18/05/2010

So long, Mr. Jones

(La versión en español de este texto está en Cuadernos de Jazz.)

© Mark Sheldon. Used by permission.

Hank Jones left us last Sunday and it's safe to say that we have lost a piece of living jazz history. Some other musicians were certainly more vital in steering the course – the courses, rather – of this music, but no one has permeated and defined the main stream of what we know as jazz like he has.

Although it's almost impossible to check, Jones may have been the most-recorded pianist of the 20th century (Dick Hyman is a strong contestant to the title.) He waxed his first notes on November 30, 1944, on a rather forgettable blues by Hot Lips Page, where he already got to play a solo piano intro (edited off in some reissues.) Since then, Jones just didn't stop playing and recording. His immaculate tone, his ability to adapt himself to different situations and his reliability turned him into a first-call pianist for any session or situation, like Marilyn Monroe's well-known "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." In the fifties and sixties, Jones worked the studios non-stop, his quality being perfectly described by André Previn (someone who knows music and pianos) who once called Mr. Jones his favorite pianist, “regardless of idiom.”

Jazz is probably the most revealing music regarding the personalities of its players, and what can be read in Hank Jones's interpretations is a modest yet never insecure person. Disciplined, but with few inner tensions. Extremely coherent, and at the same time able to incorporate whatever he found interesting or attractive in others' music. In Jones' case, his inner balance had probably much to do with his solid religious beliefs, which he rarely talked about (he did in a public interview with Gary Giddins.) Although it seems he never delved in any sort of proselytism, he didn't drink or smoke, nor did he use profanity, and he kept a rigurous work discipline (he never stopped practising.)

Such a man could have been a true bore or a martian in the jazz world, but it was never the case with Jones. Either on or off the stage he always had a quick but sincere smile, and a twinkle in his eyes that belied his sense of humour, whimsical if not surreal (in the documentary about Art Kane's "A Great Day in Harlem" picture, when he commented on it all he seemed to be concerned about was his colleagues' waistlines!)

On the occasion of this 90th birthday in 2008 I did a long feature for Cuadernos de Jazz. For it I went through my own interviews as well as magazines and books, and as many recordings as I could get hold of. Thus I discovered there had been an evolution in his playing (the strong echoes of Nat King Cole and early Tristano that can be heard in his 1947 date for Norman Granz would soon disappear), which he himself explained as a process of assimilating and discarding different elements in his music. As for his approach to jazz, Jones gave the utmost importance to self-expression, to sincerity in one's playing, rather than innovation or popular appeal. Listening to his recordings, I got to the conclusion that, perhaps because he was "there for ever", Jones may have been taken for granted: he was so identified with "mainstream" piano, that it's too easy to forget how much he helped to establish that kind of playing, that to a large extent he was the one who did plenty of the synthesis of elements that produced what we now consider a standard way of playing.

I met Jones on July 26, 1996, after a concert at San Sebastián's Town Hall. Two days later he was my first interviewee in English, ever. I was too young, and my grasp of the language and jazz were too poor. I keep the tape, and it's painful listening. Nevertheless, Jones gave me a whole hour at the lobby of Hotel Maria Cristina. We went through the very little I knew about his career. He corrected, very gently, the musicians' names I mispronounced, and made an effort to understand my questions and to answer them. He even thanked my for bringing back memories, like his recordings with Ben Webster, and we said goodbye with a hand shake. As chance would have it, he was back in San Sebastián the following year (in a Milt Jackson All-Star quartet) and we talked again, on the record, a couple of days before a memorable gig he did in an impromptu duo with Nicholas Payton (then 23), as a last-minute sub for fellow pianist Tete Montoliu, who would die shortly thereafter.

I had the intention to talk to him again in the last few years, but it was not to be. Last time I saw him, he played the Barbican as a member of Joe Lovano's quartet, in 2004. Lovano was first on stage, got a big round of applause, but he almost turned on his heels to check what was going on when the audience exploded in the loudest ovation.

Nothing had happened. It was just that one of the greatest jazz pianists ever had stepped on the stage, a giant who, discreetly, as was his wont, has left a void that will be impossible to fill.

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