Thank you Hank

Hank Jones, Newport Jazz Festival, 7/14/05 (credit Ed Newman)

Although I knew this day would come, it doesn’t make it any easier to handle.  Hank Jones, the man most responsible for sparking my love of jazz, has died at age 91.  Jones’ always tasteful and elegant brand of swing may not have blazed any musical trails, but it always made for good listening. The music was a reflection of the man – gentle, thoughtful with a touch of humor, and never self-important.

Jones was the last surviving member of an immensely gifted trio of brothers – Thad (1923-1986) made a name for himself as much for his trumpeting acumen as for his compositional skills, and Elvin (1927-2004) was one of the most respected drummers in the genre.  Hank’s understated style made him the least flashy or famous of his brothers, but he was always my favorite.

You can find any number of Hank Jones biographies online and in print, so I won’t recycle them here.  I’ll just relate a little bit about how I was touched by his genius.

About ten years ago or so, I started my exploration of jazz in earnest.  I had no idea where to start, so I started listening to the local jazz radio station, WBGO, to see if anything caught my attention.  Much of it sounded the same – some good, some not so good.  Then, out of the background, I heard a song that stood out from the rest.  Something about the style and arrangement spoke to me.  It was “Interface”, from a 1990 Jones release called The Oracle.  I immediately set out to buy the album but, of course, it was long out of print (a common problem with jazz artists who never hit it “big”).  I made do with a live version off another Jones disc for many years until I was finally able to track down a used copy of The Oracle.  Sure enough, I still love that song.

From there I branched out in many different directions of jazz, but I always return home to Hank.  He was never as acrobatic as Art Tatum, as sublime as Bill Evans, as idiosyncratic as Thelonious Monk, as flashy and complex as McCoy Tyner, or as versatile as Herbie Hancock.  But he was always, always a joy to listen to and to my ears he never played a bum note in his life.  You can’t help but be put immediately at ease from the chord of any of his songs.

I had the great privilege of seeing Hank perform not too long ago, during a week-long celebration of his 90th birthday at Birdland in New York City.  He was on top of his game and fulfilled every expectation I had going into the show.  At the end of the concert he was presented with a birthday cake, and the audience got to express their appreciation for Hank with a round of “Happy Birthday”.  Of all the performances I’ve attended, it was one of my favorite by far.  I’m so glad I got the chance to see him live and bring my love of jazz and his music in particular full circle.