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Earl Hines Sessions: 1928-45

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Earl Hines Earl “Fatha" Hines is all but forgotten today. A dashing pre-war pianist and bandleader, Hines spent much of his post-war career as the stride era's most daunting practitioner. He didn't have hits the way Louis Armstrong did, he never saw much value in film acting, and he didn't bother embracing modern jazz forms. Nevertheless, Hines was as important to jazz's development in the late '20s, '30s and early '40s as Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Hines began as a bar-room player. Ever in search of exotic entertainment, Chicago's speakeasies of the '20s employed jazz musicians to slow the departure of patrons and keep them spending on drink. The top spot in town was The Grand Terrace Cafe, which was owned by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong's manager. It eventually was controlled by Al Capone, and in 1928, Hines began a run there with a band that would last 12 years. 

As a bandleader in the '30s, Hines wasn't a bluesy time-keeper (Benny Moton) or painter of lush concepts (Duke Ellington). Instead, he was a deft hot-jazz player—employing breakneck rhythms and leveraging the popular stride style of the day by adding hip left-hand accents and syncopation.

In fact, Hines's piano style owed more to the popularity of Louis Armstrong's trumpet than any of his keyboard peers. Hines treated the ivories like horn valves—hitting notes with a fierce staccato—and his band was often arranged to augment and echo his singular style. [Pictured above, from left, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine in 1950]

By the summer of 1931, when Chicago's clubs would close for a period, Hines and his band toured the South, becoming the first black band to do so. With the rise of Kansas City swing in the early '30s, Hines's band moved in a similar direction, though it had greater urban intensity. While Kansas City arrangers had figured out a way to simplify and swing their attack for slower dancers, Hines was much more cosmopolitan performance artist, in a brash, rousing way. 

In the early '40s, at the onset of World War II, Hines's band took a hard hit as many of his band's musicians were drafted into black units of the armed forces. To fill the gap, Hines first hired a draft-proof all-female band in New York. But after two months, he expanded the band from 12 to 28 male and female players.

Perhaps out of necessity, his 1943 band was comprised of musical misfits and renegades who would go on to lead jazz's greatest revolution and overthrow the old guard. These musicians in the Hines band included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Bennie Green, Benny Harris, and Shadow Wilson. Unfortunately, this band did not record, thanks to the first American Federation of Musicians' recording ban, which blockaded the studios for much of '43. [Pictured above: The Earl Hines Orchestra at the Apollo Theater in 1943, featuring vocalist Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie (cut off on left), Charlie Parker (right) and Sarah Vaughan on the band's second piano]

Now, with the release of the seven-CD box Classic Earl Hines Sessions: 1928-1945 (Mosaic), you get to hear one of jazz's finest pianists and the king of the Chicago jazz style over a seminal 17-year period. What begins as a hot jazz approach adapts moderately to swing in the '30s and dips a toe into bebop in the mid-40s.

On this box, there are several fascinating turning points. From 1929 to 1934, you hear Hines's hot-jazz orchestra that performed nightly for Chicago's mobsters and swells. By 1934, Hines dropped the violin from his orchestra, and the band takes on a new, more modern sound thanks to the arranging style of tenor saxophonist Jimmy Mundy. This new approach is evident on Madhouse.

In 1937 the tuba is gone and there's a noticeable swing style present. We also get to hear the fine arrangements by Cecil Irwin, who had died in a car crash two years earlier. One of the box's finest tracks is Irwin's chart for Rhythm Sundae.

Mundy also was special, making clever use of section riffs and writing in the modern idiom. His Inspiration and Solid Mama in 1937 are several years ahead of their time. The same is true for the pen of Budd Johnson, whose Father Steps In and Riff Medley in 1939 are already foreshadowing bebop.

In 1941, Hines even carried a vocal group—The Three Varieties—and we hear them on It Had to Be You (with a Budd Johnson solo) and on I've Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, I Never Dreamed (You'd Fall in Love With Me), The Boy With Wistful Eyes and She'll Always Remember

Another high point is Budd Johnson's big-windup arrangement for Skylark in 1942, with Billy Eckstein's vocal and a smokey solo by Johnson.

One of the set's last tracks in 1945 is Scoops Carry's Merry, a variation on Lullaby in Rhythm that was arranged by electric guitarist Rene Hall. It's as close as we can come to knowing what the '42-'43 band might have sounded like.  

Interestingly, the Hines band never fully embraced bebop, even by 1945. The orchestra throughout the years was first and foremost a platform for Hines's daring piano. I suspect even with Parker and Gillespie, the band was a lot less forward-thinking than most people imagine or recall.

Which is fine. Hines's piano style broke many jazz rules during this period and pioneered a daredevil sound. As good as piano players were back in the '30s and '40s—from Fats Waller and Art Tatum to Teddy Wilson and Errol Garner—all dreaded going up against Hines. And for good reason, as we hear on this box.  

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the seven-CD Classic Earl Hines Sessions: 1928-1945 (Mosaic) at the Mosaic Records site here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Earl Hines in 1965 playing Memories of You. The variety of stride styles, the imaginative way in which he takes the song apart, and how he builds tension—not to mention the sheer polish and cockiness of his deliver—make for a startling performance...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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