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Remembering Hank Jones

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Hank Jones is one of the most ubiquitous personalities in jazz history. His recordings number in the thousands, and range from sides with Hot Lips Page and Lucky Thompson in his early days all the way to contemporaries like Diana Krall and Christian McBride. He’s been on special projects with avant garde artists like Charlie Haden and Joe Lovano. He was one of the founding members of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. He played with Coleman Hawkins and Billy Eckstine. He was in Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman’s orchestras, and at the same time was performing with artists like Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley. Any time you can play strict swing with leaders like Artie Shaw and turn around and play with somebody as greasy and gospelly as Cannonball, you can pretty much say you can do anything!

He was the creator of The Great Jazz Trio, an ensemble that performed and recorded for over 25 years. In its earliest incarnation, Ron Carter and Tony Williams joined Jones. Over the years, musicians in the group included Buster Williams, Eddie Gomez, and Al Foster. More recent members included Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette.

Jones was almost every singer’s first call, from Nancy Wilson to Ella Fitzgerald. He played with Frank Sinatra on the Ed Sullivan Show, and when Marilyn Monroe offered her famous birthday serenade to JFK, he was the guy at the piano. He’s also on countless projects with strings, because his style was such a good match for that. Think of Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum all rolled up together—that gives you a sense of his incredible flowing virtuosity and elegant bebop lines.

Hank Jones was born in Mississippi in 1918, and grew up in Pontiac, Michigan. His whole family was musical. His father, a Baptist deacon and lumber inspector, considered jazz to be evil, but that didn’t stop Hank and his two younger brothers from pursuing their passion. All three became jazz icons: Thad Jones as a cornetist, composer and influential arranger; Elvin as an innovator who transformed people’s understanding of the drum set; and Hank as a versatile and virtuosic pianist and accomplished composer.

Over his seven-decade career, Jones has been recognized with many major awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master Award (1989), the ASCAP Jazz Living Legend Award (2003), the National Medal of Arts (2008), a Lifetime Achievement Grammy (2009), and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford (2009).

Hank Jones was performing and recording right up to his death on May 16, 2010, at the age of 91. He was one of the last living musicians immortalized in the famous photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” and his passing is a true signal that we’re moving to the end of an era. There may be other musicians of great note, but very few musicians can hope to touch as many styles, generations, genres, and musicians as Hank has done. Most people are influenced by him even if they don’t know it.

No matter what the context, he was unfailingly eloquent and subtle, the epitome of elegance. The master will be missed..

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