Maria S. Judge’s book about her Uncle Jake — one of the most swinging musicians ever — JAKE HANNA: THE RHYTHM AND WIT OF A SWINGING JAZZ DRUMMER — is irresistible.
I write this in all objectivity, even though I have a connection to the book. When Maria let people know that she was collecting stories about Jake for this group memoir / portrait, I sent her my recollections of an hour spent with Jake before Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party.
I don’t mean to inflate my own importance by this: I am not sure Jake knew who I was before, during, or after his recital, but he HAD to tell stories as dogs have to bark and cats meow. So I was the delighted recipient of some of his best tales — affectionate, scurrilous, sharp, verifiable. My only regret is that I didn’t have my little digital recorder concealed to get Jake’s delivery — a Boston Irish W.C. Fields with expert comic timing — for posterity. I contributed a paragraph about that encounter, and I read the manuscript before it went to press.
But when a copy came in the mail two days ago I thought, “Oh, I know all this already,” and was ready to put the book on the shelf unread.
But Jake’s powers extend far beyond the grave, and I opened it at random. An hour went by as I stood in the kitchen reading, laughing, feeling honored to have met Jake and heard him play.
The book follows Jake from his family and birth in Dorchester, Massachusetts (1931) to his death in 2010. The family narratives are fascinating, because all of the Hannas seem to have been engagingly larger-than-life and the book begins not with serious historical heaviness but with the genial mood of a Frank Capra film. Here’s Jim McCarthy, a younger friend from the neighborhood:
We lived . . . two blocks away from the Dorchester District Courthouse. . . [which] was surrounded by a granite wall about two feet high that the guys used to sit on. When Jake sat there he’d straddle the wall and hit on it with his drumsticks. My mother and I were walking past the courthouse one day when we saw Jake playing the wall. “Is that all you have to do?” my mother asked him. “Just beat those sticks?” “Hi, Mrs. McCarthy,” Jake said. “Someday they’re going to pay me to beat those sticks.”
There are tales of Jake’s army service, his first meeting with Charlie Parker, “the nicest guy I ever met in my whole life,” working with Jimmy Rushing, Marian McPartland, Maynard Ferguson, and Harry James. Here’s drummer Roy Burns:
When Jake was playing with Harry James, Harry used to go “one, two, one, two, three, four,” with his back to the band, but his shoulders were slower than the tempo. So Jake finally asked him, “Harry, should I take the tempo from your shoulder, from the piano, or just play it at the tempo we usually play it?” Harry said, “Jake, you’re the leader.” Jake said, “Do you really mean that?” Harry said, “Yes.” Jake said, “OK, you’re fired.”
There are many more funny, smart, naughty stories in this book — but it is not all one-liners and smart-alecky. Jake comes across as deeply committed to his craft and to making the band swing from the first beat. And for someone with such a razor-sharp wit, he emerges as generous to younger musicians and his famous colleagues, affectionate and reverential about those people who epitomized the music: Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney. We read of his work with Woody Herman, on television with Merv Griffin, in Russia with Oscar Peterson, Supersax, the long run of jazz albums for the Concord label, a sweet sad encounter with Chet Baker. There are long lovely reminiscences by John Allred and Jim Hall, by Dan Barrett, and Jake’s wife Denisa — plus memorable stories from Scott Hamilton, Hal Smith, Charlie Watts, Rebecca Kilgore, Warren Vache, Jim Denham, and dozens of other musicians and admirers.
Uncle Jake is still with us — not only on the music, but in these pages. “Pay attention!” as he used to say.
May your happiness increase.