Most Valued Player: Hampton Hawes
by Nic Jones
Though the division between the east coast and west coast schools of jazz in the 1950s was rather more than the product of geography, it was simplistic. Put simply, consensus decreed that music emanating from New York was the work of hard-driving soloists accompanied by rhythm sections who knew only too well how to find and maintain a groove, while music coming out of Los Angeles was a less heated, more genteel affair.
Born in November, 1928 and the son of a Los Angeles clergyman, pianist Hampton Hawes was, according to that rule, born in the wrong place. Always a fiercely articulate player, he worked with Big Jay McNeely in 1944 before he fell under the influence of bebop, as did so many of his contemporaries. Stylistically his playing was, early in his career, indebted heavily to Bud Powell, a pianist whose influence never completely left him.
He worked in bands under the leadership of musicians from both coasts from the middle of the 1940s until 1952, when he began a two-year period of duty in the army. Following this he formed his own trio, which included the bass player Red Mitchell, and with which he toured throughout the US.
In the mid- to late 1950s he recorded for Lester Koenig's Contemporary label both as leader and sideman. The album Four! was made under his own leadership in the company of Mitchell, drummer Shelly Manne and the empathetic guitar of Barney Kessel. This is an album that effectively combines the best elements of the music of both coasts, with Hawes's bebop-derived piano combining nicely with Kessel's less heated guitar.
Recorded over two sessions, one from January of 1956 and the other from March 1958, the album Bird Song only saw the light of day in 1999. Both sessions were recorded in Contemporary's studio in LA and the find Hawes in astonishing form. His take on Charlie Parker's "Big Foot" takes no prisoners and succeeds in showing just how deep his feeling for the bebop idiom was.
There was a hiatus in his career when he was arrested on a narcotics charge, though his imprisonment ended in 1963 when President Kennedy pardoned him. The following year found him working the clubs of LA with the tenor saxophonist Harold Land amongst others. In 1965 he again worked with Mitchell, in the company of whom he played a long engagement at Donte's club in LA.
The album The Séance was recorded a year later and finds the Hawes-Mitchell duo in the company of drummer Donald Bailey for a set recorded live at Mitchell's Studio Club. The Sonny Rollins composition "Oleo" is taken up tempo, and such is the pianistic command of Hawes that the performance still contains all of his characteristic rhythmic emphasis.
In the 1970s his musical interests and recorded output diversified considerably. He recorded with, amongst others, Joan Baez, and experimented with electric keyboards up until the time of his death in May of 1977.
Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.
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