Obituary: Art Hodes
Saturday 06 March 1993
'MY DAD didn't like the society there,' explained Art Hodes, 'and my mother had a dream that I would become a great pianist.' So, six months after Art's birth in 1904, the Hodes family, his parents and two sisters, left their home in Tsarist Russia and, without papers, somehow made their way to Chicago.
It could have been his Russian blood which was responsible for that deep melancholy quality found exclusively in his piano playing, for Hodes went on to become one of the best American jazz pianists of his time. He was not a man to dazzle with technique, but was able to give an unusual profundity to the simple blues. He seemed to relax into the blues as though it were a comfortable armchair and when he soloed there was often a hushed, poised quality which had its equivalent in the more sophisticated playing of his friend Jess Stacy. Hodes was the opposite of flashy, and yet his blues playing could grab at the heart of the most worldly listener. He captured the essence of the black music which he loved and converted it into something uniquely his own.
Despite an upbringing in the middle of the Chicago gangster scene and a history of boozing to match an environment where he rubbed shoulders daily with Bix Beiderbecke, the Capone mob and Eddie Condon, he remained a sensitive and cultured man. He wrote vividly in his autobiographies, his magazine columns and on record album sleeves of the golden era of jazz of which he had been a part.
His father was a tinsmith, and both parents loved opera. Hodes grew up in Chicago's tough 20th Ward, where 'most of the guys who were dealing in illegal booze grew up. It was a job trying to go to school without getting hit over the head with a sandbag.'
Hodes became interested in jazz from listening to broadcasts by the Coon-Sanders Orchestra. He took piano lessons at Hull House, a well-equipped local youth centre. He was still a teenager when he was hired by one of Al Capone's gambling bosses, Dago Lawrence Mangano, to accompany singers at the Rainbow Gardens Cafe.
Hodes worked next accompanying singers who sang for tips in dime-a-dance halls. He became involved with local jazz musicians and listened to the boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Smith and local unschooled blues musicians, who inculcated in him the deep blues style which was to characterise his playing for the rest of his life.
He took a summer job with the banjoist Earl Murphy. Murphy brought along his collection of jazz records and introduced Hodes to the work of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. In 1926 Hodes toured with the Wolverines, a band previously led by Beiderbecke, and on his return to Chicago met the one- armed trumpeter Wingy Manone. Manone and Hodes hit it off and shared an apartment for two years.
'Whoever got up first put the first 78 on the turntable and wound it up. And that went on all the time we were in the room. When we left the room it was usually to go out to the South Side and be with Louis Armstrong at least four days a week.'
Armstrong introduced Hodes to most of the great black musicians in Chicago. After a tentative start because he was nervous, Hodes worked with Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds, Cow Cow Davenport, Meade Lux Lewis, Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davison and everyone else of note in that jazz- drenched city.
In 1938 Hodes left Chicago for New York, where he stayed for 12 years. In New York he played first with the bands of Joe Marsala and Mezz Mezzrow and was delighted to find audiences which actually came to sit and listen to the music. He slipped in with the large crowd of expatriate Chicagoans and played with the best of the New York jazz musicians.
The following year Hodes recorded a handful of piano solos for his own short-lived record company and in May 1940 recorded the Art Hodes Blue Three for the Signature label with his long-time colleague Rod Cless on clarinet. This was the beginning of a most distinguished recording career throughout which Hodes stuck to his own melancholy and haunting blues style.
In a remarkable surge of activity Hodes became the host of a weekly jazz programme on WNYC, became resident pianist in two of the best jazz clubs, Jimmy Ryan's and Nick's, and published, edited and wrote for his own magazine, one of the first devoted to jazz, the Jazz Record. The magazine was emancipated for the times, strictly alternating pictures of black or white musicians on its covers.
Art Hodes's recordings during the Forties with men such as Sidney Bechet, Wild Bill Davison and many other legendary figures remain classics undimmed by time. Players of strong individual character always moved into the Hodes style when they worked for him - his records are easily recognisable from his piano work.
He returned to Chicago in 1950 to live in the suburb of Park Forest. From there he toured Canada and Europe, lectured on jazz at colleges, and produced a series for public television called Art's Place. He was not above playing weddings and benefits and giving piano lessons and during the mid- Sixties he wrote a regular column for Downbeat, then the leading American jazz magazine.
Hodes toured Denmark in 1970 and in 1971 took one of his finest bands on tour in the US. This included Wild Bill Davison, Barney Bigard, Eddie Condon and the fine Chicago trombonist Jim Beebe. The albums made at the time certainly include the finest work that Davison, Bigard and Condon made in their later years. In 1981 he recorded a solo album and another with accompaniment from the bassist Milt Hinton which were quite outstanding and as potent as any he had ever done. Hodes returned to Europe several times, touring Britain with Wild Bill Davison in 1989.
He published his autobiography, Hot Man, in 1992.
Asked where he should be placed in jazz history Hodes said: 'Somewhere in the middle. That's fine with me.' On reflection he added: 'Most people have to work. I play for a living. I don't intend to quit until my hands quit.'
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