In the mid-80’s the poet Victor Coleman and I were writing musicals together, and one of the projects took us to New York for a reconnaisance trip. One evening we were walking down 52nd Street (or one of those streets) between 5th or 6th., looking for something to do. We passed a club with a sign on the street and Victor stops and says, “Hank Jones!” I didn’t know who Hank Jones was at that time (which pains me to admit) and so I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. It turned out to one of the most memorable evenings I’ve ever spent listening to music.
The place was small with a little split level section where the piano was placed so that the pianist could look out the window. There were about twenty seats in this section, with only a few filled, so we sat down about four feet from him. He was playing solo, having a fine old time, smiling away in his easy and genuinely loving way — the most light-hearted musician I’ve ever met (on a par with Steve Crowe, brilliantly musical and imperturbable lead trumpet player from Toronto).
We stayed there till the gig was done, about two hours. People came in We chatted. I said I was a musician, while feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t known who he was. Bless sharp friends like Victor! We were getting very high very quickly on solo piano caviar, and he was taking our enthusiasm and throwing it back at us —a big little love-in. After a while he asked if there was anything we wanted to hear. There was nothing that he didn’t know. I remember calling “How Deep is the Ocean,” one of my favourites. His way in and around the tune was effortless, tasteful, energized, fluid, and again, loving. Mother’s milk jazz.
Meeting him and hearing him play gave me the impression that he spread his personal warmth in whatever he did, day in and day out, with ease, and yet, never in a facile way, always sincere and definite about what it was doing. For me that night he did what great performers do, he knocked me out with his talent and his sense of how things went together. I’m still living it, twenty-five years later. And he did it with the Hank Jones style, uniquely his, which came from a gentle and near perfect native conception of music’s purpose.