Jazz legend Hank Jones Dies At 91

Jazz legend Hank Jones Dies At 91

Versatile Jazz legend Hank Jones was reportedly found dead in a New York City hospice where he had been staying at, on Sunday evening. He was 91.

Jazz legend Hank Jones Dies At 91
Hank Jones at Monterey Jazz Festival 9/22/85 © Brian McMillen www.brianmcmillenphotography.com

He died at Calvary Hospital Hospice after a brief illness. This was announced by his manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc. Jones lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and also owned a property in Hartwick, New York. He is survived by his wife, Theodosia.

Hank Jones spent much of his time working as a studio musician on radio and television. His fellow musicians respected and admired his imagination, his versatility and his typical style, which mingled with the urbanity and rhythmic drive of the Harlem stride pianists, the dexterity of Art Tatum and the harmonic daring of jazz.

But unlike his younger brothers, Jones seemed content to spend for many years to keep a low profile. He accompanied the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Jones started changing around the time when he turned 60.

He also transformed his close friend and occasional duet partner Tommy Flanagan from a permanent low profile singer to a popular nightclub headliner, during the same time when he started a wave to revive the jazz piano. Listeners and critics started taking a notice of Jones when he began working and recording regularly under his own name, both unaccompanied and as the leader of a trio.

The pianist, composer and conductor Andre Previn once called Mr. Jones his favorite pianist, “regardless of idiom.” In the 1990s with a striking series of recordings that placed his piano in a range of contexts, including an album with a string quartet, a collaboration with a group of West African musicians and a duet recital with the bassist Charlie Haden devoted to spirituals and hymns, enhanced his reputation more. In 1998, he appeared at Lincoln Center with a 32-piece orchestra in a concert consisting mostly of his own creative and imaginative compositions.

Hank Jones was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 31, 1918. Hank came from a musical family, with his brother Thad a trumpet player and his other brother, Elvin a drummer. Both became well known jazz musicians in their own right. He grew up one of seven children in Pontiac, Mich., near Detroit, where he started studying piano at an early age and first performed professionally at 13.

Before moving to New York in 1944 to join the trumpeter and singer Hot Lips Page’s group at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, Jones worked with regional bands, mostly in Michigan and Ohio. Soon he was in great demand, working for well-known performers like the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and the singer Billy Eckstine.
“People heard me and said, ‘Well, this is not just a boy from the country, maybe he knows a few chords,’” he told Ben Waltzer in a 2001 interview for The Times.

Jones also remained involved in jazz during his long tenure at CBS, this ended in mid 70s when the network disbanded its music department. He was also a charter member of the big band formed by his brother Thad and the drummer Mel Lewis in 1966, and he recorded a few albums their as a leader. But he was heard but not seen on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other television and radio programs.

“Most of the time during those 15 or so years, I wasn’t playing the kind of music I’d prefer to play,” Hanks told Howard Mandel of Down Beat magazine in 1994. “It may have slowed me down a bit. I would have been a lot further down the road to where I want to be musically had I not worked at CBS.” But, he explained, the work gave him “an economic base for trying to build something.”

When he got free from the CBS obligations, Jones started making a place for himself in the jazz limelight. To form the Great Jazz Trio in 1976, he teamed with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams, alumni of the Miles Davis Quintet.

While also playing late-night solo sets at the Cafe Ziegfeld in Midtown Manhattan, two years later he began his debut as a musical director and onstage pianist for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the Broadway revue built around the music of Fats Waller.

Hank Jones was named a National Endowment for the Arts jazz master in 1989. He received the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2009.

“I never tried consciously to develop a ‘touch,’” he told The Detroit Free Press in 1997. “What I tried to do was make whatever lines I played flow evenly and fully and as smoothly as possible.

“I think the way you practice has a lot to do with it,” he explained. “If you practice scales religiously and practice each note firmly with equal strength, certainly you’ll develop a certain smoothness. I used to practice a lot. I still do when I’m at home.” Hank was 78 years old at the time.


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