Hampton Hawes is an acquired taste. There's a certain choppiness to his piano playing, a hard sound that likely was the result of continued narcotics use for a good part of the 1950s. And like Art Pepper, he was in and out of prison for chunks of time on drug busts throughout the decade. Sadly, Hawes isn't all that well known among many jazz listeners today. That's a shame.
Hawes was born and raised in Los Angeles. Self-taught, he began playing professionally with trumpeter Howard McGhee in 1947. He was the pianist on the rigorous live Elk's Club date (Bopland/Savoy) featuring Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, played a bunch of dates in 1948, formed his own trio in 1951 and was on the seminal Shorty Rogers and His Giants sessions for Capitol later that year. In 1952, Hawes recorded with Wardell Gray and Art Farmer, and then put together a trio for a gig at the Surf Club (which was recorded) before teaming with Art Pepper.
From late 1952-1954, Hawes was in the army, serving in Japan. When discharged, he formed a trio with Red Mitchell on bass and Chuck Thompson on drums and recorded steadily for Contemporary Records.
Busted in 1958, Hawes remained in prison until 1963, when he was pardoned by President Kennedy. Hawes played regularly during the 1960s and 1970s, dying in 1977 at age 48 of a brain hemorrhage.
Hampton Hawes' albums recorded between 1955 and 1958 are his prime period. Most are gems. When Hawes was on, he was blindingly terrific. There was a fabulous snap to his playing, an unwillingness to compromise or blend in. He had huge energy and an intensity that was influenced by Bud Powell but rooted solidly in Art Tatum. There also was a frantic funkiness to his playing. In some respects, before there was Horace Silver, there was Hampton Hawes.
Like Tatum, Hawes was best captured playing solo, where he had a chance to show off not only his versatile technique but also his ability to play lush and at varied tempos. And Tatum was impressed. Hawes recalls an encounter in his autobiography (written with Don Asher), Raise Up Off Me (1974);
"I was working with Stan Getz at the Tiffany Club [in Los Angeles] when Art Tatum showed up at the bar one night. Didn't even know he was in the club till he came wandering out of the shadows moving in that awkward lumbering way, head turned to the side and up—like Bela Lugosi coming at you, scare the shit out of you if you didn't know who it was—straining for the light because he only had but a light sight in the one eye. Move right up to me and said, 'Son, you hot. I came down to hear you.' Well I knew I was playing good, getting there, but in the overall rundown of players I considered myself comparatively lukewarm at the time. And here's Art Tatum looking weird at me out of the corner of one eye, saying Son, you hot.
I said, 'I'm glad you came and I wish you'd show me some of that stuff you do with your left hand.' He said, 'I will if you'll show me some of your right-hand stuff. Why don't you come by my house.' Gave me the address and we shook hands on it...I kept meaning to go by his house, but by the time I got my head together and said, Tomorrow I'll go by Art Tatum's house, I hear on the car radio he was dead. Forty-six years old. On November 4, 1956."
That was Hampton Hawes. Always screwing up but always playing his West Coast heart out. Once you hear the best of Hawes, you'll be hooked on his approach. Hawes was the sound of excitement and of a candle burning at both ends.
Wax tracks: My favorite Hawes album from this period is Bird Song, which includes solo work on I Should Care that is simply stunning. Just One of Those Things, from the same album, also is staggering. Paul Chambers is on bass, and Lawrence Marable is the drummer. But Hawes is so strong, producer Lester Koenig could have—and should have—made it a solo outing. You'll find Bird Song here. Spring for either import; it's that good.
When you hear how rich and runny his treatment of I Should Care is, you'll realize how close he was to Tatum in style—and that he could have rivaled Sonny Clark.
My other favorite Hawes albums are Four! (1958) and For Real (1958). Four! includes Barney Kessel on guitar, Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. For Real has Harold Land on tenor, Scott LaFaro on bass and Frank Butler on drums. Hawes' playing on these two albums is superlative.
Unfortunately, Four! is not at iTunes and was last issued on CD in 1991, so I'd skip the purchase until it's remastered. For Real is available as an import here.
Wax clip: The only video clip I could find of Hampton Hawes is here. It was shot in 1970, with Shelly Manne on drums and Bob Cooper on tenor. Unfortunately, it doesn't nearly capture the genius that was Hampton Hawes in the mid-1950s.