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Prolific pianistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
John Hicks, one of the most versatile and prolific jazz pianists of the past four decades, died of internal bleeding in New York City on May 10, 2006. He was sixty-four years of age.
Born in Atlanta on December 21, 1942, Hicks was raised in Los Angeles where he absorbed Fats Waller, bebop and church music in the 1950s, and studied piano at his mother’s side. In 1957 his father, Rev. Dr. John J. Hicks, relocated the family to St. Louis when he took on the pastorate of Union Memorial Methodist Church. Young John continued his musical studies at Lincoln University, then finished at Berklee. Upon his graduation Hicks moved to New York City, encouraged by friends like Clark Terry and Miles Davis. His family followed, with his father eventually heading St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.
Hicks’ first touring job was under Della Reese, followed by jobs with Al Grey, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Lou Donaldson, the young Pharoah Sanders, and the bluesmen Little Milton and Albert King. In ’64 Art Blakey took Hicks on as the Jazz Messengers’ pianist, a post he held for two years (’S Make It; Hold On, I’m Comin’). In 1966 Hicks began a recurrent association with Betty Carter, becoming one of the singer’s favorite accompanists over the course of several world tours(Now It’s My Turn, 1976; Audience with Betty Carter, 1979; It’s Not About the Melody, 1992). Between 1968 and 1970 Hicks was one of the rare African-American sidemen in Woody Herman’s band (>Light My Fire, 1969). During the late 1960s Hicks also performed and recorded with the likes of Sonny Simmons, Booker Ervin, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan.
In the 1970s Hicks leaned further towards the avant-garde, making free-tinged jazz with such second-generation explorers as Charles Tolliver (Grand Max, Chico Freeman (Outside Within, Spirit Sensitive), Lester Bowie (Fast Last!), Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe. He occasionally resumed his work with Blakey and Carter, as well as Sonny Rollins, Frank Foster, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, Roy Haynes, Sonny Stitt and Jon Hendricks.
His first recording session as a leader was Hell’s Bells, cut for Charles Tolliver’s Strata-East label in 1978. This was followed by a good tenure with Theresa Records, the fruits of which have been reissued by Evidence (Some Other Time, In Concert, Two of a Kind, etc.) Hicks led various bands from trios through sextets to big-band dates, but devoted more and more time to solo work from the early 1990s. A hallmark of his later work was the tribute album; Hicks recorded loving homages to influences like the tenor sax pantheon, Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday (Lover Man), Earl “Fatha” Hines (Fatha’s Day), Clark Terry (Music in the Key of Clark), Erroll Garner (Nightwind) and Billy Strayhorn (Something to Live For, one of Hicks’ finest achievements). In 1990 Hicks contributed the seventh volume of Concord Jazz’ series of solo piano concerts at Maybeck Recital Hall. That same year he participated in Gunther Schuller’s presentation of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph, which led to spots in Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band (Live in Time, Blues and Politics, I Am Three).
All in all, Hicks recorded more than two dozen sessions as a leader and over three hundred as a sideman. Since 2000 alone he had performed and recorded with artists like Sonny Fortune, David Murray (Love and Sorrow, Like a Kiss That Never Ends), Larry Coryell (Inner Urge), Ricky Ford, Richard Davis, David “Fathead” Newman (Keep the Spirits Singing, Gift, Song for the New Man, I Remember Brother Ray), Cecil Brooks III, Curtis Lundy (Purpose), Billy Bang (the Vietnam albums), James Carter (Gardenias for Lady Day), Joe Lovano, Roni Ben-Hur, and his wife, flautist Elise Wood (Beautiful Friendship). He also worked as an educator in various jazz programs, including NYU and the New School for Social Research.
In addition to his wife, John Hicks is survived by his daughter and granddaughter, Naima Yemenejah and Chintamini Hicks of Atlanta; son, Jamil Malik Hicks; brother, Raiford Emerson Hicks; sisters Mrs. Paula Hicks Neely (Louis) and Ms. Emma Hicks Kirk (Ronald) of Stockbridge, Georgia; nieces Lotus Eldona Hicks, Amina Kirk Thornton, Akosua Biney, Oresala Hicks and Khaliyah Hicks; nephews Tyler Hicks, Jameel Hicks, Hakim Vines, Raiford Hicks, Jr., Kwesi Balewa Kirk; aunts Dorothy Ransom, Eartha Cheeseborough of Jacksonville, Florida, Mrs. Thelma Lawrence of New York City; uncle John Emmett Brown of Jacksonville; and cousin Mrs. Debra Lawrence Cowan of New York City.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.