"I CAME through Washington with my big band every year for 15 or 20 years," pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines recalls. "We would do the Apollo in New York, the Earle in Philadelphia, the Royal in Baltimore and the Howard Theater -- what they called the 'round-the-world' circuit."

In the late '40s and early '50s, Hines often came to D.C. with Louis Armstrong's Allstars. The decades since have been filled with gigs by his own groups at Washington jazz clubs, performances at the Kennedy Center, Constitution Hall, the Smithsonian, Wolf Trap and other concert facilities, as well as command performances for four presidents.

Until a few weeks ago, the great jazz pianist was still recuperating from arthritic problems in his neck that laid him low last December. Now he's back on the road with an entirely new group and will open tonight for two weeks at Charlie's. "I think these kids might make a very good reputation," he said of his new group. Hines' uncanny ability to spot promising talent has helped launch the careers of Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker and countless others.

"I came from a musical family," says Hines. "My father played cornet, my mother played organ, my uncle played all the brass instruments and my auntie was in light opera. I studied to be a classical pianist, and I placed all my heart and soul in being a concert master, but we had the racial trouble as to a black man being in that type of music. So I happened to hear this tapping music going on one time in a restaurant, and I was very young and I said, 'Now that's something that I like.' They called it 'syncopation' then -- it wasn't jazz, it was ragtime -- and I began to like it and that's the beginning of my career."

Hines was 12 and had been studying piano for three years when this change in musical direction occurred; before three more years had gone by he was playing with local bands in Pittsburgh. Eubie Blake heard the young pianist and warned him that he would never get anywhere "staying around a little town like this." Blake, 23 years Hines' senior, went on to threaten him, "If you don't get out of Pittsburgh, I'll take this cane and break it over your head."

"Fortunately," Hines laughs in recollection, "before he came back the next year I was invited to Chicago and then the avenues opened up for me."

One of those avenues led to the release of several 78 rpm sides with Louis Armstrong that are recognized today as classics of American music. Of "Weather Bird," a duet of December 1928, author and critic Martin Williams said, "One is astounded to realize how far these two men had brought jazz improvisation in a mere five years." Musician, scholar and composer Gunther Schuller insists that their sextet version of the King Oliver composition "West End Blues," recorded six months earlier, "served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression."

"We were just recording," Hines says, "and ideas came from us while we were at the studio. I'd say, 'Louis, make this,' and he'd say, 'No, I don't think I've got strength enough to make that.' That's the kind of conversation we had and when we made 'Weather Bird,' for instance, Louis said, 'I'll start playing 16 bars and you think about another eight bars and I'll just follow you.' And we laughed about it when it was over. Like we were saying before Louis passed, he said, 'We didn't know we were making history, did we?' And I said, 'We certainly didn't.' "