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May 22, 2010

'Nope, got to practice' — 91-year-old jazz piano legend Hank Jones

Jones died last Sunday at 91.

His landlord and flatmate Manny Ramirez told the New York Times, "I'd say, ‘Come on, Hank, watch some sports with me,'" he recalled. "But he’d say, 'Nope, got to practice.' He was still a perfectionist at age 91 — 2 or 3 in the morning, it didn’t matter. I wondered, 'When does he sleep?'"

Above, Jones plays "Willow Weep for Me" at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1994.

Here's the Times' May 18, 2010 story about this great master and his singular devotion to his craft.

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A Jazzman's Final Refuge

Hank Jones, the legendary jazz pianist, led an oddly bifurcated existence toward the end of his 91 years on earth.

He stayed active till the very end, collecting a Grammy last year and touring the world. But when he wasn’t on the road, he lived in near isolation in a 12-by-12-foot room at 108th Street and Broadway, ordering in three meals a day from the diner downstairs and practicing incessantly on an electric keyboard plugged into headphones.

“He was worried he would bother the neighbors,” said Mr. Jones’s roommate and landlord, Manny Ramirez. “The neighbors would ask, ‘Why don’t we hear Hank anymore?’ I said, ‘He locks himself in his room all the time.’”

On Sunday, Mr. Jones died at a hospice in the Bronx, only a few weeks after returning from Japan.

On Monday night, Mr. Ramirez entered Mr. Jones’s room to begin cleaning it out.

Mr. Jones had left it locked and deadbolted. Mr. Ramirez, 66, took a hammer and large chisel, bashed a hole in the door, stuck his hand through and opened it.

He switched on the light and there was the room: suitcases, sheet music and jazz awards cluttered around an unmade bed. On the cluttered night-table was a book of Sherlock Holmes stories.

Scattered about were CDs of Debussy, Ravel and Chopin. In the clothes closets were designer neckties and sharp-looking suits. On one shelf was a supply of light bulbs. On another were a coffee maker and an unopened bottle of fine Champagne. Nearby were three large leather music folders: for piano, bass and drums.

The Yamaha electric piano had a pair of headphones lying on the keyboard and a music exercise book still on the music stand, along with one of Mr. Jones’s compositions.

“He would practice while listening to classical music – classical was his favorite music,” Mr. Ramirez said.

Mr. Ramirez, who would occasionally take Mr. Jones to visit his wife in an assisted-care facility upstate, said that in general, he was unable to pull Mr. Jones out of his reclusion.

“I’d say, ‘Come on, Hank, watch some sports with me,’” he recalled. “But he’d say, ‘Nope, got to practice.’ He was still a perfectionist at age 91 — 2 or 3 in the morning, it didn’t matter. I wondered, ‘When does he sleep?’”

Lisa Gersten, who lives in the next apartment, walked in. She too knew Mr. Jones. Her three daughters would listen to him play from outside the room. She went and got a photograph of two of her daughters and Mr. Jones posing with his Grammy award.

“He kept it in a box like a pair of shoes,” said Ms. Gersten.

“It’s been a real New York experience, living next to him,” she added. “You never know who your neighbors are in this city.” After Mr. Jones agreed to jam with one of her musician friends, she wrote a note to him and taped it to his door.

On Monday night the note remained there. It read simply: “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.”

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Here's the paper's May 17, 2010 obituary.

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Hank Jones, Versatile Jazz Pianist, Is Dead at 91

Hank Jones, whose self-effacing nature belied his stature as one of the most respected jazz pianists of the postwar era, died on Sunday in the Bronx. He was 91.

His death, at Calvary Hospital Hospice, was announced by his longtime manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc. Mr. Jones lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and also had a home in Hartwick, N.Y.

Mr. Jones spent much of his career in the background. For three and a half decades he was primarily a sideman, most notably with Ella Fitzgerald; for much of that time he also worked as a studio musician on radio and television.

His fellow musicians admired his imagination, his versatility and his distinctive style, which blended the urbanity and rhythmic drive of the Harlem stride pianists, the dexterity of Art Tatum and the harmonic daring of bebop. (The pianist, composer and conductor André Previn once called Mr. Jones his favorite pianist, “regardless of idiom.”)

But unlike his younger brothers Thad, who played trumpet with Count Basie and was later a co-leader of a celebrated big band, and Elvin, an influential drummer who formed a successful combo after six years with John Coltrane's innovative quartet, Hank Jones seemed content for many years to keep a low profile.

That started changing around the time he turned 60. Riding a wave of renewed interest in jazz piano that also transformed his close friend and occasional duet partner Tommy Flanagan from a perpetual sideman to a popular nightclub headliner, Mr. Jones began working and recording regularly under his own name.

Reviewing a nightclub appearance in 1989, Peter Watrous of The New York Times praised Mr. Jones as “an extraordinary musician” whose playing “resonates with jazz history” and who “embodies the idea of grace under pressure, where assurance and relaxation mask nearly impossible improvisations.”

Mr. Jones further enhanced his reputation 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.

Henry W. Jones Jr. was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on July 31, 1918. One of 10 children, he grew up in Pontiac, Mich., near Detroit, where he started studying piano at an early age and first performed professionally at 13. He began playing jazz even though his father, a Baptist deacon, disapproved.

Mr. Jones worked with regional bands, mostly in Michigan and Ohio, 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.

He was soon 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. He abandoned the freelance life in late 1947 to become Ella Fitzgerald’s accompanist and held that job until 1953, occasionally taking time out to record with Charlie Parker and others.

He kept busy after leaving Fitzgerald. Among other activities, he began an association with Benny Goodman that would last into the 1970s, and he was a member of the last group Goodman’s swing-era rival Artie Shaw led before retiring in 1954. But financial security beckoned, and in 1959 he became a staff musician at CBS. He also participated in a celebrated moment in presidential history when he accompanied Marilyn Monroe as she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, who was about to turn 45, during a Democratic Party fund-raiser at Madison Square Garden in May 1962.

Mr. Jones remained intermittently involved in jazz during his long tenure at CBS, which ended when the network disbanded its music department in the mid-’70s. He was 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 as a leader. More often, however, 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,” Mr. Jones 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.”

Once free of his CBS obligations, Mr. Jones began quietly making a place for himself in the jazz limelight. He teamed with the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams, alumni of the Miles Davis Quintet, to form the Great Jazz Trio in 1976. (The uncharacteristically immodest name of the group, which changed bassists and drummers frequently over the years, was not Mr. Jones’s idea.)

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

By the 1980s, Mr. Jones’s late-blooming career as a band leader was in full swing. While he had always recorded prolifically — by one estimate he can be heard on more than a thousand albums — for the first time he concentrated on recording under his own name, which he continued to do well into the 21st century.

He is survived by his wife, Theodosia.

Mr. 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. And he continued working almost to the end. Laurel Gross, a close friend, said he had toured Japan in February and had plans for a European tour this spring until doctors advised against it.

Reaching for superlatives, critics often wrote that Mr. Jones had an exceptional touch. He himself was not so sure.

“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.” Mr. Jones was 78 years old at the time.

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Below, Ben Ratliff's 2005 account of spending time listening to CDs with Jones.

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History, Heard From the Inside

For Hank Jones, the last 60 years of jazz is not best explained by records. The entire period seems to be retained in his own head: a labor history of all the jam-session, studio, one-night and concert-hall gigs he has played since moving to New York in 1944.

Mr. Jones, a pianist, has been one of the hardest and most consistent workers in the history of jazz. As a result, his focused, organized, subtle touch - one device is to turn up the energy of his improvising while still playing softly - shows up everywhere in the music.

It begins with a Hot Lips Page session in 1944 and works through Charlie Parker and Billy Eckstine and Artie Shaw and Ella Fitzgerald. The trail dims a bit in the 1960's - he was working as a staff musician at CBS from 1955 to 1972 - but resumes in the mid-1970's, with a serious renewal of his trio playing.

Mr. Jones's long list of accomplishments ends, for now, with Joe Lovano's spectacular new quartet, in which he plays with the bassist George Mraz and the drummer Paul Motian, and with a new trio album, "For My Father," under his own name. Mr. Jones has become natural-sounding, as if hitting the highest level of small-group jazz playing was like riding a bicycle. He has the sound of wisdom.

Mr. Jones, 87, rarely listens to jazz at his home in Hartwick, N.Y., near Cooperstown, where he lives with his wife, Theodosia. When he isn't working, he prefers to practice, two to four hours a day. This isn't so surprising. What's the point of accepting a mediated version of jazz, when you can trace its family tree through your own life and work? (If you had been around Nat King Cole as a fellow musician, as Mr. Jones was, and heard him play at his best in jam sessions, most Nat King Cole records might sound to you like contrivances.) Anyway, Mr. Jones likes to keep his focus on what is to be done tomorrow.

Gracious in all he does, Mr. Jones still posed a slight challenge to the project I have undertaken recently: asking great musicians to select recordings of other people's music, then sit down and listen with me, explaining what they hear in the music and how the music works. He simply would not choose.

"I'm really not much of a listener," he said in a preliminary phone conversation. We finally isolated a few areas of interest to him, including solo style, small-group arrangement, unaccompanied piano and pianists backing up singers.

He had one other desire: "I'd like to choose something by Count Basie," he said. "Because everything he did was so unpretentious."

We met at his Midtown hotel room one evening, during one of his recent visits to Manhattan. His day's work was done, but he greeted me in a coat and tie. Mr. Jones spoke rapidly, with a melodious roll in his voice; when closing in on an opinion, his eyes widened and flashed. Records may not mean much to him per se, but when zeroing in on individual performances, he was an astute, original thinker.

Tatum as a Model

When Mr. Jones was a young musician working in Detroit during the late 1930's and early 1940's, Art Tatum was important to him, along with Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller and Earl Hines. But Tatum is the one he still talks about as a paradigm.

He first heard Tatum in the late 1930's, at his family home in Pontiac, Mich., on a radio broadcast from Detroit. (Mr. Jones is the last surviving of 10 siblings, who included two other superior musicians: the drummer Elvin Jones and the trumpeter Thad Jones.)

He was convinced then that the Tatum broadcast was actually two pianists with the gimmick of sounding like a single, invincible one. Later, after moving east, he finally saw Tatum in Buffalo, where Mr. Jones's band was working at the Anchor Bar, and Tatum was at McVan's, across town. Mr. Jones watched Tatum each night after work. "Funny thing is, he was playing on a piano which wasn't a grand, it was a spinet," Mr. Jones said. "But he made it sound like a Steinway D."

He never wanted to copy Tatum, though. "I never attained that level," he said. "But I don't want to play exactly like Tatum. I'd like to adapt some of his technical ideas, but as far as imitating him note for note, I don't think that's good for anybody."

I chose a solo performance of "Sweet Lorraine" that Tatum had made at a private party in Los Angeles in 1955. Mr. Jones had heard those recordings, and though he did not anticipate the details, he quickly picked up on them, as if they pricked his memory. Before the first bridge, Mr. Jones started chuckling; in the bridge, Tatum dislodges a titanic, disruptive run, like a little microcomposition in itself, referring to the song's chords along the way. Then, for comic effect, he quotes the melody of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Mr. Jones laughed again.

"One of the most impressive things is, of course, those runs," he said, "which he played at blinding speed with either hand, and he sort of sets up the next chord progression with them. And the run itself is, of course, a chord progression: you can hear the chords in there. A lot of people say, why does he play all those runs? Well, they're an integral part of his style."

So what a lot of people take as exclamation points, or pure ornament, was really functional for Tatum, a means of binding all the action together? "In a sense they're exclamation points," Mr. Jones said. "But without the runs, what he was doing would probably not be as effective. He made a lot of excursions. He'd spot a progression, and on the way there, he takes a little excursion and plays a run to illustrate his point; maybe he's describing something that he saw on the way there and on the way back. His playing is very descriptive, you know."

We listened to it again. During the longest, most percussive run in the performance, Mr. Jones's face lighted up. "You see? He's changing chords with every beat of that run."

Another bridge came along, with another excursion. "Everything he does is a concerto," Mr. Jones said, wonderingly. "He knows exactly what he's doing."

The Road to New York

Who else impressed Mr. Jones when he worked in Detroit? "There wasn't a lot of great music being played," he said. "They had a lot of studio bands, radio bands, and there was one guy, Bill Stegmeyer, who later became one of the writers for 'The Jackie Gleason Show,' an excellent arranger - he was working with one of those bands. He was an excellent teacher, by the way. I studied with him later. Wonderful." (Mr. Jones studied classical piano repertory, especially Chopin, with private teachers well into his 50's.) Mr. Jones left Detroit for Cleveland in 1942, working at the Cedar Gardens nightclub, where there were also dancing girls and a comedian. On Sunday afternoons, he said, a fight routinely broke out in the middle of Cedar Street, near the club's front door. "I think a lot of people came just to see the fight," Mr. Jones noted dryly. "It was very interesting."

Subsequently he took the gig in Buffalo, where he first saw Tatum, and then moved on to New York, where his first job - at the invitation of the saxophonist Lucky Thompson - was in a big band with Hot Lips Page, at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street.

The Basie Touch

We pushed on to Count Basie, another of his models. "The thing about Basie, which to me is very significant, is that the band was the main focus," Mr. Jones recalled with enthusiasm. "He integrated his style into the big band, which was usually a single-finger style - although I heard him play stride piano, by the way, and he was also a great organist. In a big band you play a lot less, because you have to play in the spots, and that has to relate to the whole. I think he used taste in the best possible way, you know. By not overplaying, and yet being effective."

We heard "Time Out," from 1937. Mr. Jones didn't recall the title but recognized the song after a few seconds. Each player in the Basie band contributes an equal share to the total sound, with slangy phrasing and a deep, relaxed groove. It's natural, and beautiful; you can almost hear a breeze rustling through it. Soloing, Basie starts out with his usual edited phrases, then begins a stride passage and grows more voluble. "Oh?" Mr. Jones said at that point, cocking his head and listening hard.

"I heard a certain amount of discipline there," he said, when the song ended. "Duke Ellington had a great band, but he didn't have that kind of discipline, in my estimation. Duke wrote a lot of great music. It's just that when the reed section was playing, you heard a lot of Johnny Hodges, but not a lot of the other horn players."

An Admired Accompanist

Starting in 1947, Mr. Jones played with Ella Fitzgerald in Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. (While many of his colleagues drank or gambled, Mr. Jones recalled, he read novels and practiced the piano.) During this period he developed an admiration for Jimmy Jones - no relation - who became Sarah Vaughan's regular accompanist in the 1950's. (Mr. Jones didn't work much with Vaughan: only two concerts and a record date.)

He wanted to hear something by that pair, and I chose Vaughan's "Embraceable You," from 1954. It has a fairly sleepy tempo - not necessarily the sort of performance where an accompanist shows what he's made of - but is certainly among the best-known pieces by Vaughan with Jones.

He listened as Jones played chords softly, on every beat, under Vaughan. "Jimmy's accompaniment on this particular tune isn't typical of what he could do," he quickly decided. "This is fairly subdued; he's providing a harmonic background, not interfering with her. But I've heard him play accompaniment that, to me, sounded as if he were thinking along the lines of Ravel."

He elaborated a little. "Here he's using what I think of as a continuous style. He's not playing just on fills. He's using a melodic foundation behind her, which is continuous, almost like a countermelody." Suddenly Jones picked out five treble-clef notes, a short, original fill, just before Vaughan sang the line "come to Mama, do."

"Now, I think Sarah liked those kind of fills," Mr. Jones said. "Single-line fills. In my estimation, if you do that, you run the risk of interfering with the singer's train of thought. But I think Sarah liked the pianist to lead the train of thought and for her to follow. Ella's preference was for block-chord fills, to make her feel comfortable - never leading, always playing in response to her."

Recalling Bird

Mr. Jones's next request was Charlie Parker, who fitted into the same category as Tatum - a virtuosic soloist - but whose music also qualifies as great small-band music. (Mr. Jones recorded with Bird in the early 1950's.)

I chose "Ah-Leu-Cha," which Mr. Jones said he didn't recognize, from a 1948 recording. "Perfect control," Mr. Jones muttered during Bird's first solo, with its clean, strong sound even through double-time runs. "He always had that beautiful tone. And he never played extended solos, maybe two choruses, but that would be all you wanted to hear."

The song banged shut, and Mr. Jones laughed again. "Bird would play a 32-bar song, and then he'd play a blues, but he always had that same kind of tone," he said. "That's what makes him distinctive. I think his tone is equally distinctive as his style. They go together. Without the tone, the style wouldn't be as impressive."

What did Parker want from a pianist in his groups? "He required a pianist to follow the chord changes correctly, and not to overplay but just play in spots," Mr. Jones said. "Bud Powell did that; Al Haig did it. Anyway, if you didn't listen for a while, you wouldn't know what he was doing. You had to listen to find out what direction he was going in, and you played the fills accordingly.

"Working with Charlie was quite an experience. You always heard something that made you think, and think in the idiom that he was playing in. He'd pull you along with him; you couldn't just play your own way. He'd get you used to the idea of getting outside of yourself, because that's what you have to do."

Racing Against Time

Mr. Jones is one of the few great musicians left from the early bebop era who can comment on what the greatest players were actually thinking about the new music.

"At that time," he recalled, "a lot of musicians put that style down. They didn't like it. You'd think that musicians would be the first ones to pick up on it, but a lot of them didn't - 'What are these guys doing?' I didn't think that at all. My ears were wide open, my brain was receptive. I thought it was a change for the better, harmonically and melodically. It was a very difficult style to learn to play, and it still is. I don't consider myself a master of the style. I consider myself a student of it."

When a jazz musician reaches his 60's, the race against time begins. In his mid-80's, Mr. Jones is still racing. "I know I can do better than I'm doing now," he commented, casually, toward the end of our talk.

You really mean that?

"Oh, yeah. There's another level that's reachable. I think it's just a question of time, perhaps, or dedication. I know it's there."

Do you know what it sounds like?

"What you do is imagine what it should sound like," he explained. "Once, I was working on 52nd Street with the Coleman Hawkins group." (Mr. Jones reckoned this was around 1954.) "In the group was Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Curly Russell was the bass player. I was living up on 101st and Madison, and I used to go to work every night on the bus. On this particular night I was a little bit late.

"When I walked in and started playing, I played something, I played things that I had not played before. It may have been caused by stress; I don't know what caused it. But I was on a different level at that time. That may sound a little screwball, but that's what happened. You can think thoughts you haven't thought previously.

"I think people like Charlie Parker could do it consciously." He laughed. "I've got to do it subconsciously."

May 22, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

How safe is your password?

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[via Robin Richards and Information is Beautiful]

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Goth Princess iPad Decal

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$20.


[via LikeCool]

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Dumpster Pool Party in Brooklyn

Last summer David Belt installed do-it-yourself swimming pools made from Dumpsters in a semi-secret location in Brooklyn.

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Crayola Twistables — Technology Gone Wild?

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Instead of peeling back the paper to expose more crayon, you twist the plastic.

$3.99.

[via Walking Paper]

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Cardboard Typewriter — by Chris Gilmour

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Cardboard and glue, life size, made in 2002.

The British sculptor, who lives in Udine, Italy, started out using cardboard for prototypes but soon became enamored of its qualities as a sculptural medium.

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Dead Tired Sleep Mask


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$10.

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Meow Floral Lace-Up

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[via For Me, For You and verseau vintage]

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