In 1964, Earl (Fatha) Hines recalled the strange but illustrative conversation he had recently had in a New York nightclub. A young jazz fan had come up to him after the show and innocently asked, "Are you Earl Hines' son? My mother used to listen to your dad at the Grand Terrace in 1930."
Hines, the seminal jazz pianist who died of heart failure on Friday at the age of 77, seemed a little put off. "The young don't believe I'm me and the old are too tired to come and see. But I want both," he told Whitney Balliett, the eminent jazz writer for The New Yorker.
In the mid-'60s, Hines did win back a large degree of the fame that had first come to him at Chicago's Grand Terrace, where in 1928 he had headed up his first big band at the tender age of 23. In the ensuing years, Hines continued to make efforts to reach youngsters who might not even be aware that the playing of Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and so many other greats was deeply rooted in his unique style. His early '40s band, which included Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, was considered the incubator of bop.
When, in August of 1980, Hines performed at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in a program that was a living encyclopedia of the history of jazz, he even then was one of the last living eyewitnesses to the heyday of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Hines and Armstrong had sounded the bell for the last days of stride and ragtime in a series of spectacular 1928 recordings that helped push jazz into the modern age. And just as no one was playing trumpet like Armstrong, no one was playing piano like Hines; they were both pioneer improvisers. "We didn't know we were making history," Hines would say later. "We were just playing music."
Under Hines, a whole new concept of keyboard improvisation took shape that influenced every jazz pianist until the arrival of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk in the '40s. His rich, driving two-handed style, inspired by the necessity to compete with the larger groups coming into vogue, was marked by trumpet-like right-hand excursions and a busy left hand beating out countermelodies and rhythm figures like a backing band. His style, combining fast arpeggios, crashing chords and octave melodies, also used heretofore unheard dynamic variations. "No pianist ever took so many chances in the heat of spontaneous improvisation--and never seemed to miss," Balliett wrote.
With his jet-black, slicked-back hair and a hypnotically warm smile that never surrendered, Hines was one of the most recognizable figures in jazz. He exuded old-fashioned class and exhibited a charismatic energy that belied his advancing years. His touch was light but firm, his technique dexterous and dazzling. Hines would sit at a piano, eyes shut, betrothed nightly to familiar melodies. An inexorable flow of hums, buzzes and grunts served as both tenderizer and spice for the changes Hines still could put a melody through in his seventies. His spirit, like his talent, seemed undimmed.
"Every time I sit down to the piano, I try to play something new," he said in an interview with The Washington Post several years ago. "I am always trying to explore. If you ever see me laughing out there during a performance, that's because I'm lost and trying to find my way back."
There was a little of both the runner and the boxer in Hines' distinctive approach. In his halcyon days, he used to stomp so hard at the piano bench that he had pillows put under his feet; yet he also had a longtime habit of riding the soft pedal for subtle shadings and dramatic release. Hines' strong, arched fingers covered a wide spectrum, and he played in a crisp forceful manner, like the concert pianist he at one point trained to be. But he also was like the boxer, leaning into the piano, feinting with either hand and letting his unfurled fingers do the knockout playing that never abandoned him as it did many others of his generation.
Until the last couple years, Hines benefited from the excellent shape he kept himself in. Before arthritis and semiretirement set in and slowed him down, he traveled with portable hand stretchers and handgrips; even the ever-present trademark cigar seemed to do him no ill. He loved telling stories of workouts in the '30s with another champion, boxer Joe Louis. "We used to throw the medicine ball back and forth. That's why my stomach is so hard today," he bragged to one writer.
Growing up on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Hines had started out as a prodigious classical student, but as a 13-year-old visiting a restaurant-nightclub for the first time, he had been swept up by fascinating rhythms. "I heard this music upstairs," he told Stanley Dance in "The World of Earl Hines." "It had a beat and a rhythm to it that I'd never heard before and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves."
When, after two years of high school and part-time piano playing, he dropped out to play full time, it was jazz that enveloped him: "There was no field for black concert artists at the time and the rent was due every week," Hines explained. In the Roaring Twenties, he moved to Chicago, inspired by the insistent prodding of Eubie Blake, the great ragtime pianist and composer who died in February at age 100. Blake, a friend of Hines' aunt, had told the young pianist to get out of Pittsburgh or he'd never make a name for himself. "If I catch you here again, I'm going to take this cane and wrap it around your head."
Hines skedaddled in 1924 and it was in Chicago's South Side that he started developing his distinctive and ultimately influential style. "I have to say that I have an unusual left hand," he told Keyboard magazine several months ago. "Sometimes it outthinks my right hand! And in order to cooperate with what it's doing, I have to think about coordinating with it. I get stretched out there and I'll think what the hell, I've got to do something, so here comes my right hand. That's how I catch up. But nobody would understand that but me."
Hines' reputation among musicians was fueled in after-hours clubs, private parties and open jams, as well as by the recordings with Armstrong. In 1925, the local musicians' union fined him for creating a disturbance--bandleaders literally were fighting over him! His national reputation came with his show-dance-jazz band that was exposed via national radio hookups from the Grand Terrace, Chicago's equivalent of New York's Cotton Club; they made Hines' name and style familiar enough that when he toured, he was guaranteed terrific turnouts.
Hines always felt more comfortable as a leader than as a soloist, though much of his best work came in the solo context. From 1928 to 1948, he led many outstanding bands noted for using innovative arrangers and developing new stars, including Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Nance, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It was in Hines' band that Eckstine recorded "Jelly Jelly" and "Stormy Monday Blues," the songs that launched his career.
After almost two decades as a leader, Hines rejoined Louis Armstrong's all-star unit as a sideman; that lasted three years, until 1951, after which he seldom left the West Coast. He became a frequent solo attraction, and after his "rediscovery" in 1964, an international attraction. Having had the first black band to travel extensively in the South ("you might call us the first Freedom Riders," he once said proudly), Hines also was one of the first American jazz figures to tour the Soviet Union (in 1966) and Cuba (in 1977). He toured the world, often better appreciated overseas than he was at home. He met popes and presidents, commoners and kings, and often it seemed they were the ones honored to meet the Earl.
And though his face remained young and sparkling to the end, Hines carried his nickname long enough to qualify for a Grand Fatha. He picked up the moniker early on, while still in his twenties, from a broadcaster at the Grand Terrace. The broadcaster had just gotten a Hines lecture on drinking, and when the band struck up the show's theme song, he announced, "Here comes Fatha Hines through the 'Deep Forest' with his little children!" The name stuck longer than anyone could have predicted.