Back in my infancy as a jazzbo—before I acquired the esoteric knowledge that allows me to look down my nose at people who like Kenny G—I took a college course in jazz with William Thomas McKinley, a composer and pianist who straddled the worlds of avant-garde classical music and jazz.
William Thomas McKinley
McKinley recalled his scuffling days for us one afternoon, saying if we found his music inaccessible (it is), it was in part the product of his years playing “Back Home Again in Indiana” over and over and over again in a Hoosier State pizza parlor.
I’d never heard the song before, but McKinley banged out a few bars that afternoon in an auditorium at the University of Chicago with a knowing look that suggested prolonged exposure to its melody would drive any man mad. The students laughed.
This was the early seventies, when the palette for jazz composition had been reduced to two colors; black and grey. The only emotions McKinley—and many others in those angry years—considered legitimate subjects for musical expression were (in his words) violence and introspection. “Indiana” (the words “Back Home Again in” are usually added, but are not part of the formal title), with its lilting melody and sentimental images of a moonlit farm, didn’t fit the bill.
In order to reach the point where “Indiana” was considered square, one had to whittle away a good deal of jazz history, however. Written by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley, the song was first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917, and formed part (along with “Darktown Strutters’ Ball”) of one of the earliest jazz records to achieve widespread popularity. Louis Armstrong, a man without whom twentieth century jazz as we know it wouldn’t exist, opened his every performance with the song for many years.
The durability of “Indiana” as a vehicle for improvisation, despite its detractors, is due to two features; its chord structure is basic but varied, and its melody has a long line. A musician who feels confined by simpler compositions can thus stretch out and walk around in the tune, like getting out of a car after a long night’s drive.
Theodore “Fats” Navarro
To prove the point that “Indiana” is, at bottom, a thing of much hipness, one has only to look at its progeny. Three of the coolest cats jazz has ever produced have written contrafacts of the song—that is, new compositions that use “Indiana”’s harmonic structure. If you’ve never heard trumpeter Fats Navarro’s “Ice Freezes Red” or pianist Lennie Tristano’s “Ju-Ju,” it is still likely that you have heard the bebop standard “Donna Lee,” usually credited to Charlie Parker although Miles Davis claimed authorship of it as well.
The undertow of cool that flows beneath the surface of “Indiana” is, of course, the lesser-known current of the two; at a shallower level you will find the song played with warmth in commercials, as the theme song for TV newscasts, and at public occasions the length and breadth of the state; Jim Nabors sings it at the Indianapolis 500, for God’s sake.
But no matter; if you want the ultimate “Indiana” experience, track down the 1945 Town Hall concert in which the song is played not by a big band, but by just two musicians, tenor saxophonist Don Byas and bassist Slam Stewart. Byas would decamp for Europe the next year, a great loss to American music; Stewart was the inventor of a technique in which he bowed and hummed simultaneously. Together they created one of the hottest jazz recordings ever made, so important to the history of the genre it is included in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Gone is the bombast of the marching band; the music is stripped to its essentials, and refinished to a high gloss.
As I sat listening to it one night I thought back to the class in which an avant-garde composer had derided the song. Jazz had lost its way in those years, and had forgotten you can make a thing of beauty out of a thing as humble as a Tin Pan Alley song.
Originally published in Punchnel’s.
There are so many stories of Benny Goodman’s absorption in himself and his music that they could fill a chapter in a biography. Rehearsing at his home on a cold winter day the singer Helen Ward complained that the house wasn’t warm enough. “You’re right,” Goodman said, then went off and got a sweater for himself–but not Ward.
Charlie Christian, Benny Goodman
Another time a fellow who had suffered under what Goodman’s musicians referred to as “The Ray”–a glare from the bandleader to indicate his displeasure with their playing–finally cracked. The musician stormed into Goodman’s dressing room and shouted “That’s it–I can’t take this anymore. I’m quitting!” After the man slammed the door and left, Goodman turned to his manager and said “Who was that?”
So one tends to credit reports that Goodman viewed with displeasure the surprise appearance one day in August, 1939, of an amplifier on the stage of the Victor Hugo Restaurant in Los Angeles–what is that ungodly appliance, you can imagine him asking. And off in the wings, he saw a young black man from Oklahoma named Charlie Christian.
Christian wasn’t the first guitarist to use an amplifier; that distinction is often credited to Eddie Durham, one of Christian’s teachers, although it is more accurate to confer the prize on George Barnes, who performed on “Sweetheart Land” with Big Bill Broonzy on March 1, 1938, while Durham’s first recording on that type of instrument took place on a March 16, 1938 session with Count Basie’s Kansas City Five and Six units. Christian played piano when he met Durham, and had “a cheap old piece of guitar,” Durham recalled. “He told me how much he liked guitar, but he didn’t know a lot about it.” Christian had “an awful stroke and conception for guitar” Durham said, and he urged him to “use a downstroke. You can get that punch like a saxophone. When you come up, it may sound legato, but it’s staccato.”
Christian took Durham’s instruction and ran with it. The jazz guitar had previously been a rhythm instrument, part of the background along with the drum set and the bass, and not the maker of melodies in the foreground. Jazz scholar Gunther Schuller said Christian became “the greatest riff-tune inventor” on any instrument.
Christian played the guitar the way Lester Young played the tenor saxophone, producing light, elongated lines, either in unison with the horns or off by himself in a solo. It was John Hammond, a producer who prodded Goodman to innovate throughout his career, who heard Christian in Oklahoma City in 1939 and arranged for him to join Goodman’s band for a tryout. When Christian arrived unannounced on the bandstand wearing a purple shirt and yellow shoes, Goodman looked around the room, found Hammond, zapped him with “The Ray,” then decided to challenge the young man from the provinces–and perhaps show Hammond who was boss.
Goodman called for “Rose Room,” which he assumed correctly the young guitarist did not know. Christian heard the melody, absorbed the chord structure and then played twenty-five choruses, “each more inventive than the last” by Hammond’s account. In the words of jazz critic Loren Schoenberg, Christian’s single-note solos take off “as if he just threw a switch on and brilliance came pouring out.” Goodman’s quintet–an All-Star lineup that included Lionel Hampton on vibes, Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums–responded organically; Goodman and Hampton would take turns, Christian would respond, then pass the ball back to them. That “Rose Room” continued, according to earwitnesses, for forty-five minutes, and no one complained that it was too long.
Soon Goodman’s quintet was a sextet, and the reconstituted group would create some of the more enjoyable music of Goodman’s sometimes overwhelming oeuvre; no bombast of the Sing, Sing, Sing! type, no schmaltz.
Christian, more than any other musician, turned the guitar into a solo instrument, but his name and work are largely forgotten today except by serious jazzbos. He’s not to blame for the obligatory overwrought guitar solos you hear on even the most middle-of-the-road pop tunes today, with their screeching distortion and bricklayer’s approach to piling one riff on top of another until the damn thing is finished. The essence of Christian’s style was delicacy, restraint and fluidity; you can no more imagine him screwing up his face the way both neophytes and hierophants of the blues guitar do every time they bend a flatted seventh note today than you can imagine Benny Goodman in Christian’s purple shirt and yellow shoes.
After his gig with Goodman ended each night, Christian would head over to Minton’s, a new club at the Hotel Cecil in Harlem started by Henry Minton, the first Black delegate to the local musicians union. There, Christian participated in the first experimental sessions out of which grew the jazz style that came to be called “bebop,” an onomatopoeic term Christian is credited with inventing by a phrase he used while humming. He “was known to have driven some members of the Goodman band to distraction with his habit of singing [Lester] Young solos non-stop on the band bus.”
Christian, born July 29, 1916, would live only three more years after joining Goodman. He fell ill in 1941 while on a tour of the Midwest; he returned to New York and was admitted first to Bellevue Hospital and then to Seaview Sanitarium on Staten Island, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1942 of tuberculosis, although his end was probably hastened by the high life and travel that became his lot once he’d been reluctantly discovered by the reigning King of Swing.
I suppose if you go to your grave without hearing
“Hey Pete, Let’s Eat Mo’ Meat”
you can still say you have lived,
but I’d consider such a life incomplete.
Or, playing the fool,
you could deliberately pass up
“Ool Ya Kool”
but I wouldn’t if I were you.
If you’d like to lose the top of your head instead
I have a live version of “Manteca” that will blow
it off for you–no drugs required
just a stew of Latin rhythms and Dizzy too.
I used to have his take on Fats Waller’s
“Jitterbug Waltz” but that song went the
sad way of all vinyl–at the end it would
hiss and pop like bacon frying on a griddle.
I saw John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie just once
before he died, at Sandy’s in Beverly, Mass.,
playing that cantilevered horn of his with the
the squirrel-getting-ready-for-winter cheeks–
that was Diz.
Don Byas, the tenor who forms the bridge that connects the swing and bebop eras, used to say “I don’t play the saxophone–I play the sexophone.” You can understand his transliteration if you believe that the greater part of music’s basic human function is an aid to seduction, and not just rocking penetration.
Born Carlos Wesley Byas in Muskogee, Oklahoma 21, 1912, he learned both violin and clarinet while still very young at the insistence of his musical parents; he later switched to saxophone–first alto, then tenor–and was the leader of his own band, Don Carlos and His Collegiate Ramblers, while at Langston College, in Oklahoma. In 1932 he moved to California where he played first with Bert Johnson, later with a then-unknown Lionel Hampton.
He subsequently joined saxophonist Eddie Barefield’s band, then in 1937 became part of trumpet and sax man Eddie Mallory’s band that toured with singer Ethel Waters. Byas played in two of the leading Midwestern “territory” bands of jazz’s early days, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra and Walter Page’s Blue Devils. He came to New York in 1937 and played with Don Redman and Lucky Millinder, but other than a brief but noteworthy solo on “You Set Me on Fire” with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, he left no mark during this period.
All that changed when he took over the tenor chair previously occupied by Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra in 1941. The Basie band recorded frequently, and Byas’ solo on “Harvard Blues” was recognized immediately for the aesthetic that would mark his playing for the rest of his career; a gorgeous tone, an athletic vigor and a sense of form. His solos had a beginning, middle and end, and were not just repetitious riffing or bombastic blowing.
Byas came of age when jazz was bounded by the 78 rpm records of the day. Songs were limited to three minutes or thereabouts, and the concision imposed by that format made you or broke you as a soloist. You had to have something to say, know how to say it, and be able to bring your thought to a conclusion with something resembling aplomb. Contrast the well-crafted solos produced by Byas under that regime with the meanderings produced by some tenors in 60s and 70s and you will agree that it is better to spend a brief moment with a genius than a quarter hour with a bore.
Byas was more than just a miniaturist, however. As an omnivorous participant in the late night “cutting” sessions where New York musicians established their relative rank in the manner of rutting bull moose, Byas was capable of taking and holding the stage against up-and-comers, one of whom (Allen Eager) simply walked off to get a drink after Byas launched into a lengthy improvisation to Cherokee, a notoriously difficult set of harmonic changes that Byas had chosen as a challenge. You can get a sense of the extended invention he was capable of by listening to his solo on I Got Rhythm that is included in the Smithsonian History of Jazz and the Commodore Sessions, both still in print.
Byas would form an adjunct part of what is generally recognized as the first bebop group in 1944, jamming regularly with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bassist Oscar Pettiford, pianist George Wallington and drummer Max Roach. When Dizzy got his first date as leader a year later, Byas joined him for the sessions that produced the bop classics Night in Tunisia and 52nd Street Theme.
Byas’s rhythm, phrasing and harmonic ideas remained rooted in the swing era, but he could match the young pioneers, with their high velocity and harmonies that Louis Armstrong famously derided as “Chinese,” note for note.
In 1946 Byas made a fateful decision that accounts for his relative obscurity today; he left for Europe on a tour put together by Don Redman and didn’t return for another 24 years. By then both swing and bop were history, and the fashion in tenor solos had moved on to a sound that sometimes resembled, in its most extreme form, a man having an argument with his instrument.
Byas stayed in Europe in part to avoid the New York haunts of his younger days, when he had developed a drinking problem. He seemed to find peace in Europe, where he became an exercise fanatic, invariably inviting friends whom he hadn’t seen for awhile to punch him in the gut as hard as they could to prove how fit he was keeping himself.
He also became something of a bon vivant, serving up Louisiana fare to friends and his many female admirers. He found his way to more than a few women’s hearts with both his sax and his cooking.
In an old joke a woman complains to her psychiatrist that her husband is uncommunicative.
“He never talks to me!” she exclaims.
“Take him to a jazz club,” the shrink says.
“What good will that do?” the woman asks.
“Everybody talks during the bass solo.”
And so it goes for the guys who provide the bottom, the foundation from which jazz is built upwards. They labor in obscurity, less heard than felt until everybody else takes a break, which the audience takes as a sign that nothing important is going on.
Jimmie Blanton and Johnny Hodges
In many cases this is true; there are journeymen of the instrument who are mere timekeepers–literally; they also serve who merely stand and pluck, as John Milton might have said if he’d lived into the jazz age. And until 1939 that was true generally, until Duke Ellington heard a young man named Jimmie Blanton playing with Fate Marable’s band at an after-hours joint known as “Club 49” in St. Louis.
Fate Marable’s Society Syncopaters, playing on a river boat.
Ellington’s ear for prospective sidemen was keen; Blanton was unknown, and Ellington already had one and sometimes two bassists in his ensemble. Blanton was different, however; he was academically trained, with two years of college at Tennessee State University behind him, and he had developed a pizzicato technique that had never been heard in jazz before.
Duke asked if he could sit in, and Marable–an old friend–said sure. Without saying a word to Blanton, Ellington began to improvise and modulate through different keys. Blanton didn’t miss a note, and when the two were done Marable–who had served as musical father to Louis Armstrong, among other jazz notables–said of the 18-year-old “How do you like my bass player?” To which Ellington replied “He’s my bass player now.”
Blanton had limited big band experience, but Ellington didn’t care. “We wanted . . . that sound, that beat, and those precision notes in the right places,” he wrote in Music is My Mistress. Ellington talked Blanton into joining the band for a few numbers the next night, and would later write he “was a sensation, and that settled it. We had to have him. . . although our bass man at the time was Billy Taylor, one of the ace foundation-and-beat men.”
Ellington’s offer of employment was accepted–the Duke paid royal family wages thanks to his broader media reach that exceeded what a regional bandleader such as Marable could offer. So Ellington had two basses until one night in Boston when, in the middle of a gig, Taylor packed up his instrument, saying “I’m not going to stand up here next to that young boy playing all that bass and be embarrassed.” There followed a burst of inspired creativity on the part of Ellington’s band that Blanton–a bassist, of all things–is generally credited with touching off.
Blanton, unlike the run-of-the-mill bassist, created solos that people sat silent to listen to and which Ellington, as was his style, wove into the fabric of his compositions instead of leaving them at the fringe. Blanton’s work on Ko Ko, Jack the Bear and, most memorably to these ears, Pitter Panther Patter, was both useful and ornamental; it laid down the rhythm, but it was never satisfied with that utilitarian function. He created melodies of his own, in some cases inspiring the Duke to go chasing after him, like two kids at play.
Blanton was a frail, other-worldly creature, thin and scholarly in appearance. In one anecdote whose accuracy no one has questioned, one night on the road a woman called Blanton’s hotel room to suggest she might come up and see him if he wasn’t busy. Blanton replied “Just a minute, I’ve got to finish what I’m doing,” then returned to his practice and forgot there was a woman waiting on the line. She eventually gave up, and hung up. As it turned out, Blanton’s fey disposition had a physical cause; he suffered from congenital tuberculosis, and was forced to leave the Ellington band only two years after joining it.
Ellington and bassist Ray Brown recorded a fine tribute to Blanton in 1973, This One’s for Blanton, which was reissued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1992. It’s good, and Ray Brown had few equals among bassists of his generation–but it’s not the real thing.
Blanton was born October 5, 1918, in Chattanooga, Tennessee (not St. Louis, as is sometimes reported), and died in 1942 in Monravia, California, leaving a legacy you can hear in every bass solo played today–if everyone would just be quiet and listen.
Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France.
The Holy Trinity of bebop in the popular theology of jazz consists of Charlie Parker on alto sax, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Thelonious Monk on piano, but jazz is a pagan art form and so admits of polytheism. Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell is an alternate deity on the piano, a troubled man who–while not Monk’s equal as a composer–consistently played at a higher level of virtuosity than Monk, who made eccentricity of rhythm and melody his trademark and sometimes seemed to be satisfied with mere cleverness.
Where Monk was over-reliant on drugs to fuel his fancy, Powell came to his quirks as a result of external forces. When he was in his early twenties and a member of Cootie Williams’ orchestra, he was beaten on the head by police in a racially-motivated incident and he would spend a third of his life in mental institutions and hospitals dealing with the after effects. He underwent electroshock treatment at Creedmore Sanitarium to remedy the headaches and mental breakdowns he suffered from, and he was known even to musicians who admired him as erratic.
Charlie Parker said he wouldn’t work with Powell because the pianist was “even crazier than me.” Parker was, as a result of his fondness for marijuana and heroin, a booking agent’s nightmare, so his comment is no faint praise from a master of the missed date and late arrival.
Like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Bud was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid. In 1951 he had been in the hospital for eighteen months but was released to record a trio date for Alfred Lion. Lion recounts that Powell disappeared at the beginning of the session–an act that would irritate even the most forgiving producer, with dollars budgeted for studio time burning away. Powell rushed back in two hours later, having worked out a song titled, aptly enough, “Un Poco Loco.” A session of factory-like productivity followed as he laid down three trio and two solo titles in rapid succession.
Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in 1964
Powell was seven years younger than Monk but he was the first to become successful with a style that swept out the left-hand striding of the swing era in favor of “comping,” clusters of chords around which extended melodies by the right hand were twined, like flowers around a bass trellis. Monk would catch up with and surpass the younger man in the late 50’s, at which point he was recognized as the revolutionary and Powell became the ancien regime. Powell moved to Paris where an interview with a French journalist in a tuberculosis hospital revealed him to be a sharp but crotchety bopper at the age of forty. “I told you Al Haig,” Powell snaps when the writer forgetfully asks him a second time which contemporary pianists he admires.
By that point in his life Powell’s mind was so far gone that he couldn’t learn new material and so he was limited to sessions of standards such as those heard on Dexter Gordon’s “Our Man in Paris,” on which he subbed for Kenny Drew.
Bud returned to New York in 1964 and disappeared after playing in a few concerts. He died in obscurity two years later.
In addition to his high-speed recorded improvisations, however, he left behind a legacy of compositions that continue to challenge jazz musicians to this day. I came to Bud’s music through Clifford Brown’s Parisian Thoroughfare, an onomatopoeic rendition of a street scene of his adopted French hometown. I’m generally cool to program music–attempts to recreate scenes from life in tones–but this is an exception. From the opening bars that conjure up the peculiar sounds (to American ears) of European auto horns, the tune is as light as French pastry, as free and airy as a skirt blown by the wind down Les Rue des Martyrs.
He was a mess of contradictions; the son of a Presbyterian minister, he was a heroin addict most of his life, so strung out at one point that given his choice of prostitutes in an Asian whorehouse, he chose the cleaning woman whose arms, he said, “looked like the Penn Central switchyards” because he knew she could score him some smack.
A lifelong contrarian, he had the chance to avoid military service but didn’t; he’d always admired the armed forces and what he called their “Terry and the Pirates” (an old comic strip) regalia.
A black man who suffered all the disabilities that come from membership in that race in America, he refused to use it as a crutch and dismissed soul/funk keyboardists as easy-listening shuck-and-jiving. He had higher standards, those being set by jazz piano colossi Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, both of whom praised his playing.
At the same time, he experimented (to his early fans’ dismay) with new sounds, spending too much time doodling around on an electric piano during the period of his career that produced his least satisfying work.
His name was Hampton Hawes, one of the great jazz pianists of the twentieth century and surely the only one ever to receive a presidential pardon.
Hawes was born in Los Angeles on November 13, 1928 and died on this date in 1977. He played with notables such as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray on Central Avenue on his way up in the 1940s. He became enamored of bebop when it was still something of a cult and, like many who imitated Charlie Parker, the Dionysiac figure at its head, adopted the madness of Bird’s heroin habit. Most copycats of the bop lifestyle produced nothing of lasting value, however.
He took at least part of that lesson to heart. Parker was a mad genius, but while madness may be a necessary condition of creativity, it is not a sufficient one. Hawes was largely self-taught, but like Bird he was a demon for practice; he had perhaps learned his lesson growing up when his father forbade him to play the blues on the family piano, locking the keyboard when he left the house. Hampton discovered where the key was and began to skip church, come home and whale away at his music. The experience must have inculcated in him the sense that practice time was precious.
He was ecumenical in his musical tastes, staying in touch with the blues but nonetheless attracted to lush movie themes and romantic chestnuts such as “Stella by Starlight” that he viewed not as outmoded fashions but as garments he could make anew.
Convicted on a heroin charge, he was given the opportunity to inform on others for favorable treatment; he declined, even though he barely knew some of the other people involved, they being nothing more than dealers, not friends. For his honor-among-thieves impulse, he was given a ten-year sentence, twice what he would have otherwise received. He made some great music in jail, but after seeing President Kennedy on television, he decided to seek a pardon. A president who thought of himself as a swinger (although not the musical kind), Kennedy incredibly responded and pardoned Hawes on the “fourteenth day of August in the year of our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty-Three,” in the biblical tones in which such things are written.
Hawes’ memoir, “Raise Up off Me” (with novelist Don Asher) is a great read, but his music is even better.
Tadley Ewing Peake “Tadd” Dameron once described himself as “the most misplaced musician in the business,” and one needn’t call the missing persons bureau of the jazz precincts to determine that he may have been right.
An unabashed romantic in a guild that, like the butcher’s union, isn’t supposed to sample the marbled inventory that it handles on the job, Dameron tried to marry the sentimental products of Tin Pan Alley with the hard-edged experiments of be-bop. He synthesized the two schools under the higher principle of beauty. “There’s enough ugliness in the world,” he told Metronome magazine in 1947. “I’m interested in beauty.”
Dameron was a passable pianist, but he found his calling first as an arranger, then as a composer who crafted not just melodies and chords but fully-instrumented charts for Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Orchestra, then Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. If your only exposure to big band jazz has been to the white “sweet” orchestras that took the music of black arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson and cooled it down and straightened it out, check out Lunceford, whose motto (and hit song) was “Rhythm is Our Business.”
You have probably heard Dameron’s music even if you don’t know it; he wrote jazz standards such as “Good Bait,” “Hot House,” “Lady Bird” and “If You Could See Me Now,” a tune inspired by a riff of Gillespie’s that became a hit for Sarah Vaughan.
While Dameron is known for his lush and yet surprising harmonies, he was no mere effete aesthete. He played and arranged for Bull Moose Jackson, the honking R&B tenor, his bop credentials include a nonet with Clifford Brown and he collaborated with John Coltrane on Mating Call in 1958.
Dameron’s principal interpreter was Fats Navarro and while the association produced memorable music, it may also have contributed to his downfall. Navarro was an explosive trumpeter who epitomized the “hard” bop style, but he eventually priced himself out of gigs because he needed to support the heroin habit that contributed to his early death at 26. Dameron became a user of the drug, which has filled the long, lonely and boring stretches between gigs for many jazz musicians, and he eventually ended up going to jail for it in 1959.
When he was released Dameron was still highly-regarded, and he wrote for Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson and Benny Goodman, among others, but he would die of cancer within four years at the age of 48.
Much of Dameron’s music is still in print, including his complete Blue Note sessions, and there have been both tribute bands (Dameronia) and recordings of his music by all-star groups (Continuum, “Mad About Tadd”). The quality that will keep his music alive, however, is something that is often overlooked these days by artists who think their first priority should be to shock, offend or irritate: “It has to swing, sure,” Tadd told jazz critic Ira Gitler, “but it has to be beautiful.”
In America by constitution there are no titles of nobility, although the House of Jazz has its counts (Bill Basie) and dukes (Edward Kennedy Ellington). What, then, is a guy supposed to do who is deserving but without honor in the country that gave birth to jazz–a not uncommon phenomenon in a world where the music seems exotic from far away, but a product of disreputable people and neighborhoods when close at hand?
Sir Roland Hanna
Well, there is knighthood, which in England is an honor without honor, so to speak, handed out like candy at Christmas to over-the-hill rockers. In Liberia, apparently, they hold the title of “Sir” in higher esteem, where it is reserved for truly accomplished musicians such as Roland Hanna.
Hanna came from Detroit and followed in the footsteps of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, to name two other keyboard greats from the Motor City. He could swing in a variety of styles and on his first album, Sir Elf, pulled off admirable homages to Art Tatum and Errol Garner. His versatility was perhaps held against him, the way piano lounge patrons find it easy to ignore a player whose sounds are as familiar to them as their favorite cocktails. Nothing to listen to here–I’ll have another Scotch.
He played with Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus at the beginning of his career, but thereafter did most of his work in trios that he led, although he was long associated with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He was also in demand as an accompanist, performing sympathetically behind Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughn, among others.
Lots of players suffer from lapses in taste over the course of long careers, usually the result of a bad case of commercialism brought on by a need to pay the rent, but Hanna continually raised the bar, as Jimmy Heath put it. He composed over 400 works, including a jazz ballet for orchestra and strings, trios for cello, flute and French horn, and a symphonic composition–“Oasis”–that he performed as guest soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra near the end of his life, returning home after a career that included performances around the world, particularly Europe and Japan.
Hanna, who died in 2002, would have been 88 today. He was knighted in 1970 by President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia for humanitarian services, which you can avail yourself of to this day on his recordings. A good place to start, in my opinion, is his solo treatments of Duke Ellington compositions. Chasing the Duke is a competitive sport–players ranging from Earl Hines to Thelonious Monk have tried and succeeded in producing interpretations of Ellington in their own styles–and Hanna’s is up there with the best of them.