Earl Hines Explains his Influences and Technique
Earl Hines (left) performs for Private Charles Carpenter (right), songwriter and manager of the Hines orchestra, at Camp Lee during World War II
Earl Kenneth Hines, universally known as Earl “Fatha” Hines (December 28, 1903 – April 22, 1983), was an American jazz pianist and bandleader. Hines was one of the most influential figures in the development of jazz pianoand, according to one major source, is “one of a small number of pianists whose playing shaped the history of jazz.”
Earl Hines was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, 12 miles from Pittsburgh city center. His father, Joseph Hines, played cornet and was leader of Pittsburgh’s Eureka Brass Band, his stepmother a church organist. Hines intended to follow his father on cornet but “blowing” hurt him behind the ears – while the piano didn’t. The young Hines took classical piano lessons – at eleven he was playing the organ in his local Baptist church – but he also had a “good ear and a good memory” and could re-play songs and numbers he heard in theaters and park ‘concerts’: “I’d be playing songs from these shows months before the song copies came out. That astonished a lot of people and they’d ask where I heard these numbers and I’d tell them at the theatre where my parents had taken me.” Later Hines was to say that he was playing piano around Pittsburgh “before the word ‘jazz‘ was even invented.”
At the age of 17, and with his father’s approval, Hines moved away from home to take a job playing piano with Lois Deppe & his “Symphonian Serenaders” in the Liederhaus, a Pittsburgh nightclub. He got his board, two meals a day and $15 a week. Deppe was a well-known baritone who sang both classical and popular numbers. Deppe used the young Hines as his accompanist and took Hines on his concert-trips to New York. Hines’ first recordings were accompanying Deppe — four sides recorded with Gennett Records in 1923. Only two of these were issued, and only one, a Hines composition, “Congaine,” “a keen snappy foxtrot,” featured any solo work by Hines. Hines entered the studio again with Deppe a month later to record spirituals and popular songs.
In 1925, after much family debate, Hines moved to Chicago, Illinois, then the world’s “jazz” capital, home (at the time) to Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. He started in The Elite no. 2 Club but soon joined Carroll Dickerson‘s band with whom he also toured on the Pantages Theatre Circuit to Los Angeles and back.
Then, in the poolroom at Chicago’s Musicians’ Union on State & 39th, Earl Hines met Louis Armstrong. Hines was 21, Armstrong 24. They played together at the Union piano. Armstrong was astounded by Hines’s avant-garde “trumpet-style” piano-playing, often using dazzlingly fast octaves so that on none-too-perfect upright pianos (and with no amplification) “they could hear me out front” – as indeed they could.
Richard Cook‘s Jazz Encyclopedia says: … [Hines’] most dramatic departure from what other pianists were then playing was his approach to the underlying pulse: he would charge against the metre of the piece being played, accent off-beats, introduce sudden stops and brief silences. In other hands this might sound clumsy or all over the place but Hines could keep his bearings with uncanny resilience.
Armstrong and Hines became good friends,shared a car, and Armstrong joined Hines in Carroll Dickerson‘s band at the Sunset Cafe. In 1927, this became Louis Armstrong’s band under the musical direction of Hines. Later that year, Armstrong revamped his Okeh Records recording-only band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and replaced his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano with Hines. Armstrong and Hines then recorded what are often regarded as some of the most important jazz records ever made,including their trumpet and piano duet Weatherbird (1928).
“… with Earl Hines arriving on piano, Armstrong was already approaching the stature of a concerto soloist, a role he would play more or less throughout the next decade, which makes these final small-group sessions something like a reluctant farewell to jazz’s first golden age. Since Hines is also magnificent on these discs (and their insouciant exuberance is a marvel on the duet showstopper “Weather Bird”) the results seem like eavesdropping on great men speaking almost quietly among themselves. There is nothing in jazz finer or more moving than the playing on “West End Blues,” “Tight Like This”, “Beau Koo Jack” and “Muggles.”
The Sunset Cafe closed in 1927. Hines, Armstrong and their drummer, Zutty Singleton, agreed they would be, “‘The Unholy Three’, stick together and not play for anyone unless the three of us were hired” but, trying to establish their own Warwick Hall Club as ‘Louis Armstrong and his Stompers’ (with Hines as musical director and the premises rented in Hines’ name) they ran into difficulties. Hines went briefly to New York to return to find that in his absence Armstrong and Singleton had re-joined their now-rival Carroll Dickerson’s band at the new The Savoy Ballroom – a fact which left Hines “warm.” Hines joined clarinetist Jimmie Noone at The Apex, an after-hours speakeasy, playing from midnight to 6am, seven nights a week. Hines recorded with Noone, again with Armstrong and late in 1928 recorded his first piano solos, eight for QRS Records in New York then seven for Okeh Records in Chicago, all except two his own compositions. He moved in with Kathryn Perry with whom he had recorded “Sadie Green The Vamp of New Orleans” but Hines had also begun rehearsing his own big band. At 24 his big break was about to come.