The death of the great pianist Hank Jones on Sunday, May 16 at the age of 91 has been followed by controversy. New York Times reporters Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman visited Jones’ room at 108th St. and Broadway in NYC after his death and painted a picture of a spartan existence. It’s unclear whether or not the description of Jones’ living conditions in a 12 x 12 foot room were meant to invoke sympathy or make some kind of statement on the fate of older jazz musicians in today’s culture. What it did was release a barrage of negative comments.
The reporters speak of Jones “unmade bed” ( he died in a Bronx hospice), a clutter of sheet music, awards and recordings of Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The closet was filled with “designer neck ties and sharp-looking suits” and there was a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the bed stand. The Yamaha electric piano Jones used for practice sported a pair of head phones.
Some making comments took the bait: “No one commented on how sad this is. Sad that he lived alone, sad that he died alone, sad that his life of charm and sophistication (the music, the recordings, the clothes, the elegance, even in a simple room) appeared not to contain the many things most people cherish.” But many were angry. “There is something very untoward about going into this gentleman’s room less than two days after he passed away and opening up his life to the entire world, presumably before he has had a chance to be mourned and buried by his family and friends,” spoke one of the more polite. I was at first saddened, then outraged, to read the Hank Jones piece by Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman. Why was it deemed appropriate — under any circumstance—to compromise the privacy of and report on and photograph the dismantling of a man’s life possessions; and to do so in such an-ill fitting, misleading and exploitive (sic) manner and tone. ”
There’s a lot of insight to be gained from these comments and the Rabbit encourages reading them. Especially interesting is the attempt by Kilgannon to explain his motivation (comment #34) and the following comment (#35) from renowned bassist and Jones’ collaborator Charlie Haden and wife Ruth Cameron ripping our intrepid reporter a new one (also #30). There’s a long comment from Jones’ long time manger Jean-Pierre LeDuc, an even longer one from his surviving niece and nephew and a couple from his close friends who provide context to Mr. Jones’ living conditions (#26 and #32). Seems he had a home in upstate New York, a wife who lived in an assisted care facility and frequent contact with friends and family.
The Rabbit thinks that a man as gentlemanly and graceful (like his playing) as Mr. Jones would have been confused, if not disturbed, by this attention (I was introduced to Mr. Jones once and heard him perform a handful of times). Those we knew who knew Mr. Jones spoke of him with the highest respect. He was a gentleman in all regards.
I’ve found myself projecting my own thoughts on this scenario. Though acclaimed, he was less visible in the formidable shadows of his younger brothers Thad and Elvin and never once, in true gentlemanly style, seemed to mind. Some of his most heard work was in the background–accompanying Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday song to President Kennedy and, for some of us our first exposure to piano-playing of the type, his work at CBS, notably with the Captain Kangaroo show. Of course, the jazz audience is well-familiar with his work, considering the bulk of his recorded output dating back to the 1940s.
The New York Times story made us think of him as something of an aesthetic and ascetic, someone who lived modestly and in service to his art. Of course, this notion is completely false. Jones was anything but a recluse, traveling and performing late into his life. And he certainly wasn’t invisible to the jazz audience considering the sizable extent of his recording career, especially in his senior years, not to mention a life-long commitment to live performance .
The whole affair made us realize the power of printed stories, the importance of complete context and how much our conception of artists is connected to what we wish they were. It’s important to connect the music and the musician but it is also important to separate the two as well. As to the former, here’s hoping someone somewhere heard a full accounting from Mr. Jones regarding his formative years in Detroit, his stints with Hot Lips Page and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, his role of accompanist for great vocalists, his ability to record with all kinds of musicians (remember the Great Jazz Trio when he worked with Tony Williams, Buster Williams and Al Foster among many others?) his views on what’s changed between 1945 and 1995. As for the latter, here’s hoping I can find my copy of Hank Jones Live at Maybeck Recital Hall.–Cabbage Rabbit