Interview: 90-Year-Old Jazz Pianist Hank Jones

Hank Jones appears at Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, from tomorrow November 12 through the 16.

"I have yet to do my best performance."

Interview: 90-Year-Old Jazz Pianist Hank Jones

Hank Jones, backstage at Birdland this summer, by Rob Trucks

On July 31, 2008, NEA Jazzmaster Hank Jones celebrated his 90th birthday. Born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan and now a resident of upstate New York, the pianist and elder brother of renowned trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin, Jones has appeared on something close to 1000 albums. And through those performances and a 17-year stint with the CBS Orchestra, the nonagenarian has played with nearly every iconic figure in jazz: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis.

The week after his birthday the extraordinarily humble Jones, alongside a trio including longtime bassist George Mraz, played two sets a night over a four-night run at New York City's Birdland. We spoke backstage in between sets on the final night of that engagement following a surprise first-set appearance by saxophonist Joe Lovano, and while Stanley Jordan and Chick Corea, jazz legends themselves, waited to pay their respects. --Rob Trucks

Let me start by being the 5,432nd person to wish you a happy 90th birthday.

Why thank you. I appreciate that.

How many 90th birthday celebrations have there been so far?

Actually this is the second one. There was one out in Los Angeles about a week ago. And neither one was right on my birthday because my birthday is the 31st, and the first one took place on the 30th, so my birthday was in between there someplace.

So how does one spend a 90th birthday?

Well, approximately the same day as the day before. Actually, I didn't do anything special. I just tried to get a little sleep, practice a little on the piano, you know. But that's a daily routine.

A couple hours a day is what I read.

Yes. At least. The more the better, if you have the time.

I've read several interviews where you've been asked when you plan to retire, and that seems a bit silly to me if you're physically able to do want you want to do for a living. That's a pretty rare gift.


So if you're really good at the thing you want to do, why would you stop?

Well, if I was very good at it I guess I would feel that way.

Oh, now . . .

Rob, I'm still working at it, you know. I feel, sincerely, like this. I think I have yet to do my best performance. I am working towards that, and I'll keep on doing that, of course.

Reviewers have called your playing "eloquent" and "lyrical," as well as "relaxed" and "understated." Do any of those adjectives not feel right?

Well, I don't know how eloquent I am, but I play, probably, in a relaxed and understated manner. Perhaps. Perhaps that suits my style. Of course, this varies from tune to tune, as you know, because you don't play the same way on every tune. Certain tunes make you think a certain way and certain other tunes make you think another way. But in the aggregate I think my approach is really pretty relaxed and laidback, you might say.

Let me hold on to the word eloquent, because most of the time the word is associated with a person's voice. How long did it take you to find your voice on the piano?

Assuming that I have found it . . . [laughs]


I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt on this one and suggest that you have found your voice.

[laughs] Okay. All right. Thank you.

When did that happen? I'm assuming that you feel that you were put on this earth to play piano. For other reasons, too, of course. I don't mean to limit you, but that's got to be part of it.

I think you have to feel, in a sense, part of that. You don't think of it in the sense of the Almighty, but what you think of is you have a purpose in life. I think everybody has a purpose in life. Perhaps my purpose is to do whatever I can on the piano. And hopefully, you know, perhaps with my playing I can reach some people. If I can reach one person, that's very good. And I have to say, you play a lot of the time to please yourself because you're trying to satisfy your own ambitions, your own aspirations. You're trying to reach a certain goal. So you have to say, a lot of it's playing for yourself. But in that process hopefully you're playing some things that other people will like. To me, playing is really just a matter of trying to better your last performance, trying to do better than you did the last time. And it's a constant thing. It goes on all the time.

You're a sports fan.

I like baseball.

Several albums by the Great Jazz Trio feature baseball art on the cover. And I'm thinking that your residence near Cooperstown is not a complete accident.

You know, actually, I have to tell you, that's not me on the cover [laughs].

Oh, I figured it might not be [laughs].

[laughs] But you know what? You're right about that. There have been several of the Great Jazz Trio records, at least one that I know of in particular, that have a baseball--I guess it's a pitcher--on the cover.

Tonight might not be the best night to ask you because people where standing to cheer as soon as you walked into the room, but have you ever felt underappreciated?

No, not really. Because I think people react to what you play in an honest manner. If they like it, they will react to it in that manner. If for some reason you don't strike a chord with them--no pun intended--then they will respond in kind. I've never felt . . . In fact, I don't think about that. When I'm on the bandstand, what I'm trying to do is do the best I can. Hopefully it will be good enough for somebody else to like it, but that's . . . My main objective is not really . . . I'm not looking for applause. If it happens, wonderful. That's great. But you see, you shouldn't look for that.

Let me go back baseball. Because baseball players practice and practice and practice, like you do on the piano, so they can get to the point where their actions become natural, where they don't have to think. You've just got to react.


You appeared quite surprised when Mr. Lovano appeared onstage. So either you're an excellent actor . . .


Or you were genuinely surprised when he began playing. And it made me think that, not unlike an athlete, you were probably in a zone.

I think that's true. But you know, I've worked with Joe before. We've done a couple of duo CDs. We've done a couple of nightclub engagements. We've done a couple of tours together. But, you know, when he walked in the room, when he started to play, I was really surprised. And that was genuine. And I always enjoy working with Joe because he's very fluent. When he plays, you get the impression that he means what he's playing. He's serious about it. He feels it.

If you look at an exceptional double play combination--say Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell--each player knows what the other's going to do before they do it. There's an anticipation of expectation there. And I feel like musically there's got to be something similar going on. You've been playing with George Mraz for quite a while now, for example. Long enough that, I'm guessing, he often knows where you're going in a tune before you might know yourself, and vice versa.

Well, you know, that's quite true. That's quite true. The longer you play together, the more you feel this. For me it's what you are likely to play, or the progressions that you are likely to play. It may vary from time to time, but basically it's going to be pretty much what you've heard before, what you've played before. And that is not to say that you're going to play the same thing, but that's what makes jazz so interesting. There's so many ways to go. There are so many harmonic progressions you can use. If you want to go from Point A to Point B, there are several routes you can take. You can go this way. You can go that way. Harmonically, I'm speaking.


Yes. It's more like a shared instinct or a shared intuition. Did you have that with either of your brothers? I would guess that genetics would help, but did you have that shared intuition musically?

You know, I didn't get the chance, too much, to work with my brothers, except we did a couple of recording dates where Elvin and Thad and I were on the same date. But basically I have not worked with them that much. I regret that very much because we should've done many, many recordings, which we didn't do. Because I think, for one thing, Thad was going his route, you know. He was going his way, the big band. Elvin had a small group. He was going his way. I was working at CBS most of the time, and I had a different path I was trying to follow. I tried to keep up with it by doing recording dates. I did many, many dates. Not all of them were jazz dates, but I did a lot. So we worked along certain paths, certain routes, but, you know, the times that we were able to play together, I enjoyed. For instance, Elvin and I did a recording on Verve, and we did a lot of Thad's music. All of Thad's music, as a matter of fact. With George Mraz and Elvin. That was really a nice thing. Also, Elvin and I did another thing with another bass player, Richard Davis. In fact, we did two things with him. So Elvin and I have worked together more than Thad and I worked together. I regret that very much.

Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.

Made a million dollars.

But if you played on 1000 records and got paid $1000 for each one then you would've made a million dollars.

[laughs] The problem with that is, you never get $1000. You might make $1000, but you never get that much after taxes.

Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.

Well, you know, I have to get into another area because there have been times when I've played, when I was playing with groups, I know one group I was playing with in particular on 52nd Street with Max Roach on drums, Curly Russell on bass and Coleman Hawkins. Miles Davis. It was Coleman Hawkins' group and Miles Davis was the trumpet player. And on this one particular night that sticks out in my mind - and I've never done it before - I seemed to reach a different level. It was a level that I hadn't been to before. I was able to do things, at that point, that I had never done before. And I don't know how to explain that, but it happened.

The way I would describe it is this: I had a sense of awareness that I hadn't previously had. I was more aware. I was more alert. My mind was . . . Everything was open. There were no mental blocks, you know.

And we're pretty sure no one spiked your drink that night.

[laughs] I certainly hope not. Come to think of it, that Coke did taste a little funny [laughs]. No, no.

You mentioned Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis and Max Roach earlier. And I got tired just reading the long list of everyone you've played with, so let's do it this way. Who haven't you played with that's on the big jazz all-star chart?

Well, let's see. I haven't done any recording dates with Wynton Marsalis. I have played with him, but no recording dates. There have been some others, I'm sure.

And he might pay you $1000 for playing on one of his records so if we could only do that 1000 times we could take care of that not making a million dollars problem.

[laughs] I'd settle for $500.

You made your first album 61 years ago. If someone wanted to hear the best of Hank Jones, are there particular recording sessions that you feel particularly very fortunate to a part of? You know, even for a humble man like yourself that's a big, fat pitch that you should be able to knock out of the park.

Well, you know, there was one that I enjoyed with Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley called Somethin' Else. And I enjoyed that. There were some others. I did a couple of solo albums actually, they stretched my mind a lot, because, I mean, a solo album is not that easy to do. You have to be, first of all, in pretty good shape to handle it. Then you have your material well organized because when you get in the studio . . . I did an album of Fats Waller music not too long ago, within the last ten years, and there were some things on there that I think were decent. I wouldn't say they were my best work [laughs]. That is, I wouldn't cry after I heard them play, but I might grimace a couple of times.

Many performers get some kind of adrenaline rush when they perform, but that makes it awful hard to wind down at the end of the night. It's getting close to 11 o'clock and you're about to start your second set of the night and your eighth in the last four days. How easy is it to go to sleep at the end of the evening?

Well, you know something? I find it difficult to go to sleep after an engagement, because you're keyed up. You know, you're still thinking on that different level. You're keyed up. It takes me like maybe two hours to unwind after I get back to the hotel. I mean, it definitely is some adrenaline flowing when you play, especially the kind of music we try to play. Definitely. It's there. Of course, the better the group is . . . That's not a term. Let's say, the more pleasing the group is to you, the better you can play because it releases a certain energy that you have that you cannot release unless certain things are happening at the right time, at the right place.

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