Pianist HAMPTON HAWES lost his way in the 1950s, overwhelmed by drug addiction and eventual imprisonment. With a body of work released to great applause and having won the Down Beat New Star Award in 1956, Hawes' musical trajectory should have shot higher. This period marked the summit of his career, the point at which his artistic development was able to reflect, and in turn affect, the developments in the wider jazz world around him. The essence of his life is sketched in his fast-paced and demotic autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, published in 1974. One of the finest first-hand accounts of the jazz life ever written, it contains stark observation and honesty...
"Son, You Hot!" : Hampton Hawes And The Fire Inside
Hawes was born in November 1928 with six fingers on each hand, corrected
surgically after three days. Not all aspects of his life could be so conveniently
clipped and his childhood reveals traits that were to surface throughout
his career: scepticism, keen social observation and an unforgiving individualism,
euphemisms perhaps for disdain, a suppressed rancour and downright disobedience.
His father was a Presbyterian minister in the infamous Watts quarter of
Los Angeles. The ghetto culture Hampton describes in his book seems to
have framed the young man's view of his father's church, whose members
were "too scared to move past the middle of the bus." The church as social
narcotic offered safety from the real world, but at a price: "I've never
seen so many people… messed up, and disillusioned…," he wrote, and if
Hampton was at odds with his father's inward vision of the world, so too
his father was unable to bless the music and lifestyle that his son was
to adopt. For the Reverend Hawes, jazz was an exotic dish served in areas
of ill repute; for Hampton, the jungle music sounded a clarion call to
freedom and his ambitions and endeavours would go hand in hand with this
"heavy sin." Hawes cites George Washington Carver rather than Duke Ellington
as a hero best served to represent social aspiration for the black community
centred on 35th and Budlong, his father's parish. The estimable George
Washington Carver (who eschewed his own musical development to pursue
agriculture and rural economic improvement) and the elegant Ellington
(who eschewed his formal music lessons to sneak in to Frank Holliday's
poolroom) are dichotomous heroes and represent the polar positions of
father and son. It would appear to have been an uneasy filial relationship
with little emotional engagement and no musical encouragement. "I think
I must have first turned to the piano out of boredom and loneliness,"
he wrote. Certainly it seems odd that whilst his elder sister was tutored
seriously in the classics, Hawes, who as an infant sitting on his pianist
mother's lap had shown a precocious ear for music, never had formal music
lessons. He was the youngest child (of seven) and of course the money
may have run out; but even in later years his parents neither heard him
play nor, so Hawes claimed, listened to his recordings - although they
did frame his album covers.
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Parker on the saxophone had his antecedents, Lester Young chief among them; so too Gillespie on the trumpet, who through Charlie Shavers came to model himself on Roy Eldridge's style before he developed his own. Bud Powell, too, was able to forge a singular and radically new approach to the jazz keyboard, but took as his starting point not a pianist but the solo horn lines of Parker and Gillespie - to which he added a distillation of swing era practice - and his early recordings are already remarkably original in conception. Unlike Parker or Gillespie, Powell in 1945 did not have a great body of professional work behind him other than nomadic work in bars and his fifteen month sojourn with Cootie Williams from late 1943, which makes his achievement all the more impressive. Powell was steeped in the jazz piano tradition, of course, and a vestige of the past is heard loudly at all points in his career; his father, an erstwhile stride pianist himself, was not averse to boasting of his son's ability as a child to imitate Tatum or Waller. Tatum, Waller, Teddy Wilson too, each left their fingerprints on Powell's style, but mostly he engaged their shadow rather than their substance, and from a tender professional age he must have struck out on a bold course of his own. Listening to Powell's recordings with the Cootie Williams band made in 1944, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was certainly unwilling (if not unable) to play as Mel Powell and Wilson did for Goodman or as Billy Kyle did for Kirby. He was a featured soloist with Cootie, thrilling and virtuosic, yet his left hand was often inactive, playing little more than single note vamps, and he rarely employed basic stride patterns, tenths or other stock language of the time. The chameleon-like Kyle (Powell's favourite pianist) had developed a personalised piano style that had made allowances for his own technical shortcoming; although it is hard to think of Powell as in any sense technically limited, he did share Kyle's methodology and adopted a style of playing that allowed his fierce independence and abrasive personality to shine through. Yet if anyone had stylistically groomed bebop piano, it was Nat Cole. Cole's trio featured guitarist Oscar Moore, whose presence inhibited the pianist from over-playing with his left hand, which was left to interpose and accent in a less prescribed and formulaic manner than was fashionable hitherto. Powell was to overlay this foundation with rapid helter-skelter lines that cut across bar-lines and a darker and more emotive hue that paid no heed to Cole's clipped and precise phrasing. There is also a studied clumsiness to Powell's playing. Cole (and Tatum, too, for all his pyrotechnics) only hinted at a chord's rich harmony and was a master of subliminal understatement, encouraging the listener to hear notes that he in fact never used. Powell, when comping or introducing a theme as soloist, used full and heavy chords often in a low register, and what is often referred to as Powell's intense style of playing is realised often by these left-hand chordal voicings, used more percussively and with less subtlety than Cole; these deep sonorities afforded a dark timbre.
THE INFLUENCE OF BIRD
Hawes spoke often of the impact Parker had on his playing: he "influenced me more than anybody, even more than piano players." Parker's unfettered imagination, drive, invention, technical brilliance and mythic God-like status engulfed those around him and were not restricted to fellow saxophonists: he came not only to dominate the musical world he inhabited but also to set its parameters. The best players, of course, found their own voice; but one of the interesting features of the 1940s' jazz revolution was the manner in which pianists responded to the challenges of the bebop style. It was as if Parker had disrupted the natural evolution of jazz piano and encouraged a performance that was, in fact, against the natural grain of some of its practitioners, even, indeed, against the grain of the instrument itself. Central to this was the spell cast on contemporary and successive pianists by Bud Powell, and it may be that many found it easier to assimilate his stylistic blueprint than follow their own intuition. Elmo Hope, Walter Bishop and Duke Jordan, pianists who helped to lay bebop's bedrock, all came from New York and shared similar cultural and musical influences (so too Monk, although his take on bebop was more individual); they shared, too, an authentic and distinctive approach to the piano, with Powell as their high priest. Not so Hawes, whose early years in California spent apart from the bebop hub that was New York proffered a sound schooling and an independent ear: the language of Parker and Powell had been grafted on to his own rootstock but had not swamped it.
As bebop and its vocabulary expanded, and genuine two-handed pianists
like Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly came to the fore, many of bop's core
practitioners who were able once to find work and an audience on 52nd
Street in the late 1940s found their limited piano language exposed. Those
who were able enough returned to a more natural and graceful keyboard
language. The elegant Al Haig possessed a tidy and urbane style, and the
recordings he made in the 1950s suggest that, despite his success with
Parker in the previous decade, he had aped Powell for a brief period rather
than use his example as a springboard for his own development: he was
never a cloned bop disciple and his playing came to resemble an adventurous
swing style coloured by bop attitude. The enigmatic Dodo Marmarosa also
was too romantic and episodic to have drunk from the same well as Powell
and was closer in his musical stance to Teddy Wilson. Both Haig and Marmarosa,
highly skilled pianists both, were never at total ease within the bop
idiom, I would suggest. In contrast, Hawes never felt constrained by its
limits and its language was never foreign to him; he was a genuine convert,
but if Parker's gospel was its Authorized Version, Hawes possessed the
scope and brio to craft his own revision.
Recording dates with Lennie Niehaus, Bill Perkins and Barney Kessel followed,
and the next year Hawes recorded Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes
and, in one long evening in November, the three albums that comprised
The All Night Sessions with Mitchell, Bruz Freeman and guitarist
Jim Hall. Many consider this trilogy to be Hampton's finest discographic
hour and Koenig, anxious to highlight the session's spontaneous feel,
pressed the albums in recorded order.
Hawes was at this point a young man in a hurry with a style that was still evolving, and recordings from 1958 illustrate a further maturity with a softer edge. "I've learned new ways of voicing the chords, making them prettier and more what I want to hear. I'm more relaxed and can take longer solos," he had said in late 1957. Four! was recorded in January 1958 with guitarist Barney Kessel augmenting a trio that included Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell. Hawes is economical with his left-hand, thrown by Kessel's presence, and there is a real tenderness and a telling lilt to his right-hand lines. This is a fine album although his playing loses a sense of its usual biting drama and confrontation, as both main soloists echo each other too closely both in delivery and in sound. For Real! is a quartet session of high quality recorded in March, with Harold Land on saxophone. The Sermon, recorded in November, is Hawes at his very finest. An album comprised entirely of gospel songs and spirituals - musical forms close emotionally to the blues and recalling his church background, their performance exposed his musical soul, and Hawes revelled in the repertoire's simple structures and relatively unsophisticated harmonic modulations. This recording lay in the vaults at Contemporary unissued for nearly thirty years: perhaps Koenig saw no point in marketing an artist who was incarcerated in prison (this session was recorded just after Hawes had been arrested for drug offences and weeks before he was sentenced) or perhaps its easy mannered and uncluttered style was too reminiscent of the middle-of-the-road albums Peterson was apt to record occasionally for Norman Granz. His performance is pared down and more space complements his phrasing, which has shape, weight and definition, and there is improvisational ebb and flow rather than a tumultuous rush to reach the end of his musical line.
HAWES AND THE NARCOTIC SHIBBOLETH
other recording sessions with Hampton Hawes :-The Quintets
Studio sessions led by saxophonist Lennie Niehaus in 1954 and 1956.
Curtis Fuller and Hampton Hawes with French Horns
Recorded in 1957 whilst in New York.
With guitarist Barney Kessel, recorded in 1957.
Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders
Recorded October, 1958.
"...I didn't meet God, or a facsimile of him, till years later at the Hi-De-Ho Club at 50th and Western, playing alto in the Howard McGhee band. "
- from RAISE UP OFF ME
"I couldn't believe what he was doing, how anyone could so totally block out everything extraneous, light a fire that hot inside him and constantly feed on that fire."
- Hawes on PARKER
"If our music wasn't dead it was at best a sleeping giant. Many of the brothers who had been the keepers of the flame, the kings of the forties and fifties - all the work they wanted, playing on each other's gigs and recording dates, the young cats all looking up to them - were bitter, brooding about the past green times, hating the kids for taking the bread from their mouths and stealing their glory."
"I invented playing the piano for myself because I had to ...don't nobody else play like me. Because how can somebody play like me when they didn't go to my school? I'm the only one that went to my school, 'cause I invented the school. I'm the only pupil, teacher and everything."
"I read that Miles was coming... I went down there opening night; Miles looked at my sharp suit and said, "Where you playin'?" figuring at 9:30 I must be going to work instead of coming. I ... sat down to listen. I hadn't played with a group for so long and the music sounded so good to me, I wound up in the middle of a tune with Miles' band wondering, what the fuck am I doing up here. Finished the tune and afterwards asked Miles, "Was it cool?" He said, "You're a crazy motherfucker. It was beautiful." He and Herbie Hancock, the pianist, understood they had made me feel so good again that I just needed a little taste."
The sad truth is that from 1963 Hawes was no longer the right man in the right place, and his lack of musical training, which had hitherto given him insight and his own voice, had passed from virtue to handicap. He had never read music and everything he had played was learnt by ear. A lack of reading ability excluded him from session work and its financial rewards; this may not have mattered and in any case may have led him down a musical byway, but this same skill may have opened doors that otherwise were closed to Hawes. He made very little headway with composition and appeared indifferent to the craft: the occasional blues was his lot, and none of these have become part of the standard jazz canon. More importantly, he played rarely in groups - although whenever he had recorded as part of an ensemble (with Curtis Fuller, for example, on the album With French Horns, 1957) or when challenged (with Charles Mingus on Mingus Three, 1957), he played with appropriate sensitivity and skill. Yet in interviews he gave there are hints that he felt exposed and insecure in the musical company of others, and lamented his inability to read and write scores. Whilst it remains true that his variety of style, technique and fluent improvisation were gifts that lent themselves to the piano trio format, he did not possess the explosive exhilaration of Peterson, the lyrical intensity of Bill Evans or the trademark individualism of Garner or Jamal to sustain the long haul. Certainly his playing never became vacuous like that of Phineas Newborn's, but there is no doubt that his career faltered in its lopsided approach. As some of his contemporaries moved centre-stage, progressed musically and even flirted with aspects of the avant-garde and the 'Third Stream', Hawes remained in the wings. His lines were well rehearsed and brilliant, but there remained a palpable sense of striving for that next phase of his development. That development never came, and Hawes was left clutching at piecemeal work, some recognition overseas, an inauspicious outing with strings and ill-advised dabbling with funk rhythm. There is a passage of telling regret in Raise Up Off Me. Playing solo piano in a cocktail bar and hearing that Miles Davis and his group were opening in a nearby club, Hawes attended the opening night and sat in for a while with the quintet: "they had made me feel so good again that I just needed a little taste." It is not just that true jazz work was hard to find, it is also that Hawes had lost control of his destiny and that his hour had gone.
Throughout Hawes' autobiography there is an impression that he was but an observer of his own life rather than its engine. There is an apparent fatalism that serves to exorcise all personal faults: his childhood and musical development were lonely, drugs were therapeutic or a corrective to the state of his unjust world, military authority was partial and imposing, his drug bust discriminatory, he became a prophet without honour in his own country. And yet at the same time the book is starkly honest: dig deep and it tells of the realisation that in the end his progress was limited by his background and that his imagination was curtailed by experience, but at the same time it tells of how he strove to overcome both background and experience and remain true to his art.
With a body of work released in the mid-1950s to great applause and having won the Down Beat New Star Award in 1956, Hawes' musical trajectory should have shot higher. This period marked the summit of his career, the point at which his artistic development was able to reflect, and in turn affect, the developments in the wider jazz world around him. His stature as pianist has sometimes been overlooked and his role as memoirist has even been seen as paramount: this is to do him injustice. If technically accomplished, gifted and even individual, he was essentially derivative as a stylist and is now seen to be a footnote to the standard jazz history rather than as part of the main text. Yet at its height, his playing was a melee of passion, energy and swing, the epitome of bebop excitement. He was perhaps the only pianist of the early 1950s to dovetail so authentically the inner dynamism and drive of Parker and Bud Powell with Oscar Peterson's more accessible keyboard language. This may not be reason enough to promote him to the first rank of jazz pianists, but he did play with an originality and substance not always forthcoming in his contemporaries, and he remains an enduring (and the most brilliant) example of post-Powell bebop piano.
© DENNIS HARRISONJune 2004
"I suppose I have reason to be bitter. Brought up in ignorance, locked pianos, strung out and tore up, all those stockades and dungeons, ...ten-year sentence for trying to figure out my life. ... I got mine [my ass] kicked for nothing more than sticking a needle in my arms. They snatched me out of the game in the prime of my life, those years when your artistic energy and money-making powers are supposed to be at their peak.
"... I want to make music so beautiful it's like hugging in the forest at night, rise to the occasion and maybe go right over it 'cause my energy's burning - and I can make it with nothing but my brains and my hands and my heart. And when that stops beating I'll know I pressed it to the limit and be ready to go down happy."