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Artist of the Month: John Hicks

"He's got things he's gonna do to let you know 'this is John Hicks here.'"
    -Betty Carter

 

A mainstay of New York City's jazz scene for more than four decades, pianist John Hicks was often described as versatile and ubiquitous. He made more than 30 albums as a group leader, appeared on nearly 300 others as a sideman, and played countless club dates. His talents ranged from the big band swing of bandleader Woody Herman to the outer edges of modern jazz. But whatever he played, he had a distinctive style that was muscular, dense, and harmonically fresh.

John Josephus Hicks Jr. was born on December 21, 1941, into a middle class Atlanta, Georgia, family. He was the oldest of five children born to the Rev. Dr. John Hicks, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Pollie. The family moved several times as Dr. Hicks was selected to lead larger Methodist congregations: first to Los Angeles, where young John Hicks took his first piano lessons from his mother at age seven, and when Hicks was 14, to jazz-rich St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Hicks became the first African American to serve on the St. Louis school board, and he was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in that city.

Hicks's parents weren't thrilled about his choice of music as a career, but his talents were nurtured. With the idea that he might become involved in church music, he was given organ lessons, and he began singing in choirs (and also played the violin and trombone). As a way of unwinding from the pressures of community leadership in a rapidly changing St. Louis, Dr. Hicks went to hear jazz performances, and took his son along. The boy heard the Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford orchestras, and met composer and bandleader Duke Ellington on one occasion. There were numerous contemporary jazz players with St. Louis roots to whom Hicks could look for inspiration, and he especially admired trumpeters Miles Davis and Clark Terry. His friends at Sumner High School in St. Louis included another important trumpeter, Lester Bowie.

The young Hicks endured a jazz baptism-by-fire when he was put on stage to accompany visiting saxophonists Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin as a last-minute replacement for their regular pianist. With a decade of varied musical study behind him, he survived the concert. When he was ready for college-level musical studies, he attended Lincoln University in Missouri, Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the Juilliard School in New York City (where Davis had also enrolled). Hicks also had the skills to make money as a musician, and in the summers he would accompany blues performers Little Milton and Albert King on tour, playing as many as four shows in an 18-hour period. Playing the piano in small venues where the instrument might not be in tune, Hicks made a virtue out of a disadvantage by learning to transpose melodies (recompose them in new keys) in his head. Clark Terry suggested that Hicks move to the jazz mecca of New York City. Hicks went there in 1963 and landed his first gig within hours, with blues singer Big Maybelle.

Soon Hicks progressed to jazz gigs, including a tour with former Basie band members Al Grey and Billy Mitchell. In 1964 came another landmark in his musical education, as he joined one of the city's top progressive ensembles, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Percussionist Blakey had a strong track record of encouraging young musicians, but didn't make things easy for them during rehearsals. "You had one time to play with the music, then Art would ceremoniously collect the music and lock it up in his drum case," Hicks was quoted as saying by Peter Vacher of the London Guardian. Hicks spent two years with Blakey, and during that time made his first tour of the United Kingdom, where he developed a strong following. He appeared all over Europe and as far afield as Taiwan.

In 1966 Hicks joined Betty Carter's band and remained a frequent Carter collaborator throughout the 1970s and 1980s. On such albums as The Audience with Betty Carter (1979), noted the London Times, Hicks "instantly adapt[ed] to the singer's idiosyncratic reworkings of such standards as 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.'" Numerous other musicians found Hicks a congenial accompanist, and at one time or another he worked with major jazz names such as bandleader Woody Herman, tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Pharaoh Sanders, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, vocalists Carmen McRae and Jon Hendricks, and many others. In the 1970s Hicks began teaching at the University of Southern Illinois; he later taught at the New School in New York City and at New York

University.

Hicks's solo career began in 1978 with the album Hell's Bells, and picked up steam steadily through the 1980s and 1990s as he released recordings on a large variety of labels, prominently including Theresa. At first he performed mostly with trio or band backing, but later in his career he began to emphasize solo piano recordings or those with very small groups. Notable among these were a series of discs in which he reinterpreted the music of jazz piano greats including Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. He began to incorporate his own compositions into his concerts and recordings; one of those compositions, "Naima's Love Song," was named for his daughter from his first marriage. He also had one son Jamal.

In 2001 Hicks married again, this time to one of his frequent musical collaborators, flutist Elise Wood. By that time he was a pianist who had performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, at Carnegie Hall in New York, and in countless smaller venues around the United States and the world. He established the John Hicks Foundation, a scholarship fund to benefit young jazz musicians, and laid plans for new recordings and for a tour of Poland with trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Only 64, he died unexpectedly after an internal hemorrhage in New York City on May 10, 2006. "His exhaustive discography," noted the biography on his website, "is inclusive of nearly every modern-day jazz great."

Biography Sources:
http://johnhicksmusic.com/
http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/musician.php?id=7609
http://www.answers.com/topic/john-hicks

 

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