[Editorial note: This piece features a previously unpublished interview with Earl Hines at The Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club in Montréal on May 27, 1980. The archival material – including an audio clip of Earl Hines speaking to Paul Serralheiro – is now available to the public for the first time since it was recorded more than forty years ago.]
As a fledgling reporter in the late 1970s for the Sir George Williams Campus student newspaper, The Georgian, I used to attend the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club on Ste. Catherine St., run by Rouè-Doudou Boicel.
Doudou, as people called him, was a Guyana-born Montréal impresario who invited outstanding musical artists the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Betty Carter, Nina Simone, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Milt Jackson, to name a few, for week-long residencies… and I was there as often as I could for the opening Tuesday night show to prepare a review for our Friday morning edition.
Doudou, who passed away on March 10, 2020, liked that I wrote the reviews, because they helped bring in people for the weekend shows. In exchange I got press privileges: free admission and 50% off drinks.
At the Rising Sun I got to casually speak to and occasionally interview the artists. One night I brought along a portable silver-faced Panasonic cassette tape recorder and sat down with Earl “Fatha” Hines, the legendary pianist from Duquesne, Pennsylvania. “Fatha” had played with Louis Armstrong and had led one of the swingingest bands in Chicago at the Grand Terrace Café in the 1930s. He was a major jazz piano stylist whose touring band included people like Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan and whose influence extended to nearly every jazz pianist who came after him. Until the COVID-19 shutdown in March of 2020, this 1980 interview conducted upstairs at Boicel’s club lay untouched in a box on an audiotape cassette.
At the time of the interview (May 27, 1980), Hines had been back on the scene for a while after cutting out during the post-bop years. Although his sound was an essential part of the fabric of classics like “West End Blues” and many other Armstrong Hot Five recordings, his name was not a household word. He and Louis Armstrong were friends and collaborators, yet Hines was in some ways the unsung hero of jazz. In a film aired on the British ATV network in 1975 (see the video clip at the end), “Fatha” even quipped about being told by a fan that he wasn’t Hines, that Hines was dead. Despite a stark fall to obscurity after the bright lights of his heyday, then 76-year-old Earl “Fatha” Hines still played with as much inventive fire as ever, and he spoke about his life in music in a way that was as soulful and wise as his playing.
Listening to the conversation after 40 years, what struck me most was the patience of this great artist in answer to the sometimes gauche questions of the eager but green journalist I was then. I find it to be touching evidence of Hines’s deep and beautiful nature.
What follows is a piece that incorporates the interview and tells the story of the encounter.
Excerpt of the author’s interview with Earl Hines at The Rising Sun, May 27, 1980 © Paul Serralheiro
In the red-lit brilliance of the smoke-soaked Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club, Earl “Fatha” Hines sat digging in at the piano, puffing on his cigar while a white boy with burning chops blew on his tenor. An attractive older dark-skinned woman started singing, her voice hugging the crowd amid the clinking of glasses, her sparkling vowels widening like palpable ripples on the surface of a quiet lake at midnight, while drums and bass lay down a luscious bottom.
I was striving in the profession of the scribe, trying to get down what was transpiring from one moment to the next, trying to ride the lovely flow of the vibe with words blown across my mind’s page like bits of ink whisking out in dark darts from my 49-cent disposable BIC pen. Just like the music that wasn’t in Hines’s fingers but passing through them to the wood and metal of the piano he was sitting at, I vaguely remember thinking.
“Here is our last selection for now, Ladies and Gentlemen,” Hines drawled with his resonant industrial-strength voice, while striking some right-hand chords, sprinkled with the melodies of many an old chestnut, “Memories of You” or “Butter and Egg Man,” or some other tune Louis would sing. But then his left hand started a slow boogie figure spun out of the matrix of the blues, swinging so low and sweet that it had the power to redeem even the darkest minds.
That’s why I went there. To be redeemed. And I brought a tape recorder to document it. At intermission, over the machine’s primitive rumble on the table, I sat down with Earl “Fatha” Hines, a 76-year-old gentleman nattily dressed in a black suit with speckled motives of white and some indescribable shade of purple—it could have been an emblem of the blues itself—his long-fingered hands resting on the table, the hands that had shaped the sounds of an era and had sown seeds in the collective unconscious of the world’s musical mind that were still germinating.
“There was Ragtime before I started,” he said. “There was Ragtime before Modern Jazz.”
“I don’t know much about Ragtime,” I said.
“You’re too young,” he said, looking me over and placing me at about 23.
“And a lot of grownups don’t even know about that.”
“Has your style changed that much since you started?” I naively ventured.
“You improve all the time, no matter what you’re doing… you’re bound to. A man makes a table… I don’t mind how simple the table is, he’s going to find something else to do with it.”
I asked, “Have any of the new players that have been coming up given you new ideas about jazz at all?”
“I’m playing with youngsters. You’ve seen the youngsters in the band. Music is a language and the more you hang around people who are speaking the language, the more you’re going to learn about that language.”
I blurted out innocently enough, “Your piano playing hasn’t changed much.”
“I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve proven myself. I don’t have to prove myself,” Hines replied, mildly stung by the naïveté of the comment.
Trying to save face and show some poise, I added, “Your band has a real structure to it. It’s very nice to see,” to which Hines, good-naturedly returning my weak lob, calmly said: “We work together. We have arrangements that we learn and we play together. You follow me and that’s what we do.”
“You have some new tunes, “ I observed. “I don’t know the titles of them but they sound really contemporary.”
“Yes, we play tunes of today. As I made the announcement, we play tunes of yesteryear up to the present day. Uh, ‘Memories of You,’ ‘Shiny Stockings,’ tunes of that order,” Mr. Hines answered politely, looking into my eyes with touching warmth.
“You played ‘Stardust.’ That’s the first time I ever heard that song live… ’cause nobody ever plays that anymore,” I blurted.
“Yeah, that’s for the tenor player,” Hines said.
In a non sequitur provoked by my nervousness when I realized how awkward the last part of my last statement had been, I asked, “Charlie Parker was in your band. Did he learn in your band? Did he sort of get a start in your band?” This didn’t sound much better.
“No, no,” Hines said. “He started with Jay McShann. He got his feature work in my band. When he started the bebop, he started in my band. Charlie Parker and Budd Johnson.”
“I won’t ask you too much about Charlie Parker…” I said.
“Well we don’t have the time,” he succinctly observed.
“You’ve seen jazz grow from like Ragtime and Dixieland to the stuff that you have now,” I said, taking another approach. “What do you think of all this change that jazz has gone through? Now you have jazz that is influenced by classical music, by all kinds of experiments….”
He looked at me and said, “It’s what the public wants,” and leaned forward like he had something important to say to address the tone of my question. “It’s the idea of a man, starting out, like Bill Evans… Bill Evans has a style of his own. Oscar Peterson has a style of his own. Errol Garner has a style of his own. They all have a style. And if the public likes what they’re doing, that’s when you hear of them, so they must have something to offer. So there’s no one particular person standing out there. Everybody’s got their own style. Horace Silver’s got a style of his own. George Shearing. So, who knows?”
Drawing on my book-learned ideas about jazz, I asked, “Do you think that it’s part of the evolution of jazz to incorporate different types of music?”
“Well I don’t know. See, I’m in a situation all by myself,” he said, his voice modulating downward, as he was getting down to brass tacks. “I’m sort of an ambassador for the United States; I’m traveling around the world. We’re just coming off a terrific tour. We were in Australia, we were in the Scandinavian countries, Berne, Switzerland, and Italy.”
After a pause, I shot out, “You prefer playing in clubs to concert halls?”
He shot back, “If you’ve got something to offer, it doesn’t make any difference at all where you’re playing.”
Another pause, then “Are there any new records that you’re working on?” I asked – probably not a question Hines wanted to hear, judging from the sad tone of what followed.
“Now, no. There’s nothing happening. I’ve been recording, Duke and I and Basie, for years… (but) nothing instrumental. It’s all been vocal. Single piano recordings, duets, trios, big band, many of them. Not making any more now. It’s foolish, ’cause nobody works on them. Today you don’t know what the world’s going to do as far as music is concerned. You don’t have an outstanding rock singer. You don’t have an outstanding disco singer. You don’t have no outstanding people anymore. It’s at a level now you don’t know which way it’s going to go. Jazz is always going to be there… now what’s going to come out of it is what we want to know.”
I asked him what he thought of pianist-composer Chick Corea, and Hines said “Who?… You must realize that the world is full of piano players. Full of them.”
I told him he’d played with Sarah Vaughan.
“I found Sarah. I started Sarah. I started Sarah… No, I don’t get a chance to see different people. When I’m working, they’re working. Same hours. The only time I get a chance is when I’m on a vacation or some place where I’m at.”
“You’ve been playing a long time,” I bluntly stated the obvious. “How do you feel about the life you’ve led as a musician?”
“The life you’ve led as a musician.”
“The life I’ve led?”
“The life you’re leading as a musician,” I corrected, noting the past-tense faux pas.
“I don’t know. We’re just like everybody else. You see, the story people don’t realize is, we didn’t know we were making history. So we’re just ordinary like everybody else.”
I protested with, “It’s a different type of work. It’s entertainment. It’s a different type of work, don’t you find?” But Hines stayed on track: “My profession is like a doctor. He has his own profession, and everybody in their own profession tries to perfect what they like best about their profession. And I like this best. I don’t see no difference. We’re all running together, just like a group of medical kids are running together; they’ve all got their own ideas of science, what have you. It’s no different.”
Curious about the financial aspect of the work, I asked, “In the early days was it very difficult for you to start off, playing professionally?”
Hines took his time drawing out his patient and wise answer. “No matter what profession, you’re always going to struggle. There’s always someone in front of you, someone who’s done those things you’ve done before. And if you can find someone to help you in that particular profession, you’re great. If you don’t, you have to do a lot of things, like in the other professions… (there are) shyster lawyers, quack doctors. ’Cause they don’t want to go too far or can’t go too far, and that’s it. And if you’ve got something that the public wants, they’ll bring you out. I never did want to be a soloist. But the public made me that. The public kept asking me to play piano solo. I always wanted a big band.”
I inquired, “The people you play with, how do you choose them?”
“When we’re traveling, we hear of each other,” Hines responded simply. “If the man I’m playing with has marital troubles or family troubles and can’t stay any longer, they put me in touch with someone who can. That’s where that is. We keep it going among ourselves.”
I suddenly realized that it would be nice to let Mr. Hines have a few minutes to himself before getting back to work, so I cut things short. Mr. Hines had graciously given of his time. He hadn’t touched his cigar, which lay on the edge of the glass ashtray on the table this whole time. The sax player had begun running some scales, warming up in the green room.
“I’d like to thank you for your time,” I said.
“The pleasure is mine. Let me shake your hand,” he said warmly, standing up, a tall and dignified man, holding out a hand which I took hold of, not yet as fully aware as I am today that I had just spoken to a great artist – who not only helped shape the African American art form we know and love, but who was also a very generous and decent human being.
1975 ATV interview with Earl “Fatha” Hines