Music: Steal Away

Hank Jones died last night at 91.

His career as a jazz pianist dates from the 1930s. He was booked to play the Birdland club in New York City twice this year, including a gig next week.

He was one of the very last survivors among the musicians who were right there on the bandstand when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were still figuring out the fleet, fractured, very difficult music others called bebop. He plays on a bunch of Parker’s records. He made important records with Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Williams, Charlie Haden, Joe Lovano, Oliver Jones and countless others.

He could play memorably in solo, duet, trio, small-group or orchestral settings. He backed the finest singers. He could summon the rollicking style of the great pianists from the generation just before his. He always kept an eye on later generations. His peers, sometimes half a century younger, always treated him as a contemporary, never a relic.

He was older brother to Thad Jones, the wonderful trumpeter and big-band composer, and Elvin Jones, the mighty drummer. This makes the Jones brothers of Detroit the most honoured family in jazz. His little brothers died before he did, which always makes me sad when I think about it.

By the mid-20th century, Detroit’s auto plants had given it a thriving African-American middle class, so thousands of black kids’ families had money for musical instruments and lessons, and space and leisure time to practice. Detroit rose to prominence as one of the leading jazz cities, perhaps exceeded in importance only by New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Regional sounds in music can be hard to pin down, but it’s generally recognized that a few elements distinguish a Detroit sound in jazz, whether it was played on piano by Tommy Flanagan or Geri Allen, on bass by Paul Chambers or Ron Carter, on trumpet by Marcus Belgrave, on saxophone by Kenny Garrett: harmonic imagination that never flaunts its depth of invention; fleet execution without a lot of extra notes; ready humour; and the blues in every bar. Mostly these characteristics came to be associated with Detroit because four generations of the city’s musicians wanted to sound like Hank Jones if they could.

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