Newport spotlights an elder statesman

Newport spotlights an elder statesman

by Ken Franckling
for United Press International
August 17, 1999
UPI Arts & Entertainment - The Jazz Condition
Copyright © 1999 by United Press International
All rights reserved, reproduced by permission

More often than not, star power plays the weightiest role in filling the schedules at today's jazz festivals to ensure tickets are sold and profits are made -- or that the producers at least break even.

Producer George Wein selected young crooner Harry Connick Jr. to headline the 1999 edition of the JVC Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island on August 13-15 -- and even allowed the Sinatra of Generation X to select all of the musicians that preceded him on Saturday's schedule.

One selection was pianist Hank Jones. At 81, the Michigan native is the elder statesman of today's most artful jazz pianists, yet is a player who has never received the level of recognition he has deserved.

His career often was overshadowed by those of his younger brothers. Drummer Elvin Jones made his mark in the John Coltrane quartet. Trumpeter, composer and arranger Thad Jones, who died in 1986, found fame in the Count Basie Orchestra and then as co-leader of one of New York's finest big bands.

Connick said he considers Jones one of his heroes. And although they differ stylistically as much as in the 50 years that separate them, it was easy to see why Connick reveres his elder.

Jones brings a touch of class to the piano. With his trio, he turned in the most intimate and polished music of the weekend. Backed by the bass wizard George Mraz and drummer Dennis Mackrel, the elegance and grace of the material matched that of the man. Highlights were delicate readings of J.J. Johnson's classic ballad "Lament" and Thad Jones' signature composition, "A Child is Born."

Several hours later, as Connick's big band churned through an interesting set of instrumentals and vocals, Connick capped the day by bringing Jones back on stage to perform "Moose the Mooche" and accompany the singer on a ballad. His playing with Connick's unit was a startling contrast to the young star's funkier, somewhat sloppy down home New Orleans keyboard style.

Backstage in conversation, Jones exhibited the same degree of humor, elegance and class that he brings to his music. He was pleased to be back in Newport in his first appearance at this granddaddy of jazz festivals since working with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1966.

He said hard work is the key to his musical longevity.

"You just have to keep working at it. You just have to constantly try to focus on improving what you are doing. It means that you have to put in a lot of time at the piano. You have to practice. You have to listen a lot," Jones said.

"You have to be conscious of what you are doing and be aware of what is going on around you. I'm a slow learner. It's fortunate that I've lived as long as I have because it has taken me a long time to learn things," he said, mixing wry humor with his ever-present modesty.

Jones moved to New York in 1944 when the Swing Era reigned. He was an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald in the late 1940s and early 1950s while also recording as a leader (and a sideman to Charlie Parker) for Savoy Records. He spent considerable time as a house musician at CBS television.

In more recent years, he has made a interesting array of recordings as a leader. They have included Sarala, which blended jazz with traditional West African music, and Steal Away, an acclaimed duo recording of spirituals and hymns that was recorded with bassist Charlie Haden.

In late August, Jones will team up in the duo format with vibes player Milt Jackson for three nights at The Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass. In December, he will be featured in three solo piano evenings at Lincoln Center. He said he is also making plans for at least two more recordings for the Verve label.

"I can't coast. I don't allow myself to," Jones said. "I push myself more than anything. There is no such thing as standing still. This is one of the truisms that people forget about. Either you move ahead or you go backwards. I'd rather go forward."

His only musical regret was that he didn't work more with Thad and Elvin. There have been various performance pairings over the years, but they only recorded once in an ensemble setting, on the 1961-62 Riverside album "Elvin!"

"I don't see Elvin but once every two or three years. I hope Elvin and I can do more things. We just don't work together often enough," Jones said. He also said he would like to record with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Oscar Peterson before his playing days are done.

Jones's return to Newport was special -- and the impact was not lost on those who witnessed it. He played masterfully in his own context. And when given the chance, he brought his own elegant sensibility to Connick's band.

When he rose from the piano and gracefully strode to center stage to thank his young host for the opportunity to play, there was a very special Newport moment.

Rather than shake the patriarch's hand, pat him on the back and send him on his way, Connick dropped to his knees, raised both arms over his head and bowed in deepest respect.

This was no contrived bit of comic relief. A master had just made an indelible musical statement. Connick knew it. And the crowd knew it.

The cheers and the applause intensified.

C o m m e n t s

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