If you ask any jazz musician who the great jazz pianists are, you’ll get a list of the “usual suspects”: Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, etc. If you press a little deeper, someone might mention Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Wynton Kelly and a few others. But you’ll rarely hear about Earl Hines anymore and I’m not sure why.
I myself didn’t know about Earl “Fatha” Hines until one day as a teen I turned on my favorite radio station, WKCR-FM, to find out they were in the midst of a week-long Earl Hines festival. Earl Hines and only Earl Hines played 24 hours a day for 7 days straight.
“What?” “Who’s Earl Hines?” I asked. I was soon to find out!
Earl “Fatha” Hines came to prominence in the early days of jazz as part of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven group. He played stride with his left hand while soloing “trumpet-style” in octaves with his right. This way his piano could be heard over the horns and drums. But it was also a catchy and compelling piano style. Perhaps his most famous recording of the time is “Weatherbird,” a landmark duet with Armstrong. Upon casual listening it sounds pretty typical of the age, but try to keep time during his piano solo. Hines displaced the accents so radically that it just might trip you up. But he knows exactly what he’s doing and comes out right on the downbeat every time.
Hines took rhythmic and textural risks that other pianists wouldn’t dare to try. And he continued to do so throughout his career, which lasted until the 1970s. Although his biggest fame came as a swing-era bandleader, my favorite recordings of his are the many solo albums he recorded in the latter part of his career. He would sit down at the piano and simply reel off one standard tune after another, playing whatever he felt. His pianistic freedom is remarkable and to my ears, only equaled by the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Listen to how he plays "C Jam Blues.” Pure mastery of the kind we rarely hear nowadays.
If you want to expand your sense of what’s possible in jazz, do yourself a favor and listen to some “Fatha” Hines. He certainly deserves it, and so do you!
Here's a fun listening exercise to help you play better jazz piano.
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