The Jazz Column
In 1941, the big band of pianist Earl Hines broke attendance records at the Royal Theater in Baltimore, at the Fiesta Danceteria on Broadway, in Washington, Detroit, and also in St Louis, where the local newspaper noted: “Traffic was jammed and more than that on busy Olive Street at Ewing as hundreds of dance addicts tried and tried in vain to gain admission to the hall. Officers had a real job on hand.”
’s headline on February 1941 blared that “Hines Hits Broadway Tears It Apart!” Two years later, in the middle of the Second World War and with the big band era supposedly on the way out, Hines’s band was seemingly even more popular. A Jacksonville, Florida, newspaper reported on December 4, 1943, that “approximately 30,000 “Fatha” Hines dance lovers paid to hear their favorite leader during the week of November 21.”
It wasn’t only dance fans who were impressed by Hines. The pianist, many of whose early recordings have been collected on the seven disc set
Classic Earl Hines Sessions, 1928-1945
(Mosaic), liked to call himself a band pianist. He was more than that to musicians, many of whom called him a genius. Drummer Walter Bishop found Hines “the swingingest cat I know.” Erroll Garner told author Stanley Dance, whose
The World of Earl Hines
is the source of these quotations: “Why, Earl can go on for ninety years and never be out of date.” Modernist Lennie Tristano was just as impressed. Quoted on the back cover of Earl Hines and Johnny Hodges LP
Swing’s the Thing
, Tristano notes, as do many others, the sheer power of Hines’s swing: “He is the only one capable of creating real jazz and real swing when playing all alone. He has always given everything to obtain the maximum swing. In this way, he has offered us excellent music, excellent jazz, which will never be surpassed.”
Hines said that when he came to Chicago in 1924, people noticed that he played a little differently. Others found him almost revolutionary. Teddy Wilson, probably the most influential swing pianist of the next decade, couldn’t get enough of the early Earl Hines. Like other musicians, Wilson stressed Hines’s rhythm, but also his way of breaking it up. “For command of the keyboard, I don’t think Art Tatum has been equaled in jazz. He was a phenomenon. But strictly in terms of the jazz idiom, Earl Hines has it…the most powerful rhythmic drive, more so, I’d say, than Art or even Fats. Earl had this original concept of playing the piano rather like a horn, with an eccentric bass against it implying the rhythm, not playing on the beat like the stride pianists did…one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…Earl would be playing between the beats with his left hand, which pianists are doing today.” As a lesser figure, song writer and band manager Charlie Carpenter put it, “Earl took the piano out of the
, the way they had been playing it before him. Earl made the piano a solo instrument in jazz bands.”
For Teddy Wilson, the breakthrough Hines recording was the famous
West End Blues,
which Hines recorded in 1928 with Louis Armstrong: “When I first heard
West End Blues
, I was just amazed. I knew I had never heard that style of piano before—the melodic improvisation, the off-beat bass, the eccentric rhythm, and the ideas in the right hand like a trumpet would play…..Even before I went to Chicago in 1931 and met him, I knew Earl Hines’s work very well from recordings. But every night when I wasn’t working, I would be down at the Grand Terrace listening to him.” What Wilson heard in
West End Blues
was a pianist still willing to play chomping chords, one to a beat, behind the other soloists. Hines’s brief solo was something different. He begins with a little trill, a downward scale lightly played, and continues almost extravagantly, finishing the first four bars almost dancing with unparalleled grace. Then he hits a series of two-handed chords with some power before ending with more filigree. It’s like a 12-bar sonata. This isn’t even the full Hines treatment. What strikes this listener in the earliest Hines is the freedom of his left hand, his willingness seemingly to break up the beat, with subtle delays, by letting it join in complex rhythmic figures with the right, or perhaps by playing rushing scales that dissolve the different traditional roles of left and right hands. His resources seem infinite and breathtaking. He’ll execute a playful turn or arpeggio to fill in a momentary gap with lighthearted ease. Elsewhere he seems to abandon the beat altogether; yet he always finds his way back.
I first heard Hines in a solo set around 1967 in a small club north of Boston called “Lennie’s on the Turnpike.” Stanley Dance was in the audience: I believed he lived in Earl Hines’s pocket in those years. It was an extraordinary afternoon, in which Hines, Jaki Byard, and the then very young Chick Corea played consecutive solo sets. Hines stole the show. He put down his omnipresent cigar, assumed his stage smile, and dazzled everyone with risqué versions of standards by Ellington or with his own
. If he sometimes started conservatively with a statement of the theme, soon he was off, alternately playing stride, and seeming to abandon the beat altogether. He didn’t just play tunes: He seemed to rough them up. Every Hines fan will have had moments when he holds his breath, wondering if the pianist can get back from a scalar escapade to the necessary chord on beat one. He never lost his place even as he was losing ours. One of his most articulate fans, author Gunther Schuller, criticizes Hines as insufficiently lyrical. Not to my ears. It’s easy to be so taken with his casual virtuosity that one forgets how memorable a melodist Hines is, whether playing his version of a written melody or while improvising. Few listeners who hear his
Blues in Thirds
A Monday Date
will forget how they go. And every time I listen to solo Hines, phrases go through my head for hours. What is true of Hines in a big band context is that at his best he is almost disruptive. If big band swing was about momentum and continuity, Hines somehow managed to break up the continuity without harming the momentum. But he had a way of making much of what went on around him seem a bit stolid.
Hines came to Chicago when he was only 19 years old. Already he had a distinctive, if not perhaps fully formed, style. He wasn’t a beginner. At that point, in 1924, he had been a professional musician for four years, and had recorded twice with his first significant employer, male singer Lois Deppe, who, when he hired him, told the 15-year-old pianist that he needed him more than Hines needed the singer.
Hines was born on December 28, 1905, in what he describes as a 12-room house in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, a countryish suburb of Pittsburgh: They had pigs, chickens, and cows in the back yard, and raised their own food. His was one of the few African-American families there: Stanley Dance reproduces a school photo in which Hines in his gray suit and a white-smocked girl are the only persons of color. There was little racism, he said, but it wasn’t paradise either: The Catholic kids used to attack the Protestants like Hines on their way to school.
Hines’s father was a cornetist who led the 14-piece Eureka Brass Band. Hines thought of imitating his dad in becoming a cornetist. He was being raised in what was until the flood of immigrants during World War I a small town. (In Hines’s views the Southerners of both races brought racial problems with them.) In his memoirs, Hines makes some of his childhood seem idyllic. On Sundays, much as people did in New Orleans Sundays, families took street cars to an outlying park, and spent the day playing baseball or just talking while the kids ran around, and went on amusement park rides until it was time to dance. “To us youngsters, the beauty part of the whole evening was seeing how the people used to dance.” It’s not surprising, then, that the adult Hines was more than content playing dance music, even what is now considered commercial dance music. His stepmother played the organ, and Hines started imitating her. When his father noticed the child’s efforts, he bought him a piano. Hines soon outgrew his first teacher and he was passed on to a strict German pianist who impressively told Hines’s father that he wanted results, not his cash. Hines proudly told Stanley Dance that he got those results. Taken to some of the shows and revues, Hines discovered that he could play their songs by ear long before the sheet music came out. He was playing the organ in church before his feet could reach the pedals at the same time he was working through Czerny and playing Chopin. Still an early teenager, he started to appear in piano competitions. It was the classical training, one surmises, that gave him the technical freedom that seemed to come naturally to him.
He heard the popular songs of the day. What he hadn’t heard, he said, was jazz. The man many would call during his lifetime the world’s greatest jazz pianist was almost fully formed as an instrumentalist before he found his genre. He was already playing popular songs, but “It wasn’t until I started going to theaters with my parents and relatives that I began to realize these numbers had soul in them.” Lois Deppe, already a local celebrity, heard of the boy and brought him some sheet music: Hines remembers
among the batch. Hines started to hear jazz playing, including the sounds of a small band from the top floor of a bar that “had a beat and a rhythm to it that I’d never heard before.” He learned to play 10ths from one itinerant pianist. In an unconscious tribute to his dad, he tried to play cornet lines with his right hand. With what musicians call big ears, he assembled techniques. “That went into my style, too, with this guy’s left hand and that guy’s right hand, until I got to the stage where I began to feel myself.” Given his rhythmic genius later, it is amusing that he had to be taught to play in tempo. A banjo player named Harold Birchett took the young virtuoso to school: “After playing a lot of classical music, with no set tempo, I found a big difference in nightclubs, where you had to have a rhythm and a tempo back of singers. You know, the very first time I played in a band I read so fast I finished before the rest of ‘em. I sat back laughing, waiting for them….They thought I was kidding.” Birchett “got me to the position where I really knew what tempo meant.”
Intrigued by the pianist’s ability to reproduce songs not yet in print, Lois Deppe offered the 15-year-old a job. Hines was still in high school and he was already meeting musicians who “thought I was a kind of genius.” Deppe was one of those admirers: He took the pianist to New York, hoping to land them a recording contract. “I took Earl to New York to be heard, because to me he was already revolutionizing the style of piano playing,” Deppe told Stanley Dance. When in 1923, Deppe was able to record with his protégé, Hines had to struggle to be heard. Then, he said, he started to use octaves in his right hand lines to “cut through the sound of the band.”
Eubie Blake told the youngster to leave Pittsburgh. He left for Chicago after being offered a job in the Elite Club No. 2 on State Street, an afterhours club. It still seems extraordinary that a 19-year-old musician from a suburb of Pittsburgh would be called to Chicago for work. He opened without a rehearsal: “Well, when we opened I was all eyes, you know like a tree full of owls. I could always play piano without looking at the keys, so I was looking everywhere to see what was going on. They gave me two or three solos to play, and the people recognized that I was playing a strange style they hadn’t heard before.” Soon, Hines, whose playing couldn’t be more pianistic, would find his style labeled “trumpet style,” and it was suggested he derived those octaves and his lively, accented right hand lines from Louis Armstrong. He added some effects in the wake of Armstrong, including a tremolo to approximate the trumpeter’s end vibrato. Other techniques were designed to solve the problems of the piano: “I’d reduce the weight of the note and use the sustaining pedal as the sound of the note thinned out,” he said, to suggest the held notes that horns make.
Hines’s next years seem frantically busy. At first he was working seven nights a week at the Elite, an afterhours club that enabled him to go round and hear what else was happening musically. He would go on to work with bandleader Carroll Dickerson, eventually at the Sunset Café. He met the man he would work with off and on for much of his career, and talked him into joining Dickerson. The memory still seems fresh: “Most important, we had Louis Armstrong! I met him in 1925 at the musicians’ union, Local 208, on State and 39th in Chicago….They had finally put a piano at the union, and I was running through some tunes downstairs when he came in. He took his horn out and began to blow. I always remember that first tune we played together. It was
The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else.
I knew right way that he was a giant….From that time on we began to hang out together.”
Often Hines was playing behind singers and dancers in shows, as well as behind dancing. He also started recording with what seems to me astonishing frequency. He first entered a Chicago studio to accompany singer Katherine Perry on July 27, 1926. That session has been lost. The next was on April 22, 1927, when Hines and Armstrong played
Wild Man Blues, Weary Blues,
New Orleans Stomp
behind clarinetist Johnny Dodds. Between May and December of 1928, by my count, Hines took part in 21 recording sessions. On December 12 alone, he backed up singer Lillie Delk Christian in two numbers, recorded five numbers including the classic
Tight Like That
with Louis Armstrong, and played (impromptu) according to him, the solo number
When he was with the small band of Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club, Hines performed his own version of
Rhapsody in Blue
, and was complimented by George Gerswhin, whom he didn’t recognize. In New York City, he recorded eight solo numbers for the Q.R.S. label, which specialized in piano rolls and didn’t seem to know what to do with the material they had. (These sides have been reissued by Milestone Records.)
The new Mosaic box picks up the story on December 11, 1928, when, back in Chicago, Hines recorded his
A Monday Date.
Mosaic has reissued only the records made for companies now owned by Sony. As a result there are gaps, including the 1934 session for Decca that Gunther Schuller particularly admires. That day, Hines recorded
Maple Leaf Rag
That’s a Plenty
. Nor does the following session, with the oddly named
that I particularly admire, appear here. (One can find those sessions under Hines’s name on Classics 528.) On the other hand, Mosaic has issued alternate takes of many tunes, some of which have never been available. From the initial session, the rollicking
became a standard. With the possible exception of Armstrong’s vocal version, I don’t think this initial recording has been surpassed for verve or virtuosic cheer. By the time of Mosaic box’s next session, in February 1929, Hines was a bandleader at a new club, The Grand Terrace, where he would stay into the ’40s. It was run by Ed Fox, a rather ambiguous character in Hines’s life. “Whatever else I may say about him,” Hines told Stanley Dance, “I have to say he was one of the finest nightclub managers I ever ran into.” There has been a lot more said about Fox: that he was a gangster, that he skimmed money that should have gone to Hines, and that his long term contract with Hines reduced his star pianist/bandleader, in one musician’s phrase, to “peonage.” (Working for gangsters was fun, one musician says in
The World of Earl Hines
; the trouble is that one cannot quit, at least not without permission, even to go to a different club owned by the same gunmen.)
Fox opened the Grand Terrace on the South Side, survived the initial months in which he and his family were the main customers, and hired Hines to put together a big band. The pianist would be a big band leader until past the end of World War II. The gig made him world famous. Soon the Hines band was broadcasting twice a night: once to the East Coast, and later to the West as far as California and to Canada. The band opened on December 28, 1928, and started recording for Victor in 1929. The repertoire was mixed from the beginning; the very first recording was of a tune called
Sweet Ella Mae
which one wishes were more forgettable. The next day Hines speaks and sings in the ostensibly humorous novelty number,
Have You Ever Felt That Way,
on which a stuttering Hines searches indirectly for a sign that his companion has some affection for him. It doesn’t sound promising. More interesting are the sloppily played
Beau Koo Jack
and the several takes of
with the sweetly bluesy trumpet statement by George Mitchell, best known for his recordings with Jelly Roll Morton.
Hines’s big band recordings encompass the whole swing era and a little beyond. There are highlights and lesser works, forgettable commercial tunes, and some novelties, such as Hines’s feature
that work despite themselves. One hears Jimmy Mundy’s swing classic
Take It Easy,
which was recorded in 1933, two years before the swing era took off in the wake of Benny Goodman’s success. It nonetheless seems to encapsulate swing. I like every Hines version of his
and Mundy’s arrangement of
, named after the club, The Cavern, where Mundy worked before joining Hines. There are several wonderful solo sessions by Hines, and the fine 1940 session led by clarinetist Sidney Bechet that has Hines digging around for a New Orleans background that he never actually had. “Bechet was ‘evil’ the day we did it,” Hines said of this session, “and he didn’t like some of the other things we were doing. ‘I’m going to do Hines’ tune, he kept saying, but I didn’t know which one he meant until we got into it!” It was
Blues in Thirds.
Listening to many of these big band arrangements, one yearns for Hines to take over, as he does on the aptly named
or for a chorus on
I Want a Lot of Love.
His reticence is not entirely inexplicable. He stated repeatedly that his goal was to be a bandleader, and numerous sidemen have asserted that he was one of the best. He didn’t want to take Louis Armstrong’s path: The trumpeter was a star but often stood in front of awful bands. Hines also noted to Stanley Dance that when the band started to broadcast, some listeners would call in asking for more piano and some for less. Perhaps the long nights at the Grand Terrace and elsewhere simply wore him down. He talks of allowing other pianists to sit in at various spots, which allowed him to relax for an hour in a series of seemingly endless nights. Still Lois Deppe chastised him: Why did Hines spend all that time nurturing singers when fans came to hear the world’s greatest piano player? When Hines returned to solo playing, he also noted that in his years of leading a big band he had become lazy as a pianist. In the 1960s, after four decades of professional performing, he went back to practicing.
Perhaps one shouldn’t try to second guess Hines or his repertoire. Music publishers and songwriters bribed bands to broadcast their works: In Hines’s case, they seemed to pay off Ed Fox rather than the pianist. He may not have had as much choice as one would expect in what he would broadcast or even record. Yet he liked playing for singers, and was proud of the way he brought along and arranged for singers as distinguished as Sarah Vaughan. Hines never had more success than in 1940 and 1941 when Billy Eckstine joined the band and they recorded the blues
and standards such as
It was those numbers, and Hines’s hit instrumental,
Boogie-Woogie on St. Louis Blues
with its almost sinister opening, that drew the record-breaking crowds Hines encountered in the ’40s. Even then, Hines felt the era ending: He tells a story of the crowds he met next door to where he was playing. There was a rhythm and blues band playing in something like a garage, and people were lining up to get in. The era of the elegant night club with carefully planned shows, the sharply dressed bands behind their charismatic leaders, had passed. Hines felt the ground shifting under his feet. He would spend much of the ’50s playing Dixieland in California. After 1964, when he appeared at a ground-breaking solo concert at the Little Theater in New York City, he had what seemed a second career as a solo performer and as the leader of a small band.
One of the last sessions included on the Mosaic set was made in 1944 for Signature Records. Its four numbers, including the prophetically titled
My Fate is in Your Hands,
which might have been directed at the dancers who were starting to turn the other way, were all written by Fats Waller. The trio playing Fats included bassist Oscar Pettiford, an Oklahoman who was three-quarters American Indian and who grew up playing in a family band. He started on bass at 14, and joined the Charlie Barnet big band in 1942 when he was 20. He was already on the way to somewhere else: Along with Charlie Mingus, and in the wake of Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton, he would become one of bebop’s most influential bassists, adept in the fast chord changes that he played behind Dizzy Gillespie in 1943 and a brilliant soloist on both bass and, more surprisingly, cello. He was most active in the ’50s, when he recorded on Miles Davis’s Blue Note albums, with Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, and strikingly on the first Riverside albums (
Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The Unique Thelonious Monk,
with Thelonious Monk. He’s in a justly esteemed trio on Lucky Thompson’s
, and can be heard to equal advantage on Sonny Rollins’s
He wasn’t totally wedded to the small bop band: in the ’50s Pettiford led studio big bands featuring bop musicians like Tommy Flanagan and saxophonist Lucky Thompson in striking sessions issued as
The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra in Hi-Fi.
He subsequently moved to Europe, where an unexpected treasure, Oscar Pettiford’s
Lost Tapes: Germany 1958/1959
(Jazz Haus10719), was recorded. The recordings come from five different dates: To my mind, there is one masterpiece, which is the
featuring the vastly underrated Lucky Thompson on soprano saxophone. Almost as appealing are the four numbers, including a rollicking rendition of Pettiford’s
Blues in the Closet,
where European soloists such as tenor saxophonist Hans Koller and guitarist Attila Zoller are supported by the beautiful recorded rhythm section featuring Pettiford and another expatriate star, drummer Kenny Clarke. It’s worth the price of this disc to hear Pettiford play
All the Things You Are
solo on cello.
I can’t be as enthusiastic about the “lost” recording of German pianist Jutta Hipp, who emigrated to the United States, made a few estimable recordings with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, and then, in a story yet to be told, faded out of the music business. She was in her 20s when
The German Recordings, 1952-1955
(Jazz Haus 101 723) were made. Later, she would be influenced by the bluesy sounds of Horace Silver. Here the genre is cool jazz. On
The German Recordings
, one hears the young pianist’s intriguing ideas, meekly expressed. She could use something of Earl Hines’s rambunctiousness.
Pianist Roger Kellaway and clarinetist Eddie Daniels are veterans who couldn’t be more accomplished, and yet they can sound like exuberant kids on their new collection of (mostly) Ellington tunes,
Roger Kellaway and Eddie Daniels Live in Santa Fe
. I’ve always thought
Creole Love Call
depended on the way Ellington presented it, with three instruments in close harmony playing sotto voce. Every time I heard him play it that way, it was hair-raising. Kellaway begins his version with a blues bass line that might have been played by Big Maceo or Little Brother Montgomery. Then Daniels enters and the whole lightens up. Daniels has recorded the Brahms clarinet sonatas, and beautifully. Here he’s equally adept playing the blues. The whole collection is masterful: On several selections, they are joined by cellist James Holland, who must have grown up hearing Oscar Pettiford’s recording,
My Little Cello.
The last live jazz I have heard was in a 12th-century priory in Talloires, France, where I listened to French pianist Karim Maurice and saxophonist Lionel Moreau-Flachat improvise on Horace Silver tunes under a 17th-century wooden ceiling. Of course, the setting added to the charm of the music, but the playing was intriguing. The music on Maurice’s
(Sacem) written for jazz quintet and for six strings, is more than that: It is totally absorbing, adventurous, and powerful on the title cut, sweetly lyrical on
The string writing, as we hear it on
Le Jouet d’Omphale,
has a rhythmic intensity one rarely hears in what Gunther Schuller called third stream music. I am drawn in by Maurice’s playfulness on
by the deft way he handles the interplay of horns and pizzicato strings, and finally by the cohesive drama of his compositions. More Americans should hear Maurice’s music.