Interview: 90-Year-Old Jazz Pianist Hank Jones

Hank Jones appears at Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, from tomorrow November 12 through the 16.

"I have yet to do my best performance."

Hank Jones, backstage at Birdland this summer, by Rob Trucks

On July 31, 2008, NEA Jazzmaster Hank Jones celebrated his 90th birthday. Born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan and now a resident of upstate New York, the pianist and elder brother of renowned trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin, Jones has appeared on something close to 1000 albums. And through those performances and a 17-year stint with the CBS Orchestra, the nonagenarian has played with nearly every iconic figure in jazz: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis.

The week after his birthday the extraordinarily humble Jones, alongside a trio including longtime bassist George Mraz, played two sets a night over a four-night run at New York City's Birdland. We spoke backstage in between sets on the final night of that engagement following a surprise first-set appearance by saxophonist Joe Lovano, and while Stanley Jordan and Chick Corea, jazz legends themselves, waited to pay their respects. --Rob Trucks

Let me start by being the 5,432nd person to wish you a happy 90th birthday.

Why thank you. I appreciate that.

How many 90th birthday celebrations have there been so far?

Actually this is the second one. There was one out in Los Angeles about a week ago. And neither one was right on my birthday because my birthday is the 31st, and the first one took place on the 30th, so my birthday was in between there someplace.

So how does one spend a 90th birthday?

Well, approximately the same day as the day before. Actually, I didn't do anything special. I just tried to get a little sleep, practice a little on the piano, you know. But that's a daily routine.

A couple hours a day is what I read.

Yes. At least. The more the better, if you have the time.

I've read several interviews where you've been asked when you plan to retire, and that seems a bit silly to me if you're physically able to do want you want to do for a living. That's a pretty rare gift.


So if you're really good at the thing you want to do, why would you stop?

Well, if I was very good at it I guess I would feel that way.

Oh, now . . .

Rob, I'm still working at it, you know. I feel, sincerely, like this. I think I have yet to do my best performance. I am working towards that, and I'll keep on doing that, of course.

Reviewers have called your playing "eloquent" and "lyrical," as well as "relaxed" and "understated." Do any of those adjectives not feel right?

Well, I don't know how eloquent I am, but I play, probably, in a relaxed and understated manner. Perhaps. Perhaps that suits my style. Of course, this varies from tune to tune, as you know, because you don't play the same way on every tune. Certain tunes make you think a certain way and certain other tunes make you think another way. But in the aggregate I think my approach is really pretty relaxed and laidback, you might say.

Let me hold on to the word eloquent, because most of the time the word is associated with a person's voice. How long did it take you to find your voice on the piano?

Assuming that I have found it . . . [laughs]

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