Late jazz pianist Hank Jones remembered on 93rd birthday


By Earnest McBride

Jackson Advocate Contributing Editor

Hank Jones shared one of those great moments in social history with famed actress Marilyn Monroe on May 19, 1962, but no one gives him the credit he deserves for injecting the refinements that would ensure that the event merited a place in history. When Marilyn Monroe delivered her breathy, semi-sultry happy-birthday chant for President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, Hank Jones was in control of the music.

Marilyn, by the way, was a well-trained jazz singer before she made it big as an actress and had shared the stage with Dorothy Dandridge early on. “She did 16 bars: eight bars of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and eight bars of ‘Thanks for the Memories,'” Jones recalled the scene for a reporter in 1994. “So in 16 bars, we rehearsed eight hours. She was very nervous and upset. She wasn’t used to that kind of thing. And, I guess, who wouldn’t be nervous singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the president?”

Another little known fact about Hank Jones is that he was born in Vicksburg, MS, took his first lessons in music there, but never really related to the town or the state because his parents moved the family to Pontiac, Michigan, when Hank was still small lad. An effort has grown in Vicksburg since Jones’ died at age 91 on May 16, 2010, to reconnect the great musician to his native city and to commemorate his birthday each year with a befitting musical tribute.

He was born July 31, 1918 in Vicksburg. Hank Jones’ musical legacy is sure to last into perpetuity due to the thousands of recordings he has made over his 70 years of professional musicianship. Jones was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2008 and won a lifetime Grammy Award in 2009. Fellow jazz pianist Bill Charlap summed up Jones’ mastery in a 2006 interview with the Detroit Free Press. “His style is as profound and defined as any of the major masters,” Charlap said.

“It’s equal to Teddy Wilson, equal to Bill Evans, equal to Thelonious Monk, equal to Tommy Flanagan. It’s as much a unique musical utterance and just as balanced in terms of intellectualism and feeling. With Hank Jones you hear the past, present and the future of jazz piano.” What did Jones think of his own ability on the keyboards? He turned down an opportunity to play with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker in the late 1940’s, because he didn’t think he was good enough. But he played with them many times in later years.

“I probably missed the chance of a lifetime,” he said towards the end of his life. Pianist and trumpeter Ron Myers has been the main agent behind the hoped-for annual Hank Jones Birthday Tribute Concert, with the 2011 edition held last Sunday at the Coral Room Theater in the old Vicksburg Hotel. “It’s always considered an honor to come to Vicksburg to pay tribute to the musical legacy of Hank Jones,” Myers said.

“Hank Jones was the dean of the modern jazz piano. He died at 91, a year-and -a-half ago. It’s wonderful to come and honor him. Mississippi has a wonderful jazz legacy. We need to honor and preserve that legacy and pass it on to a younger generation.” Myers brought with him saxophonist Sherrill Holly, drummer Noah Jelks, and percussionist Wilton and guest pianist Vera Zholondz of Alcorn. The local catalyst in getting the Hank Jones festival underway was Shirley Waring, a member of the Vicksburg Heritage League and the Vicksburg Blues Society.

A native of Jackson, Waring has a great fondness for the music of the jazz and blues artists with roots in her adopted hometown. She organized the series of legacy concerts to coincide with the pioneering work of throughout Mississippi of Myers, known in music circles as “the Jazz Doctor” because of his profession as a medical doctor. “We honor the significant musicians from Vicksburg as a part of our heritage. And that’s the theme of our concerts,” Waring said. “Tonight, July 31, we’re honoring Hank Jones. Last month, we honored Milt Hinton.

Next Sunday we’re presenting a concert with a group from Tokyo. We primarily focus on jazz, blues and gospel. Our venues here vary, but we consistently come to the Coral Room because of the history of this building and the intimacy of the room. Tonight, we were standing room only. So we’re going to need a bigger room the next time.” Myers says his next major jazz event will be the 2011 Mississippi Jazz and Heritage Festival, September 1-5, with separate concerts in Belzoni (Sept. 1), Indianola (Sept. 2), Greenville (Sept.3), Shelby (Sept 4), and Greenwood (Sept. 5). The September 4 concert will honor big bandleader Gerald Wilson, a native of Shelby. All concerts are free and open to the public, according to Myers