The 75 years of jazz piano history is linked closely with the career of Earl "Fatha" Hines. But he's not quite ready to sit back and accept the dusty piano bench perch of an artifact. "Nobody knew we were making history. We were just playing music," syas a gallant Hines, who was revving up in the early 1920s in Pittsburgh, the same time Louis Armstrong was starting to strut in New Orleans. "But I was always a person who wanted to lead."
His inventiveness on the piano is legend, marking off the path that many of the jazz and big band greats followed. Instead of simply talking about those 60 years and name-dropping about his colleagues -- Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and the rest of the jazz pantheon -- Hines plans to demonstrate history at the Carter-Barron tonight. "The show is an evolution of jazz and my career," explains Hines, who plans to share some anecdotes and show the styles in a musical retrospective.
In December, Hines will be 75. This year he cut back his performing schedule by one month, starting in February instead of January. And he is apparently hampered physycially only by arthritis in his legs. "I'm tight," he says, slapping a trim stomach under a yellow sports shirt. His looks, -the trademark licorice-slick do and the bright battery of a smile, are as timeless as his "Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues." He maintains his stamina with portable stretchers and handclips. When in their primes, he and prizefrighter Joe Louis used to work out together, and Hines traveled with the pyrotechnical Globetrotters. "Sports are my pleasure. I like to bowl but I can't find the leagues anymore," he says.
Hines started playing the piano in Pittsburgh, his hometown, when he was 9, turned from classical study to a revenue-producing dance hall style as a teen-ager, and had a string of club dates by the time he went to Chicago in 1924. There his unusual melodic musicians and his recordings with Louis Armstrong in 1928 put his name on the map. The band Hines had from 1928 to the mid-1940s helped set the style for the Big Band era and schooled some of the era's top names, from vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine to instrumentalists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. When the economy and changing tastes brought an end to that era, Hines continued recording and switched to the lounge circuit, settling in for five years with a Dixieland band at the Hangover Club in San Francisco. In 1964, after a solo concert in New York, his career was revived.
"The best period was swing," says Hines. "In those years everyone ran around together. If Lester Young was playing in the same town, I would go over to his set when I was finished. There was no jealousy or animosity. During those days everyone had to know their instrument. We were interested in the music, not the money." The camaraderie led to some very loose exchanges of each other's material. "I had a boy named Jimmy Mundy, picked him up here in Washington and took him to Chicago. Benny Goodman picked him up, with the arrangement of 'Jersey Bounce' that Mundy did for me, and didn't change one note. The same thing happened with my 'After All I've Been to You.' Glenn Miller took it and used it, just like that."
Is there any bitternss about those deals? "Oh no," Hines says quickly. "Duke Ellington used to sit right there and write my melodies on his shirt cuff. When I asked him about it, he said, 'Oh, Fatha, I just remember.' But Johnny Hodges told me what he was doing. I enjoyed that fact that I was doing something the other musicians liked."
Some of the history he would like to correct, like the often-repeated story that Armstrong really gave him his start. "This is what happened. We were at the musicians' union in Chicago, playing pool. A boy came in with a guitar, I went in and started playing the piano, and Louie said, 'Can I join?' and picked up his trumpet," explains Hines. The recordings that followed that impromptu beginning made history. "We made a record called 'West End Blues,' and Louie made the intro, we came in on the chords. And when we did that number at a dance, the women would scream. No one has been able to duplicate that 'cause we played from the heart."
In his long career Hines has only thought of quitting once, back in 1964. "I wanted to get out. I couldn't find the right agents. I was living on the West Coast and writing back and forth. I couldn't get things straight, but a friend Stanley Dance, the critic, urged me to keep at it," says Hines. Since his album, "Jazz is His Old Lady and My Old Man," which was made three years ago, Hines hasn't recorded. "I had done a lot of recording overseas, in a number of markets, and the records were running into one another. Plus nobody was buying them. The rock market has all the money," he says.
However, those changing trends don't keep him up nights worrying. He taps the top of a coffee cup and says slowly, "I have always had one feeling, what's here for you, you will get it. Just be prepared for what happens."