Born: November 13, 1928 | Died: May 27, 1977 Primary Instrument: Piano
Who Was Hampton Hawes?
Although one rarely hears of Hampton Hawes today he was a significant presence on the jazz scene in the mid- 50s then again from the mid-60s on until his death in 1977. A direct descendant of bebop who had been variously classified as West Coast and funk-jazz or rhythm school, Hawes transcended all these categories. He was famous for his prodigious right hand, his deep groove, his very personal playing, his profound blues conceptions, and his versatility within a mainstream context. He remained anchored in chord-change based jazz with chord changes his whole career.
A mostly self-taught musician, he matured early musically and late personally-by his own admission. His life unfolded as an impassioned story of a rise from poverty into prominence, then a fall due to a heroin addiction, which had come right out of his native culture, five years in prison and a miraculous Presidential pardon, then personal transformation and return to world-wide artistic prominence for a decade before his early death.
Hampton Hawes was born in Los Angeles, November 13, 1928. His father was a very successful pastor and his mother played piano in the church. Hampton was raised in a strict religious environment. As a child he would sit on the piano bench next to his mother and watch her play. His earliest musical influence, therefore, was gospel piano music. The street environment was not a particularly wholesome. He later reflected that most of the people he knew in his neighborhood growing up were heroin addicts.
Hawes taught himself piano as a child. His earliest musical influences were boogie-woogie, which was intensely popular in the U. S. between 1938 and 1946, Nat Cole, Fats Waller and Art Tatum. Later he came under the spell of Bud Powell, and came to play more in his style. Throughout his life he regretted that he never acquired a classical background and never became a fast music reader. Perhaps as a result his music remained intensely personal.
Growing up with music he learned by jamming with his friends. They would hang out at each other's houses and play. Fascinated with bebop, they fervently pursued it as their form of teenage rebellion against the music of their parents. Hawes regretted that his family never understood his music, never attended his performances. When he sent them his albums later on, if they liked the cover art they'd frame it and put it on the wall.
By the time he was in high school he was accepting professional gigs, working with Big Jay McNeely in 1944. He even had to leave his high school graduation early to get to a job. At that time in his life he played with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper and Short Rogers. Pepper hired him for an extended engagement at the Surf Club in Hollywood in 1952. By that time he had become a heroin addict. As he put it:
You see everybody going down the street in a green Buick, and you start thinking, What is it with these green Buicks? You know, you just got to find out for yourself. Well, I found out all right, I sure did. (Official biography, 1974).
Hawes was sent to the Far East during his stint in the army, 1952 to 1954, which only furthered his addiction. Once back in civilian life he formed a trio with bassist Red Mitchell. They developed a rare musical affinity. He performed with Mitchell in gigs throughout the U. S., from 1955-58, including runs at the Embers in New York (where he drew $1500 per week), Storyville in Boston and the Blue Note clubs in Chicago and Philadelphia. Remaining within the bebop style, they used a variety of drummers, and during one six-month period, Kenny Burrell on guitar.
During that period Hawes got to know Lester Koenig, owner of the Los Angeles-based Contemporary label. Koenig recorded Hawes on a series of brilliant albums, including Hampton Hawes, Vol. 1: The Trio in 1955 and All Night Session (3 LPs) on Hawes' birthday in 1956, both of which garnered five stars from Down Beat. In 1957 jazz critic and teacher John Mehegan classed Hawes as part of the rhythmic (funky) school of jazz piano, of which Horace Silver was the acknowledged innovator, and attributed to him the best blues in jazz piano today (Mehegan, 17). He even composed a blues, Hampton's Pulpit, very similar to Silver's famous Opus de Funk, and plays it on Vol. 1 of the All Night Session. The title makes the connection clear between funk in jazz and Hawes' gospel roots. But Hawes's fluidity of melodic invention strained the rhythmic/funky categorization, despite his clear talent for this approach. Hawes was a master at constructing solos beginning with a phrase and gradually building, drawing the listener in. When he reached the peak of his energy he was at a level few outside of Bud Powell could approach.
Hawes' heroin addiction was pulling him down at the time, and in 1958 he was arrested for possession and sentenced to 10 years in a prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. He had pled guilty, noticing that friends who were caught and pled not guilty were usually sentenced to twice that. In a 1972 article in Harper's which gives a foretaste of Hawes' hard-hitting and award-winning autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, he describes the distance he felt from the psychiatrists who interviewed him during his incarceration:
In an innocent, ungreedy kind of way those doctors were like the jackleg preachers, all robes and ceremony. It wasn't that any of them was dumb or incompetent, but if you start with someone like me who has come out of the haven of the church into the streets, playing jazz and messing with dope, why there's no white psychiatrist in the wide world qualified to analyze me because, wherever he would start from his thinking is going to be alien and wrong. There is no way he can possibly conceive where I'm coming from. So it isn't his fault that he doesn't know what he's doing (3).
In January, 1961, two years into his time, he was watching President Kennedy's inauguration on TV. Something about the look of him the voice and the eyes, way he stood bring and coatless and proud in that cold air...I thought, That's the right cat, my troubles are nearing an end (Hawes, 3). Hawes decided to apply for a Presidential Pardon, against all advice of the prison staff. One of them even told him his intention to apply indicated that he had problems accepting reality, which would probably end him up back on dope once he got out.
He finally received the application towards the end of 1962, sending it in with many letters of recommendation in April of the following year. That August the pardon came through, and it seemed like a miracle to everyone there but Hawes. He considered it simply the proper righting of a wrong. It was only the third such Presidential pardon in 40 years.
Back in circulation, Hawes had to fight an uphill battle, both against his own depression and against the music scene which had drastically changed. He started by working locally around Los Angeles. Of an early post- release performance Down Beat's John Tynan wrote:
When Hawes tore into his solos, it was as if the piano had a life of its own; it was a performance that scorched. These were moments to be long remembered by those attending. One listener, a well-known drummer, commented: It's about time we had a real piano player back (Feather, 16).
Jazz was struggling against the growing rock market, which by the end of the decade had lured many prominent jazz artists into modifying their approach in its direction. The commercial pressures were heavy, but Hawes resisted, sticking with his high-energy bebop- based style. He just couldn't get into the more rock- based music of Ramsey Lewis or Les McCann.
Hawes stuck to the music he loved, knowing that record company executives had been wrong many time in the past. He began working again with Red Mitchell, but replaced him in 1966 with Jimmy Garrison. In 1967 he began getting gigs outside southern California. In 1968 he made a duo piano recording with Algerian pianist Martial Solal, another brilliant trend resister. In 1971 he toured Europe, with stops in London, Paris and Copenhagen. From then on he divided his time mainly between Los Angeles area gigs and foreign tours. He recorded a duo album with Charlie Haden, Turnaround, released in 1977, and began experimenting with electronic music around that time. He died in Los Angeles on May 22, 1977.
All Night Session Vol. 1
All Night Session Vol. 2
All Night Session Vol. 3
Hampton Hawes Trio
Hampton Hawes Trio Vol. 2
Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes
Here And Now
As A Sideman:
Wardell Gray Memorial Vol. 2 - Wardell Gray
Plays Standards - Barney Kessel
Mingus Three - Charles Mingus
Early Show - Art Pepper
Late Show - Art Pepper
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