Tag Archives: Denisa Hanna

UNCLE JAKE IS WITH US: “JAKE HANNA: THE RHYTHM AND WIT OF A SWINGING JAZZ DRUMMER,” by MARIA S. JUDGE

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.

Here’s one place to buy the book — JAKE — and you might also visit Maria’s Jake Hanna blog here.

May your happiness increase.

JAKE HANNA (1931-2010)

We lost someone truly remarkable: the Boston-born drummer and raconteur Jake Hanna, who died on February 12, 2010. 

When you saw — at a jazz party or on a new recording — that the band was going to include Jake, you could sit back and prepare to enjoy yourself.  He lifted every ensemble with his floating beat — reminiscent of Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Sidney Catlett, and Gus Johnson.  His tempo never shifted, and he knew how to support a band (whether at a whisper or a roar) and a soloist.  Like the drummers he revered, he varied his sound and shaded it — although he wasn’t afraid to stay where he was if it was working (some musicians irritably keep changing their approach every four bars).  Jake was a master of the hi-hat, the Chinese cymbal, the snare drum, the wire brushes.  And he delighted in playing for the band in the best Basie-inspired way.  “If you’re not swinging from the beginning, what the hell are you up there for?” he told me.

I only met Jake a few times, but I came away feeling as if I’d encountered someone larger-than-life.  His enthusiasm for the things he loved — whether it was Jo Jones’s playing or a sought-after tube of King of Shaves (a compact replacement for aerosol shaving cream cans) came through loud and clear.  His joy in being alive was powerful and infectious.  And he was also a hilarious, indefatigable storyteller.  If you got him started by mentioning a musician’s name, you could prepare to be laughing for an hour, as one anecdote chased another.  (I hope someone got some of these stories — printable and otherwise — down on tape or video.)  I remember his witty generosity when I interviewed him over the telephone for his memories of recording with Ruby Braff for the Arbors sessions issued as WATCH WHAT HAPPENS, and his pleasure in the music of Jimmy Rowles and Dave McKenna, which he and his wife listened to as their “dinner music.”     

Here he is with Howard Alden, George VanEps, and David Stone, performing A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP:

And two performances from the 1995 Bern Jazz Festival featuring a truly extraordinary version of Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern’s Summit Reunion, with a rhythm section of Johnny Varro, Marty Grosz, Milt Hinton, and Jake:

Here’s YELLOW DOG BLUES, a masterpiece of sustained, building intensity:

And HINDUSTAN, where Jake and Milt trade phrases before the closing ensemble:

You can see why musicians of all ages and styles loved him and loved to play alongside him.  His playing made sense, whether he was shouldering the whole Woody Herman band or backing Rosemary Clooney in a tender ballad. 

Our condolences to his very charming wife, Denisa, and Jake’s family.