Milton John Hinton (1910-2000).
“The Judge.” Universally beloved. Here, with Herb Ellis, guitar; Larry Novak, piano; Butch Miles, drums:
I have The Judge in my mind as a sweetly heroic presence because he is on so many of the recordings that have shaped my consciousness. I also have two photographic portraits of him (which he autographed for me in 1981) in my apartment, next to the door. When I come in or go out, he is there to welcome me home or to wish me safe passage on the day’s journey.
He’s also powerfully in my thoughts because I went to the house in which he and Mona Hinton lived for decades — 173-05 113rd Avenue, Jamaica, New York — last Saturday (June 13) for an estate sale. More about that later.
First, a reminiscence of Milt from a friend, Stu Zimny, whom I’ve known since high school, 1969. We were comrades in eccentricity, united in our shared secret love of Milt, of Jo Jones, of Ed Beach, S.J. Perelman — playing records at each others’ houses, going to concerts and clubs. Swing spies. Jazz acolytes.
It was in the late-70’s sometime when I first met Milt Hinton.
It was a strange time in the music’s history. Although rock music had firmly enveloped the attention of most of my generation, my own musical trajectory was towards the the jazz of the 1930’s. I had heard the incandescence of Louis Armstrong and his many disciples and was converted quickly. There was a power to this music unique in my experience. It is more common now in the internet age but we, myself and the author of this sacred blog in particular, formed a distinct minority, a sort of rear-guard action devoted to preserving this music. Yet at that time there were still significant numbers of players of that “swing generation” alive and at least semi-active and one could see them play intermittently in certain mostly short-lived clubs in Manhattan and the occasional concert. Although the general sentiment was that we had arrived a few decades too late.
I had heard that Milt was teaching a jazz seminar at Hunter College, I had taken up study of the double-bass shortly before, had lucked upon and acquired an excellent “axe,” and Milt was a legendary figure to bassists in particular.
In a fortuitous stroke of luck I encountered Milt on the subway on the ride to Hunter. (Milt was a frequent rider of the NYC subway system since he did not drive a car. The story goes that he had been driving a vehicle in Chicago decades before, as a gofer of some sort for the Al Capone organization, and a bad accident occurred which had traumatized him for life against driving a motorized vehicle.) I drove him to a fair number of gigs during the next few years for the mere opportunity to hang out and absorb what I might. Capone’s loss was my gain.
On the “A” train I gathered up my courage and struck up a conversation with him, the ultimate outcome of which was that if I wanted some tutoring I could drop by his home in Queens. He did not need to make the offer twice. Especially since his attendance at Hunter was spotty due to his being on the road quite a bit.
Milt never really offered me “lessons” as such. Although he did hand me a manuscript of scale patterns and suggested I work on them “for the next thirty years” and gave me a whole lot of physical advice about dealing with the bass. I would bring him bass music, usually some classical etude or duet, and we would play through it together. He was always up for the challenge. The mere fact that he would be willing to play with me and treat me like a colleague was a huge confidence boost.
Of course it was not only me who benefited from his largesse. Many bassists (and other instrumentalists) would drop by, most often just to hang out with an elder, “The Dean of Jazz Bassists.” Milt and Mona were extremely gracious and generous in opening their home to musicians. And feeding us, and making us feel like family, and part of a lineage that required support and protection.
Throughout the next decade or so I would drop by, often in a vain attempt to help him organize the pile of the concert tapes and recordings collecting in his basement.
In 1989 I departed the east for directions west. When I came back for visits if Milt was in town he was always open for a rendezvous “between sets.”
I recall seeing him at the 1995 Monterey Jazz Festival and in San Diego at some sort of convocation. On the latter occasion, with minimal rehearsal, he was offered some pretty complex charts and played through them with ease. This was not an old guy resting on past accomplishments, he was fully alive to the music, to all music.
Sometimes players like Clark Terry and Major Holley would drop by. The basement couch was famous for having been used for sleep by Ben Webster during a period when he lived with the Hintons or at least paid an extended visit: I never knew which. Sometimes it is better not to ask too many questions.
The last time I saw Milt was around 1997 after I had returned east and lived in the Boston area. By that time he had stopped playing for physical reasons. I heard of his passing via an NPR broadcast in 2000 at age 90.
Milt has been a major influence in my life, musically and moreover in modeling what it means to be an elder and the tribal obligation and joy of passing on knowledge and skills and musical tradition.
He was cross-cultural in the warmest and most charming and sincere ways; he insisted on wearing a yarmulka when attending the Jewish wedding of a mutual friend of ours.
Despite the hardships he had experienced growing up in the south, the depredations of growing up as a Black person in that era, he never harbored personal resentment about any of it that I could tell towards any individual. He had an immense sense of dignity and a conscious sense of his own worth and that of his colleagues as men and artists; race was a secondary consideration. He would say that “music has no color”. This was also what motivated his legendary photographic documentation. History was important, preserving it is important, this music is important. And if one was sincere in wanting to learn, he was available.
I am a better person for having known Milt Hinton, tribal chief, The Judge!
We cannot live through the dead, but we can invite them to live through us.
I love him always and forever.
It would be an impudence to follow that with my own tales of Milt.
I will say only that the phrase I’ve taken as my title was spoken by Ruby Braff from the stage of The New School in New York City, at a “Jazz Ramble” concert produced by Hank O’Neal on April 8, 1973 — featuring Ruby, Sam Margolis, Benny Aronov, and Milt. Ruby spoke the truth. Thanks to Tom Hustad, whose BORN TO PLAY — the Ruby Braff discography — for helping me be exact in my recollection.
Fast forward to June 13, 2015.
I had been seriously ambivalent about going to this estate sale. As I told more than one friend, I didn’t know whether I would be frozen at the door, or, once in, would burst into tears. Happily, neither took place. My spiritual guide and comic comrade on line (as opposed to “online”) was Scott Robinson, and we made the time spent waiting in the sun telling tales of Milt. (Later, I met Phil Stern, and we, too, talked of music, joy, and sorrow, of empires rising and falling.)
Here, thanks to Phil, is the promotional video created by the company running the sale:
By the time I was able to enter the house, sometime around 10:00, I discerned that much of the more glossy contents had already been sold. (I would have bought a chair covered in plastic from this shrine without thinking twice.) And I sensed that the house had — apparently — been unoccupied since Mona’s death in 2008. It was not quiet indoors: people shouted and argued. I was in the land of secular commerce rather than dear worship. I do not know how many people going in knew who Milt was; before and after my time indoors, I explained what I could of his majesty to a number of people outside who simply had seen ESTATE SALE and stopped by.
I have a limited tolerance for loud voices in small spaces, so I did not look through the hundreds of records in the basement (in cardboard boxes on and in front of the couch on which Ben Webster had slept). But I bought about ten of Milt’s lps — going back to the early Fifties, mostly records I’d not heard or heard of on which he played. His collection — even when I got there — was broad, with children’s records and comedy as well. And he collected his friends’ records also.
Sitting by themselves on top of a pile of books — two 78s. One, a 1932 Brunswick, Connee Boswell performing HUMMIN’ TO MYSELF and THE NIGHT WHEN LOVE WAS BORN — which touched me and made me think of Milt as a young man rapt in the beauty of Connee’s voice and her wonderful accompaniment of the time (Berigan, the Dorsey Brothers, Dick McDonough, Artie Bernstein, Venuti, Stan King).
The other deserves its own picture. It has been well-played, but that is a triumph rather than a criticism.
Although Milt and Billie Holiday were not regularly recording together, their history on record is a long one — 1936 to 1959 — and I am sure he was proud of the music they made together. I imagine Milt in 1939 bringing home this new release, which he would have been thrilled to possess and hear — perhaps showing his name on the label to his new bride. (Incidentally, the Brunswick people invented a new guitarist — Dave Barber — instead of properly identifying Milt’s dear comrade in the Cab Calloway band, Danny Barker. The other side, WHAT SHALL I SAY? has the same error.)
Such a beloved artifact made all the clangor of commerce worthwhile, although I still think sadly of the rubble of mugs in the kitchen, the piles of posters, aging books and records. Where did they go? I hope that the rarer items had already gone to a place where they would be treasured.
Stu learned lessons about playing the bass from Milt that he couldn’t have learned any other way, and I celebrate his experience. But I think we both learned much — even though we might not have understood it at the time — from these men who were, without proclaiming it, great spiritual parents. We learn from the open-hearted behavior of the greatest teachers.
They treated us with gentleness and respect, an amused kindness, saying by their openness that we were welcome in their world. No one ever said, “Kid, I’m busy now. Go away.”
Our real parents might have taken our devotion for granted, or been very busy trying to make us become what they thought we should be, but many of these Elders were happy to know we existed — without trying to get us to buy anything from them. They accepted our love, and I feel they welcomed it and returned it. In their music and their behavior, they taught by example: the value of beauty, of simplicity; how to say in a few notes something that would take the hearer years to fully grasp. How to make our actions mean something.
We were able to see and hear and speak with the noblest artists on the planet, and it is an honor to celebrate one of them, The Judge, whose quiet modest majesty will never fade.
May your happiness increase!