Earl Hines is both revered and under-acknowledged, a position many jazz legends find themselves in. He was in the public eye for more than sixty years, playing everywhere. But his energy and abundance have often tended to make him a caricature of himself: late in life, he surrounded himself with functional but less inspiring musicians, and the listener was often treated to spectacles: mountainous versions of BOOGIE WOOGIE ON THE SAINT LOUIS BLUES that seemed to go on forever.
But in his prime — and that lasted, intermittently, throughout his life, he could be mesmerizing. I remember seeing him at a solo concert at The New School in 1972: his pyrotechnics on BWOTSLB made me look at my watch, but his tender, mournful playing and singing of I’M A LITTLE BROWN BIRD LOOKING FOR A BLACKBIRD stays in my mind all these years.
When he was fully realized — often when playing solo — he reminded me of Emerson’s comment that the best journey is a series of zigzag tacks. Stride piano proceeded in straight lines (and that’s no insult); Hines started from apparently simple but highly embellished statements of the melody and grew wilder and wilder, even at slow tempos, seeming like the Japanese brush painter beginning a view of Mount Fuji with only four calligraphic strokes but ending up, three or four minutes later, with an intensely detailed mosaic — the canvas filled to the edges with flourishes and dancing satyrs. Hines didn’t know “restraint”; “ornate” to him was like breathing. In some ways, he resembles the Joyce of Ulysses, who found simple linear narrative constricting and boring, preferring to present a reader (a hearer) with simultaneous conversations going on. You forget that it’s only one piano and one musician, only ten fingers: a full Hines solo defies all logic. “That can’t be one person playing!” the ears insist. But it is. His own Charles Ives, with no orchestra but his own ten fingers.
Here he is, explaining his style to Ralph J. Gleason and the television audience on Gleason’s JAZZ CASUAL, circa 1961:
And the gorgeous and dense GLAD RAG DOLL from 1929 — a wandering universe complete in itself, full of light and shade and surprises:
A year earlier, his ruminations on I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, which takes its beautiful time to get there:
Finally, two little lessons by contemporary jazz masters of the keyboard. First, Chris Dawson’s transcription of Hines’s 1934 ROSETTA solo:
Then Dick Hyman tells us how to become Hines at home. Remember to keep counting!
Thanks to Robert D. Rusch, whose gentle urging made this happen, and of course to Louis Armstrong, whose gentle prodding made Hines leap forward into the power of his own audacities.