Hank Jones obituary

Prolific jazz pianist and composer, he was a sensitive accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald

The great jazz drummer Elvin Jones, asked by JazzUK magazine in 2001 how it felt to be still playing full-on jazz in his 70s, simply pointed to the example of his older brother. The pianist Hank Jones, the first-born of the three jazz-playing Jones brothers, was 83 at the time and still playing with the same benign determination that had distinguished his work since the 1940s.

A pianist of graceful lyricism, lightness of touch, and softness of chordal shading, Jones bridged the urbane sophistication of the swing era and the more ambiguous harmonies and zigzagging melodies of bebop. But bop's haste and mistrust of silences never diverted him from sounding notes as if concerned for their wellbeing once they left his hands. He phrased improvisations like compositions, and seemed to be in love with all his work, and incapable of making an ugly sound if he tried.

Jones, who has died aged 91, was also an underrated composer, whose work belatedly came to be covered by other jazz musicians (the US pianist Geoffrey Keezer devoted an album to his pieces as recently as 2003) and his sensitivity made him an excellent accompanist, particularly for singers. Ella Fitzgerald was Jones's principal employer for six years from the 1940s into the 50s. In 1962, he was the accompanist to Marilyn Monroe as she sang Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York.

He was born Henry Jones in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In his early childhood the family moved to Pontiac, Michigan, where his trumpeter brother Thad and drummer brother Elvin were born – there would be 10 siblings in all. Hank was given piano lessons, and in his teens became attracted to the sounds of such stride-derived pianists as Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, the trumpet-line mimicry adopted by Louis Armstrong's partner Earl Hines, and the blizzard of sound unleashed by the technically dazzling Art Tatum.

Hank was good enough to perform in local Michigan bands by the age of 13, and remained working professionally in the area through the 30s, eventually appearing in swing groups that included Thad on trumpet. The older Jones steadily expanded his patch to the touring "territory bands" around Grand Rapids, during which period he met the saxophonist Lucky Thompson. In 1944, Jones accompanied Thompson to New York, and a new musical world.

The New York scene of the mid-40s placed the jazz music of almost every era and persuasion side by side on such jazz boulevards as 52nd Street. Jones eagerly took it all in, and continued to freelance, primarily as a swing performer, with such high-profile, musically advanced orchestras as Andy Kirk's, John Kirby's and the singer Billy Eckstine's. But he was fascinated by the intricacies of bebop, and studied the art closely. The saxophonist Coleman Hawkins ran a hybrid swing/bop outfit in the mid-40s, and Jones recorded with it in 1946 and 1947.

In 1947, he was hired to accompany Fitzgerald, at a point in the singer's career when she had weathered difficult times and was beginning to mature as an artist, and also starting to command some of the biggest fees in the business. Tuning his ear to Fitzgerald's speed of thought and vocal elasticity, Jones became the quintessential accompanist, developing an aptitude for spontaneous shading, colouration and enhancement of the music around him that bordered on musical witchcraft.

Having appeared with Fitzgerald on the impresario Norman Granz's globetrotting Jazz at the Philharmonic package tours, Jones became a participant in other Granz projects, including recordings in the early 50s with Charlie Parker. He also worked with Duke Ellington's former trombonist Tyree Glenn and with the clarinettist Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five in 1953, and made regular appearances at the Birdland club in New York. With the pioneering bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, Jones worked regularly as a studio player for Savoy Records, briefly rejoined Hawkins in 1955, and toured with Benny Goodman.

Towards the end of the decade, he appeared with Glenn in bands led by the trombonist that sometimes featured a fitfully poetic Lester Young. His brother Elvin appeared with Jones in a 1958 edition of the Glenn ensemble, and Jones recorded with the fast-rising Cannonball Adderley in the same year.

Jones went to work on the studio staff of CBS records in 1959 – often playing on the Ed Sullivan Show – and remained with the company for 17 years. But he continued to work the jazz circuit when he could. Throughout the 70s, he performed regularly with Goodman, then became pianist and conductor on the Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin'. He appears on hundreds of recordings, a testament to his ability to fit in at the drop of a hat, and lift everyone else's game, while still adding a uniquely identifiable chemistry of his own.

From the late 70s on, he often played unaccompanied, or duetted with likemindedly subtle and understated pianists such as John Lewis and Tommy Flanagan. Jones also performed with an ensemble that came to be known as the Great Jazz Trio – a deservedly hyperbolic name for a group born at the Village Vanguard in 1976 and initially starring Jones alongside the former Miles Davis bass and drums colossi Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The bassists Eddie Gomez and Dave Holland, and drummers Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb and Billy Higgins, appeared in later editions.

Jones was popular all over the world, but had a particular following in Japan, a country he came to visit regularly, becoming a guest professor at the Osaka College of Music from 1992. He appeared at the world's great jazz festivals well into his later years, and sustained a busy programme of club dates into his 80s.

In 1989, Jones was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and that year Holland and the saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Peplowski contributed to one of his most mellow and captivating recordings, the Concord label's Lazy Afternoon. But Upon Reflection, made in 1993 and dedicated to his late brother Thad, and featuring Elvin on drums, laid to rest any lingering suspicions that Hank put fastidious grace above profound emotion.

Jones remained at the top of his game until the last months of his life, touring Japan in February this year. A superb live duo album, Kids, was released in 2007, featuring him in remarkably free dialogue with the saxophonist Joe Lovano, and last year he was awarded a lifetime Grammy for services to music.

He is survived by his wife, Theodosia.

• Henry "Hank" Jones, jazz pianist, born 31 July 1918; died 16 May 2010


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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