pianist Hank Jones dies at 91
Clarion Ledger Newspaper
Monday, May 17, 2010
NEW YORK — Jazz pianist and composer Hank Jones,
whose 70-year career included a stint as Ella
Fitzgerald’s pianist and Marilyn Monroe’s
accompanist when she sang “Happy Birthday” to
President John F. Kennedy, has died, his manager
said Monday. He was 91.
Jones, who won a Grammy lifetime achievement
award last year and received the National Medal of
Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008, died
Sunday night at a New York hospital after a brief
illness, Jean-Pierre Leduc said.
A tireless musician who performed his blend of
swing and bebop until the end, Jones came from a
family of jazz musicians who included brothers
Thad, a trumpeter, composer and arranger, and
Elvin, a drummer known for the polyrhythmic beat
that propelled John Coltrane’s classic quartet.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano, with whom Jones made
several CDs when he was an octogenarian,
including the Grammy-nominated “Kids: Live at
Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola” (2007), called Jones “one
of the master musicians in the history of jazz.”
“He was the consummate accompanist and played
with a very free flowing approach ... His sound, his
touch, his ideas were all about feeling,” Lovano
Throughout his career, Jones was respected by his
fellow musicians for his elegant touch, melodic
sensitivity and stylistic versatility, making hundreds
of recordings, including more than 60 as a leader.
He played with some of the biggest names in jazz,
including Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Wes
Montgomery, Nancy Wilson, Lester Young, Charlie
Parker and Coltrane.
According to his website, Jones’ one regret was that
he didn’t record more often with his late brothers.
But he did manage to record “The Great Trio
Collaboration” with Elvin before his brother died in
2004. He was a charter member of the big band that
brother Thad co-led with drummer Mel Lewis
beginning in the mid-’60s at New York’s Village
Vanguard jazz club.
Jones “lived and breathed music and was never far
from a keyboard, even at the end,” Leduc said.
“His incredible burst of productivity — concerts,
recordings, fundraisers, clinics — these last few
years was unprecedented and truly remarkable. He
had gigs planned through next year” and was
scheduled to play at the Birdland jazz club in New
York next week, he added.
At last year’s Jazz Awards, Jones was voted pianist of
the year by the Jazz Journalists Association among a
crowded field of nominees that included such
distinguished veterans as Kenny Barron, Cecil
Taylor, Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett and newer
faces like Jason Moran and Matthew Shipp. With
characteristic modesty, Jones declared it “should be
a group award.”
“This to me is an honor and also it’s a great
incentive to me to do better,” Jones said in
accepting the honor. “It’s not the end of things, it’s
the end of the beginning for me.”
Jazz pianist-turned-impresario George Wein, who
founded the Newport Jazz Festival, called Jones “an
inspiration to all of us.
“Maybe by the time I’m his age, I’ll know a few
changes that he plays on the piano,” joked the 83-
year-old Wein at the awards ceremony.
Jones’ contemporary, saxophonist James Moody,
who recorded “Our Delight” with the pianist, said,
“If someone threw ink at a piece of paper, Hank
could play it.”
In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts named
Jones as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor in
Jones “leaves behind an amazing legacy as both a
leader and a sideman,” NEA Chairman Rocco
Landesman said of his death.
Born in Vicksburg, Miss., and raised in Pontiac,
Mich., near Detroit, he was influenced by such
legendary pianists as Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and
Nat King Cole.
Lovano said Jones knew them all, as well as
Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
“He was on the scene with them in New York,” he
said. “He had his own touch and approach from
He began performing at the age of 13, playing with
territory bands that toured Michigan and Ohio.
During those tours he met saxophonist Lucky
Thompson, who helped him land a job in trumpeter
Hot Lips Page’s band in 1944.
After moving to New York in 1943, Jones embraced
bebop and toured with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the
Philharmonic from 1947-51. As part of the
ensemble, he became Fitzgerald’s pianist, touring
with her from 1948-53.
In 1962, he accompanied Monroe on the piano
when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President
Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.
In a 2005 interview on National Public Radio, he
described that day.
“She did 16 bars: eight bars of ’Happy Birthday to
You’ and eight bars of ’Thanks for the Memories,”’ h
e said. “So in 16 bars, we rehearsed eight hours.
... She was very nervous and upset. She wasn’t used
to that kind of thing. And, I guess, who wouldn’t be
nervous singing “Happy Birthday” to the president?”
He also worked with such consummate musicians as
Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Milt Jackson and Julian
“Cannonball” Adderley. He joined CBS as studio
pianist, a position he held for 17 years, performing
on the Ed Sullivan Show and others.
His versatility also landed him gigs in Broadway
stage bands, including a long-running stint as the
pianist and conductor for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the
hit 1970s musical revue based on songs by pianist
Thomas “Fats” Waller.
After leaving CBS in the mid-’70s, Jones’ career
flourished as a solo pianist and in small ensembles,
including the Great Jazz Trio which he originally
formed with Miles Davis alumni Ron Carter and Tony
His most recent recordings were “Pleased to Meet
You,” an album with pianist Oliver Jones and “Come
Sunday,” an as-yet unreleased duet recording with b
assist Charlie Haden, a sequel to their 1995 album
of spirituals, hymns and folk songs, “Steal Away,”
which received two Grammy nominations.
“Hank was a man of elegance and genius yet
remained so modest and full of humor throughout
his life,” said Haden, who recorded “Come Sunday”
with Jones in February. At that session, Haden said,
“Hank seemed ... closer than ever to the reverence of
the songs that we played. ... He was — and will
always be — a beautiful soul.”
Hank Jones will be honored at the 15th Annual
Mississippi Jazz & Heritage Festival
, Sept. 2-6.
A tribute concert is also planned for July 31 in
Vicksburg. For more details, call Dr. Ron Myers at