It’s unrealistic, but I thought that Hank Jones would be around forever: so I was unreasonably shocked to hear of his death at age 91. The obituaries speak of the musicians he played with so gloriously — from brothers Elvin and Thad to Charlie Rouse and Joe Lovano . . . to Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Joe Wilder, and Ruby Braff. He had fine taste: the “New York Rhythm Section” that flourished in the Fifties included Hank, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, and Osie Johnson.
Modestly, he didn’t want the spotlight for himself (although he recorded prolifically as a leader for forty years and more); nor did he say that his sound on the piano, his touch, was exceptional. But anyone hearing even four bars of his playing could identify Hank — he had a singular way of hitting notes on the piano, of phrasing a line of notes, of voicing a chord . . . so that it could be no one else. I don’t know enough about piano technique to say whether it was a matter of touch, of pedaling — but he could make the simplest (even the most cliched) phrase sound pearly. Next to him, many other pianists (with monumental reputations) sound over-elaborate or uncouth. (The player closest to Hank in this was Ellis Larkins.) Hank’s phrases seem to float above the piano, transcending the mechanics of hands pressing down wood, the wood hitting strings, and so on. And he had a particularly steady rhythmic sense: his beat was also unmistakable, apparently decorous. But the elegant surface veneer of his playing, its sheen and gloss, could not mask his swinging force beneath. Like Bobby Hackett, he was never loud. He didn’t have to be.
And he’s gone. But we had sixty-five years to hear him: what a generous life!
“The Official Hank Jones Website” can be found here: http://www.officialhankjones.com/. It’s rather outdated, but it will do to remind us of the glorious playing of Hank Jones.