With his muscled arms and compact, powerful hands, Earl Hines embraced nearly every era of jazz pianism. Credited by many with transforming the idiom with his “trumpet style” keyboard approach, Hines served as a beacon for such followers as Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Bud Powell, Stan Kenton, and Oscar Peterson. While he led the band at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Cafe his career paralleled that of Duke Ellington in New York’s Cotton Club; his swinging ensemble pre-dated Benny Goodman’s “King of Swing” orchestra of 1935.
Hines enjoys almost unanimous regard among fellow pianists and critics as one of the geniuses on his instrument. His professionalism and ability to communicate with an audience were unparalleled. His range of expertise as a pianist reached from solo piano to small combos to vocal accompaniment to string-augmented big band. And though Hines always maintained that he considered himself to be a band pianist rather than a soloist, some of the solo work recorded near the end of his 60-year career is astonishing in its impact.
Born near Pittsburgh in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1905, Earl Kenneth Hines heard good music very early. His father, a foreman at the local coal dock, played cornet; his stepmother, who entered his life when he was only three, was an organist; a live-in uncle was master of several brass instruments. After a brief fling with the cornet, Earl took to the piano and applied himself, both with school training and excellent private lessons, toward the goal of becoming a concert pianist. At this time, in addition to great pianistic dexterity, he developed a facility as a reader of music that served him throughout his career
When he moved to Pittsburgh to attend high school while living with an aunt who sang light opera, Hines was exposed to a broader world of music and introduced to such luminaries as composers/band leaders Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. That new, broader world included jazz. The sounds and rhythms of 1919 Pittsburgh’s Wylie Street night spots were irresistible to the 14-year-old Earl Hines.
Soon he formed his own trio and continued to soak up the sounds of the more experienced players as he performed at parties and socials. Lois Deppe, a popular baritone and band leader on Wylie Street, took note of Hines’s keyboard agility and reading ability and hired him in 1921. His brilliance quickly drew the attention of admiring Leader House club patrons as well as local musicians.
Born Earl Kenneth Hines, December 28, 1905, in Duquesne, PA; died April 22, 1983, in Oakland, CA; father, Joseph, was a cornetist; stepmother, Mary, played organ. Education: Studied classical music with Von Holz.
Formed a jazz trio at age 14 in Pittsburgh, PA; hired at age 16 by bandleader Lois Deppe and toured Ohio, West Virginia, and New York City; made first records, 1923; moved to Chicago, 1925; played with his own group and with Jimmy Noone and Louis Armstrong, 1928; became leader of band at Grand Terrace nightclub, beginning in 1928; led modern touring group with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Billy Eckstine, early 1940s; returned to Armstrong’s All Stars, 1948-51; “re-discovered” at Little Theatre concerts and resumed world tours and active recording career, 1964-83.
During that two-year stay with Deppe, Hines was rapidly developing a personal style. He gave credit to several local pianists for influencing him, but Hines maintained that his major influence was trumpeter Joe Smith. The pianist’s repertoire broadened as his performances ranged from the showy, jazz-oriented tunes in the club to light classics and church recitals, usually accompanying Deppe. Visiting musicians soon made it a point to check out the young phenomenon. With the Deppe band he branched out to Ohio, West Virginia, and New York City. As the band grew in size as well as popularity, Hines developed his famous right hand octave doubling technique—the trumpet style—as a way to cut through the sound of the other instruments with his unamplified piano. In October of 1923, not yet 18, Hines cut his first records, including one original composition, with Deppe at the Gennett studio in Richmond, Indiana.
In 1924 Hines left Deppe to form another band of his own, one that included the multi-talented Benny Carter on saxophone. Then, heeding the admonition of Blake to leave Pittsburgh and showcase his talents elsewhere, Hines moved to Chicago, landing in the midst of such players as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, Frank Teschemacher, and, especially, Louis Armstrong.
The handsome, personable pianist quickly developed a following, while continuing his on-the-job training in a variety of settings. Hines and Armstrong formed a musical bond and, with drummer Zutty Singleton, began playing together at the Sunset Cafe, which quickly became the“in” place on Chicago’s South Side for musicians as well as for gangsters and other big-spending customers. As Hines told biographer Stanley Dance of his association with Armstrong,“When we were playing together it was like a continuous jam session. I’d steal ideas from him and he’d steal them from me. He’d bend over after a solo and say… “Thank you, man.’” The temporary 1927 closing of the club led to a breakup of the Hines/Armstrong/Singleton combo and Hines soon joined clarinetist Jimmie Noone’s band at the nearby Apex Club.
In the last eight months of 1928 Hines made records with Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra and with Louis Armstrong, some with Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, that are among the most celebrated in jazz recording. The fully-developed piano style of Hines, not yet 23, shines through on all these sides; amazingly, his playing here still sounds fresh. One gem, “Weather Bird,” showcases simply Hines and Armstrong in a remarkable duet on which they stretch the rhythmic and harmonic borders in ways that had not previously been recorded.
In his The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes that Hines’s recordings of this time “reveal a manual ambidexterity and agility of mind that was unprecedented in jazz piano…. Any idea that came into his head was instantly transferable to his obedient fingers.” Schuller and other writers point out that Hines often appeared to be staging a challenge, a competition, between his right and left hand as to which one could produce the greater surprises while still sounding integrated. This characteristic remained with Hines throughout his career, as did his penchant for “broken” rhythms in which he avoided a strict four-beats-to-the-bar in favor of multiple variations in meter.
At the end of 1928, on his twenty-third birthday, Hines began a new phase of his career as he took over as bandleader at the Grand Terrace, one of Chicago’s most beautiful and popular night clubs. Here, under the protective eye of Al Capone, Hines held forth for eleven years, interrupted by increasingly long annual forays on the road as the band’s popularity fanned outward. In his liner notes for Earl Hines —South Side Swing, biographer Dance wrote that “from 1934 onwards, the Hines band enjoyed more radio air time than any other in the U.S.” This air time helped Hines attract and develop many gifted players and arrangers, both at the Grand Terrace and later. Among the musicians whose careers he aided were Budd Johnson, Gene Ramey, Trummy Young, Cecil Irwin, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. At one point his band featured perhaps the two finest pure voices ever to sing jazz, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Hartman.
As a leader Hines expected good performance and appearance from his sidemen and, despite his great personal popularity, he was generous in assigning solos and arranging tasks to others. Though a gifted composer as well (“Rosetta,” “Stormy Monday Blues,” and “You Can Depend On Me,” among others), the leader gave his many arrangers wide berth. Their varying styles precluded the development of a recognizable band sound, save for the driving rhythm propelled by Hines.
It is to this lack of identity that some trace the fact that the Hines band was eclipsed by those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman in the polls. And while he recorded some substantial hits—”Piano Man,” 1939; “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues,”1940; “Jelly, Jelly,” 1940; “Stormy Monday Blues,” 1942, the latter two with Eckstine vocals—true popularity proved elusive. Hines tired of band leading, with its general postwar decline, and returned to an old friend in 1948.
Hines remained with the Louis Armstrong All Stars—featuring trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw, and drummer Sid Catlett—until 1951 when, wearying of the same routines night after night, the pianist left and formed a new small group. Touring with this combo until 1955, Hines then settled down at the Club Hangover in San Francisco for five years and bought a home in nearby Oakland. Another extended club date, interlarded with brief trips to other cities, constituted a quiet, part-time musical existence until 1964, when Hines was invited to play three solo concerts at the Little Theatre in New York. These concerts created great excitement and sparked a re-discovery of the keyboard master.
Of these concerts Whitney Balliett wrote in his American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, “Not only was his celebrated style intact, but it had taken on a subtlety and unpredictability that continually pleased and startled the audience…. Between numbers, that smile-one of the renowned lamps of show business—made his face look transparent. It was exemplary showmanship—not wrappings and tinsel but the gift itself, freely offered.”
What followed were the rebirth of Hines’s recording career and a series of world tours in concert, usually with reedman Budd Johnson and drummer Oliver Jackson. In 1966 Hines visited the Soviet Union for the U.S. State Department and in 1969 and 1976 performed at the White House. Between 1970 and 1973 Hines recorded ten LPs for Chiaroscuro, beginning with new interpretations of his arresting eight sides for QRS records in 1928, and including 1973’s brilliant live solo concert at New York’s New School for Social Research.
This concert displays all of the mighty Hines pianistic elements: startling technique in both hands; inventiveness that permits new approaches to familiar material; unerring time, often broken with displaced accents and implied or real double-time; indefatigable right-hand tremolos; the trumpet style; security; humor; surprise and joy. In The Great Jazz Pianists, Len Lyons explains, “Like the circus clown who plays at tripping and falling (but deftly lands on his feet every time), Hines would ‘lose’ both rhythm and chord changes within a song only to bring them together at the end of the phrase or chorus.
It is these elements that Hines combined while winding down a 60-year playing career. Hines’s earliest records reveal an audacity still evident, while those made 40 years later remain models of complete, modern piano work. Despite the encroachment of arthritis and heart problems, he was still in command of these elements while playing until within a week of his death in Oakland on April 22, 1983.
Though Hines never appreciated the “Fatha” nickname hung on him by a radio announcer at the Grand Terrace, he indeed may be considered a father to all jazz pianists who have followed. Schuller considers him “one of the two supreme pianists of our time.” Of Hines’s playing, writer/arranger/pianist Billy Strayhorn told Metronome: “Technically, it is unorthodox; harmonically, it is intriguing; and actually, it is almost impossible to imitate in its entirety. His devotees are legion, his influence tremendous and his artistry incomparable.”