Reviews & Opinions

Hampton Hawes

by Jim Cuneo

Remembering WBRU.

  Jimmy Cuneo  Back in the summer of 1978, during the height of disco, my cousins and I sought refuge through the all night jazz show that came out of WBRU in Providence, Rhode Island.  That show played everything from Art Tatum to Alphonso Johnson.  It was tremendous exposure to all forms of jazz.  I had listened to just about every jazz album in the Erie public library and they had some great albums by Bobby Timmons, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and other giants. But WBRU played  stuff by Sun Ra, Henry Threadgill and Lester Bowie that just took you to the outer reaches of the universe and back.  They featured a different artist every night and I think I stayed up all night every night listening to that show. 

They did many  tributes on that show.  They played a lot of Clifford Brown.  Two artists that had recently passed away were getting a ton of air play.  One was Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  Not just the ability to play several instruments at once (which is always exciting) but his bluesy chops and his ability to quote from Ellington and the great American Songbook at will was astonishing.  And he could play like Coltrane at times or Don Byas.  He could imitate anybody when he wanted to but was always careful to not over emulate as to distract from his own sound.  Bells and whistles helped.

and the fantastic Hampton Hawes.

    Pianist Hampton Hawes was the other artist that they played something by just about every night.  He, like Rahsaan, was firmly rooted in gospel infused blues.  His sound immediately caught my attention like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum had before. Hampton's lightning fast runs were Bird-like in their melodic brilliance.  It was no surprise when I found out that he had played with Bird in LA in the late 1940's and his ownership of the blues was a direct result of Mr. Parker's influence.  I didn't know any of that stuff back then even though I faithfully tried to decipher the articles in Contemporary Keyboard (later just Keyboard) magazine and had seen over and over terms like “eclectic” and “aesthetic.”  I just knew that it was fantastic piano playing.

Editor's note:  The two videos below don't match the references Jim gives in his article, but are additional samples of Hawes' great feel & chops.  The first is a trio recording with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Donald Bailey.  The second, which shows off Hawes brilliance as a supportive pianist and aggressively swinging soloist, is with the Art Pepper Quartet, with Pepper on saxophone, Hawes, bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer Larry Bunker.  One of my entries in the "most swinging recordings of all time" derby.)

  One trackHampton Hawes

     As luck would  have it, I found three albums in the budget bin of the nearby K-Mart.  One was Oscar Peterson with Joe Pass that was fairly new and it was so astonishing it almost made me give up music.  I was afraid to listen to that  2 record set.  Another was the album that Rahsaan Roland Kirk made with Al Hibbler, Meeting of the Times.  It, too, is a classic.  Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Oliver Jackson round out the band and they are top notch.  The other album I found was a double album by Hampton Hawes.  It was a strange album where one record was like the Hampton Hawes that I had heard on WBRU but the other record was more like easy listening music played on an electric piano! I think I only listened to that record once but I wore out that other one.  Those albums that I found in the budget bin that day had a profound effect on my musical upbringing to say the least. 

    I was thinking recently that I really ought to have more of Hampton Hawes in my music collection.  All I have of his is an album that he made overseas in 1968 called “Spanish Steps” and it's tremendous.  Jimmy Woode and Art Taylor back him up on that disc and they are “in the pocket.” 

Overseas fame.

Hampton was amazed by his popularity overseas.  He told Downbeat's Harvey Siders, “I recorded for Columbia and RCA in the same week in Japan and I couldn't tell you what street either company is on in Hollywood.”  When I googled Hampton Hawes, I was amazed to find that The Real Gone label has 7 of his early albums on 4 CD's for less than $15.00.  I prefer vinyl, but Hampton Hawes early records go for big bucks.  Since all I really want to do is listen to the stuff, I bought the CD collection and I'm very glad I did.  The albums included in the set are: Hampton Hawes Trio Volume 1, This is Hampton Hawes Vol. 2, both from 1955 and  Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes from 1956.

These 3 albums featured Red Mitchell and Chuck Thompson on bass and drums respectively.  Curtis Fuller and Hampton Hawes -with French Horns (David Amram) and Charles Mingus – Mingus Three with Danny Richmond on drums both from 1957.  Four! With Barney Kessel, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne and For Real with Harold Land on sax, Scott LaFaro on bass and Frank Butler on drums.  Both of those are from 1958.  The CD compilation comes with very little information but it has the important info like who played what and when did it come out.  The CD's themselves look like vinyl records and that's a cool touch and they come in a plastic double jewel box case but for the most part it is “no frills” packaging.  The booklet that comes with it is mainly a catalog and it looks like this label has a treasure trove of great music that is reasonably priced.  I just ordered 6 classic albums by Bobby Timmons. 

And a writer, too.

    Hampton Hawes is one of the greatest piano men of the 20th century.  His autobiography is one of the best stories of a musician that I've ever read.  It is brutally honest.  Hampton got into so much trouble that he ended up in prison where he was eventually pardoned by President Kennedy.  His adventures are in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category.  It is a refreshing book not like some of the pretentious books written by Gene Lees, who seemed more intent on blasting people than talking about music.   I recently read Horace Silver's autobiography and it was quite disappointing considering how extra cool Horace's music was.  I can't understand why some artists think that we care more about their sexcursions while they were on the road than their artistry.  Even Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography talks more about his sexploits than his music.  Have you ever seen a picture of this guy?

     Anyway, to start the new year off right I recommend putting on some great Hampton Hawes music and kicking back with a good book perhaps, Hampton Hawes autobiography which is entitled, “Raise Up Off Me.”

Jim Cuneo
January 13, 2015