Hank Jones has died at age 91, the end of a family and perhaps an era. His combination of swing, intelligence and urbane blues was a great expression of the synthesis of old-time and modern trends in jazz. My own personal impression has to do with a concert by the Eastman School of Music Jazz Ensemble sometime in the early 1980s. Jones was in residence for a week and appearing with the band, and before he came out on stage, Rayburn Wright related an anecdote about how one of the piano students had transcribed a Jones solo and presented it to the man, discussing all the amazing modulations and analyzing variations and thematic development. Jones’ response was puzzlement that his own playing had so much technical and theoretical sophistication, because he essentially had no idea what the kid was talking about.
That’s sort of the essence of Jones, and of the highest levels of jazz. The old cliché about playing the music, which is to learn the rules and then forget them, really applies. Jones was practiced and experienced enough to produce music, in the moment, of intellectual depth, but that was because he was, as the best jazz musicians are, an inherently brilliant man who chose to express his brilliance by swinging at the piano. Hearing him play with the Jazz Ensemble reinforced this; the group was full, as always, with extremely talented and polished young musicians who played with great energy and power and said too much, their ideas where a little scattered and oversold. Jones had the advantage of many decades in which to listen to himself, find his ideas and concentration, and say what he wanted to say in three notes rather than thirty. And the style! In some quarters there’s a fetish for young jazz musicians wearing suits to express an aesthetic, and I’m not against it, but I don’t think it’s necessary. It is necessary, however, for a young jazz musician to know how to wear a tie with style and elegance when the moment is called for, for if they have that taste within themselves they can share it with us in their playing.
You can listen to Jones all day on WKCR.