Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jake Hanna - The Timeliest, Swinging Drummer

© -Steven Cerra. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Perhaps ‘comfortable’ is the key word to Jake Hanna’s playing. It reflects his personality and his approach to music, for he is an easygoing bachelor of thirty-two, a convivial soul who enjoys the hurly-burly of musicians' hangouts in his free time. He makes the rounds of clubs where his friends are working and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, likes to sit in. He is a musician in the true sense, totally involved with playing, discussing music and listening to it, and he is one of the most completely cheerful people one could meet. Though he affects a bluff air and a joking, irreverent attitude toward most things, he is still sincere, dedicated, and honest.” 
- Marian McPartland, Jazz pianist


“Drummers are like the offensive line on a football team—they're there at all times . . . dependable . . . but they are not supposed to be heroes.” 
- Jake Hanna, Jazz drummer


For drummer Jake Hanna, who began his career as the house drummer at Storyville, George Wein’s fabled Boston Jazz club, and went on to work with legendary Jazz greats Toshiko Akiyoshi, Marian McPartland, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman and Carl Fontana, the fundamental proposition behind all Jazz drumming was simple - keep time and swing.


Whatever the setting, trio, combo or big band, the drummer’s job was to become an engine room that regulated the pace and powered the pulse of the music.


Jake was very insistent on this overriding principle of all Jazz drumming and I never heard him veer from it throughout his distinguished career [Jake died in 2010 at the age of 78].


It’s not unusual for drummers with limited technique to become advocates of “the keep-time-and-swing school of drumming;" I mean, after all, what else are they gonna say?


But Jake could really get around the instrument; he had chops [technique] to spare, which made his insistence on “the basics,” as he called them, even more impressive.


Until his death, Jake was a frequent participant at a number of Jazz parties and festivals held at hotels near my home and over the years I got to know him quite well. His good spirits and good humor made him a fun guy to hang out with and his knowledge of Jazz drumming styles was unsurpassed. Mention the name of any drummer and Jake had the uncanny ability to mimic his style.


We wanted to remember him on these pages and when the editorial staff at JazzProfiles read the following chapter in Marian McPartland’s All in Good Time, we thought reposting it here my be an excellent way to do so. Although they were written during the early years of Jake’s career [1963], Marian’s observations about Jake’s approach to drumming would remain a constant throughout his time in Jazz.


Just Swinging: Jake Hanna


“As a youngster, Jake Hanna had three idols—Brace Beamer (radio's the Lone Ranger), Benny Goodman, and Ted Williams. "Brace Beamer disappeared from the scene, Ted Williams has retired, and when I auditioned for Benny, he didn't dig me — now I'm all alone," Jake said in his joking, nonchalant way.


Jake is, in a sense, alone, inasmuch as he is almost without peer in his particular field as a big-band drummer. He has been with the Woody Herman Band for almost two years now, and his hard-driving, unabashed, exciting playing has been a major contribution to the renewed popularity of the band.


In the last few years Jake has been moving from one band, or small group, to another and back again. He has been with Maynard Ferguson three times, twice with my trio, at least three times with Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi Mariano, twice before with Herman, and in between there have been short stints with Ted Weems, Buddy Morrow, Herb Pomeroy, Bobby Hackett, Duke Ellington, and Harry James.


If all this were not enough to make him a well-rounded player, he also has been the house drummer at George Wein's Storyville during return visits to his home town of Dorchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, backing such varied stylists as Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing, and Anita O'Day. Now he appears to have achieved his happiest groove with the Herman band.


His work with different groups has enabled him to experiment and to learn by trial and error what to do and what not to do in varying circumstances, and now he is bringing the results of these experiences to bear in the masterful handling of his current job.


There is an easy flow, a logical, methodical purpose to everything Jake does. Undoubtedly he is following established patterns set down by former Herman drummers Dave Tough and Don Lamond, and he draws inspiration from their ideas, and from those of his idols, Buddy Rich and Jo Jones, not consciously copying them but nevertheless revealing that these are his influences while adding to them his unique personality, imagination, and humor. He is a pleasure to watch; there is no wasted motion, yet he is a flamboyant performer who does everything with a flourish and a jaunty good-natured air. He uses his technique logically — no unnecessary pyrotechnics — and he has the good judgment and the power necessary to hold and control the rhythm at all times.


To many listeners the Herman band is more exciting now than it has ever been.

"We could never play such up-tempo things before," Herman said. "None of the other drummers I have had would attempt these frantic tempos. Now I can show off the band more — it all makes for a lot of excitement — something added that we couldn't do fifteen years ago, and it is challenge to the musicians to play when they know they can feel comfortable. Everything's easy, no pressure."


Yet as hard as Jake can drive a big band, he can be subtle with a small group, a sympathetic and sensitive player creating a tremendously swinging feeling and a comfortable, easy groove.


Perhaps "comfortable" is the key word to his playing. It reflects his personality and his approach to music, for he is an easygoing bachelor of thirty-two, a convivial soul who enjoys the hurly-burly of musicians' hangouts in his free time. He makes the rounds of clubs where his friends are working and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, likes to sit in. He is a musician in the true sense, totally involved with playing, discussing music and listening to it, and he is one of the most completely cheerful people one could meet. Though he affects a bluff air and a joking, irreverent attitude toward most things, he is still sincere, dedicated, and honest.


Jake's musical education dates back to his school days in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where at eight he started to play drums with the church band.


"I still play in that same vein too," he said. "Sort of a marching feeling — two-bar phrases."


Later with his older brother and two sisters he attended Dorchester High School, where he played in the school band, and whenever he had the chance, he would go to the RKO Theater to listen to the big bands that came through town periodically. He fell under the joint influence of Buddy Rich, who was then with Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa.


"When I heard Sing, Sing, Sing, I decided that I wanted to be that kind of drummer—but then I started to dig Jo Jones and Dave Tough. This was a big enlightenment to me. I had no idea drums could be played this way, and I was able to absorb the style firsthand, because my brother was playing drums at the time and he would play the cymbal beat a lot like Dave did. (My brother was 4-F so he was getting all the work.)"


At eighteen, Jake was starting to get gigs around Boston and was sitting in when he could. However, the long arm of the draft board soon reached out to take him from his comfortable home in Dorchester and deposit him in the Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, where he was stationed for the next three and one-half years, playing bass drums in an Air Force band.


"When I got out, I was stranded in Texas," Jake said ruefully. "Then Tommy Reed offered me a gig and saved me. I only had four bucks to my name, so he sent me $9 for the bus fare to Shreveport, Louisiana, to join the band. (Come to think of it my salary wasn't much more than that bus fare.) I went with Tommy for two weeks but wound up staying for over a year."


When Jake left the band in Kansas City, Kansas, he returned to Boston and started playing with local groups again and studying drums with Stanley Spector. Jake gives Spector, with whom he studied for three years and has on and off since, all the credit for his background and for his proficiency.


"There is no other teacher for me," he declared. "Many of them are so busy with the hands, building technique. Having 'good hands' has nothing to do with playing jazz. I am sure Buddy Rich and Joe Morello would still be as great if they didn't have 'good hands.  You've got to do first things first — learn to keep time and swing — the basic things a drummer is supposed to do, but you can't just do it right off the bat; it takes a while."


During the next three years, Jake studied and practiced, meanwhile working with various groups including Morrow's, Weems', and Toshiko's, who was at that time at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. In 1958 he went with Ferguson for several months, and in 1959 wound up back in Boston playing at Storyville behind Clayton and Rushing.


"I finally got the message at that point,”' Jake said. "Suddenly I knew that that was the style I sound best in. No confusion — everything very simple. Basic."


It was then that I really began to be aware of Jake's playing, although I had heard him previously at the Hickory House with Toshiko and had met him there. I was in Boston at the time he was backing Anita O'Day at Storyville. Anita invited me to sit in. I did so, and I was tremendously excited by the immediate rapport between Jake and myself and by the easy, relaxed feeling he created. I asked him to join my group, which he did shortly thereafter, working with me for the next two years.


The enjoyment of this period was interrupted only once, when Jake (who is now well known for giving little or no notice when he decides to leave a band) elected to go back to Boston to work with the Herb Pomeroy Band. Being the diplomat he is, he handed me his notice — and a parting gift of a Waring Blendor —simultaneously. He returned after a few weeks, however, to join me at the Hickory House where, with Ben Tucker on bass, we spent one of the swingingest summers I have ever known.


Then Jake became impatient to try another groove, and he left, this time for good, to join Bobby Hackett at Eddie Condon's club, where for a while he slipped into a different musical genre, a Dixieland-ish kick, in which he is as much at ease as he is with other styles of playing.


After a few months, he took off again, this time to join the Duke Ellington Band, spelling Sam Woodyard for a short stint.


Of this adventure, Jake said, "I went along to hear the music from the middle of the band — best seat in the house. That's why I never sounded good with those guys. I was too busy listening! Now there’s the greatest reed section in all history — great band, great time."


During the summer of 1961 Jake went to Jacksonville, Florida, with Ross Tompkin's trio and on his return was invited to join Harry James' band in Las Vegas, Nevada. After a few weeks, it appeared that the drummer-leader relationship was somewhat less than euphoric, and Jake quit the band and soon returned to the Herman Herd for the third time.


Nowadays many up-and-coming drummers are preoccupied with the "new thing," employing complicated rhythmic patterns and cross-rhythms that scatter around the instrumentalists like gunfire. They flay the drums as if they were a team of recalcitrant horses. To some of them, Jake's playing is considered old-fashioned, but their opinions and their asserted striving toward greater freedom leave him cold.


"To me freedom is gained through limiting your playing, disciplining yourself," Jake said. "Some modern drummers don't play with license. They play free, but they lose the feeling of freedom by their irresponsibility. Jazz is a real paradox — you have to hold the sticks tight in order to play loose, and the less you play the more comes out! With these new guys, they keep puttin' in all the time, and when you've got to play against that stuff, it's rough. To them, phrasing is shifting the rhythm back and forth all the time. There's too much going on, and usually it's too loud. Drummers are like the offensive line on a football team—they're there at all times . . . dependable . . . but they are not supposed to be heroes.


"I don't think jazz will ever hit that real happy groove again unless drummers go back to swinging the time, not shifting it around. Now, there's one guy who is a master of that style, and I really dig his playing — that's Roy Haynes. He has finesse, taste. And taste is the hardest thing to learn — you've got to know how to balance up the drum set, how to get an even sound, and most of all know what to leave out. That's why I dig Gus Johnson; so little goes in, so much comes out. Jo Jones, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond — they're great. To me, Shelly is a jazz version of Billy Gladstone [famous Broadway show pit band drummer with unsurpassed technique], and he was the supreme artist. (You know, Billy practically brought up Shelly — used to wheel him around in the baby carriage.)"


It is evident that Jake has strong opinions, and he likes to air them. He believes in what he is doing and makes no bones about it. He is sure of his playing, and though to some he may seem at times overconfident, his sense of humor saves him from offensiveness — and he can fulfill any musical demands made on him.


He always seems able to play at the top of his form and to engender a good feeling among the people around him. As a person and as a musician he wears well.
Herman is as pleased to have Jake back with the band as Jake is to be there.


"Since he was with me three or four years ago, his playing has changed tremendously," Herman said. "It's like night and day. Ninety-nine-and-a-half percent of the time he is absolutely right with everything he does. The truly important members of the band are drums and lead trumpet. If they are not right, forget it. Jake is the first great big-band drummer to come along since Dave Tough and Don Lamond. He deserves the high praise he is getting. ..."


Jake is happy, he says, with the way things are shaping up. His philosophy of life is characteristically humorous and simple: "I guess you have to roll with the punches — keep bobbing and weaving . . . maybe throw a couple now and then. Life is a fight, and naturally I don't want to get wasted. So I take things as they come. Nice and easy."


When working at New York's Metropole, where the Herman band often plays, the musicians have to stand in a single line along a platform that runs practically the length of the long bar. They face the opposite wall, which is lined with mirrors. To play successfully in this room, a drummer has to keep his wits about him at all times, be utterly fearless, and have the strength often to hold the band together. Somehow Jake manages to do all this and still look calm and collected.


"I have to look in the mirror to see who is taking a solo," he said with a grin. "And then I have to look and see what I'm doing."


"He steers us, all sixteen of us," said Phil Wilson, trombonist with the band. "It's like a thing I don't believe is happening."”



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