I owe a debt of gratitude to Hank Jones, the great jazz pianist who died Sunday at the age of 91. I learned something important about life by my brush with his greatness and humility. I heard him when I took the Yale Faith as a Way of Life group to New York City on the trail of the intersection of faith and the arts. We went together to Dizzy's Club at Lincoln Center--my first and undoubtedly most magical trip to that fantastic jazz club. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote recalling that night in chapter seven of FWL:
“As we headed across mid-town Manhattan packed in our taxi, I tried to imagine what Dizzy’s club would be like. Broadway Avenue, New York, New York. Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The Time Warner building. This was the big time in the Big Apple and I could hardly wait. As we hopped out of our taxi and paid the driver a handsome amount for the few blocks we’d traveled from our hotel near Grand Central Station, I looked at the busy street, the lights shining through the large glass doors and the huge atrium beyond. We were swept in, following people up the elevators to a velvet-roped line outside the fifth-floor room. Posters of jazz luminaries and the hushed tones of those already in line gave the atmosphere a sort of reverence. With a group of colleagues from the Faith as a Way of Life project, I was going to hear a sax player named Joe Lavano. While he seemed to be a big name, I didn’t know his work. It didn’t matter—that he was playing this show at Dizzy’s was enough for me.
Soon enough we were led into a dark room, already buzzing with activity. We were seated at two long tables just to the left of the stage, but the intimacy of the room seemed to make every seat good. Before long, to raucous applause, the slightly chubby Joe Lavano walked out with his elderly piano accompanist. I didn’t know this pianist’s name, but he seemed frail and nearly fell as he ascended the steps to the stage. Upon recovery, he smiled and waved, gingerly, before taking his seat. While this beginning worried me, as he began to play his age melted away and the nimble magic of his fingers leapt into action.
We watched over the next hour as our imagined luminary, Joe Lovano, sought ways to step back and highlight this stoop-shouldered pianist whose subtle tones and energetic playing had captured the room. The real luminary, it seemed, was the one unknown to me, and the crowd rallied to the moment. Sure we were seeing something special, we later found out that this venerable man was Hank Jones, a true jazz legend who was 89 when we saw him play. During one particularly stunning moment, Joe Lovano simply stopped playing and walked to the back of the stage, giving over the music to this joyful and soulful man. As the song wound to its end, a man two tables to the right of us shot up, shouting, clapping, as if his life depended on the tribute he was offering."
How I now wish I had joined that man. How I wish I had know what a gift I was receiving in the moment. Too often, though, we don't see what is right before our eyes. The New York Times has a wonderful and moving
obituary of Mr. Jones, including this choice quote: "Reaching for superlatives, critics often wrote that
Mr. Jones had an exceptional touch. He himself was not so sure. 'I never
tried consciously to develop a ‘touch,’ ' he told The Detroit Free Press
in 1997. 'What I tried to do was make whatever lines I played flow evenly and
fully and as smoothly as possible. 'I think the way you practice has a
lot to do with it,' he explained. 'If you practice scales religiously and
practice each note firmly with equal strength, certainly you’ll develop a
certain smoothness. I used to practice a lot. I still do when I’m at home.' That perspective, I think, tells us volumes about what we ought to do to grow in ministry, as well. Hmm. Thanks for all the music, Mr. Jones. Rest in peace, toe tapping.
Anon, and +peace,
A couple favorite albums, both totally amazing.
Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs, with bassist Charlie Haden
Somthin' Else (BlueNote 1955, with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Sam Jones and Art Blakey)