Dick Hyman can play anything and sound like anyone. Too often this has been unfairly characterized as impersonation. As anyone who has listened carefully to Dick knows, his ability to play fluently in the style of, say, James P. Johnson or Erroll Garner isn't an attempt to pass himself off as someone he's not. Rather, Dick is merely slipping into another pianist's shoes and exploring a lost approach, reviving a technique to give it a modern airing. Dick's point always is to inform and educate, not mimic or clone.
That Dick is able to play an encyclopedia of historic jazz piano styles is alone remarkable. Even more astonishing is his virtuosity. Dick's flawless command of the keyboard and his impeccable fingering make his archeological digs shimmer with surgical accuracy. And Dick makes it all look so easy, as though he just returned in a time machine from an afternoon learning secrets from past greats. Dick's closest peer in the ivory hunter game is Billy Taylor, who was Art Tatum's protege and, like Dick, is a precise and noble teacher.
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Dick, the pianist-composer talks about Lester Young, playing behind Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and recording one of Coleman Hawkins' most unusual and sole easy-listening sessions:
JazzWax: When you were playing with Lester Young in the 1950s, what did you notice most about his playing?
Dick Hyman: By then, Lester was at the point where his playing had become different, more sad than the peppy lines he had played on early Count Basie recordings. He had gotten into slowish tempos—which still swung, but his style was less incisive and more oozy. My experience playing with Lester allowed me to develop a different set of values when playing.
JW: You first played with Charlie Parker in 1950.
DH: I was playing at New York's Cafe Society with the Tony Scott Quartet at the time. Parker came in often, usually toward the end of the evening, which was about 4 a.m. Hearing him play was an electric feeling. You can still sense how exciting he was from his recordings.
JW: What do you mean by electric?
DH: As soon as Parker began a solo, you’d feel as though a current was turned on in your body. He was a very nice, agreeable kind of guy. I played with him soon afterward at Birdland one night when pianist Bud Powell was late. When I played with Bird, I understood where he was going harmonically but his melodies and phrases were amazing. When I hear some of his solos on recordings now, they still intrigue and puzzle me.
JW: You're at the piano in 1952 on one of the only video clips of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing together.
DH: Yes. You see a face with horn-rim glasses and a lot of hair for a nanosecond at the keyboard, to the left of Parker. You also see me at the very end of the program, when the camera backs up and everyone’s smiling. [Pictured: Dick to the left of Charlie Parker]
JW: How did you come to be playing with them?
DH: It was my show. Back then I had a nightly program on the DuMont Television Network, which was based in New York and lasted until 1956. I was doing quite a bit of piano work and composing for the network. My show was called Date on Broadway. It was just bassist Jack Lesberg and me. We’d play the show’s theme song and then accompany a singer or featured musician. There would be interviews with Broadway types and then another song or two.
JW: How did Gillespie and Parker wind up on the show?
DH: We had a progressive producer, and in 1952 he decided to feature Broadway columnist Earl Wilson introducing jazz critic Leonard Feather, who presented Down Beat awards to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. So we had Bird and Diz perform on the show. We engaged drummer Charlie Smith for that show and Sandy Block was on bass.
JW: What was it like playing with Parker and Gillespie?
DH: It was together. Those guys played with such good time and feel. It’s a terrific performance considering it was a pop show with just two cameras. It was another night at the office for me. I was doing a lot of things in those days.
JW: Some observers of the clip say that Earl Wilson was being condescending and even racist toward Parker and Gillespie and that Parker's expression reflects this. You were there. Is this true?
DH: Not at all. People look at the clip and make modern assumptions and see what they want to see. Both Gillespie and Parker were happy to be there. Everyone was graceful. There was no coded racism. Awkwardness, perhaps, but that had more to do with the new medium of television and how to work with the cameras.
DH: Again, that's just how things worked out with two cameras. In any case, you can clearly see Sandy Block, the bass players, behind Dizzy and Bird in most of the segment. Today on TV you have camera shots fading into closeups, other lightweight cameras moving into unusual positions to show everyone on stage, often with candid perspectives. My show was from the dawn of television in 1952. Two clunky cameras moved in and out, and whatever they captured they captured. There wasn't as much thought going into what was done as our eye expects today.
JW: You were close with Tony Scott. What was he like?
DH: Tony was a wonderful, open, warm and excitable guy. He was the way he played. He shrieked. He played with a heavy beat. And he was a good friend. He was cutting a new path with his sound on the clarinet, and he felt greatly in competition with Buddy DeFranco. He used to get annoyed with critics who preferred Buddy.
JW: Was the rivalry real?
DH: Not really. Tony was a wonderful player. I saw him when he played with Buddy at Iridium in New York, maybe 10 years ago. I sat in with the band. Tony had reached the point in his devotion to high excitement while he played that the clarinet was an impediment. What he really wanted to do is yell and scream and be ecstatic during the performance. Quite different from Buddy, who was calm and schooled. But they got along, and that surprised me.
JW: Did you socialize with Tony?
DH: All the time. In the early 1950s, Tony and I used to have great times in Greenwich Village with my wife and his girlfriend of the moment. We’d go up to his place and listen to records and eat. That doesn’t sound like much today. But back then, when you played very late in nightclubs, as we did regularly, you get to a certain point where you’re running on exhaustion. It’s a romantic time of day, when everyone’s asleep, you’re finished with work and diners are open. The city is very quiet, there are no distractions and you’re in a relaxed state. [Picture: "Jive in the Park," 1955, by Ernst Haas]
JW: In 1963 you recorded with Coleman Hawkins on an unusual album with strings.
DH: I had gotten to know arranger-conductor Frank Hunter through Muzak dates and NBC orchestra recording sessions. Every now and then the jazz and easy-listening worlds crossed. This was one of those times. The rhythm section was Osie Johnson, Milt Hinton and me. Osie and Milt were always a team. They were on a lot of recordings together. I was lucky enough to be with them. When I wasn’t playing with them, Hank Jones was usually the pianist. There are a lot of little cliques in jazz of guys who came together and hired each other on dates. For instance, I did an early morning show with Eddie Safranski, Mundell Lowe and Don Lamond, and we wound up recording a lot together.
Tomorrow, Dick talks about his organ recordings, including Surfboard from A Certain Mr. Jobim, his recordings on the Moog synthesizer, and how he solved a particularly tricky problem in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.
JazzWax tracks: Mashing easy-listening orchestrations with the tenor sax of Coleman Hawkins has a rather interesting feel. On some tracks Hawk pushes back with a gruff tone while on other tracks he jumps aboard the strings bandwagon and just dangles his legs. Hawk and the Hunter with Dick Hyman on piano can be found on Hawk Talk here and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the famed clip of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dick Hyman, Charlie Smith on drums and Sandy Block on bass...