It’s been a while since Hank Jones was last in Ann Arbor.
His last visit, as matter of fact, was more than 50 years ago. The
up-and-coming pianist was in town with his younger brother,
trumpeter/composer/arranger Thad, who was performing “Flight
of the Bumble Bee” in a competition. This week, Hank Jones
returns as a jazz legend.

Laura Wong
Play it again, Sam. (Courtesy of Concord Jazz)

Born in 1918, Hank grew up in a conservative Baptist household
in Pontiac. The eldest male of five siblings (which include Thad
and legendary drummer Elvin), Hank was encouraged to pursue music
from an early age. By his teenage years, he was playing in clubs,
but was not allowed to play “past midnight on Sundays,”
as his father forbid it. He was active in the Detroit music scene,
paving the way for the wave of great Detroit pianists that included
Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Sir Roland Hanna.

In 1944, he moved to New York to perform with swing trumpeter
Oran “Hot Lips” Page. While there, Jones played with
various groups and learned the developing language of bebop.

Three years later, Hank Jones was invited to tour with Norman
Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” and found
himself playing alongside the who’s who of jazz, “the
guys that were my musical idols.” Jones also recorded with,
among others, Charlie Parker. “I had the good fortune of
working with Charlie … His talent and ingenuity knew no
bounds. He played anything you could think of, and he thought of
plenty of things to play.”

Over the years, Hank played many roles: soloist, accompanist,
sideman, leader and big band pianist. As an accompanist, he played
with almost everyone, including nearly five years with Ella
Fitzgerald and a recording date with Sarah Vaughn. According to
Hank, “Accompanying is very tricky. You can’t get too
far ahead of the soloist, and you can’t be too close to them,
too loud, or too soft. It’s very certain.”

Jones also spent 17 years at CBS. “My schedule at CBS was
tough; I worked six days a week. We did a lot of shows, The Garry
Moore Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, two radio shows …
” During this time, unfortunately, his club career suffered.
“Trying to work nights was just a little bit too
tough.” Jones left the job, unwilling to compromise further
ambition: “When you reach the point where you say,
‘Gee, I’d rather be doing something else,’ you
have to make your move.”

This refusal to compromise has allowed Hank to appear in
numerous settings with everyone from the avant- garde saxophonist
Anthony Braxton to trumpeter Miles Davis. One of his favorite
experiences was playing with Davis on alto saxophonist Cannonball
Adderley’s “Something Else.” On that recording,
Hank recalls, “The date itself was very relaxing. Miles came
up with most of the ideas. In effect, he was the leader of the
group. It was interesting because everything went really smoothly.
There were no glitches.”

Recently, Hank’s been busy. Before arriving in Ann Arbor,
he had spent five days in Japan. The trip included four Blue Note
club dates and two solo piano recording sessions. For any musician,
this is grueling. For an 85-year-old who recently underwent surgery
for an aortic aneurysm, this is remarkable.

Jones, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, has spent
the past week mentoring students as part of the University’s
Rhythm Section Institute. He performed two trio sets at the Firefly
Club last night and he will play with the Count Basie Orchestra
tomorrow.

What’s left for a musician who has done it all? According
to Jones, plenty. “Music’s a lifetime study. At least
in my experience, I feel that I haven’t reached a point where
I can say that I’ve really accomplished what I wanted to
accomplish, because there’s always something that you wanted
to do, but you haven’t done it. And that’s where I am
at this point in time. I think there’s more for me to do, and
whatever it is, I’m going to try to do it.”

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