Milt Hinton On Piano Jazz

Written by Grant Jackson from National Public Radio


Milt Hinton Credit Paul Bergen / Redferns

Milt Hinton (a.k.a. “The Judge”) was born June 23, 1910, in Vicksburg, Miss. As a boy, he moved to Chicago, where he studied several instruments before settling on the double bass. By the late 1920s, he began working with the likes of Art Tatum and Jabbo Smith — figures granted near-mythic status today — and by the mid-1930s he was playing in Cab Calloway‘s big band alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet. Calloway gave Hinton an occasional solo on tunes like “Pluckin’ the Bass,” a rarity during the big-band era.

Hinton stayed with Calloway’s band through 1951, and also recorded with Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and Coleman Hawkins at this time.

After leaving Calloway’s band in the early ’50s, Hinton began a long, successful freelance run in New York, where for more than two decades he played countless jazz and pop record dates, as well as jingles, film soundtracks and TV and radio programs, including staff positions with CBS and ABC.

Hinton continued actively recording into the 1990s, with several major recording projects released in that decade. At this time, he also collected a treasure trove of honorary doctorates and awards, including a Eubie Award and the Living Treasure Award from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1993, he was made an NEA Jazz Master.

An avid photographer, Hinton documented the lives of the performers he worked with beginning in the 1930s. He continued this hobby over the years and ultimately collected more than 60,000 photos of jazz musicians. In addition to several gallery shows around the world showcasing this historically important collection, his works have also appeared in Popular Photography, The New York Times and Life magazine. He also published two books of his photographs: Bass Line and Overtime.

Hinton also shot home movies; his wife Mona shot the only known footage of the Great Day in Harlem photo shoot for Esquire magazine in 1959.

In a career spanning an incredible 80 years and more than 1,000 recording sessions, Hinton worked with practically everyone in the jazz world. In June 2000, a tribute concert was held at New York’s Town Hall. Milt Hinton died six months later at age 90.

Hinton Remembered

“He was one of the finest bass players ever, no question,” host Marian McPartland says of her good friend. “I played on what turned out to be one of the last dates with him. Right to the very end, he always played his heart out.

On this episode of Piano Jazz, recorded in 1991, Hinton and McPartland get together for duets on a set of celebrated standards, including “All the Things You Are,” “Willow Weep For Me” and “These Foolish Things.”

Hinton kicks off the program by rapping his considerable resume, as he comps himself with bouncing bass. It’s safe to say he’s one of few octogenarians able to do hip-hop, and probably the only one who can drop names like Cab (Calloway), Duke (Ellington), Louie (Armstrong) and Prez (Lester Young) into his rhyme.

He also turns in a thundering solo version of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”

“Boy, that is really a show-stopping piece,” McPartland says.

“It’s a real exercise in calisthenics. Thank you,” Hinton replies.

The session closes on a duet of “How High the Moon” that conjures both Mozart and Charlie Parker. “The dean of bass players” slowly bows his double bass, giving a classical feel to the opening, then sheaths his bow for some pure bebop magic to end this installment of Piano Jazz.

Originally recorded Aug. 15, 1991. Originally broadcast Nov. 19, 1991.

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