Sir Roland Hanna's "Colors From A Giants Kit" IPOCD 1020 sets street date of August 9, 2011
The Hickory House was the last of the legendary jazz clubs that lined 52nd Street in the two decades following World War II. In the mid-1960s the bandstand, which rose above the large, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominated the club, was occupied as often as not by a trio comprised of Billy Taylor, Chris White and Grady Tate. The club was still patronized by some of the musicians who immortalized the street in the previous decades, and for the odd 15-year-old whose interests ran more to Dameron than trigonometry, it was a place to hang out and an opportunity to meet (or at least interrupt the otherwise tranquil dinners being enjoyed by) Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Jackson and others who dropped by.
The trio typically closed its sets with a rollicking version of There Will Never Be Another You or How High The Moon that included an expansive, unaccompanied, two-fisted, polyphonic piano solo by Dr. Taylor. Carding was not a problem at the Hickory House and, carried away by such a tour de force performance, it would not be surprising had any of those odd 15 year olds who happened to be in the club decided to become a jazz pianist. Fortunately, Chris White was there to commemorate the event and to recommend his colleague in the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, Kenny Barron, as someone who could show me the way.
Kenny was doing some teaching out of a small studio on the West Side. Relying on chops honed by a few years of obligatory grade school piano lessons and confident in my innate musicianship and good taste, I shared with Kenny a pastiche of bebop, funk and random atonality that had him transfixed for about ten minutes, and left him nearly speechless. As much enthusiasm as he obviously had for taking on a new protégé, he felt (upon recovering his power of speech) that his commitment to an upcoming Gillespie tour (which curiously both he and Chris White had neglected to mention before) would make it impossible to devote the time required to nurture such an unusual talent. He gave me Roland Hanna's number.
"I always learn something new when I play with Roland," said Benny Carter, quoted in the liner notes to his "In the Mood for Swing" album with Roland and Dizzy Gillespie on the Musicmasters label. Coming from Carter, an iconic figure for over seven decades who essentially created the art of jazz band writing, this is not a trivial statement.
Teaching played a large part in Roland's life, and he held firm opinions on music and many other subjects. When I first met him, he had a studio on West 73rd Street, where Broadway runs into Amsterdam Avenue, adjacent to the tiny trapezoid of grass that now appears on maps quaintly as "Verdi Square" but at the time was known more colorfully as "Needle Park." I used to drop in whenever I was in town visiting from college and grad school. Roland had an ancient Steinway that he tuned and maintained on his own. I once commented that it seemed to me the bass was disproportionately voiced. Roland, as always justifiably proud of his own work and quick to the defense of others, responded: "by the time you get to be eighty years old, your bass will be disproportionate too."
In the mid-late ‘60s Roland had two regular gigs that would be almost impossible to top - he held down the piano chair in the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and was a regular accompanist for Coleman Hawkins. The Band was in its prime, with Thad producing fresh and innovative charts for a roster of players that was and still is beyond comparison. This was during one of the recurrent nosedives in the economics of the jazz world, of which there were nonetheless a few benefits. Players such as Joe Henderson, Pepper Adams, Eddie Daniels, Jimmy Owens, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Knepper etc. were available to be part of a regularly performing band. On the other hand, people didn't always get paid with regularity. I once spent some time with Mel Lewis trying to mediate a disagreement with Roland, at a time when the Band's future was cloudy. Mel told me that, no matter what, he would always take great pride in having been part (along with Roland and Richard Davis) of the "best rhythm section in history."