Memorable Meetings: Hank Jones

By Joe Alterman, 12/14/2009

The following was the first encounter I had with the great Hank Jones, backstage at the Iridium. While we have had a few other encounters - more personal, yet often very strange - since, this was the first, it was quite a thrill. The following took place, and on March 11, 2009, after Hank played at the Iridium and I wandered backstage.

Hank was standing there laughing and talking with people, and I got in line. The guy behind me approached and began a lengthy conversation with him; one with which I joined. The first thing I heard was Hank talk about the Basie band. “He had four great arrangers for that band,” he said. “It’s usually hard enough to get one.” 

Hank began talking about his first day walking in to record for a certain recording label. On his first day, he said, both Nat Cole and George Shearing were in the studio. He said he knew Nat for a long time, and he also talked about how great of a piano player George Shearing was. Hank said that an interviewer once asked George if he had been blind all of his life and George replied, “Not yet.” 

The man Hank was talking to said that he heard that George said he would pick out the women on his album covers by himself (he’s blind). They laughed. 

The two then had a lengthy discussion about the clarinet greats of jazz. Hank said that he used to joke with Benny Goodman; whenever Benny would get in a bad mood or something on stage, Hank would reach for his hat (as if he were leaving), and Benny would shape up. Hank was especially complimentary about Woody Herman, who he said was a fine clarinet player. He called Benny Goodman a genius, and a pretty good player. He repeated player over and over, until we understood what he was talking about. He then said, “He was a fine clarinet player,” just to throw off the women (his wife?) he was with, jokingly. He said that one time they went down south (Florida I think) and the place they were playing (a big hotel) spelled Gene Bertocini’s name, Dean Bertotini (close to it). He said Benny looked at it, shrugged his shoulders, said “Okay,” and turned back around. 

Hank talked about his love for Vladimir Horowitz; how he had a very unique playing style. Hank said that it was rare for a classical pianist to sound that unique. "There must be thousands of great classical pianists," Hank said. "But when you hear Horowitz playing Chopin, it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time." 

Hank then told a story about a man who came into a club once, introduced himself as “Rigor-mortus” and asked if he could sit in. He said the man then ate three bowls of shrimp and destroyed all the instruments, except the piano. Hank didn’t blame him for destroying the bassoon. He then said, “Here’s something to think about though: That man ate three big bowls of shrimp. That’s a lot of shrimp. He must’ve loved shrimp... and hated the bassoon. And after hearing so-and-so play it, I understand. That guy was awful.” He laughed.

When the man told Hank that Oscar Peterson loved Hank’s playing, Hank replied, “He’s always been a little hard of hearing.” 

The man then left and Hank came directly over at me. I told him how much of an impact he has had on me and my playing and I told him he was my idol. I told him that I studied with Don Friedman, and he got all excited. He asked if that was at the New School. I said it was at NYU, and when I mentioned NYU, he got very excited and reached out to shake my friends hand. I told him my friend was a bass player and Hank said, “We got a rhythm section,” and then, pointing to the guy he had just been talking to, “and a clarinet player.” I told him how much I loved his recording of “I Cover The Waterfront,” to which he replied, “I’ll get it down one of these days.” I asked if I could take a picture with him. He graciously accepted and, being the nice guy that he is, spent a few minutes trying to figure out which angle would be best for lighting.

Standing there, I asked Hank about Teddy Wilson. He went on and on about how Teddy was one of his first influences, how much he loves the Benny Goodman Trio recordings, with just Teddy, Benny, and Gene Krupa on drums. He said Teddy had such a strong left hand that you didn’t even miss a bass player. “No offense,” he said to my bass player friend. 

Hank then added, “But after I heard Art Tatum, I said, ‘Move over Teddy.’” He laughed. I told Hank that I loved Teddy for his elegance. I said that I feel that every note Teddy plays and every note Hank plays are perfect; that every time I listen to them I say to myself, “That’s the exact right thing to play there.” Hank was flattered, and he said to me, “Well, I’ve been playing a long time. I’ve learned not to mess up as much. I still hit wrong notes and mess up, just not as much.” He paused then said, “Erroll Garner once told me, ‘It took me twenty years to figure out what to leave out.’ That really got me thinking.” He then added, “Damn. Erroll Garner must’ve sure been playing a lot of piano before he realized that then, if what we got is him leaving out.” He laughed. My friend then asked Hank who some of his influences were. He said Teddy and Fats Waller. He said that there was such joy in his playing, in every note. He said that Fats was one of the only pianists like that. I then suggested Erroll Garner. “Oh yes,” Hank said. “Erroll Garner sure was another.” Then, back to Fats, Hank said, he sang too. “Well,” he added. “He said he sang.” He laughed. 

Then Hank looked at me and said, “You know when Fats used to say, ‘One never knows, do one?’; you know what he was talking about?” “No,” I said. Hank began thinking out loud. “What do they call those things today?...Those fairies...” He couldn’t remember, so he said to me, “What do they call fairies today?” Not wanting to say “gays" and be wrong, I said I didn’t know. Hank then said, “Oh yes. The gays. That’s what he meant when he said, and in a very mischievous voice Hank repeated, "One never knows, do one?" He then paused. "Do one," Hank laughed. "Ha. Shoulda been ‘does one.’ Oh Fats.” And then he laughed. 

We began talking about Oscar Peterson, and I asked him if he ever saw a documentary that featured Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn talking and playing together. No he hadn’t. And then he said, “Andre Previn! I got a bone to pick with him. I lent him my piano cushion a few years back so he could have a cushion and I never got it back. But he’s conducting symphonies now, so I’ll probably never get it.”

It was the first of many encounters with Mr. Jones, and quite a thrilling one, to say the least.