Earl Hines – August Artist of the Month

Written by on August 1, 2019

Pianist Earl Hines was, in today’s parlance, kind of a big deal.  He rerouted the entire style of Jazz piano artistry in the 1920s, and led a big band in the Swing Era that introduced several important modern voices of the Forties. Hines was on the scene as a piano virtuoso and kept pace with all the stylistic changes in the music through the 1970s, while retaining the swinging vibrancy of Jazz’s cutting-edge character in its early years. Hines also authored a small number of Jazz classics—“Rosetta,” most notably—and midwifed a few others into popularity.

Hines was born December 28, 1903 in Pittsburgh. Relocating to Chicago at the end of his teens was the big step that put him on the world’s radar. Hines quickly distinguished himself as the leading talent in Chicago on the instrument.  From the earliest we can hear him, the characteristic that distinguished Earl Hines is the split-level artistry between his two hands.  His left hand, playing chords, swingingly accompanies his right hand, which stretches out a note-by-note melodic improvisations.  Through the years we’ve come to express this right-hand solo style as “horn-like,” since it’s the creation of an improvised melodic line that, like a wind instrument, is articulated one note at a time. Hines as the pioneer of this enduring vision for the piano was indeed the piano counterpart to Louis Armstrong’s primacy as the hot soloist in Jazz.

During 1926 Hines toured in the ensemble led by violinist Carroll Dickerson on the Pantages Theater circuit for most of a year. The pianist then appeared alongside Louis Armstrong in Dickerson’s band at Chicago’s Sunset Cafe, and then in the group that Armstrong led there. Hines and Armstrong even joined with drummer Zutty Singleton in a cooperative venture that didn’t last long. What did last was Hines’s magic with Armstrong and Singleton on records, in the latter chapter of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and related groups. He’s the pianist, for instance, on the deathless “West End Blues” appropriately-titled “Fireworks,” and the classic duet “Weather Bird.”

Hines in 1928 was an essential factor in a small group at the late-night, after-hours scene at the Apex Club in Chicago. The group featured Hines as an attraction alongside New Orleans creole clarinet talent Jimmie Noone. He rotated out of the band before long, for greater fireworks still to come. At the brink of the Depression, Hines was tapped to assemble his own big band, and he emerged away from all of the above activities to concentrate on what would be his regular role for the next decade and a half.  “Fatha” Hines (a nickname that goes back to his early band leadership) became the fixture house band at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom when it opened in late 1928. We can now be as candid about the mechanisms of it as Hines was able to be later in his life: Mob support of that establishment kept it afloat through the Depression, which in turn kept Fatha Hines’s big band afloat while may others suffered or failed.

Across a decade of broadcasting and touring, Hines’s band brought to our attention several notable soloists: trombonists Billy Franklin and then Trummy Young; arranger Jimmy Mundy and Budd Johnson as an arranger and tenor saxophone soloist. The big band broke through in 1940 with the piano feature “Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues”, and in the next years courtesy of Billy Eckstine’s starring role in singing “Jelly, Jelly”—in a band that had Sarah Vaughan as its female vocalist. Other modernists were on the way:  Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker went undocumented in the group in in 1943 (owing to the recording strike by the musicians’ union).  When the band resurfaced in 1944, tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and trombonist Bennie Green were its new stars.

The Earl Hines Orchestra had Chicago as its home base—at the Grand Terrace and then later the El Grotto. When touring, the direction was most often the Midwest or Southeast, but New England audiences were treated to a brief run here in 1934, and the Orchestra played a dance in Taunton MA while on the road in 1942. By the time Earl Hines returned to Massachusetts to play at Boston’s Tic Toc in 1953, much had changed in the whole curve of his sound and professional career.

Hines left the big band field in 1947, a little ahead of many of his colleagues, and took a direction that almost no one could have predicted: Louis Armstrong was leaving behind his own big band and testing the waters with a new small group called The All-Stars. It was promising enough in its kick-off to entice major talent. Trombonist Jack Teagarden had folded his own big band and was at liberty; Barney Bigard left the Duke Ellington fold and was a freelance. So, Fatha Hines was in good company as he helped the 1948–51 editions of the All-Stars to sound great, but stepping back into a sideman’s role was an adjustment that Hines never was fully comfortable with.

Through the succeeding couple of decades, Hines was all over the map—planting a solid root in the Bay Area, where he was a fixture at the Club Hangover in San Francisco. Along with the entire Jazz field, Hines’s fortunes and visibility in the early Sixties sank, to the point that he was ready to leave music altogether. In 1965 came the turnaround: A New York concert at the Little Theater led to strong reviews, several prominent runs in the clubs there, and shortly to touring the world, and recording for dozens of different labels.

Fatha Hines in the 21st century seems to have been losing market share in the pantheon of Jazz. When he is mentioned these days, it’s most often as a point of influence for Nat Cole’s piano style, but even that factor is forgotten as easily as the fact of Cole’s prowess as an instrumentalist. But no one can erase the imperceptible, universal impact of Hines piano artistry, and we remind ourselves of it with an August full of his virtuosity.

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