Hampton Hawes and the Low Blues

(This post is for Charlie Haden. Very soon there is a two-day tribute to Charlie at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.)

Even though Hampton Hawes had a strong and urgent touch, there was always “air” in and around his lines. He seemed to breathe his bluesy bebop into the piano.

His gods were Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, whom he personalized and blended with the pastel colors to be found everywhere in his native California. Every time I return to Hawes I’m refreshed by his unpretentious virtuosity and perfect jazz beat.

Recently I became aware that an important CD was mis-labeled. When Bird Song came out only in the late 1990’s, it was claimed to be a newly-discovered 1956 trio date with Paul Chambers and Lawrence Marable. While there are four short tracks with that personnel -- “Blue ‘n' Boogie,” "What's New," "Blues for Jacque," and "I'll Remember April" -- most of the album is actually Hawes’s regular first trio with Red Mitchell and Chuck Thompson.

The opening track, “Big Foot” from 1955, has Hawes and Mitchell throwing down on the uptempo bop blues, especially in the opening quicksilver choruses before Hawes plays flashy two-handed stuff in the Oscar Peterson-related bag.

Big Foot 1

Big Foot 2
Big Foot 3

Big Foot (excerpt)

The bassist’s beat is so strong it seems like it could be PC, except that the lines aren’t really like him. Chuck Thompson usually played great with the trio but on “Big Foot” he’s kind of left in the dust by the piano and bass.

The obvious comparison is “Blues ‘n' Boogie” with PC and Marable. It shows the different styles of the bass and drums but frankly Hawes isn’t quite as strong. The mid-tempo “Blues for Jacque” gives a much better sense of what this one-off trio was capable of. I wish they had done at least one full record together.

Blues for Jacque 1

Blues for Jacque 2
Blues for Jacque 3

Blues For Jacque (excerpt)

PC’s lines are really mysterious. In our interview, Ron Carter said that Chambers, “Was the first guy to play inversions of the chords.” Looking at the above line by itself, it is hard to tell that it is a blues in F, since the diatonic scales groovily going up and down are almost ignorant of the changes. The music opens up, becoming a real ensemble statement with significant bass counterpoint. (Marable’s ride cymbal is wonderful, too.)

I wouldn’t argue that Hampton Hawes was greater than Bud Powell: for starters, without Bud, there wouldn’t be Hamp. But Bud never really got interested in the bass. There’s no Powell trio blues that I know where there’s as much room for the kind of space Mitchell and Chambers have above. Throughout the Hawes discography, you can hear the bass, and also you can hear that Hawes himself is listening to the bass.

More than most pianists of his era, Hawes was intrigued by the way the music opened up in the 60s. He incorporated the harmony of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner in a personal way, and in the studio he elicited unusually interactive performances by Monk Montgomery, Steve Ellington, Chuck Israels, Donald Bailey, and others. (David Fink transcribed Hawes and Israels together on “Fly Me to the Moon.”) Red Mitchell with Hawes in the 60’s sounds like a different musician than a decade earlier.

The best place to hear Hampton Hawes being influenced by the bass are the duos with Charlie Haden. Haden grew up on the Hawes records with Red Mitchell (he loved West Coast jazz in general, and eventually got Larance Marable to join him for Quartet West) and was deeply influenced by the “loose diatonic” perspective of Paul Chambers.

Haden played quite a bit with Hawes in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s; sadly, none of that was recorded. Fortunately they finally met for a recorded conversation in 1976 shortly before Hawes passed away in 1977. The full-length LP As Long As There’s Music shows Hawes reaching for not just dialogue but even total freedom. It’s a very moving document; I can’t imagine another bebop pianist being this vulnerable.

My favorite Hawes-Haden track, though, is on Charlie’s album The Golden Number, the essential record of three magical free-form duos with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Archie Shepp, plus a blues that is just as magical and “free” as anything anyone’s ever played.

Turnaround 1

Turnaround 2
Turnaround 3

Turnaround (excerpt)

Charlie’s bass line here was the very first thing I ever tried to transcribe in high school. It is so abstract within the blues...where is the form in the second chorus?....sounds great though!

Hawes is with Haden every second, reacting to those outer space notes with faultless choices and never too much left hand. There’s even something Ornette-ish about a few of Hawes’s phrases, and the last “heraldic” stuff is pure Don Cherry. No way Hamp would have gotten there without Charlie’s prodding! Haden reacts to Hawes, too, like when he sits on nothing but two bars of “F” under the most gospel-ish moment.

Charlie’s bass solo is really great, too, you should definitely track down the record and check it out.


Some say that Hawes isn’t as good later as he was earlier. It’s true that he slowed down a bit compared to the wonderful run of sparkling 50’s Contemporary albums, which may ultimately be his greatest contribution to the discography overall.


(Vinyl maven Anna Wayland's HH collection) 

But I love the wisdom and humility -- and appreciate the absence of Oscar Peterson-ish tricks -- of 60’s and 70’s Hawes.

Haden is an obviously alchemical musician, instantly affecting everyone around him. Since Hawes’s language isn’t as extreme, it’s harder for him to have that power, but nonetheless Hawes had something of that alchemical magic, too. He certainly got something special out of Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. Brown and Manne always play great but there can be something a little workmanlike about their attitude. Not with Hawes on his final trio disc At the Piano, though: all three musicians play together in a kind of reverie.

There’s also a marvelous jam session video with Bob Cooper. During the extraordinary piano solo on the opening blues, Brown and Manne dig inside themselves, looking for something a little deeper to keep up with the beat, freedom of phrasing, and natural soulfulness of Hampton Hawes.


Related DTM:

Interview with Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden on the late Larance Marable

The Soul of Harmony


(Charlie and Reid Anderson duetting on Haden's glorious basses after the recent Royce Hall gig. Reid has said many times that Charlie Haden is the reason he plays the bass.)



For Charlie Haden:

1) Liberation Chorus (brand new memorial thoughts from Charlie Haden's extended family of musicians)

2) Interview with Charlie Haden (2007)

3) This is Our Mystic (Haden with Ornette) (2010)

4) Hampton Hawes and the Low Blues (2013)

5) Silence (Personal history and anthology of other bits about Charlie on DTM)