JJ 05/71: Earl Hines – an informal chat

Fifty years ago Earl Hines talked to Sinclair Traill about Willie 'The Lion' Smith, reproducing the jazz cornet on piano, and trying to make any sense of free improvisation. First published in Jazz Journal May 1971

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Earl Hines. Photo from JJ Archive

In the early days in Pittsburgh, the first pianists I ever heard were Jim Feldman and Johnny Waters. They didn’t play ragtime as such, but were used as accompanists for the many singers there were in and around the city. And of course they used to play for dances quite a bit. They were both great two-handed piano players who could keep an even tempo going on any tune you cared to name for hours on end. Fine men both. Ragtime as far as I am concerned was from New York, with Willie ‘The Lion’, James P. Johnson and the others. I first heard it when ragtime was on the way out – things were different. I was really too young to catch the real old ragtime players, but I’m sure there never were any in Pittsburgh, or even around there.

‘Joe Smith could just sit in a small room and play so beautiful and so soft you could listen to him for hours. And that was the beginning of my idea as to how I wanted to play – but I couldn’t put it on trumpet, so I tried it out on piano’

First time I met Willie ‘The Lion’ was when I visited New York with Luis Deppe – and that was years ago! Willie, I was told, always had those piano-cutting contests, when all the piano players used to get together and play against one another. Well then they took me by to see Willie; I didn’t know where they were taking me, or maybe I wouldn’t have gone!

We sat there for awhile, till someone told The Lion that I was a young, up-and-coming pianist from Pittsburgh. Well ‘The Lion’ then he really put it on – he hit the piano real hard, and roared out like a lion. He scared me to death I’m telling you, but I played most of Rhapsody In Blue, and Willie he was looking at me kind of funny. Then I did a bit of swing piano, but I didn’t have a real matured feeling in those days – hadn’t set my style – and the Lion really had me scared. He’s something is Willie!

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You know when I was a kid I had a certain funny feeling that I wanted to play trumpet. But as I’ve said before the instrument hurt my jaw bones. My father, as you know, played cornet and I’d tried to copy him. So when I gave up the idea of playing that instrument I just naturally played on the piano what I wanted to play on cornet. Now there was that man with Fletcher Henderson, Joe Smith, he’s the man I would have liked to have copied. That smooth type of cornet, that was how I would have liked to have played. Joe Smith was in Pittsburgh with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s band, and he was such a beautiful player. He also played in Pittsburgh with Billy Paige’s Broadway Syncopators – and that was a great band. Don Redman directed it and Benny Carter was also in it. But I used to listen to them just for Joe Smith – a beautiful musician. The band left to go to New York, but Joe returned to play in a show called ‘Bamville’ – this was by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle – and in the finale Joe used to walk on stage and play solo as the people left the theatre. But he had such a beautiful tone, people stood around and didn’t want to go. He used a coconut shell as a mute and the sound he got was just lovely, I’m telling you. They had to stop Joe from doing this finale, as they couldn’t get the theatre cleared. Everybody just stood there, nobody would move. Just as long as Joe Smith played, so they’d stand and listen.

Joe could just sit in a small room and play so beautiful and so soft you could listen to him for hours. And that was the beginning of my idea as to how I wanted to play – but I couldn’t put it on trumpet, so I tried it out on piano.

‘Duke at that time had a girl named Mae Alix, but when they opened up at the Chicago Theatre, Mae was too fair – they wanted a darker girl to front the chorus. So Ivie did an audition’

Joe Smith would have suited Duke’s band. You know why Duke and I have been friends so long – we’ve always been very friendly, you know. Well, the reason is that so many fine musicians who originally worked for me, all went to Duke. I had Ray Nance for quite a spell – he started with me. Then one day Duke asked me how he was, and when I told him Ray was playing wonderful, then Duke took him – just like that! That’s how he came to be with Duke – everybody I used, he had. I even put Ivie Anderson with him, you know that? She was with me at the Grand Terrace. Duke at that time had a girl named Mae Alix, but when they opened up at the Chicago Theatre, Mae was too fair – they wanted a darker girl to front the chorus. So Ivie did an audition at the Regal Theatre, Duke heard her and she went with him forever after. She was a real singer who fitted Duke’s band as no one ever has since. Of course, I also had Dolores Parker and she also went to Duke. It was funny about Dolores. She always sang sharp, but Duke didn’t know this, neither did he know we used to simplify things to make it easy for her. She didn’t stay with Duke long. But he just hates to fire anybody, you know. He had a girl he had hired who travelled round with the band for ages. As far as I know she never even sang a note and never even knew if she was hired or not – but she just went around ’cause Duke couldn’t get to fire her. He’s that kind of a guy.

‘With this new freedom music I can’t quite see what they have in mind. My personal feeling is that they just don’t seem to get that feeling natural to jazz – there’s some­thing missing’

I’ve been listening to some of this freedom music recently, but you see my way of looking at the youngsters of today in regards to music is like this. As I’ve said before jazz is to me something like a treetrunk, which has so many branches which bloom and sometimes blossom and then die off at the proper season and go back to the jazz roots. I can certainly appreciate young fellows searching for and looking for something different, but where they lose me is tempo-wise. When they mess around with it the way they do. I can’t seem to get the feeling that one should get when listening to jazz – it doesn’t move me, as good jazz should. If they’re play­ing a tune which has any meaning to it at all, and tunes have a meaning, you know – just as the composer meant them to have, that’s where they lose me. I’ve never been the sort of person to say that the youngsters are wrong. No! I don’t say that and never have. I’ve heard a good many musical innovations in my time and gone along with them, as you know. I’ve had some pretty advanced guys in my bands from time to time and I always gave them all the encourage­ment I could – never said what they were doing wrong, but tried to encourage them. And no doubt learnt a little from them from time to time. There’s a lot more to jazz than just playing the stuff that comes naturally and easily to you and all kinds of people like all kinds of different sounds in music. But sometimes with this new freedom music I can’t quite see what they have in mind. My personal feeling, from playing the piano, is that they just don’t seem to get that feeling natural to jazz – there’s some­thing missing. I’ll listen and give it all the observation I possibly can, but to be honest and not to mislead anybody, I can’t say I like it. To be truthful I don’t understand it, and that’s the whole story.

There was a group of young fellows down at Ronnie’s on our opening night and I sat and listened. First there was a drum and then a silence; then the piano player played three or four notes; then he embellished it a little; then in came bass and drums, then nothing… Well, I just wondered if the boys were getting set-up, but as it went on I realised they weren’t getting tuned up, they were playing something. But the drummer kept banging away in one tempo and the piano player sat there and played a note here and there, but nothing hung together. I was told they were playing ‘Freedom music’, but what they were trying to prove is just beyond me. I can’t say I don’t like it, because I just don’t know what it is – it just sounded like nothing.

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