Hank Jones: A Legendary Work Ethic

Jones, legendary on the piano, passed away at age 91. Click on the photo to see him perform David Redfern / Redferns

Hank Jones, the jazz pianist nonpareil who died May 16 at 91, was many things. He was the elder brother in a trio of astonishingly talented musicians (the other two: Thad on trumpet and Elvin on drums). He lived long enough to see jazz pass through nearly all of its 20th- and 21st-century permutations and mastered them all. He could play in any setting, from solo to big band, and he played with almost everyone, from Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker to, mostly recently, Joe Lovano and Charlie Haden. Before he died, he won practically every award and accolade a musician could win. But most remarkable thing—the thing truly worth remembering—about Jones was that, by his own account, he considered himself a work in progress.

Toward the end of an interview with Ben Ratliff of The New York Times in 2005, when Jones was 87, he said, “I know I can do better than I’m doing now.” Ratliff asked him if he really meant it. “Oh, yeah,” Jones replied. “There’s another level that’s reachable. I think it’s just a question of time, perhaps, or dedication. I know it’s there.”

When he said that, he was in the midst of performing and recording some of the most beautiful, nimble music of his life, as a soloist, in duets, and as a sideman in a quartet. Grab Joe Lovano’s album Joyous Encounter and listen to Jones’s fleet solo, as carefree as it is precise, on Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica.” Honoring the composer’s style without ever imitating it outright, it’s as close to effortless as performance gets. If anyone had the right to relax, to play what he knew and let tomorrow take care of itself, it was Jones. But clearly, as far as he was concerned, that was not an option.

This is noteworthy twice over. It tells us a lot about the humility and dedication that Jones brought to his art, qualities a close listener might pick up just by paying attention to the pianist in concert and on recordings. But it also tells us something—and it doesn’t hurt that a master musician was doing the telling—about music specifically and art in general.

Music, like most things these days, is considered a young person’s game. Most songwriters do write the bulk of their material early. Very few performers make a splash late in life. If a musician such as Miles Davis or Bob Dylan goes through several incarnations over the course of a lifetime, that becomes his signature, with the implication that most people just don’t do this. Jones, by his example, put the lie to that kind of thinking. He wasn’t splashy, but by maintaining a restless, yearning spirit all his long life, he reminded us that there are no boundaries in music, that it’s never settled, that you can always learn more, do more, notch it up to a new level, no matter how old you are.

Anyone who plays music with any seriousness, at any age, knows this implicitly, but most of us aren’t Hank Jones, so we think, “Well, if I played and practiced as much, I might somehow attain the level of [your hero here].” We don’t stop to think that, in fact, there’s never any stopping, never any “good enough.” Jones, having no one he had to look up to, saw clearly that he was just getting his feet wet in the great ocean of music. There was always room for something new. You could say, in that respect, that he was cut down in midcareer. What a hero. Go listen.

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