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Sir Roland Hanna: Pianist Was Jazz Aristocrat

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Sir Roland Hanna was one of the group of players who sported titles derived from the British aristocracy, along with the various Dukes, Counts and Earls. Hanna's knighthood was a genuine one, however, bestowed by the government of Liberia in 1970 in recognition of fund-raising activities on behalf of Liberian children.

His position in the jazz aristocracy was earned through his elegant touch, inventive improvising abilities and versatile stylistic reach. He worked with leaders as diverse as Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus, although many of his most memorable moments came as a leader in his own right, and in his performances as a solo pianist.

He was born Roland Pembroke Hanna in Detroit, where his father began teaching him music as a youngster. He studied classical piano from the age of eleven, and also played alto saxophone in high school.

Detroit had a thriving local jazz scene in the 1950s, with piano particularly well-represented in the shape of players like Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. He cited all three as being among his influences, alongside Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and the classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Hanna spent two years in the Army in 1951-2, then played with Jones's brother, trumpeter Thad Jones, at the city's famous Bluebird Inn in 1952. He studied music at the Eastman School in 1953-4 and the Juilliard School in New York in 1955, where he completed a Masters degree in 1960, having taking time off to tour with Benny Goodman in 1958.

He worked with Hawkins and Mingus in the late 1950s, and with singers Sarah Vaughan and Al Hibbler in the early 1960s, and led his own trio in New York. He was part of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band from 1966 until 1974, and continued to play both with his trio and a band he formed in 1967 under the name the New York Jazz Sextet.

He reconstituted the latter band as the New York Jazz Quartet in 1971, with flautist Hubert Laws, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham in the original line-up. In 1974, the band became a cooperative, with Frank Wess taking over from Laws and Ben Riley replacing Cobham (George Mraz later took over from Carter on bass).

He was an occasional member of the Mingus tribute band Mingus Dynasty, and performed in the historic realisation of Mingus's massive Epitaph in New York in 1989, pieced together by jazz scholar and musician Gunther Schuller. He was one of the musicians recruited to record new accompaniments to Charlie Parker's solos for Clint Eastwood's bio-pic Bird in 1988.

He toured with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in the 1990s, and continued to play both in his trio and as a solo pianist, including taking part in a tribute to Errol Garner at Carnegie Hall in 1993.

He taught at Queens College in New York, and was a prolific composer in both jazz and classical idioms. He published over 200 pieces, including chamber music, orchestral works, and a jazz ballet. Oasis, a large-scale work for piano and orchestra, was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1993.

His deep feeling for jazz and blues was reflected in his playing, but classical music (both of the Romantic era and the later Impressionists) remained an audible influence in his jazz work throughout his career.

He is survived by his wife, Ramona Woodard; sons Michael Hanna and Christopher Hanna; three brothers, two sisters and six grandchildren.

Mourners at his funeral service included Frank Wess, Billy Taylor, Louis Hayes, Paul West, Barry Harris, Randy Weston, Danny Mixon, Eddie Locke, Carrie Smith, Jerry Dodgion, John Faddis and Jimmy Owens (thanks to Jannnice@aol.com for this information).


Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: kenmat@dircon.co.uk

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