Earl Hines at Downtown Sound, March 1974
December 28, 1903 - April 22, 1983
In the 1970s, I produced a dozen LPs that featured Earl Hines, either as a piano soloist, leader or member of a group. I don’t have a single alternate take or breakdown of any selection from the solo albums. He just would not repeat anything. He played a song, played it well, and that was it. He never began a song, then stopped and began again. It was all in his mind before he played the first note.
There is some duplication on the live recordings with his quartet, but only because over the course of a week he’d play the same song on different nights. The few alternate takes from sessions where he was part of a group, such as a Buck Clayton jam session, or with Jonah Jones or Joe Venuti, if there was a need to do something over, it was never because of Earl.
The simple truth is, I never heard him make a mistake. He often worked himself into some pretty tight places, but he never failed to astound everyone as he emerged musically victorious. My guess is it was a combination of phenomenal technique, a flawless ear, a sense of bravado, and total confidence in his ability to do anything he wanted at the keyboard.
Maybe I was just lucky, or perhaps I just caught Earl during a seven year run when he was supremely confident, and his solo technique was in top form. Here is an example of what I mean. In early 1970 I hit on the idea of asking Earl to recreate the eight legendary piano solos he’d fashioned for the QRS piano roll company in 1928. QRS had decided to branch out into phonograph records and Earl was chosen to record eight selections. The people who compile lists claim the eight sides were recorded in Long Island City on December 8; the same people also claim he recorded two of the same songs for the Okeh company the following day in Chicago. Maybe such a feat would have been possible, but I tend to doubt it. Someone has the dates wrong.
Nonetheless, eight original compositions were recorded in New York and two selections were repeated a few days later in Chicago. The music survived, but as time passed, the eight original selections on QRS became almost impossible to find. Yet, thanks to copies and bootlegs, these eight selections were as important in the evolution of solo jazz piano as any recordings up to that time, and their importance has not diminished over time.
I didn’t know Earl in 1970, but I did know his close friend, Stanley Dance, who also served as his business manager and biographer. I telephoned Stanley, who liked my idea. He said he’d pass it along to Earl, who was not very busy in recording studios in 1970, and recommend that he undertake the project. I ran the idea by my musical partners, Marian McPartland and Sherman Fairchild, and both were enthusiastic. We made an offer of $500 and, Earl accepted. A date was set to record, March 15, 1970, a Sunday, around noon.
Sherman, Marian and I got to the early; Stanley arrived with Earl a little later. He’d flown in from Toronto; where the evening before he played an engagement at the Colonial Tavern until about 2:00 AM, rested a little, caught an early morning fl ight to New York , and came directly from the airport. He looked impeccable. Suit pressed, not a hair out of place, or should I say, all his hair was in place. He gave the impression he hadn’t given much thought to the project at hand. I anticipated this might be the case and had brought along a Milestone LP reissue of the eight QRS selections, just in case he might want to hear one. By 1970, only one of those early compositions, My Monday Date, ever turned up in his performances. It was unlikely he’d played any of the other seven, except possibly Blues In Thirds, for many years, or even thought about them.
I don’t remember the first song Earl recorded that day, but it was the same for each song. I told him I had a recording of all the songs if he wanted to hear one to refresh his memory, and he thought that was a good idea. I’d play the LP; he’d listen carefully to his 1928 performances, usually sitting on the bench, with his back to the piano. Then he’d turn around and run his hands over the keys, apparently working everything out in his head, and would finally announce he was ready to try one. I’d retreat to the recording booth, Earl would play the song and that was it. This routine was repeated seven times. No second takes of any selections. The album was complete in less than an hour and a half.
Each of the eight selections was a masterpiece of structured improvisation. He didn’t just throw them off. A couple were short; Panther Rag and Chimes In Blues were about the same length as they were in 1928, but the other six were five to seven minutes long. The next year, the Quintessential Recording Session made its way to the final five in the Grammy competition for Outstanding Jazz Soloist. It didn’t win, old time guys on little labels with only three releases in the marketplace didn’t win in those years any more than they win today, but it was nice to know a few people had taken notice.
Every studio date I did with Earl over the next few years was just the same. He’d just arrive and do it. We did two more Quintessential recordings of original compositions and then a special recording in New Orleans that would become 100th Chiaroscuro. In between there were duo, sextet and jam session dates; some live, some in the studio. The most amazing display of his facility I ever witnessed, however, occurred at an out of the way motel in Syracuse, New York, in October 1972.
A month or two earlier, Stanley Dance tipped me off that Earl was going to be doing something unusual. Instead of his normal quartet, he was going to work for a couple of weeks with the legendary guitarist, Tiny Grimes. Earl usually had a saxophone in his quartet, but for this short period Tiny would be in the group instead. Stanley suggested this might make for an interesting recording opportunity. I jumped at the idea, but then learned the closest the quartet would be to New York City was Syracuse, at a place called Dinkler’s Motor Inn. I bit my lip and agreed to do a remote. I didn’t know it, but this modest motel in upstate New York was going to be the scene of one of the most remarkable bits of musicianship I’d ever witness.
Earl was set to play five days, Tuesday thru Saturday. Two sets a night for the first three days, three sets on the last two. Tuesday was just used to set up the gear, run levels and do some general testing. Earl played his regular show that night. The Louis Armstrong Medley, The West Side Story Medley, The Canadian Sunset/Eddie Heywood Medley; the kinds of things people would like to hear in the lounge of a motel in Syracuse. Nothing very remarkable. At the end of the evening, I gave Earl the list of tunes Stanley and I had selected. He’d never recorded any of them, or at least this is what Stanley had told me, and I had no reason to doubt it.
All the equipment was set for recording on Wednesday night. I thought Earl might try one or two of the new tunes. No such luck. He played the show twice. Now I had two takes of everything. The same thing happened on Thursday. He played the show twice. Three takes of everything. On Friday morning I casually suggested it might make sense to try some of the songs that night. Earl was having none of it. He played the show three times.
It was now the last day and I was beginning to get nervous. I visited with Earl Saturday morning, and said we had to try and get some things down that night. I knew better than to suggest too strenuously. He just gave me the “don’t worry” look and suggested I take Marva Josie, his vocalist, to the football game that afternoon. I went to the game with Marva; she said I shouldn’t worry about the recording, but I did.
Earl played the show the first set on Saturday night and repeated it on the second set. I had just about given up. He sat down at the piano to begin the third set about 11:30 PM. He reached inside his coat pocket and took out the piece of paper that listed the songs we wanted for the recording. He then proceeded to play each song on the very long list, coaching his band and cueing them along the way. It was about a two hour set. When he finished the list, he played Its A Pity to Say Goodnight and that was that. He picked up the piece of paper, said goodnight, and went back to his room. There was enough exceptional material for two LPs, which I was only too happy to pay for.
It was an astonishing display. Stanley and I had picked tunes he never played, things like Lester Leaps In, All of Me, and the old chestnut from the 1930s, Who? Each was perfectly executed, flawlessly constructed and either exciting, beautiful, or both. The only tunes on the album that didn’t come from that long last set were Marva’s vocals, some of which had turned out better on other evenings. I don’t know if he’d been sitting in his room thinking about those tunes for four days, but I doubt it. He was probably just exercising his hands and watching a ball game on television. It was simply phenomenal musicianship.
We made another Quintessential solo LP in 1973 and yet another in 1974, but an incident in March 1974, during my first Buck Clayton Jam Session points out how his peers reacted to Earl. It was a great twelve-piece band, playing original arrangements by Buck. As we were working out the solo order for the first tune, it became clear no one wanted to follow Earl on the first tune, Boss Blues. The only guy who was game was Zoot Sims. It went very well. A rehearsal and then a good take.
Buck had structured all the arrangements so they’d last about twelve to fifteen minutes. He had four originals, which would easily fill an LP, but it didn’t work out that way. The structure of Lazy Blues, the third tune on the date, was an introduction and then various soloists in a selected order. The soloist would play a long chorus with rhythm and then a second chorus accompanied by the entire ensemble. It worked just perfectly until about ten minutes into the song, when Earl launched into his solo. He played the first chorus and everyone in the ensemble was so fascinated by what he was doing that no one came in on the second chorus. Earl just kept on playing and it got better and better. Finally Buck got his attention, the rest of the ensemble woke up, and everything worked out fine. But it was a twenty-six minute take. I wasn’t complaining, but it meant I never issued all the material from that session until the CD era.
I kept in touch with Earl through the 1970’s, we’d made our last record together in 1977. He was in New York City less and less and then, in the early 1980’s he had some health problems, but was still performing regularly and recording for other companies, but never for a major. His last recording seems to have been on a Brazilian label in 1981. A couple of years later in mid-April, 1983, we launched The Floating Jazz Festival. My first call was to Earl Hines. He said he’d be happy to be part of it. He died a week later, before I even had a chance to write a contract.
Earl Hines was not only the most remarkable pianist I ever worked with, he was perhaps the most remarkable musician. He was the consummate professional, a man who not only had perfect musical time, but was always on time, every time, always did the job well, even if it was just the play the show, was impeccably dressed, courteous, good natured to a fault, was giving to others, and never made a musical error. He loved a musical challenge and probably other kinds of challenges as well. An example.
I asked Dick Wellstood to write the liner notes for one of the Hines Quintessential solo dates. Wellstood wrote as well as he played piano, and his notes for the Hines album were nothing short of amazing. One night, just after the LP had been released, Earl came down to the studio. He asked to see it and was pleased. He then asked me to read him Wellstood’s notes. This is what I read:
Behold Earl Hines, spinner of yarns, big handed virtuoso of the black dance, con man extraordinaire, purveyor of hot sauce.
Behold Earl Hines, Jive King, boss of the sloppy run, the dragged thumb, the uneven tremolo, Minstrel of The Unworthy Emotion, King of Freedom.
Democratic Transcendent, his twitchy, spitting style uses every cheesy trick in the piano-bar catalog to create moving cathedrals, masterpieces of change, great trains of tension and relaxation, multi-dimensional solos that often seem to be about themselves or about other solos-“See, here I might have played some boogie-woogie, or put this accent there, or this run here, that chord there…or maybe a little stride for you beautiful people in the audience….” Earl Hines, Your Musical Host, serving up the hot sauce.
For all the complexity in his playing, Hines exercises fairly simple harmonic vocabulary, and in any event his peculiar stuttering rhythmic sense gives his phrasing such force as to make harmonic analysis almost meaningless. The dissonances he uses are more that result of his fascination with the overtone of the piano that of any concern with elaborate harmony substitutions. Accented single notes making the upper strings ring, or open fifths or octaves sounded a tone or semi-tone apart (either will do) at opposite ends of the keyboard are to him among the most beautiful of sounds.
His is the music of Change, based on the rhythms of the body in a graceful way unique to the older Jazz players. This may be why he is more successful as a soloist than as a trio pianist. The trio’s os carine petercision, a crutch for many, is a cage for Hines. It’s need for relentless accuracy and predictable responses only betrays in the tiny imperfections of freedom in his playing; when he is playing alone, these imperfections meld into a sweet flexible instrument of expression.
Hines is not a “stride” pianist. His rhythm is too straight four-four, too free. He does not possess the magisterial dignity of James P. Johnson, the aristocratic detachment of Art Tatum, the patience of Donald Lambert, the phlegmatic unflappability necessary to maintain the momentum of stride. Hines needs silence in the bass, room to let the flowers grow, space to unroll his showers of broken runs containing (miraculously) the melody within, his grace-noted octaves (“That’s the way we make the piano sing!”,-Eubie Blake), and his wandering, Irish endings.
His is Freedom in discipline, infinite choice in a limited sphere, the tension of Will vs. Material-his is human creativity. Behold Earl Hines, King of Beasts!
After I finished, he nodded and suggested we go out for dinner. As we were walking along Christopher Street, he said something like, “If you every make a record with that Wellstood boy, let me write some notes about him.” I didn’t ask Earl, but I should have. And I’ll bet he’d have worked Dick over pretty good.