Pianist Hank JonesKim Heron, my editor at the Metrotimes, told me you'd died at Calvary Hospital Hospice in New York on Monday. I called Kim to discuss a story I'm working on about the resurgence of jazz jam sessions around Detroit. Instead, we talked about your passing. Kim wrote a nice obituary about you for the Metrotimes website, highlighting poignant episodes in your storied career, and what an important artist you were. Mr. Jones, your death caught me off guard.
Last year, I witnessed you steal the show on opening night of the Detroit International Jazz Festival. You seemed healthy then. I was in heaven listening to you play oldies but goodies. In fact, I timed your performance that evening. It clocked in just over an hour. That had to be a world record for a jazz pianist your years. Mr. Jones, you played elegantly. Some jazz pianists bang and hammer the keys as if they hate the instrument. You treated the piano like a high school sweetheart.
At 91, your stamina amazed me. In Tuesday's New York Times, music critic, Peter Keepnews, pointed out you're scheduled to tour Japan and Europe in June. Your doctor was against it, but you wanted to tour despite your declining health.
I remember marvelling at the solos you played on the classic jazz album "Ben and Sweets". Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison co-led the date. Columbia Records reissued the album in 1987. Do you remember playing on that recording? Ben and Sweets were on the album cover. Ben sported dark sunglasses and a cigarette dangled from the left corner of his mouth. Sweets set cross-legged blowing into a muted trumpet. You all performed standards such as "How Long Has This Been Going On," "My Romance" and "Embraceable You". Do those details jog your memory?
I am listening to the album right now. It boosted my spirits. What a star-studded affair. Did I mention bassist George Duvivier and drummer Clarence Johnston were on hand? Mr. Jones you may find this unbelievable, I used to play "Ben and Sweets" every night for months before I went to bed. I thought you had feathers attached to the tips of your fingers when you soloed on "Better Go”. "Did you Call Her Today" relaxed me like a lullaby.
Mr. Jones, you had a long run. And you rubbed elbows with many of the greats Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, and Coleman Hawkins come to mind. At last count, you made 60 albums, and I'd need an accountant to keep track of your portfolio as a sideman. You won a boatload awards the National Medal of Honor, and Grammy a lifetime achievement award.
I bet Thad and Elvin are happy you have joined them. What a great jazz family. I can only imagine the welcome home party they planned for you. I'm sure Ben and Sweets will be there. You deserve a parade because you gave the jazz world some wonderful music. Plus, you're the perfect jazz elder statesmen.