The Last of the Jones Legacy
The world lost one of most kind and humble musicians whose contributions to jazz were endless. Henry “Hank” Jones made his transition on May 16th, 2010. He was 91 years old. To really understand the great pianist, you really have to analyze the legacy of his entire family. His two younger brothers Thad, a trumpeter and band arranger, and Elvin, noted drummer and band leader; left a major imprint on the legacy of jazz music. The Jones’ each brought a level class, intensity to the music, as well as innovation that was unparalleled in the world of jazz music.
Hank was born on July 31st, 1918 in Vicksburg, Mississippi and grew up one of seven children. Jones’s father, a lumber inspector, moved the family to Pontiac, Michigan. It was there where he and his siblings developed a flare for music and the arts. Hank’s sisters studied the piano and as well as him developing a love for the piano. His influences were the legendary Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and Teddy Wilson. He began playing the piano at age 10 and was playing professionally by age 13. While playing in his home state, Hank met saxophonist Lucky Thompson who invited him to come to New York to play and work with Hot Lips Page. It was while in New York, he had to master the Be-Bop style that was so popular during time. He would practice the piano hours on end and continue this work ethic until his death.
During the mid-1940’s until the early 1950’s Jones backed and played with some of the most prolific jazz musicians of the time. Artists like Billy Eckstine, Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald. It was his time with Fitzgerald that jazz impresario Norman Granz formed the legendary Jazz at the Philharmonic traveling jazz shows where he’d tour for many years. JATP’s line-up included Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Oscar Peterson, and others.
Another major milestone in his illustrious career is his stint at the legendary Birdland Jazz Club in New York. Last December, Birdland celebrated it’s 60th Anniversary and Hank was one of the special guests. He played there in 1953 and played dates there up until his death. He was scheduled to play this week with saxophonist Joe Lovano but was taken off the bill a couple of weeks ago to his sudden illness.
Hank was also featured and one of the last surviving musicians in the Art Kane “A Great Day in Harlem” photo shoot from 1958. He was the musician standing on the curb, second person on the left.
For 15 years, Jones would play with the CBS house band and orchestra backing shows like the Jackie Gleason Show and the Ed Sullivan Show. According to an interview with Howard Mandel of Down Beat magazine he lamented about his time there. “Most of the time during those 15 or so years, I wasn’t playing the kind of music I’d prefer to play.” Although he didn’t record on a regular basis like his other contemporaries, he’d fine time to play and record later during the mid 1970’s. Jones enjoyed critical success of his live performances and recordings right up to his death.
In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him as a jazz master and received the lifetime achievement Grammy award.
My fondest memories of Mr. Jones is how classy and elegant he played and how he carried himself. Every time I’d speak to him or see him at an event, he’d always be dressed as if he was walking out of Saks 5th Avenue! He was graceful and natural at the keys. He explained his playing in a 2006 Detroit Free Press interview as “I’m a modern player in the sense that I try to stay abreast of what people would like to hear today.” He adds: “there’s this constant process of editing. You retain the things that are consistent to with your approach to music and you discard those you don’t think are consistent. What resonates with me is harmony. I try to use harmony that seems more innovative, more expressive.”
My last time seeing Hank play was back in March at Birdland where he played a week of sold-out dates for his 91st Birthday Celebration. Many of his closest and dear friends paid their respects to the icon. At the end of the set, the club presented a birthday cake in his honor and he hugged and shook everyones hands as a token of this thanks.
He was always a peaceful man and it reflected in his work as well as his long-lasting friendships. For almost 80 years, Hank has been one of the few musical icons that got their due and proper respect before his death. He would sell-out jazz shows and festivals all over the world and showered fans with God’s unique gift, his piano playing.