John Hicks (pianist)
Hicks in 2006
|Birth name||John Josephus Hicks Jr.|
|Born||December 21, 1941|
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||May 10, 2006 (aged 64)|
New York City, New York
|Genres||Jazz, hard bop, bebop, free jazz, modal jazz|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, composer, arranger, educator|
|Associated acts||Jazz Messengers, Woody Herman, Betty Carter, Mingus Dynasty Band, Elise Wood|
After early experiences backing blues musicians, Hicks moved to New York in 1963. He was part of Art Blakey's band for two years, then backed vocalist Betty Carter from 1965 to 1967, before joining Woody Herman's big band, where he stayed until 1970. Following these largely mainstream jazz experiences, Hicks expanded into freer bands, including those of trumpeters Charles Tolliver and Lester Bowie. He rejoined Carter in 1975; the five-year stay brought him more attention and helped to launch his recording career as a leader. He continued to play and record extensively in the United States and internationally. Under his own leadership, his recordings were mostly bebop-influenced, while those for other leaders continued to be in a diversity of styles, including multi-year associations with saxophonists Arthur Blythe, David Murray, David "Fathead" Newman, and Pharoah Sanders.
Hicks was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 21, 1941, the oldest of five children. As a child, he moved with his family around the United States, as his father, Rev John Hicks Sr, took up jobs with the Methodist church. His family was middle class; "I was brought up as a decent human being, where you had aspirations and there were expectations", he commented. He began playing the piano aged six or seven in Los Angeles. His mother, Pollie, was his first piano teacher. He also took organ lessons, sang in choirs and tried the violin and trombone. He began playing the piano in church once he could read music, around the age of 11. His development accelerated once his family moved to St. Louis, when Hicks was 14 and he settled on the piano. In St. Louis, he attended Sumner High School. While there, he played in schoolmate Lester Bowie's band, the Continentals. Hicks cited influences "from Fats Waller to Thelonious Monk to Methodist church hymns", as well as local pianists. He was initially interested in the blues-based compositions of Horace Silver and popular songs such as "I Got Rhythm" and "There Will Never Be Another You", for their easily recognised harmonies.
Hicks had summer gigs in the southern United States with blues musicians Little Milton and Albert King. His stint with Little Milton provided his first professional work, in 1958; Hicks stated that his playing in a variety of keys improved because the venue's piano was so out of tune that he had to transpose each piece that they played. Hicks studied music in 1958 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he shared a room with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. He also studied for a short time at the Berklee School of Music in Boston before moving to New York in 1963.
Later life and career
In New York, Hicks first accompanied singer Della Reese. He then played with Joe Farrell and toured with trombonist Al Grey and tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell. In 1963 he was also part of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' first band, and appeared on CBC Television backing vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon. After periods with Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson, Hicks joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1964. His recording debut was with Blakey in November that year, for the album 'S Make It. Early in 1965, Hicks toured with Blakey to Japan, France, Switzerland, and England. Blakey encouraged his band members, including Hicks, to compose for the band, although they also played compositions by previous members of the band. He stayed with Blakey for two years, during which time his playing was compared with that of McCoy Tyner, for the level of energy displayed and for some of the intervals that they used.
In the period 1965 to 1967 Hicks worked on and off with vocalist Betty Carter; her liking for slow ballads helped him develop his sense of time. He then joined Woody Herman's big band, where he stayed until 1970, playing as well as writing arrangements for the band. Hicks "also recorded with Booker Ervin and Sonny Simmons (both 1966), Hank Mobley (1967), and Lee Morgan (1968)". From 1972 to 1973 Hicks taught jazz history and improvisation at Southern Illinois University. From the 1970s he also played in more avant garde bands. "He recorded with Oliver Lake (1970) and performed and recorded in the Netherlands with Charles Tolliver (1972)." He played with Blakey again in 1973. Hicks' debut recording as leader was on May 21, 1975, in England. The session resulted in two albums – the trio Hells Bells, with bassist Clint Houston and drummer Cliff Barbaro, and the piano solo Steadfast. They were released by Strata-East Records, but not for several years: Hells Bells emerged in 1978 or 1980.
Hicks reunited with Carter in 1975, including accompanying her in a musical play, Don't Call Me Man, that year. After recording with Carter on her Now It's My Turn in 1976, Hicks returned to her band full-time; this raised his profile and led to his own recording – After the Morning. His recording continued, including with "Lester Bowie (1974), Carter Jefferson (1978), and Chico Freeman (1978–79)." Hicks was dismissed in 1980 by Carter, a forceful bandleader, for drinking.
"Hicks led bands from the mid-1970s. His small groups included a quartet of Sonny Fortune, Walter Booker, and Jimmy Cobb (1975–82, from 1990); a trio, without Fortune (from 1981); a quartet or trio, with the flutist Elise Wood added or replacing the drummer; another quartet, with the addition of Gary Bartz; a different trio with Curtis Lundy or Ray Drummond on double bass and Idris Muhammad on drums; quartets involving various of these musicians, as well as Watson, Blythe, Murray, Herring, or Craig Handy, and with Victor Lewis added to the pool of drummers; quintets and sextets whose members have also involved Robin Eubanks and Tolliver (both from 1982), Branford Marsalis (1982–4), Hannibal Peterson (from 1983), Wynton Marsalis (1983–4), Craig Harris (1985–6), Eddie Henderson (1985–6, 1988–90), and Freeman (1985–8); and a big band (formed in autumn 1982 and revived on occasion into the late 1990s)". He played in the UK with Freeman's band in 1989.
From 1983, the flautist Elise Wood was frequently a member of his groups. As a duo, they played mostly jazz, but also some classical music. They formed a business partnership – John Hicks-Elise Wood, Inc. – and toured the US, Europe and Japan in the 1980s.
From the early 1980s until his death he performed solo and led his own groups, including the Keystone Trio, with Idris Muhammad and George Mraz. He also freelanced, including with more contemporary players such as Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Pharoah Sanders. "During the 1980s Hicks played as a sideman in numerous groups, including those led by Richie Cole (1980), Arthur Blythe (In the Tradition), David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Art Davis, and Pharoah Sanders; he recorded with these musicians, as well as with Ricky Ford (1980, 1982), Alvin Queen (1981), Peter Leitch (1984), Vincent Herring (1986), and Bobby Watson (1986, 1988)". In 1984 he had a big band that rehearsed; a sextet from it played concerts. From around 1989 into the 1990s he played with the Mingus Dynasty band, including for performances of the symphony Epitaph. He recorded two albums in Japan in 1988 – the trio East Side Blues and the quartet Naima's Love Song, with altoist Bobby Watson added. He became "a fixture at international music festivals" as well as continuing to play in New York.
"Like so many straight-ahead jazz artists, John Hicks did his share of label-hopping in the '90s. Instead of recording for one company consistently, he would offer different projects to different labels." He continued to record in the 1990s, including "in duos with Drummond (1989), Jay McShann (1992), and Leitch (1994); as a leader; in cooperative sessions with Kenny Barron (1989), Cecil McBee and Elvin Jones (as the Power Trio, 1990), with George Mraz and Muhammad (as the Keystone Trio, from 1995), and with Eric Alexander, Mraz, and Muhammad (1998); and further as a sideman with Murray, Leitch, Blythe, and Freeman, as well as with Roy Hargrove (1989–90, 1995), Bartz (1990), Lake (1991), Steve Marcus and Valery Ponomarev (both 1993), Nick Brignola, Russell Gunn, and Kevin Mahogany (all 1994), the Mingus Big Band (c1995), Fortune (1996), and Jimmy Ponder (1997)." As leader, his choice of material in the 1990s was often of commonly played standards. He played in the UK with the Mingus Big Band in 1999, and played on their album Blues and Politics from the same year.
His most commercially successful recordings were tributes to other musicians, including Something to Live For (1998), Impressions of Mary Lou (2000), and Fatha's Day (2003). There were five such albums, all linked to Pittsburgh-associated pianist-composers; the other two were Nightwind: An Erroll Garner Songbook, and Music in the Key of Clark.
Hicks played and recorded with jazz artists such as Joe Lovano and David "Fathead" Newman. He played on five of Newman's albums for HighNote Records. He was described in 2000 as the "HighNote house pianist". The pianist recorded the seventh instalment of the "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall" series of solo concerts, which were recorded for Concord Records. He was part of Lovano's quartet in 1998, which led to Hicks being part of the saxophonist's nonet from its formation the following year.
Hicks and Wood married in 2001. He made a rare recording on organ (Hammond B3) on saxophonist Arthur Blythe's Exhale. "over the last 12 years [of his life, he] released several collaborations with his wife Elise Wood to mixed reviews (Single Petal of a Rose, Trio & Strings, Beautiful Friendship)".
Towards the end of his life, Hicks taught at New York University and The New School in New York. Asked about his teaching, Hicks replied that "I don't care how advanced my students are, I always start them off with the blues. It all comes from there." Early in 2006 Hicks again played in a big band, this time led by Charles Tolliver. In January and February, he toured Israel, chiefly playing Thelonious Monk compositions. Hicks' final studio recording was On the Wings of an Eagle in March 2006. His last performance was at St Mark's United Methodist Church in New York City a few days before he died. He died on May 10, 2006, from internal bleeding. Hicks is buried at South-View Cemetery in his hometown of Atlanta.
Wood survived him, and has led a band dedicated to his music. In the view of AllMusic reviewer Michael G. Nastos, "Hicks died before reaping the ultimate rewards and high praise he deserved". A collection of his papers and compositions, as well as video and audio recordings, is held by Duke University.
Hicks had a style of his own, containing a "combination of irresistible creativity and responsiveness [...] encompassing swing, hard bop and the avant garde, and made him a first-call choice for many of the most important American modern jazz groups". "Hicks had his critics, some of whom condemn him for insubstantiality." The Penguin Guide to Jazz commented that "This [...] is missing the point. Almost always, he is more concerned to work within the dimensions of a song than to go off into the stratosphere."
A reviewer of a 1993 release, Lover Man: A Tribute to Billie Holiday, commented that Hicks "mastered the technique of shaping a piano chord so it sounds like the rising and falling of a breath". Fellow pianist George Cables stated that Hicks "was a very strong and energetic player, and a very warm player, very much part of the tradition". His "left hand carries subtle dynamic shadings [... He has] a reverence for melody and a sense of musical destination that gives form to his improvisations."
As an accompanist, Hicks played delicately, with carefully voiced chords.
Compositions and arrangements
His compositions "are wandering and melodic, suggestive and malleable yet memorable". He "enjoyed writing arrangements for a quintet or sextet, often, like the finest jazz composers, tailoring parts to specific musicians. In the past, these have included artists of the caliber of Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring; more recently he has been working with Javon Jackson and Elise [Wood]".
An asterisk (*) after the year indicates that it is the year of release.
|1975||Hells Bells||Strata-East||Trio, with Clint Houston (bass), Cliff Barbaro (drums); released 1980|
|1975||Steadfast||Strata-East||Solo piano; released 1980|
|1979||After the Morning||West 54||Some tracks solo piano; some tracks duo, with Walter Booker (bass); one track trio, with Cliff Barbaro (drums) added|
|1981||Some Other Time||Theresa||Most tracks trio, with Walter Booker (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums); two tracks solo piano|
|1982||John Hicks||Theresa||Some tracks solo piano; some tracks trio, with Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Walter Booker (bass); one track duo, with Olympia Hicks (piano); reissue by Evidence added one track trio, with Olympia Hicks, Idris Muhammad (drums)|
|1984||In Concert||Theresa||Most tracks trio, with Walter Booker (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums); some tracks quartet, with Elise Wood (flute) or Bobby Hutcherson (vibes) added; in concert|
|1985||Inc. 1||DIW||Most tracks trio, with Walter Booker (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums); some tracks solo piano|
|1985||Sketches of Tokyo||DIW||Duo, with David Murray (tenor sax)|
|1986–87||Two of a Kind||Theresa||Duo, with Ray Drummond (bass)|
|1987||I'll Give You Something to Remember Me By||Limetree||Trio, with Curtis Lundy (bass) Idris Muhammad (drums)|
|1985–88||Luminous||Nilva||Some tracks duo, with Elise Wood (flute); some tracks quartet, with Walter Booker (bass), Jimmy Cobb, Alvin Queen (drums, separately) added; some tracks quintet, with Clifford Jordan (tenor sax) added|
|1988||East Side Blues||DIW||Trio, with Curtis Lundy (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1988||Naima's Love Song||DIW||Quartet, with Bobby Watson (alto sax), Curtis Lundy (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1989||Oleo||CBS/Sony||As New York Unit; quartet, with George Adams (tenor sax), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1989||Rhythm-a-Ning||Candid||As Kenny Barron-John Hicks Quartet; quartet, with Kenny Barron (piano), Walter Booker (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)|
|1990||Power Trio||Novus||Trio, with Cecil McBee (bass), Elvin Jones (drums)|
|1990||Is That So?||Timeless||Trio, with Ray Drummond (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums)|
|1990||Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Seven||Concord Jazz||Solo piano; in concert|
|1990||Blue Bossa||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; quartet, with George Adams (tenor sax), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1991||St. Thomas: Tribute to Great Tenors||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; trio, with Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1991–92||Tribute to George Adams||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; quartet; some tracks with George Adams, Dan Faulk (tenor sax; separately), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums); some tracks with Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Santi Debriano (bass), Nakamura (drums)|
|1992||Friends Old and New||Novus||Most tracks sextet, with Joshua Redman (tenor sax), Clark Terry and Greg Gisbert (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), Grady Tate (drums); one track septet, with Al Grey (trombone) added|
|1992||Now's the Time||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; quartet, with Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson (trumpet), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1992||Crazy for You||Red Baron||Trio, with Wilbur Bascomb (bass), Kenny Washington (drums)|
|1992||Over the Rainbow||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; mostly quartet, with Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums); also released by Evidence as Naima|
|1992||Single Petal of a Rose||Mapleshade||Some tracks duo, with Elise Wood (flute); some tracks trio or quartet, with Jack Walrath (trumpet), Walter Booker (bass) added|
|1992||After the Morning||DSM||Solo piano; in concert|
|1992||The Missouri Connection||Reservoir||Duo, with Jay McShann (piano, vocals); one track solo piano|
|1992||Blues March: Portrait of Art Blakey||Venus||As New York Rhythm Machine; trio, with Marcus McLaurine (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1992||Moanin': Portrait of Art Blakey||Venus||As New York Rhythm Machine; trio, with Marcus McLaurine (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1993||Beyond Expectations||Reservoir||Trio, with Ray Drummond (bass), Marvin "Smitty" Smith (drums)|
|1993||Lover Man: A Tribute to Billie Holiday||Red Baron||Trio, with Ray Drummond (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1994||Gentle Rain||Sound Hills||Trio, with Walter Booker, (bass) Louis Hayes (drums)|
|1994||Duality||Reservoir||With Peter Leitch (guitar)|
|1994||Akari||Apollon||As New York Unit; quartet, with Marvin "Hannibal" Peterson (trumpet), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1994||In the Mix||Landmark||Quintet, with Vincent Herring (alto sax, soprano sax), Elise Wood (flute), Curtis Lundy (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|1995||Piece for My Peace||Landmark||Some tracks solo piano; one track trio, with Curtis Lundy (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums); one track quintet, with Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring (alto sax) added; most tracks sextet, with Elise Wood (flute) added; one track duo, with Wood (flute)|
|1995||Heart Beats||Milestone||As Keystone Trio; with George Mraz (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums)|
|1997||Newklear Music||Milestone||As Keystone Trio; with George Mraz (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums)|
|1997||Something to Live For: A Billy Strayhorn Songbook||HighNote||Trio, with Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|1997||Nightwind: An Erroll Garner Songbook||HighNote||Trio, with Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|1997||Cry Me a River||Venus||Trio, with Dwayne Burno (bass), Victor Lewis (drums)|
|1997||Trio + Strings||Mapleshade||With Elise Wood (alto flute), Steve Novosel (bass), Ronnie Burrage (drums), Steve Williams (drums), Rick Schmidt (cello), Debbie Baker (viola), Charles Olive and Tom Ginsberg (violin)|
|1998||Impressions of Mary Lou||HighNote||Trio, with Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|1998||Ow!||Paddle Wheel||As New York Unit; quartet, with Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Richard Davis (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|1998*||Hicks Time||Passin' Thru||Solo piano|
|2000||Beautiful Friendship||HiWood||Duo with Elise Wood (flute)|
|2001||Music in the Key of Clark||HighNote||Trio, with Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|2003||Fatha's Day: An Earl Hines Songbook||HighNote||Trio, with Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Cecil Brooks III (drums)|
|2003*||Besame Mucho||IJE||As New York Unit; trio, with Santi Debriano (bass), Tatsuya Nakamura (drums)|
|2005–06||Twogether||HighNote||Most tracks duo, with Frank Morgan (alto sax); some tracks solo piano|
|2006||On the Wings of an Eagle||Chesky||Trio, with Buster Williams (bass), Louis Hayes (drums)|
|2006||I Remember You||HighNote||Solo piano; in concert|
|2006||Sweet Love of Mine||HighNote||Some tracks quartet, with Javon Jackson (tenor sax), Curtis Lundy (bass), Victor Jones (drums); some tracks quintet, with Elise Wood (flute) added; some tracks sextet, with Ray Mantilla (percussion) added|
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