The three adjectives that most consistently crop up when people describe Hank Jones are “urbane,” “elegant,” and “witty.” Jones, who for the past 30 years has been one of the very finest pianists to operate from within the mainstream of jazz’s rich tradition, and who has played and recorded with an astounding roster of musicians, is currently enjoying the most attention he has ever received from the public, the press, and the music business.
Known primarily in the past as a sideman who always plays the right thing at the right time, Jones decided, for his second release on Galaxy, to record a full album of piano solos. It is a case of an ideal rhythm section leader setting aside his implacable groove, for a moment, in order to explore a few deeper recesses of his inner self.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit) on July 31, 1918, Hank during the mid-Thirties learned from the great examples of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and, especially, Teddy Wilson. He was the first of the three Jones brothers (the other two being Thad and Elvin) to leave Detroit for New York, the nation’s center of jazz activity.
Although his sensibility was rooted in the Swing Era, Jones matriculated into the New York scene during the flowering of bebop; he had no trouble adapting to bop’s more rigorous harmonic and rhythmic requirements, and evolved a lucid style which ingeniously synthesized swing and bop into an approach that was personal and flexible. He could play with just about anyone.
Jones cut his first record date in 1944, a session led by trumpeter Hot Lips Page and produced by Leonard Feather. He accompanied singer Billy Eckstine, played in the sextet of bassist John Kirby, in trumpeter Howard McGhee’s combo, with tenor great Coleman Hawkins, and on one of the first (1947) Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, where he met Ella Fitzgerald. He then was Ella’s accompanist from 1948 through 1953.
Resuming his freelance status in New York, Jones, by the mid-Fifties, was firmly established as one of the class pianists in jazz. He worked in several combos with Benny Goodman between 1956 and 1958, began a 20-year association with CBS, and continued to be selected for an enviable series of record dates.
The esteem in which Jones has been held by the jazz community is indicated by a partial list of those who have asked him to play on their dates: Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ella, Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Cole, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Rushing, Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery, Ben Webster, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Ray Brown, Chet Baker, Kenny Burrell, and Bobby Hutcherson.
In 1975, Jones began stepping up his public appearances and recording dates as a leader. He played in a trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with whom he recorded a pair of award-winning albums for Japan; he recorded for the Concord Jazz, Muse, Progressive, and Chiaroscuro labels before signing with Galaxy; he made several television appearances; and he performed at concerts and jazz festivals including Newport, Monterey, Concord, and overseas.
“A precise, nimble performer,” Whitney Balliett has called Jones, who “is distinguished by his beautiful touch.” The Hank Jones conception, several facets of which are spotlighted on his new Galaxy album Tiptoe Tapdance, has always transcended fashions, schools, and conventions. He is one of an endangered species of complete jazz pianists who can meet just about any musical challenge with grace, inventiveness, and a personal touch that is affecting without being overbearing. In the company of other musicians, Jones swings ceaselessly, though subtly; on this sole venture, he is more leisurely, philosophical, and even religious—there are two beautiful new interpretations of traditional spirituals, “It’s Me O Lord” and “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” as well as standards including “Sweet Lorraine” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
Whatever material or format he chooses, the delightful fact is that Hank Jones, nearing his sixtieth birthday, is at the peak of his powers and is sharing his music with the public as never before.