A Farewell to Hank Jones


The dimension and feeling of jazz were perfectly realized during a recent Saturday-afternoon memorial held in Harlem for pianist Hank Jones, who had died at 91. Television cameras and radio microphones were not there to create the glaring atmosphere surrounding pop music these days, whether performed by instrumentalists or singers or those others incapable of entry into the aesthetic world where notes are mastered and used.


Hank Jones was not a pop musician, however long he had co-existed with the various show-business trends designed purely for commercial success. Jones was highly regarded for many years by all who knew how good his music was. He could always be counted on for the inventive quality and sweep of his piano playing, his spontaneously astute accompaniment and the witty verve of his subtle arrangements for small ensembles. Fellow musicians, progeny and committed listeners were right there, bearing witness to the lifelong devotion Jones showed to an aesthetic embodied and defined by persistent, personal elegance.

That Saturday afternoon in Harlem at Abyssinian Baptist Church was the summation of how much is actually going on in the jazz world. That world, contrary to cynical or irresponsible reports, is neither mortally wounded nor in shambles, melting away in the darkness of neglect and disinterest. That gradual disappearance is true only for those caught judging reality solely through publicity and mass media attention.

The electronic repetitions of fluff and vulgar or sentimental goo spewed throughout the media have been inarguably bothersome — as they always have, if never on the present scale. Jazz is made best by committed and masterful musicians, which it is far from lacking in our time. This special music satisfies its makers and listeners by the nature of a particular revitalization. So it is always thrilling to see people of various generations sustain the power of artistry central to the form.

Revitalization of the art is too subtle for some, especially those who believe that submitting to trends is as important as displaying an integrity that transcends an abundance of styles. A refreshing quality is constantly at work because jazz is based in improvisation, and deft improvisation is a way of reexamining while reinterpreting. Novelty does not have the signal importance of a jazz musician works at finding in the eloquent statement. That depth of statement most truly achieves itself in front of an audience through perhaps the most sophisticated action in all of music.

William Shakespeare wrote that action is eloquence. Jazz is supremely idiomatic eloquence modified by the improvisational: A language developed over the history of the music that is quite specific but always leaves elastic room for individual identity.

Abyssinian Baptist Church is where the most famous jazz musician to be grandly honored with far from superficial depth of grief, Charlie Parker in 1955. This recent Saturday afternoon memorial was a quite handsome gathering of first-class talent and talent sometimes beyond first-class, like that of the seminal drumming genius Roy Haynes, who was acknowledged by Rev. Calvin Butts with warmth, humor and respect.


Haynes sat there in a pew, immaculate in his dark glasses and black silk jacket, radiating the inventive swing, drive and supportive emotion he had given to every style developed in jazz since he began working professionally in the middle 1940s, performing with everyone from pure New Orleans players to John Coltrane and those who emerged afterward. If the feeling of jazz was needed in virtually any situation, Haynes brought it. Still firing up bandstands in his mid-80s, Haynes exudes the iconic atmosphere of jazz wherever he happens to be. One can fancily assume that the heart of this grand master of beats to the rhythm of swing.

The bassist that Haynes now features in his Fountain of Youth band is David Wong, a young master who recently graduated from Juilliard. Wong represented the stretch of invaluable lessons learned from the grand masters there to celebrate Hank Jones and who had famously worked with him and many others. They were Ron Carter, Buster Williams and George Mraz, all of whom played with the precision of technique, attention and emotion summoned by the symbol of Hank Jones.


That intensely familial level of performance was shared by Billy Taylor, who had met Jones in the 1940s when they were both young men learning their craft in the bands of giants and innovators like tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith. They also benefited from the casual academies of bars described by Taylor, who had studied music in college but learned what to do and how to do it from questioning the many whom were available in a particularly American context. These were the accidental master classes held in bars and clubs, where alcohol was served but did not limit the profound information to be had from the sometimes gruff and satiric professionals almost always ready and willing to help those coming up.

More than anything else, that was the point made by all of the musicians and felt by the listeners who filled Abyssinian Baptist Church on that marvelous afternoon. From veterans in their 80s down to the vital forces of inarguable masters such as Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, Lewis Nash, Eric Reed and Cyrus Chestnut. When Barry Harris tearfully sang, ''What a friend we have in Jesus'' as he played piano at the conclusion, Harris also expressed the feeling that jazz is never less than an invincible friend. It will, as Buster Williams said to a younger player, ''stay right here. That is what art always does.''


Any who doubt that know nothing about what always results from those too deeply committed to making the moment brand new every time they improvise the present into a meaningful human form.

Beyond any doubt, Hank Jones, that unforgettably elegant and subtle man, would have been very happy with a memorial worthy of him and what he seemed to do every single time he opened his eyes to a new day, ready to play or think about how to improve himself and his version of a timeless art.


(You can hear one of Hank Jones' last recording sessions on ''Eloquence'' with trombonist Steve Davis, released by Jazz Legacy Productions.)

Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.