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Hank Jones, 91, one of the last survivors of the bebop generation and a pianist of almost unprecedented esteem, died yesterday in Manhattan of natural causes.
Born in Mississippi in 1918 and raised in Pontiac, Mich., Jones was the head of a musical family that included his brothers Thad, a trumpeter and noted bandleader, and Elvin, one of the most influential drummers in history. Although he was the eldest, Hank was by far the least ostentatious of the family, happy to remain a nameless sideman. In that capacity, however, he racked up an unbelievably polished resume: house pianist for CBS TV, most notably on the Ed Sullivan Show; accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw; and, most iconically, Jones played piano on Marilyn Monroe‘s legendary rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Meanwhile, Jones found time to explore the innovations known collectively as bebop. He played on early recordings by Stan Getz, Ray Brown, and the legendary Charlie Parker.
In recent years, Jones was doing some of the most vital work of his career, with excellent recordings alongside bassist Charlie Haden, vocalist Roberta Gambarini, and tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and James Moody. He and his late brothers were honored last fall at the Detroit Jazz Festival.
Jones had a long-lived reputation as a “pianist’s pianist.” Said Dr. Billy Taylor, “Hank does a lot of little things on the keyboard that you really have to be a pianist to appreciate.” Nonetheless, nonpianists could always appreciate his lively swing and beautiful ear for melody, as well as his sly, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Speaking for myself, I interviewed Jones in 2007 for Washington City Paper (the interview was not published), and found him one of the sweetest-tempered, most charming gentlemen I’ve ever encountered. He will be missed greatly.