Hank Jones, 91, dies; piano genius and big-band stalwart

Mr. Jones accompanied a nervous Marilyn Monroe in her birthday tribute to President John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Jones accompanied a nervous Marilyn Monroe in her birthday tribute to President John F. Kennedy. (The Washington Post)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Hank Jones, 91, a jazz piano virtuoso who had a remarkably prolific career over eight decades and accompanied a range of performers, including Charlie Parker, Marilyn Monroe and Captain Kangaroo, died May 16 at a hospital in the Bronx, N.Y.

Manager Jean-Pierre Leduc confirmed the death and said Mr. Jones had prostate cancer.

Mr. Jones, who received a Grammy lifetime achievement award last year and the National Medal of Arts in 2008, was the last surviving brother of an illustrious musical family. Two of his younger siblings were Thad Jones, a trumpeter, composer and bandleader, and Elvin Jones, whose beat modeled on African drumming drove the innovative 1960s quartet led by saxophonist John Coltrane.

In a career underscored by his versatility and unflagging excellence, Hank Jones was one of the last stalwarts of the big-band swing era still actively performing.

Reviewers described Mr. Jones in rapturous language, noting that he played with nearly everybody and that his music evoked the tasteful swing piano of Teddy Wilson and the rapid-fire brilliance of Art Tatum.

"His approach is such a deep-running distillation of jazz piano," New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson once wrote of Mr. Jones, "that endless fascination can be found in anything he plays."

As a younger man, Mr. Jones backed singer Ella Fitzgerald for six years and proved a gifted interpreter of the harmonically intricate bebop jazz style on recordings with saxophonist Parker.

Mr. Jones mastered bebop language, but he was not confined to it. He deftly accompanied many of the leading artists of the day, including Artie Shaw, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley, each of whom were wildly distinct jazz players.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Jones was a studio musician for CBS-TV, anonymously backing guest artists who appeared on programs including "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Captain Kangaroo."

Mr. Jones collected a steady paycheck from his studio work and did not become worn down by the assignments. In his later years, he was still providing effortlessly brilliant musical support to contemporaries such as pianist Tommy Flanagan and jazz greats half his age, including saxophonist Joe Lovano on the albums "I'm All For You" and "Joyous Encounter."

In short, Mr. Jones could play with almost anyone successfully while retaining the highest standards of musicianship.

Jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern called Mr. Jones "one of the greatest piano players that we've ever had. He had a profile as a piano stylist in his own right and could do everything -- stride, bebop, swing, serve as a great accompanist. He had such command of all the aspects of jazz piano. He was just remarkable until the very end."

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