfailing swing." Hanna himself was never convinced the so-called Detroit style could be distinguished. "I don't know anything about a Detroit approach to playing piano. I didn't make that up, and I don't have anything to do with it. But I do know that there were many, many fine Detroit pianists—and a number of guys that you probably never heard of, because they didn't leave Detroit," he told the Kansas City Star in 2000, as recounted by the Washington Post in 2002.
Tucker also noted that Hanna, by virtue of his classical training, developed an especially personal style with "a preference for thick, full-bodied textures and a profound influence from Romantic and early 20th-century concert music composers (e.g., Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel)." While his more intellectual approach to composition and performance may have cost Hanna listeners, he remained steadfast throughout his life that the music, and not fickle audience preferences, came first. "Anyone who plays music should play it primarily for the love of the art," he told Down Beat in 1975. "[T]he business end of it should come as an afterthought; the music must be first."
After graduating from Cass Tech, Hanna entered the Army and spent two years playing with the United States Army Band. Upon his release, he entered the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, but he stayed only a year, from 1953 to 1954, frustrated that he was not permitted to play jazz there. He returned home to Detroit and entered the Juilliard School in New York in 1955. Prior to entering Juilliard he married Ramona Woodard. While at Juilliard, Hanna was recruited to play in Benny Goodman's band for a European tour and a 1958 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. That same year he also began appearing regularly with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on the television program Art Ford's Jazz Party, and he played intermittently with bassist Charles Mingus. Hanna took a leave from his studies to pursue these opportunities, but he returned to school and graduated in 1960. Upon graduation he served as accompanist to vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Al Hibbler. In the meantime, Hanna released a solo recording, Roland Hanna Plays Harold Rome's 'Destry Rides Again,' and Easy to Love, which was recorded with his trio, including Ben Tucker on bass and Roy Burns on drums. Both albums were released in 1959 on the Atco label.
Hanna spent the next decade focusing on live performance and ensemble work, leading trios that played such lauded clubs as New York's Five Spot. He also replaced his old friend Tommy Flanagan in Hawkins's quartet, and in 1964 he toured Japan with a quartet that included trombonist Thad Jones. In 1966 Hanna began his longstanding association with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. His work with the group was critically lauded but brought him little commercial success or prospects for work as a solo artist. It did, however, bring him one of the honors he most cherished. In response to several solo concerts in Liberia that raised $100,000 for the education of that country's children, the Liberian government knighted Hanna in 1970. From then on he became known as Sir Roland Hanna.
In the late 1960s, while still playing with Jones and Lewis, Hanna formed the New York Jazz Sextet. In 1974 Hanna left the Jones-Lewis Orchestra, citing the group's more commercial direction as the reason for his departure. He then formed the New York Jazz Quartet, which featured former Count Basie saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess. The group focused exclusively on its members' original compositions. After some time, Hanna acknowledged a greater acceptance of the growing trend toward rock-oriented fusion music, a style the Jones-Lewis Orchestra had embraced. "[O]ne of the main reasons I left the Thad Jones band was because they began to play rock-oriented music with electronic instruments and all that and I just couldn't take that," he told Crescendo International in 1980. "But I've changed now; I still don't play electric instruments, but at least I can listen to them, and I can understand why they want to do it."
Hanna released some of his most critically acclaimed albums in the 1970s, including Child of Gemini, an ensemble suite for piano and cello, Sir Elf, and Sir Roland Hanna: A Gift from the Magi, which ISAM's Tucker called "Hanna's masterpiece." He continued: "Steeped in French Impressionism and 19th-century Romanticism, Hanna finds a seamless way to integrate such keyboard styles with the vocabulary of mid-century jazz."
Hanna continued to play with the quartet through the 1980s. One of the most acclaimed recordings to come out of this collaboration was 1984's The New York Jazz Quartet in Chicago. Noting that Hanna was a bandleader with an ensemble mentality, Down Beat 's Jack Sohmer wrote: "[I]t is indeed a pleasure to hear from a pianist who is truly a whole musician, one who thinks and responds in manners that are beneficial to the unit at hand and not just to himself," he wrote. Hanna took some time off in the 1980s in order to refocus musically. "I've just found that to work alone, without the problems that other people present, is the easiest area and yet the one that offers the most challenge to me," he told Crescendo International in 1980.
Hanna re-emerged in the 1990s as a solo artist with a greater focus on his work as a composer. He performed his original composition, "Oasis," as well as the work of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin with the Eastman Symphony Orchestra, the Swedish Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and at a homecoming concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Hanna also played classical cello on some of these compositions. In addition, Hanna wrote scores for dance performances, including "My Name Is Jasmine, but They Call Me Jaz," for the BalletMet of Columbus, Ohio, and "Sonata for Piano and Violin," commissioned by the Library of Congress and performed by the Jazzdance dance troupe. In 2000 Hanna expanded the piece and it was performed by the New York Philomusica Chamber Ensemble and the Sanford Allen Chamber Ensemble.
For the Record . . .
Born on February 10, 1932, in Detroit, MI; died on November 13, 2002, in Hackensack, NJ; married Ramona Woodard, 1954; children: Michael, Christopher, Cheryl, and Cheri. Education: Attended Eastman School of Music, 1953-54; graduated from the Juilliard School, 1960.
Began playing piano, age 11; introduced to jazz as student at Detroit's Cass Technical High School; began playing with Benny Goodman while at Juilliard; supported Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan; released first solo album, Roland Hanna Plays Harold Rome's 'Destry Rides Again,' 1959; joined Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, 1966; formed New York Jazz Sextet (later New York Jazz Quartet), 1974; recorded and composed, 1980s; performed several compositions with noted symphonies, 1990s; became a tenured professor at Queens College, New York City.
Addresses: Website —Sir Roland Hanna Official Web-site: http://www.rahannamusic.com/.
Hanna remained a committed teacher of music throughout his career and at the time of his death, due to a viral infection of the heart, in November of 2002, he was on the faculty of Queens College in New York. The school organized a memorial concert in his honor. Hanna always remained true to his belief that music was a pure form of human expression. "Music is more than just something for people who have money and who want to be amused, to go and listen to," he told Crescendo International. "To me, music is a sort of a help-mate for human beings to get through life with; it's a valve for us to release some of the pressure that builds up. We need it—not as sheer entertainment, but because we may not exist if it weren't here."
Roland Hanna Plays Harold Rome's 'Destry Rides Again,' Alco, 1959.
Sir Elf, Choice, 1974.
Live at Montreux '74, Freedom, 1974.
Perugia, Freedom, 1974.
A Gift from the Magi, West 54, 1978.
This Must Be Love, Audiophile, 1978.
Persia My Dear, DIW, 1987.
Duke Ellington Piano Solos, Music Masters, 1991.
With Roland Hanna Trio
Easy to Love, Alco, 1959.
Child of Gemini, MPS, 1971.
Time for the Dancers, Progressive, 1977.
Dream, Venus, 2001.
(With George Mraz) Sir Elf Plus 1, Choice, 1977.
(With the New York Jazz Quartet) New York Jazz Quartet: Song of the Black Knight, Sonnet, 1977.
(With the New York Jazz Quartet) The New York Jazz Quartet in Chicago, Be Hive, 1981.
(With George Mraz) Ancestral Light, Red Earth Jazz, 1999.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The Grove Dictionary of Music, Macmillan, 2002.
Crescendo International, June 1980; July 1980.
Down Beat, April 10, 1975, p. 15; November 1984, p. 32; February 2003, p. 18.
Institute for Studies in American Music (ISAM) Newsletter, Fall 2000.
New York Times, November 15, 2002, p. A29.
Washington Post, November 16, 2002, p. B7.
"Roland Hanna," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 3, 2003).
Sir Roland Hanna and Rahanna Music, Inc., http://www.rahannamusic.com (December 3, 2003).
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