Born Henry Jones, July 31, 1918, in Vicksburg, MS; son of a Baptist deacon and lumber inspector. Addresses: Record company--Verve Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

Eloquent, lyrical, and impeccable--these are words musicians and critics use to describe the jazz piano style of Hank Jones. From nightclubs to the Broadway stage, Jones has accompanied nearly every major name in jazz. Since his New York debut with trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page in 1944, Jones has appeared as a guest artist, soloist, and bandleader on hundreds of studio sessions. Melding the piano styles of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson with "bebop," an innovative jazz form known for its complex constructs, Jones has honed a refined technique filled with inventive chordal texture and flowing single- line passages. "[Jones's] light, harp-like touch," wrote David Rosenthal in Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955- 1965, "as though he were plucking the piano's strings instead of striking its keys, and his gracefully restrained single-note style are a reformulation of their aesthetic in modern jazz."

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 31, 1918, Henry "Hank" Jones moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where his father, a Baptist deacon, bought a three-story brick home. One of seven children, Jones was raised in a musical family. His mother sang; his two older sisters studied piano; and his two younger brothers--Thad, a trumpeter, and Elvin, a drummer--became world famous jazz musicians. As Thad recalled in The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1991, "There was always the sound of the piano in the home and, naturally, the sound of the radio." As the eldest son, Hank was the first to receive piano instruction. In Down Beat he reflected on his introduction to the piano: "I started with classical training. I never did sit down and practice of my own volition. I always had to be forced. They'd say, 'Hey, you practice that lesson! Teacher's coming next week and you got four pages to go.'"

Over time, however, Jones developed an affinity for the keyboard. His musical education went beyond formal studies: "I listened to a lot of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl Hines--and there was an awful lot of blues which found its way into our house for one reason or another," he told Andrew Sussman in Down Beat. On Sundays, he and his brothers listened to radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony. Years later, Elvin recalled his early musical rapport with his older brother in a Down Beat interview, stating: "I used to listen to Hank practice. He'd put on an Art Tatum record on our windup Victrola and tell me to play along on a book."

By the age of 13, Jones began playing in local groups in high school. He then joined the Detroit-based territory bands of Benny Carew and altoist Ted Buckner, traveling throughout Michigan and Ohio. While playing on the road in Lansing and Grand Rapids, Michigan, he met Detroit-born tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, who invited him out to New York to play with trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page.

In 1944 Jones joined Page's band at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in New York. His arrival in the city at the height of the bebop movement brought Jones in contact with a new modernist conception of jazz keyboard. He first heard the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker group with pianist Al Haig. In Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s, Jones noted that Haig's "style of playing was quite a departure from what I had previously been trying to play. That style--as I look back on it--I suppose the style came about mainly because these pianists rarely, if ever, played solo. I think they played with groups, and with groups it was not necessary for them to use a lot of left hand."

By listening to other modern pianists like Bud Powell, Jones began to adapt himself to the melodies and harmonic changes of bebop. "Everyone was talkin' 'bout Bud back then," explained piano legend Ray Charles, as quoted in Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, "but I actually preferred Hank Jones. I liked his touch, and I had a great feeling for his solo work. With all his wonderful taste, he reminded me of Nat Cole."

While Jones received an education in the art of bebop, he continued to perform with several major big band talents such as Andy Kirk and Billy Eckstine. In the autumn of 1947, he began a three-year stint touring with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts, which afforded him the opportunity to play with Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach. During the 1950s, he toured Europe with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Howard McGhee; then he recorded with Parker, who was already a legendary saxophonist. Bob Blumenthal described Jones's piano work on Parker's 1952 recording of "Cosmic Rays" in the liner notes for Charlie Parker: The Verve Years (1952-1954): "As always, Hank Jones is elegant, lyrical, [a] model of grace without pressure."

Not long after, Jones became the accompanist for singer Ella Fitzgerald. As Savoy Records' "house pianist," he appeared on hundreds of sides and later in the 1950s began recording on several labels under his own name. He also recorded with Lester Young and Milt Jackson as a sideman. On Cannonball Adderly's 1958 release Somethin' Else, he provided brilliant harmonic support behind the horns of Adderly and Miles Davis.

Jones joined the CBS Orchestra in 1959 and remained until the ensemble disbanded in 1974. He performed primarily with big bands and even worked as a pit-pianist with Ray Bloch on the Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1960s, he bided his time between television performances, studio sessions, and jazz dates. Throughout the 1970s, he conducted and performed in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin'. An international talent, Jones has also recorded numerous albums on Japanese and French labels. His various projects in the 1980s included duo performances with pianists John Lewis and Detroit-born bebop veteran Tommy Flanagan who, in Jazz Spoken Here, lauded Jones as "a great solo pianist" and "a great accompanist." Jones continued to record in the 1990s. In 1991 he joined forces with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Billy Higgins on the album The Oracle.

Describing Jones's ability to perform in a variety of musical settings, a music critic wrote in Down Beat, "The enigma of Hank Jones simply is that there's more than one of him. Jones the classicist, Jones the bopper, and Jones the modern jazzer." This versatility has made Jones one of the most active jazz musicians in the business. "I think jazz has proven itself over the past several decades," stated Jones in Down Beat. "I don't think you have to go to any great lengths to prove the validity of jazz." Like his inherent faith in his music, Jones has proved himself a true artist. He is widely regarded as a musician's musician--one of the greatest living masters of jazz piano.

by John Cohassey

Hank Jones's Career

Began performing with Detroit-based big bands, c. 1931; went to New York to join the band of trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, 1944; performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic series, 1947-50; freelanced with numerous groups throughout 1950s and 1960s; member of the CBS Orchestra, 1959-74; performed in Broadway stage production Ain't Misbehavin' in the 1970s; played in duo piano combination with several artists, including John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan, during the 1980s.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

May 24, 2005: Jones' album, For My Father, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, May 30, 2005.

Further Reading

Books

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 7 years ago

As an hommage to Hank whom I was fortunate to hear live in NYC three years ago (and got the opportunity to chat with as a former french jazz reviewer) I simply want to underline that without Hank at the piano the famous Cannonball Adderley album "Somethin' Else' would definately NOT have beeen the fantastic "réussite" that it was .And still is. We are fortunate in Europe to have access to re-releases of his earlier records. Hiw whole output -which has become huge- in the last 30 years is always valuable.