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“Although the pianist would respond with delighted exuberance to, say, a perfectly tuned Steinway or Schiedmeyer grand, he was, in 1965, a veteran with over forty years experience of all kinds of pianos in clubs, ballrooms, theaters and concert halls throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. As a result, he was philosophical about them, and even sympathetic. Like his friend Art Tatum, he believed it a duty "to make 'em sound as good as you can," and in this he was uncommonly gifted. His unique touch, powerful and tigerish, was in itself a tremendously valuable agent. In addition, his unparalleled rhythmic sense gave his performances an infallible, underlying strength.”
- Stanley Dance, insert notes to Earl Hines Live at The Village Vanguard, [Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CK 44197]
“Fast countermelodies, long lines of sixteenths, thirty-seconds, and sixteenth-note triplets (many suggesting ideas that were to come much later with Lester Young and Charlie Parker), harmonic adventures sometimes actually over Armstrong's head, brilliant use of double-time figures to increase tension, intelligent spacing of pauses for dramatic impact, and a mature sense of musical architectonics were some of the characteristics of Earl's work in late 1928 that amounted to a milestone in the annals of keyboard jazz.”
- Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters of the 1920’s
Richard Hadlock [1927-2022] didn’t witness the birth of jazz in the early years of the 20th century. But he interviewed and befriended, studied and performed with some of the emerging idiom’s foundational artists, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he worked with pioneering New Orleans musicians who consorted with legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden.
The longtime Berkeley resident has contributed to the jazz scene over the decades as a saxophonist, publisher, historian, educator and disc jockey who brings uncommon depth and free-ranging curiosity to all his undertakings, especially his long-running Sunday night KCSM show Annals of Jazz. An essential presence on the Bay Area airwaves since 1959, Hadlock was named on May 21, 2020 by the Jazz Journalists Association as recipient of the McPartland-Conover Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcasting.” [KCSM webpage]
Richard Hadlock has written jazz criticism for Downbeat, The Jazz Review, Jazz Quarterly, Metronome, as well as The New York Times and San Francisco Examiner. He hosts one of the longest running jazz radio shows, "The Annals of Jazz," on Station KCSM in San Mateo, California. He lives in Berkeley where he is an active musician.
First published in 1965, Jazz Masters of the 1920’s contains one of the most comprehensive essays about the work of pianist and bandleader Earl Hines [1903 -1983], another of the pioneers of Early Jazz that we are celebrating on JazzProfiles during the 100 anniversary of Jazz in the 1920s.
Some things to keep in mind as you read this piece:  Essays with this degree of documentation and musical analysis of the early pioneers in Jazz are relatively rare;  Phonograph records and radio were fledgling phenomenons in the decade of the 1920s so for most people, if you wanted to experience Jazz music you had to do so “live” by attending clubs and ballrooms;  Unlike present-day miniaturization and digitalization which makes possible compressed distribution methods [LPs, CDs, streaming, etc.] making and presenting music in the 1920 usually required larger “platforms” including bigger bands, bigger venues to accommodate larger crowds of listeners and dancers and concert hall extravaganzas and foiles.
“No MUSICIAN has exerted more influence over the course of piano jazz history than has Earl Hines. With Hines, the last ties to ragtime fell away and a whole new concept of keyboard improvisation took shape. Earl accomplished all this while operating almost entirely outside New York City, and no major American pianist, jazz or otherwise, had done that before, either.
He was born Earl Kenneth Hines in Duquesne in , a small town now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, a crane foreman on the coal docks, maintained a comfortable home, and Earl grew up amid the usual middle-class trappings of the early twentieth century, including a parlor organ that his mother played frequently. The instrument intrigued Earl, and occasionally he pretended to accompany his mother on a newspaper "keyboard" spread out on a chair. The family noted his interest without much surprise, for Earl's father was a fair trumpet player and his uncle, Bill Phillips, played all the brass instruments. Earl experimented briefly with the trumpet, but it didn't take, although he learned to play a few tunes before giving it up. It was about 1914, when Earl was 9, that Mrs. Hines traded in the organ for a piano so that her son could begin serious keyboard studies. His first teacher was Emma D. Young of McKeesport.
Making swift progress, Earl moved on to other teachers and more advanced lesson books. He read from Czemy and acquired a liking for Chopin and Debussy. For six years. Earl was intensively trained in traditional piano techniques, most of which came quickly and easily to him. Dividing his time between sports and music, young Hines was rapidly acquiring the two assets that were to make him one of the most durable and flexible jazzmen of all time — brimming good health and a thoroughgoing command of the keyboard.
Hines has often protested that he went into jazz only because he could make more money faster than in other music. However, he was exposed to all kinds of music during his formative years. There was his father's brass band, the piano rolls of Zez Confrey and James P. Johnson, traveling show bands, and, of course, the classics. Aunt Nellie Phillips, with whom Earl lived in the city, favored light classics and frequently took her nephew to good shows or revues at local theaters, including Lew Leslie's Blackbirds and the Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake hit Shuffle Along. These events were Earl's first contacts with first-rate "rhythm" music, with which he was completely delighted.
While attending Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, the pianist formed a trio with a couple of friends who played drums and banjo. Together they worked out popular songs of the day, probably in the novelty-ragtime style that flourished just after World War I. When music jobs at night began to turn up, Earl accepted them without concern about how the hours might affect his schoolwork. After two years at Schenley, he dropped out for good and turned to music on a full-time basis.
A singer from Springfield, Ohio, named Lois B. Deppe was appearing at the Liederhouse in Pittsburgh about that time and had become dissatisfied with his accompanying pianist, who could not read. Earl took the job, bringing his own drummer with him as part of the contract. Deppe paid his new pianist $15 a week and board. They remained at the Liederhouse for about a year, adding instruments to the orchestra as business improved. By the time Lois B. Deppe and His Serenaders began touring Ohio and Pennsylvania in the early twenties, Earl found himself in a big band, struggling to be heard over a row of horn players. He discovered a time-honored way to make the piano stand out in a large group, simply by playing melody notes as octaves in the upper range of the keyboard. Allowing the natural ring of the octave interval to work for him, Earl was able to hold his own without losing the fast, light touch he had cultivated. This move alone set him apart from many "stomp" pianists, who relied more upon brute strength than finesse in their efforts to penetrate orchestral walls of sound.
The unique Hines style was beginning to take shape now. There were many influences along the way; some came from a pair of impressive local pianists, Johnny Waters of Toledo and a big-band pianist named Jim Fellman.
"Very few pianists were using right-hand tenths then," Hines recalls, "but Johnny Waters could reach twelfths and thirteenths and play melodies with the inside three fingers at the same time I tried for Johnny with my right and for Jim Fellman, who had a great left, with my other hand."
Pianists like James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts passed through Pittsburgh with shows, and Earl was quick to hear the New York style and to pick up what he could use from it. In working out his octave style, too, Earl discovered that he could compensate for the inevitable loss of speed by borrowing some ideas from the dramatic syncopated phrasing of good trumpet players. He was particularly fond of trumpeters Joe Smith (who toured with Sissle and Blake) and, a little later, Gus Aiken (who toured with Ethel Waters and James P. Johnson). By 1922, records by singers Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith, along with their jazz accompaniments, were influencing young musicians like Hines all over the country. Playing for singers was one of Earl's specialties.
Deppe made a few records for Gennett at Richmond, Indiana, in the winter of 1923-1924, and Earl, who had joined the musicians' union a few months before, was included on the dates. They are among the rarest items on the collectors' market. Of the four band sides, one — Congaine— is a Hines composition. These recordings helped to promote the Deppe orchestra and its piano player as well. The entire group even appeared on radio (KDKA) at that time. Earl sometimes worked casual engagements booked by Deppe and occasionally put groups of his own together. His baritone saxophone player on one such occasion was Benny Carter.
The owner of Pittsburgh's Collins Inn, where Earl had worked frequently, operated another club, called Elite #2, in Chicago near Thirty-fifth and State, the heart of the South Side entertainment belt. He was unhappy with his local Chicago band and sent for violinist Vernie Robinson's quartet, complete with drummer, bassist, and Earl Hines, who happened to be in the group at the time. Earl arrived at the Elite #2 in 1924 and, after playing a month for Robinson, took over leadership of the band and stayed for a year.
There were several good pianists in and around Chicago at that time, including Jelly Roll Morton and Glover Compton, but the best of them — for Earl, at any rate — was Teddy Weatherford, who had a fast, flamboyant style and an adventurous left hand. Like a well-trained young boxer, Hines studied Weatherford's tricks, drew from them what he wanted, and finally conquered the established pianist in his own territory. Earl's essentially Eastern approach, rooted in a light but firm touch and impressive technical command of his instrument, was too much for the Chicago keyboard men, and the competition melted away. Teddy Weatherford left town in 1926 and never returned (and, his talent spent, died in India about twenty years later).
Earl moved to the larger and more celebrated Entertainer's Cafe in 1925, playing opposite Carroll Dickerson's excellent big band. Within a short time, he joined Dickerson's group, then began a series of Pantages vaudeville appearances that eventually took Earl and the band to California and back. They were on the road for forty-two straight weeks.
The Dickerson band was a carefully drilled outfit that specialized in flashy ensemble work and clean musicianship, goals wholly consistent with Earl's own. "Hot" solos were featured, of course, by jazzmen like trumpeter Natty Dominique, trombonist Honore Dutrey, and saxophonist Cecil Irwin.
When the band landed back in Chicago, Louis Armstrong, home again after a stint with Fletcher Henderson, was the man every bandleader wanted. Erskine Tate had him at that moment, but Dickerson and King Oliver, his former mentor, were making offers anyway. Louis was considering rejoining Oliver, but Hines and his friends argued that he should "go with the young guys" and not fall back with the "old" New Orleans men. As it turned out, Hines and Armstrong joined each other's bands and played two jobs for a while, dashing off after an evening with Tate to finish out the night with Dickerson. Tate's specialty was movie theaters, and the work called for a fast, versatile pianist. Teddy Weatherford had achieved much of his local fame in Tate's organization at the Vendome Theater, and Earl, too, became more widely known there. Musicians, though, were more interested in the sound of the Dickerson band at the Sunset Cafe, for there Armstrong was featured prominently and the sidemen — drummer Tubby Hall violinist-reedman Darnell Howard, and Hines were a few — seemed more in tune with the brand of jazz Louis was offering.
As the popularity of Armstrong grew throughout 1926, Hines found his own star rising as well. The Sunset's proprietor, Joe Glaser, decided that Louis was his real drawing card and arranged to edge Dickerson out altogether. In 1927, the band became Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, and Hines was appointed musical director. It was about this time, too, that Earl made his first recordings in Chicago.
In a set of four selections recorded with a group of old-guard New Orleans stylists and Armstrong, Earl seems somewhat ill at ease at the piano. Clarinetist Johnny Dodds, making his initial appearance on records as a leader, establishes such nervously fast tempos that even Armstrong sounds uncomfortable. Earl's solo contributions are brief and perfunctory, revealing a conservative left hand, which was either not completely developed yet or simply inhibited by an attempt to match the mood of the session, and an equally uninspired right hand, concerned largely with dashing off simple on-the-beat melodic fragments in octaves. Melancholy has the best Hines of the four Dodds titles; Earl's solo is marked by right-hand tremolos, a Jelly Roll Morton-like glissando or two, and a positive, declarative keyboard touch. But if this was a fair representation of Hines in April, 1927, the pianist must have made some major discoveries in the month that followed; for in May, Earl recorded Chicago Breakdown, probably the first good example of his unique artistry to be caught on wax. (Strangely, the recording was not issued until George Avakian discovered it in Columbia's vaults many years later.)
Chicago Breakdown is of considerable interest on several counts. The choice of a Jelly Roll Morton composition hints that Hines and Armstrong might have been more intrigued by the music and arrangements of Morton (whose finest recordings immediately preceded the Chicago Breakdown date) than is commonly supposed. The recording is valuable, too, as an only clue to the sound of the Dickerson-Armstrong band of 1927 and to the mutual benefits Earl and Louis derived from playing together regularly. It is unfortunate that Okeh chose to record Armstrong mostly with his old New Orleans friends in 1927, for the decision deprived us of hearing the more modern Sunset Cafe band and its two star performers during a highly creative period in their professional lives.
Earl's brief solo on Chicago Breakdown is a trifle stiff and stodgy, but many of the now familiar trademarks were already there — the sudden break in the regular bass rhythm; the crisp, clean treble-octave voicing; and the short, hornlike melodic phrases. In the ensemble portions, too, Hines cuts through the band sound in characteristic fashion, although he had not asserted himself in this way on the more traditional Dodds session a month before.
Musicians and sophisticated patrons flocked to the Sunset to hear Armstrong and Hines in 1927, but only Louis landed the record dates, which were aimed at a market of displaced Southerners in lower-income brackets. As an entertainer and a highly sophisticated modern musician, Hines had no place in these "down home" recording sessions. Furthermore, the New York pianists had pretty well cornered the solo recording field, so Earl failed to record again until May, 1928, several months after he had left Armstrong as a regular sideman.
The Sunset job finally ran out in the fall of 1927, but Earl and Louis, together with their closest friend, drummer Zutty Singleton, were full of confidence and enthusiasm. The three were regular visitors to after-hours clubs, open jam sessions, and private parties, where they always wound up playing and entertaining as a kind of miniature show. They decided to stick together as long as possible. The trio worked short jobs together in theater bands such as Clarence Jones's and occasionally sponsored dances of their own. In November, Lil Armstrong rented a ballroom called Warwick Hall and turned it over to the three musicians, who tried producing an original revue there. The new Savoy Ballroom opened at the same time just around the corner and wiped them out. It became painfully clear that outstanding musicianship, even combined with showmanship, would not automatically draw customers. Despite a devoted clan of followers (mostly of the non-spending variety), the triumvirate was soon at liberty again.
Earl made an exploratory trip to New York about this time, but nothing came of it. When Hines returned to Chicago in early 1928, Louis and Zutty had grown tired of the uncertain life and joined Carroll Dickerson, who now led the band at the successful Savoy. Earl, somewhat depressed, looked about for a secure job for himself and found a spot, just vacated by Glover Compton, with Jimmy Noone's five-piece band at the Apex Club. He spent most of the year there.
The Apex was a favorite hangout for musicians, and in the course of Earl's stint with Noone, young pianists Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Casino Simpson, and many others were deeply affected by his now mature style. Noone was a New Orleans clarinetist and a bit on the conservative side, but, unlike Johnny Dodds, he was a master craftsman as well as a jazz artist, and Jimmy appreciated the advanced musical ideas put forth by Earl. Happily, Hines's work at this time has been preserved on records, permitting a clear picture of the pianist's progress through early 1928.
In May, the Noone quintet (alto saxophonist Joe Poston, banjoist Bud Scott, and drummer Johnny Wells were the other members ) recorded four good performances that effectively combined elements of New Orleans jazz, popular music of the day, honest entertainment, and brilliant musicianship into a highly personal band style. Earl was not yet in the proper setting for his talents, but the small group gave him a good deal of freedom, notwithstanding the jarring clang of Bud Scott's banjo. Indeed, on some selections, one might think it was Hines himself who led the band, for Earl moves right into the foreground alongside the alto and clarinet.
I Know That You Know, a display piece for Noone, suggests that Earl was not entirely comfortable with the breakneck pace established by the leader. The piano solo is neither inspired nor unusual by Hines standards, although Earl never lags behind. Every Evening is a stylized stomp played in the New Orleans manner, and heavy-handed stomps were never Earl's forte. However, his solo breaks away enough to show flashes of the arresting scuttling bass lines for which he was soon to become famous and a glimpse of the jagged-right-hand flights which were beginning to fall into place at this time. More satisfying is Sweet Sue, in which Earl embellishes the slow, straight melodic lead with a background chorus that is the high point of the recording. The impact of this passage comes largely from Hines's trumpetlike phrasing, complete with "vibrato" at the end of each phrase (achieved by right-hand tremolos) and natural "breath points" inserted just as they might be in a trumpet solo. The use of treble octaves is again important here, for it gives to Earl's short phrases the brassy authority needed to make them completely convincing. Four or Five Times has stomp overtones again, but Earl works independently of the idiom most of the way. There is, however, a slight heaviness in the piano bass line despite efforts by Hines to get under and lift the performance with his right hand.
Following an additional pair of Noone sides in June and a date with a dreary new singer named Lillie Delk Christian (Armstrong and Noone also participated in this one), Earl began a historic series of Okeh sessions with Louis and members of the Carroll Dickerson Savoy orchestra. In two hot June days, the old trio— Louis, Earl, and Zutty—reunited and, with trombonist Fred Robinson, clarinetist Jimmy Strong, and guitarist Mancy Cara added, finally recorded the kind of music that had been convulsing other musicians in Chicago for many months. Armstrong's was the overriding voice, but Hines placed such a high second that his name began to be mentioned along with Louis' whenever musicians got together.
Many of the musical devices and tricks on these recordings probably came from the Dickerson band, particularly on pieces like the elaborate Fireworks, which concludes with choruses borrowed from the perennial showstopper Tiger Rag. The ensemble effect is more that of a small orchestra than of a New Orleans band, reflecting the influence of arrangers Bill Challis, Don Redman, and Fletcher Henderson, among others. For Hines, who never had much use for old-time jazzmen or "back-room musicians" (as he once called Jelly Roll Morton), these were ideal small-band settings in which to stretch out and try some of the ideas he had been developing. One of the best demonstrations of Hines successfully matching wits with Armstrong occurs on Skip the Gutter, a relaxed traditional vehicle, where the two musicians trade two-bar and four-bar ideas without interference from the rest of the group. It is really a two-man affair all the way, as each tempts the other to extend himself a little further on successive breaks. Both handle double-time ideas with an easy, sure sense of pulse, and the match finishes a draw.
On Sugar Foot Strut, Earl plays with full solo force behind Louis' vocal instead of filling in with an ordinary accompaniment part. As in Noone's band, the pianist constantly pushed himself toward the front line, only reluctantly dropping back into the rhythm section when absolutely required to. This tendency can also be heard on Squeeze Me and on Hines's composition Monday Date. Now and then, as in Armstrong's monumental West End Blues, Earl retires to a more conventional supportive role, boosting the trumpet player with rolling bass tremolos and provocative treble harmonies, but it was not his nature to hang back for long.
Hines was and is a large, aggressive man who enjoyed the musical challenge of working with the gifted Armstrong but, like many Eastern-style pianists who came up in a world of ragtime, elaborate stage shows, and cabaret entertainers, lacked the deep identification with the blues that marked the work of the best New Orleans players. When inspired by Armstrong, the pianist occasionally came close to the idiom, but his later work was almost entirely devoid of the earthy, relaxed spirit so fundamental to successful blues playing. It does not follow, however, that the blues played no part in the Hines style, for he was perceptive enough to realize that good jazz phrasing must borrow something from the blues if it is to avoid academicism.
Now established as a leading pianist, Earl was asked to sit in on a July, 1928, Carroll Dickerson recording. The result is of special interest because it is the only recorded document of the excellent Savoy orchestra of that period. The two selections, Symphonic Raps and Savoyager's Stomp, are remarkably like big-band extensions of the Hines-Armstrong recordings — full of potential harmonic pitfalls, advanced scoring techniques, and dazzling solos. Although the current of influence must have flowed in both directions, these recordings underline the suggestion that part of Hines's unorthodox bravura style may have stemmed from the arranged music he played with the Dickerson orchestra.
Earl continued to work with Noone throughout the summer months of the year. The group's first batch of records had sold well, and they returned to the studios in August to try six more selections. Again Hines reverted to a more conservative style than he had shown on the Armstrong sessions. His attempts at understatement (Apex Blues) seem awkward and unnatural, while his more usual arabesques (Sweet Lorraine) are closer in spirit to Jelly Roll Morton than to Armstrong. Another Monday Date was recorded, and, unlike the Armstrong version of two months before, this one has Earl in an almost frenzied mood. Oddly, this solo suffers from an overabundance of zeal.
A splendid Hines solo in this final Noone series occurs on King Joe. Except for some barely audible timekeeping by the drummer, the rhythm section drops out for Earl's solo, and this simple device provides the pianist with exactly the kind of freedom he needs for his extraordinary rhythmic explorations.
In the fall of 1928, Earl began rehearsing with a group of friends and, apparently with no specific plans for making public appearances, building a small library of arrangements that all enjoyed playing. It was a natural thing for Earl to do, for his experience with Deppe and Armstrong, which had put him in direct command of two very different big bands, had left the pianist without much enthusiasm for serving as a sideman. He finally left Noone and was replaced by Alex Hill and, later, Zinky Cohen, two qualified Chicago pianists much affected by the Hines style.
By December, Earl had hit his full musical stride. In this single remarkable month, the pianist from Pittsburgh recorded fourteen titles with Louis Armstrong, cut twelve piano solos, and, on his twenty-third birthday, launched his own ten-piece orchestra at a leading Chicago ballroom. Of the Armstrong dates, ten are enduring expositions of Louis and Earl at their creative peak as a team. There could be no uncertainty now about the status of Hines; each performance affirmed and reaffirmed that a spectacular and influential stylist had been developed in South Side Chicago.
On tunes like Beau Koo Jack, Earl approaches his solo as if it were an extended break, with the rest of the band (again Dickerson men, with altoist Don Redman added) obligingly suspending all other sounds for that moment. In this happy environment, Earl demonstrated some new ideas. The octave melody phrases were now frequently replaced by streaking single-note lines, sometimes arching gracefully over four or eight bars in a continuous pattern bearing little or no resemblance to the pianist's famous "trumpet" style. In the tradition of all good Eastern pianists, Earl's bass figures were masterpieces of eccentric design and spontaneous wit. It was this feature of his style that made his rhythm men readily agree to drop out during the piano solos; a bass player, for example, courted disaster if he tried to follow Earl's rhythmic peregrinations. Hines, however, never lost the pulse, even when it was completely out of sight, and this remarkable ability had much to do with the success of his music. Broken rhythms were, of course, older than ragtime, but no pianist before Earl Hines — not even James P. Johnson — ever took so many chances in the heat of spontaneous improvisation without experiencing many failures. Hines seemed never to miss.
Other notable Hines-Armstrong titles are Save It, Pretty Mama, No, Muggles, Tight Like This, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, and St. James Infirmary. On Basin Street Blues, Earl plays celeste with his usual positive air.
Hines's ambition to be heard as a front-line instrument was given free play in one other Armstrong recording. It is a duet transformation of an old King Oliver tune called Weatherbird Rag, and the two jazzmen obviously had a merry time testing each other's strength without the normal restrictions imposed by a conventional jazz band. One need only to contrast this extraordinary collaboration with a rather hidebound Jelly Roll Morton-King Oliver duet recording of some four years earlier to understand how far Hines and Armstrong had helped to bring jazz in that short time.”
To be continued and concluded in Part 2.