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May 21, 2010

Remembering Hank Jones

When Hank Jones died Sunday, I figured Larry Blumenfeld had dibs on any official tribute here. Larry, or maybe Bob Christgau, still fresh from his exertions over the new Louis Armstrong bio. But for what it is worth, my NAJP fellowship year was book-ended by a pair of Hank Jones performances, and I feel compelled to say lucky me.

The first, in the fall of 2002, was at the funeral of Lionel Hampton. What a spectacle that was: first a New Orleans-style procession led by Wynton Marsalis; then a concert before a huge crowd in Riverside Church. Roy Hargrove performed, and Clark Terry. At some point in the noisy, jubilant middle of it all, Hank Jones sat down and played "Lord I Want to Be a Christian." It was quite simple. He toyed with a few chord progressions and, if I remember right, changed keys once or twice. But mostly he stuck to the subject, as any good son of a Baptist deacon would. The church went quiet.

I started to feel doors creak open. In youth I had racked up many hours staring at a hymnal. Therein was one smarmy song after another, and "Lord I Want to Be a Christian" had to be one of the smarmiest. But Jones, setting it in a jazz idiom, had squeezed out most of the smarm. What was left was pure, wistful appeal.

Listening, I sailed right over all the gnarled theology I thought I had quit, and landed in a heap where I had begun. All the old childish yearning arose and was satisfied at once. And whether I qualified, technically, as a Christian was blessedly beside the point.

After that day, I started buying Hank Jones CDs (they still had 'em). I listened in my Columbia apartment as I watched the light ebb and my little piece of the George Washington Bridge start to twinkle. This guy could find the lyrical sweet spot in just about every standard I knew and a few I didn't. In the cheap date department, it was hard to ask for more.

Toward the end of my fellowship, I went with my brother one night to hear Jones perform in person, at Iridium. He played with a mesmerizingly supple touch. I kept having to remind myself he was in his 80s. When he spoke to the audience he seemed relaxed but almost bashful. It was as though he did not know he was Hank Jones.

That spring was especially chilly, and so it was when we left the club that night. I did not see why my time in New York had to end so soon. But I stopped off at Riverside Church just before I left, and gave thanks. Hank Jones played on for another seven years.

May 21, 2010 12:00 PM | | Comments (0)

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