"THE PEOPLE that really turned me around in my early days were nameless piano players I heard night after night. They would come into the barbecue place and whatever they made was mostly tips. They weren't studied musicians--they were blues players."

Art Hodes has long been considered one of the few white players who can capture the nuances of blues piano, a nearly impenetrable idiom for one not nourished in an Afro-American musical environment.

Thelonious Monk used to check out Hodes at New York's Jimmy Ryan's in the 1940s. "Horace Silver says that if there was no Art Hodes, there'd be no Horace Silver," Hodes says with pride.

Jazz critic Whitney Balliett says that Hodes' slow blues "seem to encompass every emotion and in their intensity and depth . . . surpass those of any blues pianist."

Of his feeling for the blues Hodes says, "When I heard it, I married it. It was like I had nothing to say about it--it grabbed me and I fell in love with it."

Hodes opens solo at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis tomorrow night for a two-week engagement, Wednesdays through Sundays.

Hodes was less than a year old when he arrived in this country with his parents from Kiev, Russia, in 1904. He says that his father, a tinsmith, "got into some sort of trouble with the authorities and it was more of a case of him having to leave Russia."

Settling into the turbulent 20th Ward of Chicago's West Side, the Hodes family found itself in the midst of fellow immigrants ("heavily Jewish and Italian," Hodes recalls).

"Most of the guys who were dealing with illegal booze grew up there," Hodes says. "In fact, one of the kids I ran around with I later saw at a ganglord's table. It was a job trying to go to school without getting hit over the head with a sandbag."

Opera from Caruso poured out of the family "wind-me-up" and "jazz was very foreign to us," Hodes says. But his older sister practiced pop tunes on a piano bought on the installment plan, and Hodes started picking up the Coon-Sanders Orchestra on a crystal set. He took piano lessons at 25 cents apiece at Hull House, and one day 10-year-old Benny Goodman appeared with clarinet in hand and the two jammed on a pop number of the day. "As small as he was, it seemed he was looking down on you," Hodes reflects.

In his midteens Hodes was playing dime-a-dance halls and accompanying singers "who made the rounds, going from table to table for tips." He was also "beginning to get exposed to musicians, playing with a clarinet player from New Orleans, playing with different drummers, saxophone players, and I'm swinging with these people."

Soon he was sharing a room with one-armed New Orleans trumpet player Wingy Manonne. "Living with Wingy, whoever gets up first puts the 78 rpm on the turntable and winds it up. When we left the room it was usually to go out to the South Side and be with Louis Armstrong and then go somewhere to play."

During this period Hodes played with countless jazz and blues greats. The list includes King Oliver, Jimmy Noone, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa, Bix Beiderbecke, Big Bill Broonzy and Cow Cow Davenport.

These were prohibition times, and neither Hodes nor any of his musical companions was unfamiliar with the gangster element that controlled much of the nightclub and dance hall scene.

"There'd been no work for me if it hadn't been for those hood types who liked this music and hired us. I saw their antics, I saw where a kid I hung around with put in his application to become a policeman and later they found his body. But actually I saw nothing--you observed and you kept your mouth shut," he says.

In the late 1930s Hodes moved on to New York, where he remained in the thick of the jazz scene for a dozen years, playing with virtually everybody, working as the host of a jazz show, publishing Jazz Record Magazine and, as the '40s wore on, watching the young modernists come to the fore. When he returned to Chicago in 1950 he began to present his music to high school assemblies.

Later he did a series on public TV, and the resulting national exposure helped him embark on a national concert tour with a band that included Wild Bill Davison, Barney Bigard and Eddie Condon. There were some lean years in the '60s and '70s, and for 15 years Hodes dropped from sight, except for occasional appearances at jazz festivals.

Several years ago, when he was in his seventies, Hodes made a comeback with gigs in Chicago, New York and abroad and with several new albums.

"I'm dedicated to my art," Hodes says, "and what influenced me that way was Jane Addams of Hull House, because she didn't open a bowling alley when she got famous, she didn't open a riding stable. There's one thing at Hull House that impressed me tremendously and that was they had a sign over the door--now mind you, a little kid walking down the street sees this sign that says, 'To Thine Own Self Be True. There All Honor Lies.' That sign made a lot of things easy for me."