Miles Kington: Master pianist who turned into the Zelig of the jazz world

The performance builds through a series of climaxes and new counter-melodies until you can definitely hear at least three, probably four, hands playing
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"Sehr geehrte Herr Kington," began a recent e-mail to me, "Hiermit laden wir Sie herzlich ein, eines der Konzerte im Rahmen der nun beginnenden Piano-Tournee mit dem grossen amerikanischen Pianisten Dick Hyman zu besuchen."

Yes, well, junk mail comes in other languages beside English, and I might well have stopped right there had I not spotted the name "Dick Hyman" in the flow of German. As it was, I read on and got this ... "Hyman will nach seinem bevorstehenden 80. Geburtstag von transatlantischen Konzertreisen Abstand nehmen, und so wird es wohl die letzte Gelegenheit sein, den Grandseigneur des klassischen Jazz Pianos live in Europa zu erleben."

Cranking up my rusty German, I learnt that they were inviting me to attend one of the concerts on Dick Hyman's tour. "After his imminent 80th birthday, Hyman will not be making any more transatlantic concert trips, so this is the last chance to hear the grandmaster of classic jazz piano live in Europe."

Crikey. Alas, Dick Hyman's tour has now taken place in Germany, while I was off in the sunshine for a late summer holiday, and his last concert was in the city of Halle two days ago, on Bonfire Night, so I shall never see Dick Hyman live again. And many of you out there will be saying - So what? Who is this Dick Hyman? I have heard of all the great jazz stars, but he was never listed among them ...

Maybe not, but he was always there lurking in the background, like Zelig in the Woody Allen film. Born in March 1927, a white, American Jewish kid prodigy, Dick Hyman emerged in the late 1940s as a versatile jazz pianist who played with modern giants such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Later he played with Benny Goodman. Later on, he established a wonderful partnership with the cornettist Ruby Braff. And if you know anything about jazz evolution, you will see that what he did was absolutely crazy: He started out playing with the bang-up-to-date, cutting-edge modernists, then successively played with less and less progressive people, until he has ended up, last week, in Germany, in the company of pianists who are all trying to sound like Fats Waller. The longer he has lived, the more he seems to have retreated into history.

What explains this weird story is that Dick Hyman has an unbelievable talent for being able to mimic any jazz pianist in history - and not just sound like him, but get inside his skin. He has sometimes staged a recital on the history of jazz piano, and can lovingly recreate Scott Joplin, or Fats Waller, or Art Tatum, or Bill Evans.

So he has been much in demand for films or stage shows that demanded a period flavour. He was there when the ragtime revival happened. Early on,he caught the ear of jazz-loving Woody Allen, and he has done the musical scores of pretty well all Woody Allen's films, including, as it happens, Zelig.

He does also have his own style, though. The first time I had my ears pinned back by Dick Hyman, years ago, he wasn't imitating anyone but himself.

On Radio 3's Jazz Record Requests someone had asked for a record of Hyman playing an old 1920s show tune called "Every Day is Mother's Day". (Ah, they had proper song titles in those days.) The presenter, Geoffrey Smith, warned us before he played the record not to think that there was more than one pianist involved, or any overdubbing, and he was right to warn us; the performance builds through a series of climaxes and new counter-melodies until you can definitely hear at least three, probably four, hands playing.

I still have that programme on tape, and I still replay it, and to this day I do not know how he did it, but I know why listeners to Jazz Record Requests go on requesting it year after year.

Tomorrow: why Dick Hyman thinks Chopin would have made a great jazz pianist, and why he might well be right.