Jake Hanna: Drummer whose controlled power made him the linchpin of the Harry James and Woody Herman bands
Saturday 01 May 2010
Already established as an outstandingly gifted and versatile drummer, in 1961 Jake Hanna arrived at Harry James's house to join the James band.
Harry's wife, the blonde film star Betty Grable, billed as "the girl with the million dollar legs", answered the door and helped him to carry his drum kit into the house. "Now," said Hanna to himself "I've really made it."
Starting to play the drums when he was five, Hanna later studied in Boston with the famous teacher Stanley Spector, and began working as a professional during the Second World War, when he was 13. Many older players were in the services and there was no shortage of work. He played drums when he himself was in the Marines from 1950 to 1953.
In 1956 Hanna enrolled at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, a crucial step that had made the careers of many young jazzmen. Hanna was no exception, as was proved when, at what some would regard as the climax of his career, he joined Woody Herman's 1962 band, a 16-piece group mostly made up of Berklee graduates.
While studying at Berklee, Hanna took on professional work in the evenings, playing for Buddy Morrow's big band and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi's trio among others. When finally he left the college in 1958 he continued with Akiyoshi, playing four summer seasons with her trio at New York's Hickory House. After a spell in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band he became the house drummer at Boston's Storyville Club. "That was when a big change in my life came. The band included Buck Clayton, Bud Freeman and Pee Wee Russell and I had never realised what real quality playing was all about until then."
Until then Hanna had played only "modern" jazz, but the giants of jazz he met at the Storyville played what was called Dixieland or mainstream, and called for a different kind of drumming. Hanna said: "Each man was a marvel, and every night at the drums I had the best seat in the house."
Marian McPartland, the expatriate English pianist, heard Hanna at Storyville and was impressed. He joined her trio in 1959 and stayed until 1961, honing his playing and proving his great mastery in accompanying McPartland's delicate inventions. McPartland greatly admired his playing and later described Hanna as "almost without peer as a big-band drummer", writing: "There is an easy flow, a logical, methodical purpose to everything Jake does."
Hanna eventually left McPartland to work for Harry James but was soon left out on a limb when, in an impossible collision of two giant egos, James hired Buddy Rich. Hanna was fired without ceremony. "I need a job," wailed Hanna on the phone to his old Boston comrade, the pianist Nat Pierce. "You got one," said Pierce, who in 1962 was putting together a band for Woody Herman.
This became one of the greatest Herman bands of all, and Hanna was its dynamo, pinning the band meticulously and swinging it with colossal but always controlled force. With Pierce on piano, Chuck Andrus on bass and Hanna on drums, Herman had a uniquely talented foundation on which to display his jazz giants – including the tenorist Sal Nistico, trombonist Phil Wilson and Pierce himself. "Jake is, I think," Nat Pierce told this writer, "one of the most underrated drummers of all time."
Like so many veterans of the road, Hanna tired of all the touring and when in 1965 he was offered a job in the band on Merv Griffin's television show in the New York studios – death to any jazz ambitions – he took it. The programme moved to Los Angeles at short notice and Hanna went with it. He stayed until 1975 and when he left went on a highly successful tour to Europe with Bing Crosby, starring with Joe Bushkin in the Old Groaner's quartet.
From then on Hanna returned to jazz, working as a freelance. He was much in demand for jazz parties and concerts, becoming for many years virtually the house drummer at Concord Records. He was featured on innumerable albums for many different labels and leaders, only rarely recording under his own name and briefly co-leading a band with the trombonist Carl Fontana.
From 1975 he, pianist Joe Bushkin and guitarist Johnny Smith, all highly gifted musicians, toured the world in a leisurely manner with Bing Crosby. He met a young woman, Denisa Heitman, who was teaching guitar in Smith's studio and they married in 1984, soon after Crosby's death. He spent the last years of his life until his final illness touring with the new diva of jazz singing, Roberta Gambini.
John Edwin "Jake" Hanna, drummer: born Dorchester, Massachusetts 4 April 1931; married 1984 Denisa Heitman; died Los Angeles 12 February 2010.
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