Few pianists have been there and done that as often as Dick Hyman. In addition to playing with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Tony Scott and Red Norvo, Dick studied with Teddy Wilson and recorded with Benny Goodman, Zoot Sims and virtually every other jazz great you can think of in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, Dick was among the first to record on the Moog synthesizer. In the 1970s, his Scott Joplin: Complete Works for Piano recorded in 1975 became a classic and remains so today. Starting in 1979, Dick began composing film soundtracks, including many of Woody Allen's films, and he composed the music for Norman Jewison's Moonstruck (1987). From the 1960s onward, Dick led a dual life as a jazz performer and a studio musician, acting as music director for Arthur Godfrey and others, recording easy listening albums, shifting often from piano to organ.
Dick also is known as a one-man piano museum. There isn't a style the virtuoso pianist hasn't mastered, and his six-CD set Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano (and accompanying video series) is considered a masterpiece and an educational blessing. Marian McPartland credits Dick with knowing more songs than any other musician she knows, and has gone so far as to playfully challenge him to an obscure-tune shootout. Dick laughed diplomatically when I told him what Marian had said during my conversation with her.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Dick, 82, the pianist, composer and arranger talks about growing up in New York, taking lessons from Teddy Wilson and the importance of Jo Jones' smile:
JazzWax: Where in New York did you grow up?
Dick Hyman: On the Upper West Side. When I was 13 years old my family moved to Mount Vernon, N.Y., about a half-hour north of the city. As a kid in the 1930s, I never had any sense of deprivation.
JW: Who introduced you to jazz?
DH: My big brother Arthur collected jazz records, which in those days were 78-rpms. He brought them home from Harvard. He exposed me to Bix Beiderbecke [pictured], Art Tatum and all sorts of great musicians. This was when I was 12 years old, an impressionable age.
JW: Do you still have those records?
DH: In fact I do. The Bix record was Somebody Stole My Gal. On the other side was Rhythm King. The Tatum record was Tea for Two and Gone with the Wind. With Bix, I’m still trying to figure out what makes him so special. The music isn't as easy as it sounds. I’m still a sucker for Bix. I continue to find new things in what I hear, and those things delight me. I played three times in Davenport, Iowa, Bix’s birthplace, at summer festivals. I’m always eager to discuss the minutia of Bixology.
JW: Is part of the appeal Bix's mystique?
DH: I think so. People have been fascinated by his legend. You know, young man with a horn and all that. The idea of a young man living it up to excess and dying at age 28, with only eight years in jazz, but so in command of what he was he was doing. There’s some old mythology at work here: The artist who dies young after burning himself out. That legend was always an aspect of Bix that drew me to him.
JW: Did you play music professionally before entering the service in 1944?
DH: Yes, at school dances and so forth. I was taking piano lessons at age 12 or so and got to know my way around the keyboard very quickly. Before that, my brother Arthur showed me how things worked on the keyboard. He was a pretty good player. It also helped that we had a player piano in our home. The jolly sound of those piano rolls scrolling down left a huge impression on me. Best of all, you could slow down the rolls and figure out what was going on with the music. I've read that Duke Ellington learned James P. Johnson's Carolina Shout from a roll this way.
JW: What did you do in the service?
DH: I enlisted in the navy in 1944 to become a radio trainee. Otherwise I would have been drafted into the army. But when I was shipped to Great Lakes Naval Station [pictured], outside of Chicago, I flunked radio training and instead began playing in band activities on the base. The navy was a good experience, and I was very fortunate that the war in Europe ended soon after I went in. I got out in 1945 after only 13 months in the service.
JW: What did you do after the navy?
DH: I enrolled in a liberal arts program at Columbia University under the G.I. Bill. Liberal arts students were a special category—not like those majoring in business, law and medicine. Fortunately I was able to concentrate on music, and I took as many music courses as I could. I also became active at the campus radio station, which in those days was called CURC—Columbia University Radio Club. At first, it transmitted only on campus over the radiator system [laughs].
JW: What did you do on the radio?
DH: I played on various radio shows. In college I also wrote a varsity show—basically a musical—and I played piano for the performances. I did the same for some other musical shows. Around this time, radio station WOV in New York announced that it was holding a jazz piano competition so I entered. The guy who organized it was Art Ford, who later hosted Art Ford’s Jazz Party during the early years of television. On the radio judging panel were Teddy Wilson and John Hammond.
JW: How did you do?
DH: I won. The prize was 12 free lessons with Teddy Wilson. That experience was life-altering.
JW: How so?
DH: I had spent years trying to learn to play like Teddy, and there I was taking lessons with him. I went up to his apartment on St. Nicholas Ave. Each lesson lasted an hour. I wasn’t his only student. He was teaching at the Juilliard School of Music at the time.
JW: Was Wilson a good teacher?
DH: He was. He was very instructive and open. He showed me exactly how certain things were done, like alternative harmonies on songs and keyboard runs.
JW: Did he play for you?
DH: Just by example to suggest proper tempos and styles of songs. Teddy installed in me a lifelong passion for practicing and precision. Early on he asked me how I thought I played. I said “I think I play pretty well a lot of the times and some days not well at all.” Teddy said, “That’s why you practice.”
JW: What was Wilson like in the intimate setting of his home?
DH: Teddy was very patient and very calm, like his playing. He also was very giving and always in control of the music. Over the years, I continued to be friendly with him and would see him from time to time. When he was a guest on Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance musical tribute on PBS in 1985 [pictured], we were both there. I was playing with the orchestra and I also was the music coordinator for Benny. Both Teddy and Benny died the following year in 1986. To have them both leave us was a sad time for me. Teddy and Benny were the epitome of musical excellence when I was a kid and both had played important roles in my career and development.
JW: When did you first play with Goodman?
DH: In 1950, soon after winning that radio contest. Teddy had a lot to do with getting me the job. He recommended me to Benny.
JW: How did you get so good so fast?
DH: That came from the large record collection I had. I listened often to records, backward and forward. I played clarinet as well in those days and used to jam along with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke on the records. Doing that gave me the feel.
JW: Did knowing how to play the clarinet help your piano playing?
DH: Yes. It was similar to Teddy Wilson’s single note style in the right hand, which made me realize that piano solos didn’t have to be so elaborate, like Fats Waller’s or James P. Johnson’s. Teddy taught me about the importance of melody and time.
JW: You also played with Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons in 1950 at Birdland?
DH: Well, just incidentally. Birdland had a remote wire back then that allowed radio shows to be broadcast from the club. During this time I was one of several musicians who played piano there regularly. I started playing there with Max Kaminsky’s Dixielanders. Because I was there under a weekly salary, I played with many musicians, including Sonny Stitt [pictured], Gene Ammons, Hot Lips Page and Lester Young.
JW: Did you enjoy playing with Young?
DH: Yes, but more influential in that group was drummer Jo Jones. People get mystical when they try to define what jazz drummers do. Jo had a certain something, a special sense of swing and always the correct tempo. And he had the greatest smile. I've always preferred smiling drummers to sneering drummers.
JW: A sneering drummer doesn’t sound very pleasant. But why? What’s the big deal?
DH: You have to understand that like most pianists, I’m constantly watching the drummer and bass player. That’s how you keep things together. You cue each other to changes and when to start solos and to stop them. Jo’s expression was always inviting and inspiring. It makes a difference when you have a section working to sound as one. [Pictured from left, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young and Jo Jones]
Tomorrow, Dick talks about the 1952 videoclip of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (Dick was on piano), hanging out in the 1950s with Tony Scott and recording one of Coleman Hawkins' only easy-listening string sessions in 1963.
JazzWax tracks: If you look at Dick Hyman's massive discography, you might come away with the impression that he slept in recording studios. For those unfamiliar with Dick's work or who don't know where to begin, here are three albums that should serve as a wonderful introduction:
Dick Hyman: All Through the Night (Music Masters Jazz)—plays the music of Cole Porter. Each track on this 1990 album is a rollicking journey through the composer's melodies and thinking, with Dick's often-shifting piano style. It's available as a download here.
Dick Hyman: Thinking About Bix (Reference Recordings)—piano impressions of the fabled cornetist recorded in 2008. You can hear Dick's deep passion for Bix on each exploration. It's available as a download here.
The Party's Over: Dick Hyman Cocktail Piano (Reader's Digest)—despite its title, this baby is gorgeous. Dick covers a wide range of songs, from I Wish You Love to Young and Foolish. For some reason, it's not listed in his discography. It's available as a download here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dick Hyman and Billy Taylor playing Tadd Dameron's Hot House...