Hank Jones, pianist and jazz legend, beloved husband of Theodosia, dear uncle to his nieces and nephews across the country, friend to music, inspiration to countless musicians, died on Monday, May 16, in New York City, after a brief illness. He was 91 years old and would have been 92 on July 31.
Jones’ longtime manager and Justin Time Records representative Jean-Pierre Leduc reflects, “Today we celebrate his spirit, his gift, his joy, his wisdom and his friendship. Hank lived and breathed music, and was never far from a keyboard, even at the end. His incredible burst of productivity these last few years — concerts, recordings, fundraisers, clinics — was unprecedented and truly remarkable.”
Born in 1918 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Jones grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the eldest of an acclaimed family that included trumpeter, composer and bandleader Thad and drummer Elvin.
Jones started playing in local bands in Michigan, Ohio and Buffalo before moving to New York City in 1943. His first job was with Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street where, in 1945, he joined Billy Eckstine’s big band. The following year he joined Coleman Hawkins, and from 1947 to 1951 he toured the world with Jazz at the Philharmonic, accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. In 1952 he joined Artie Shaw and then worked with Johnny Hodges followed by Tyree Glenn. In 1956 he joined Benny Goodman. Three years later, he went to work for CBS studios as staff pianist, a position he held for 17 years. Additionally, Jones accompanied Marilyn Monroe as she sang “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Although he considered retiring at age 87, Jones stayed busy. He played concerts worldwide, recorded, and conducted jazz master classes at Harvard University, New York University and elsewhere.
Always the consummate professional, Jones played and recorded with a virtual who’s who of great jazz musicians. With over 500 albums and CDs recorded and countless concerts performed, there are few significant names in jazz that Hank did not play or record with during his career. His recent awards include a Congressional Achievement Award, NEA Jazz Master (1989), induction in Down Beat magazine’s Jazz Hall of Fame (2009), Jazz Journalists Association’s Pianist of the Year (2009) and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2009).
Jones released his most recent album, Pleased To Meet You, as a co-leader on Justin Time Records in October with label mate pianist Oliver Jones. Before his death, Jones recorded as a guest artist on a duets album with vocalist Hilary Kole, which is set for an August 10 release on Justin Time. His final recording is an album of duets with bassist Charlie Haden, due out later this year on Universal France.
He was scheduled to appear at Birdland in New York next week and had performances booked through next year.
Photo credit: Jimmy Katz