Pianist, conductor, composer
Eloquent, lyrical, and impeccable—these are words musicians and critics use to describe the jazz piano style of Hank Jones. From nightclubs to the Broadway stage, Jones has accompanied nearly every major name in jazz. Since his New York debut with trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page in 1944, Jones has appeared as a guest artist, soloist, and bandleader on hundreds of studio sessions. Melding the piano styles of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson with “bebop,” an innovative jazz form known for its complex constructs, Jones has honed a refined technique filled with inventive chordal texture and flowing single-line passages. “[Jones’s] light, harplike touch,” wrote David Rosenthal in Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955–1965, “as though he were plucking the piano’s strings instead of striking its keys, and his gracefully restrained single-note style are a reformulation of their aesthetic in modern jazz.”
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 31, 1918, Henry “Hank” Jones moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where his father, a Baptist deacon, bought a three-story brick home. One of seven children, Jones was raised in a musical family. His mother sang; his two older sisters studied piano; and his two younger brothers—Thad, a trumpeter, and Elvin, a drummer—became world famous jazz musicians. As Thad recalled in The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1991, “There was always the sound of the piano in the home and, naturally, the sound of the radio.” As the eldest son, Hank was the first to receive piano instruction. In Down Beat he reflected on his introduction to the piano: “I started with classical training. I never did sit down and practice of my own volition. I always had to be forced. They’d say, ‘Hey, you practice that lesson! Teacher’s coming next week and you got four pages to go.
Over time, however, Jones developed an affinity for the keyboard. His musical education went beyond formal studies: “I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl Hines—and there was an awful lot of blues which found its way into our house for one reason or another,” he told Andrew Sussman in Down Beat On Sundays, he and his brothers listened to radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony. Years later, Elvin recalled his early musical rapport with his older brother in a Down Beat interview, stating: “I used to listen to Hank practice. He’d put on an Art Tatum record on our windup Victrola and tell me to play along on a book.”
By the age of 13, Jones began playing in local groups in high school. He then joined the Detroit-based territory bands of Benny Carew and altoistTed Buckner, traveling throughout Michigan and Ohio. While playing on the road in Lansing and Grand Rapids, Michigan, he met Detroit-bom tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, who
Born Henry Jones, July 31, 1918, in Vicksburg, MS; son of a Baptist deacon and lumber inspector.
Began performing with Detroit-based big bands, c. 1931; went to New York to join the band of trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page, 1944; performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic series, 1947–50; freelanced with numerous groups throughout 1950s and 1960s; member of the CBS Orchestra, 1959–74; performed in Broadway stage production Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the 1970s; played in duo piano combination with several artists, including John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan, during the 1980s.
Addresses: Record company —Verve Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
invited him out to New York to play with trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page.
In 1944 Jones joined Page’s band at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in New York. His arrival in the city at the height of the bebop movement brought Jones in contact with a new modernist conception of jazz keyboard. He first heard the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker group with pianist Al Haig. In Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Jones noted that Haig’s “style of playing was quite a departure from what I had previously been trying to play. That style—as I look back on it—I suppose the style came about mainly because these pianists rarely, if ever, played solo. I think they played with groups, and with groups it was not necessary for them to use a lot of left hand.”
By listening to other modern pianists like Bud Powell, Jones began to adapt himself to the melodies and harmonic changes of bebop. “Everyone was talkin’ ‘bout Bud back then,” explained piano legend Ray Charles, as quoted in Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, “but I actually preferred Hank Jones. I liked his touch, and I had a great feeling for his solo work. With all his wonderful taste, he reminded me of Nat Cole.”
While Jones received an education in the art of bebop, he continued to perform with several major big band talents such as Andy Kirk and Billy Eckstine. In the autumn of 1947, he began a three-year stint touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts, which afforded him the opportunity to play with Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach. During the 1950s, he toured Europe with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Howard McGhee; then he recorded with Parker, who was already a legendary saxophonist. Bob Blumenthal described Jones’s piano work on Parker’s 1952 recording of “Cosmic Rays” in the liner notes for Charlie Parker: The Verve Years (1952–1954): “As always, Hank Jones is elegant, lyrical, [a] model of grace without pressure.”
Not long after, Jones became the accompanist for singer Ella Fitzgerald. As Savoy Records’ “house pianist,” he appeared on hundreds of sides and later in the 1950s began recording on several labels under his own name. He also recorded with Lester Young and Milt Jackson as a sideman. On Cannonball Adderly’s 1958 release Somethin’ Else, he provided brilliant harmonic support behind the horns of Adderly and Miles Davis.
Jones joined the CBS Orchestra in 1959 and remained until the ensemble disbanded in 1974. He performed primarily with big bands and even worked as a pit-pianist with Ray Bloch on the Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1960s, he bided his time between television performances, studio sessions, and jazz dates. Throughout the 1970s, he conducted and performed in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’. An international talent, Jones has also recorded numerous albums on Japanese and French labels. His various projects in the 1980s included duo performances with pianists John Lewis and Detroit-born bebop veteran Tommy Flanagan who, in Jazz Spoken Here, lauded Jones as “a great solo pianist” and “a great accompanist.” Jones continued to record in the 1990s. In 1991 he joined forces with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Billy Higgins on the album The Oracle.
Describing Jones’s ability to perform in a variety of musical settings, a music critic wrote in Down Beat, “The enigma of Hank Jones simply is that there’s more than one of him. Jones the classicist, Jones the bopper, and Jones the modern jazzer.” This versatility has made Jones one of the most active jazz musicians in the business. “I think jazz has proven itself over the past several decades,” stated Jones in Down Beat. “I don’t think you have to go to any great lengths to prove the validity of jazz.” Like his inherent faith in his music, Jones has proved himself a true artist. He is widely regarded as a musician’s musician—one of the greatest living masters of jazz piano.
The Jazz Trio of Hank Jones, Savoy, 1955.
Just for Fun, Original Jazz Classics, 1977.
Tiptoe Tapdance, Original Jazz Classics, 1978.
Moods Unlimited, Evidence, 1982.
The Oracle, Verve, 1991.
Handful of Keys:… “Fats” Waller, Verve, 1993.
Upon Reflection — The Music of Thad Jones, Verve, 1994.
Bluesette, Black & Blue.
I Remember You, Black & Blue.
Lazy Afternoon, Concord.
Rockin’ in Rhythm, Concord.
Cannonball Adderly, Somethin’ Else, Blue Note, 1958.
Gato Barbieri, El Gato, Flying Dutchman, 1975.
Kenny Burrell: Bluesin’ Around, Columbia, 1983.
Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz Live at the Blue Note, Telarc, 1991.
Grover Washington, Jr., All My Tomorrows, Columbia, 1992.
Telarchives: Lionel Hampton and Friends, Telarc, 1992.
Benny Carter: Legends, Music Makers, 1993.
Charlie Parker: 1949 Jazz at the Philharmonic, Verve.
Charlie Parker Plays the Blues, Verve.
Charlie Parker: The Verve Years (1952–1954), Verve.
Enstice, Wayne, and Paul Rubin, Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-two Musicians, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Gitler, Ira, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Rosenthal, David, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955–1965, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Stokes, Royal W., The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1991, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Down Beat, April 1980; May 1981; November 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Bob Blumenthal to Charlie Parker: The Verve Years (1952–1954).
Jazz pianist, composer
One of the great survivors of jazz piano, Hank Jones has adapted his playing to a huge variety of styles over a career that has lasted more than 75 years. Through it all, Jones maintained a distinctive personal style at the keyboard, one sometimes described as harplike. While many jazz pianists cultivate a percussive style, striking the keys of the instrument sharply, Jones's playing is liquid and elegant. He has accompanied a host of the great names among jazz instrumentalists and vocalists for several generations, appeared on classic jazz recordings, and released many successful albums under his own name.
Henry "Hank" Jones was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 31, 1918. His father was drawn north by the chance to work in the auto industry, and the family—father, mother, and seven children—moved into a large house in Pontiac, Michigan. The whole family was musical. Jones's father was a blues guitarist (and a Baptist deacon on Sundays), his mother sang, and his siblings studied music. One of Jones's younger brothers, Elvin, became a highly influential jazz drummer, and another, Thad, a noted trumpeter. All kinds of music filtered through the house: the young Jones heard jazz pianists such as Thomas "Fats" Waller and Earl "Fatha" Hines, soaked up gospel music in his Pontiac neighborhood, and sat down with the family to listen to Sunday broadcasts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Jones's own first musical training came in the form of classical piano lessons, but he and his brothers were soon playing along to 78 rpm records by piano virtuoso (and trio specialist) Art Tatum. Jones began his career performing for school dances at the age of 13. Jones joined various Detroit bands and traveled around the Great Lakes with what were then called "territory" bands, regional ensembles that often incubated new styles. In 1944, Detroit saxophonist Eli "Lucky" Thompson suggested that Jones move to New York and recommended him for a spot in the band of trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page.
Jones did well from the start. He had the skills to survive in New York's competitive jazz environment. "People heard me and said, 'Well, this is not just a boy from the country—maybe he knows a few chords,'" Jones told Ben Waltzer of the New York Times.
Whether because of his classical training or just because he had a superior ear, Jones quickly learned to function in various styles that were current in New York jazz of the 1940s. He studied the music of bebop pianist Bud Powell and picked up the then-radical new bebop style, with its complex harmonies and its virtuoso improvisations based on the harmonies, rather than the melodies, of a piece's opening material. He developed a special flair for accompanying singers, backing bebop vocalist Billy Eckstine early in his career and, after a stint with the roster of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series, settling in for a six-year run as Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist in 1947.
In the 1950s, with jazz clubs flourishing in New York City, Jones was ubiquitous in live appearances and on records. He worked at various times with Charlie Parker (1952's "Cosmic Rays" was a classic example of Jones's cool under the pressure of Parker's intense improvisations), tenor saxophonist Lester Young, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and numerous other musicians whose paths crossed his because he was serving as the de facto house pianist at the jazz label Savoy. Jones joined clarinetist Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5 group in 1954, appearing on some of the last recordings Shaw made before his sudden retirement. Perhaps the biggest jazz classic to which Jones contributed his keyboard skills was saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's 1958 release Something Else, with an all-star lineup that included Miles Davis on trumpet.
Jones also released highly regarded recordings under his own name, often in a small-group format. These included Urbanity (1953), The Jazz Trio of Hank Jones (1955), and The Hank Jones Quartet/Quintet (1955), of which Waltzer wrote that "the pianist is attached to the soloist like a sidecar to a motorcycle. He balances and grounds the horn players, helping to navigate their improvisation." Jones's productivity was partly due to his avoidance of the substance abuse problems that plagued many of his contemporaries. "I've always tried to live cleanly," he told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I didn't fall into the bad habits a lot of the guys got into: the smoking, the drinking, the narcotics. I've tried to take care of myself."
Jones's stability, and his knack for adapting himself to varying musical surroundings, extended his career to a remarkable length. In 1959 he became staff pianist for the CBS television network, providing piano music and accompanying larger groups for any program—from The Ed Sullivan Show to Captain Kangaroo—that needed jazz accompaniment, and for the dancers and even trained animal acts that came through the door at CBS to audition for a spot on a talk show. In the late 1970s Jones moved to Broadway, serving as musical director and pianist for the Fats Waller-themed musical Ain't Misbehavin' and expanding on Waller's tunes in late-night shows at the nearby Ziegfeld Restaurant after the curtain came down.
After the end of the show's run in the early 1980s, Jones began collecting Social Security checks but this did not signal the end of his musical career. A remarkable series of recordings under his own name began with Moods Unlimited in 1982 and continued through critically acclaimed projects that demonstrated the range of his abilities. He recorded duo-piano music with his Detroit-born contemporary Tommy Flanagan. His familiarity with Fats Waller's music served as the basis for Handful of Keys (1993), and other releases encompassed a broad sweep of jazz history. With bassist Charlie Haden he recorded an album of pieces, Steal Away, based on African-American spirituals; he recorded with West African musicians; he accompanied singer Abbey Lincoln in an album of duets; and he joined his brother Elvin on an album of music by the late Thad Jones, the third Jones brother who had helped shape modern jazz.
In 2003 Jones bounced back from an aortic aneurysm and resumed a busy concert schedule. In 2005 he was featured on two albums, For My Father and saxophonist Joe Lovano's Joyous Encounter. Slowing down wasn't part of his plans. "Every appearance that I do, I want to be better than the last one," he told Frank Spignese of the Daily Yomiuri in Japan, where he traveled for shows at Blue Note jazz clubs in Tokyo and Osaka in 2006. "Every solo that I take, I want to be better than the previous one. I want to improve to the point where I can't improve anymore. I don't think that will ever happen. You keep pushing that horizon back a little farther. If you keep making the effort, you'll show some progress."
At a Glance …
Born Henry Jones on July 31, 1918, in Vicksburg, MS; father a Baptist deacon and blues guitarist; family moved to Pontiac, MI; one of seven children; two brothers, Elvin and Thad, became jazz musicians.
Career: Musician, 1931–; CBS television, staff pianist, 1959–74; Ain't Misbehavin', Broadway musical, pianist and music director, late 1970s.
Awards: ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame, 2003.
Addresses: Label—Justin Time Records, 5455 Paré, Suite 101, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H4P 1P7.
Urbanity, Verve, 1953.
Bluebird, Savoy, 1955.
The Hank Jones Quartet/Quintet, Savoy, 1955.
The Jazz Trio of Hank Jones, Savoy, 1955.
The Talented Touch, Capitol, 1958.
Arrival Time, RCA, 1962.
This Is Ragtime Now, Paramount, 1964.
Happenings, Impulse, 1966.
Just for Fun, Original Jazz Classics, 1977.
Bop Redux, Muse, 1977.
Groovin' High, Muse, 1978.
Great Jazz Trio at the Village Vanguard, vols. 1 and 2, East World, 1980.
Moods Unlimited, Evidence, 1982.
The Oracle, EmArcy, 1989.
Lazy Afternoon, Concord Jazz, 1989.
A Handful of Keys: The Music of Thomas "Fats" Waller, Verve, 1992.
Upon Reflection: The Music of Thad Jones, Verve, 1994.
(with Charlie Haden) Steal Away, Verve, 1994.
Master Class, 32 Jazz, 1997.
Favors, Verve, 1997.
Compassion, Black & Blue, 2002.
For My Father, Justin Time, 2005.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 15, Gale, 1995. Stokes, Royal W., The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990, Oxford, 1991.
Billboard, May 14, 2005, p. 46.
Daily Yomiuri (Japan), March 2, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, April 22, 1994, p. 59.
Jet, April 21, 2003, p. 36.
New York Times, June 24, 2001, p. AR28.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 23, 2003, p. F10.
"Hank Jones" (interview), All About Jazz, www.all-aboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=678 (April 9, 2006).
"Jazz Profiles from NPR: Hank Jones," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/archive/jones_h.html (April 9, 2006).