by W. Kim Heron
Hank Jones, one of the most elegant pianists in all of jazz, died after a brief illness Sunday at age 91 in New York City. The eldest and last survivor of the famed Jones Brothers of Pontiac, Hank wasn’t a composer like Thad, or a revolutionary instrumentalist like Elvin. His name isn’t intrinsically linked to any major band or group — like the Basie band or the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra or the classic Coltrane quartet that made Elvin a jazz star. But if it’s hard to point to any impact on the course of jazz, there’s no denying how the music (and the lives of listeners and his fellow musicians) was enriched by his presence.
He was born in Vicksburg, Miss., but the family relocated above the Cotton Curtain to Pontiac. His father became a General Motors lumber inspector. Both his parents were deeply religious and very musical; Mr. Jones was a Baptist church deacon; both sang. Hank was also observant at the altar of the family Victrola and the radio. He rooted himself in the music of jazz piano progenitor Earl “Fatha” Hines and the stride kings Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, all the while keeping an ear cocked to such then-upstarts as Tatum and Teddy Wilson.
Arriving in New York from the Midwest in 1943, a little behind the times, he caught up with the bebop style, but never let it subsume who he’d been before as he worked with the likes of Charlie Parker, Billy Eckstine, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
As a staff musician for CBS, he performed on thousands of TV shows, radio shows and recording sessions over 16 years. (For a beyond-jazz historical note, he was at the piano when Marilyn Monroe famously sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.)
And in these last three and a half decades, since leaving CBS, he became a revered elder statesman; the personal history at his fingertips was coveted, whether alongside such golden year peers as Frank Wess, contemporary stars such as Joe Lovano or up-and-comers that included Roberta Gambarini. “He’s like a blue flame,” said pianist Mulgrew Miller, one of Jones’ legion of admirers.
Charlie Haden, another admirer, marked a high point of both his and Jones’ careers when they collaborated on a record of spirituals, Steal Away, in 1995; the disc feels like it must be coming from a simple wooden-frame church in the country rather than a recording studio or a concert hall. But that’s just one of the wonderful discs graced by the presence of the pianist whose touch was routinely described as “pearl-like.” (Wikipedia credits him with more than 60 discs under his own name, and who knows how many sessions he cut as a sideman.)
Last year’s Detroit International Jazz Festival was a tribute to him: “Keepin’ up with the Joneses” was the promo-line for the festival in which he performed opening night. It was part of schedule that was busy to the end.
“His incredible burst of productivity these last few years — concerts, recordings, fundraisers, clinics — was unprecedented and truly remarkable,” said his longtime manager Jean-Pierre Leduc in a statement issued Monday.
He’d been booked at Birdland next week and had performances set through next year.
“You see, you never really accomplish everything you want to do,” Jones told NPR’s Liane Hansen last year, “because I’m working on projects now that I’d like to complete, and when those are complete, there are others. So there’s always something I want to do.”
He would have turned 92 on July 31.
(Picture by Jimmy Katz; courtesy DL Media)