March 26, 2010

Jake Hanna: "Have A Ball"

Sorry to report that another of our interviewees recently passed away, drummer Jake Hanna. Some interviews immediately started in a manner that told me right away I was in for a treat. Jake Hanna was one. Jake passed away on February 12 at the age of 78. He was a versatile musician, having spent significant time with the Marian McPartland Trio as well as the Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd big band. He also spent ten years as part of the Merv Griffin TV house band, and held down the drum chair with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra and the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Jake was well known for his quick wit and often outrageous humor and it was on display right from the start of our conversation. Picture Jake’s voice with a James Cagney “you dirty rat” delivery in this brief exchange at the start of our interview:

MR: We are in Aspen, Colorado, filming for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. And I’ve been waiting for this for quite a while now. We’re filming with Jake Hanna, one of the great jazz drummers and conversationalists.

JH: Conversationalist, yes. I love your name, Monk. I’m going to start using that name, Monk Rowe. I’ve been using Sneed Hern for years. But Monk Rowe, that’s a hell of a name. I never heard a name like that either. Thelonious Monk was far out, but Monk Rowe.

Jake went on to tell me that two of his heroes were both “Kings of Swing.” One of course, clarinetist Benny Goodman, dubbed the “King of Swing” after he brought big band music into the consciousness of the general public in the late 1930’s. His other King of Swing was a ball player, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, one of the all-time great hitters in the history of baseball. He was equally enamored of both of them, although he admitted, “Benny never liked me.” Jake was part of a large club in that regard.

Most of the men in his generation spent at least two years in the service. He pointed out something to me that affected musicians, doctors, and other professionals who were drafted or who enlisted.

MR: At what age were you inclined to think, hey maybe I can make a living as a drummer?

JH: Well I never did anything else. So I never thought of it, never thought of it. Just loved it. I never thought of ever doing anything else. Ever. I just loved it. When I went in the service, I figured well I’ll go in, I’ll be a gunner, you know. But they eliminated them gunners, in the 50’s, they eliminated it, everything was electronic. And they came up with the jets then, jets were invented. So they wouldn’t let me handle a gun anyway, you know. But if you played a musical instrument they put you right in band play, and if you were a doctor or in medicine they pulled you right into that area and gave you a commission. You can’t train a musician in four years. You just take somebody off the street and say all right you’re in the service? Oh, you’re going to be — I need two drummers over here — forget it, you can’t train a guy you see? Who plays the drums? You do? Over here. A doctor? We can’t train a doctor in four years. So you’re automatically in when you go in. That’s automatically what you do. Most people, they can train you. Infantry, everybody can shoot a gun.

MR: That’s true. I never even thought of it that way.

JH: No they have to have specialists, and you’ve got to go right away. They can train guys in dots and dashes and radio people, they can get that done in six months you know. But not a musician. Play a march and then play a little dance job and play a show. In fact most musicians can’t do all that you know, really.

MR: It’s true. So you got to play during your service?

JH: Oh yeah, yeah. In fact I went in to do that. Because I wasn’t good enough to play outside. And out of high school I really didn’t know how to do anything. So I says I’ll go in the service, see if I get in the band, you know, took a chance. I couldn’t read [music] you know. Eventually I learned to read off of trumpet parts and things, and the guys in the new band I was with in Texas, they showed me how to read, and quick. I learned how to read in a couple of days, really.

Even though he had a Type A personality and a high energy level, he was not a drummer who felt it was his responsibility to make people swing. In fact, he was most happy when he was, as he put it, “just following, just tagging along, that’s all, have a ball.” The ten years with the Merv Griffin house band probably kept him financially solvent, but like many musicians it was a double-edged sword. Jake described the work, which was often linked with playing behind the popular musicians of that time.

He goes on to describe the video he must have seen that showed the process with Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are The World” project. Like many musicians of his generation, he did not recognize talent in the same manner that the younger generation did.

MR: Well how did you like working a steady thing, a TV show every day?

JH: Oh, I hated it. Just hated it. The money was lousy in New York believe it or not. And we went out to the coast, and he more than tripled it. So we made good money out there. But it was even worse. It was awful. It’s a Sonny & Cher world out there, that television. It was people with no ability at all and no talent at all. Did you happen to watch the thing the other day, Quincy Jones trying to teach Bruce Springsteen and the poet/singer, what the hell’s his name, Dylan?

MR: Bob Dylan?

JH: Trying to show them a song. These guys, well you might as well try to talk to that wall to get these guys to hear, they’re totally deaf. It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen. “Honey come in here. Watch this.” And my wife started laughing, I started laughing, we called up people, “watch these two idiots.” Millionaires, billionaires these guys. They can’t do anything. God they were awful. Then poor Quincy, he just said okay, fine you know. We’ll just do it your way. Showing them the melody, they just couldn’t get the melody. And so he goes “sing what you’re singing. That will be the melody” you know. Poor Quincy. He’s dealt with these fools for years. And Phil Ramone is in with them too. You know he’s the best sound engineer there is. I don’t know what he’s doing with these guys. Making a lot of money I guess. But he did a lot of great stuff with Woody you know. Great stuff. He’s a hell of a nice guy too. But yeah, it was awful that stuff they were doing. And that’s what used to appear on the show all the time. Monty Rock III. The Lovin’ Spoonful. And what was a couple of others. Peter and something or other, no, when the Beatle thing was going on.

MR: Peter and ... Chad and Jeremy ‑ oh Peter and Gordon.

JH: Peter and Gordon. Oh, man, I mean they were awful.

Jake was definitely a memorable personality, a versatile musician, and he made friends easily. If you’d like to read more about Jake you might like to find Marian McPartland’s book All in Good Time. Marian’s thoughts on Jake got a whole chapter.

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