Father of Modern Jazz Piano Earl Hines: Interview with Sig Mohr

Earl “Fatha” Hines, often called 'the father of modern jazz piano,' recalls his innovative years with Louis Armstrong with Siegfried H. Mohr in an interview first published in Le Jazz Hot magazine in Paris in the 70s. Mr. Mohr is an expert in historical piano styles.

Note from the author: “This is my interview with Earl Hines for the 70th anniversary special edition of “Jazz Hot” magazine (Paris). I presented this to Louis Armstrong onstage at his 70th birthday concert in Los Angeles, and then I had it published by “Coda” (Canada) in English.”  

Mohr: Mr. Hines, I have been asked to interview you about the era in the twenties when you played with Louis Armstrong and then about the later years with the Louis Armstrong All Star Band.  

Hines Now, Armstrong and I have always been buddies from the beginning, we went into the Sunset Cafe together with Carroll Dickerson's Orchestra, see?   This was right across 35th Street from the Plantation Cafe where King Oliver was playing. With Darnell Howard on clarinet and alto, Honoré Dutrey on trombone and Tubby Hall on drums this band won quick recognition in Chicago. And then there's not too much to say other than what we were doing in the Club just as any other ordinary band. We went into the Sunset in the spring of 1926. Finally, they let Carroll Dickerson go as a leader in 1927 and they gave Louis the band and made me the director of the band. Then Louis and I ran around together. We were inseparable you know, the whole time we were in the Sunset. So, there's nothing much there's to be said about this time with Louis other than we were just like two brothers.  

Mohr: Was it during this time that you started to make the legendary recordings with Louis, thus creating a new milestone in music because it was for the first time—it seems to me—that the individual performer became very important?  

Hines Yes, Louis and I recorded in small-group recording sessions, one of which was called Johnny Dodds' Black Bottom Stompers for Vocalion in April, 1927, doing Wild Man Blues and Melancholy. A little while later, still in ‘27, we recorded under the name of Louis Armstrong and His Stompers. These were my first recordings with Armstrong.  

Mohr: Concerning your then-famous 'trumpet piano style' which was strongly featured in those Armstrong dates how did you evolve that?  

Hines Well, you see, it so happens that a lot of people don't tell the truth about it but coming from me, my father played cornet and my mother played organ and I wanted to play cornet but at that time they didn't have this system of non-pressure so I picked the doggone thing up and blew it and it used to hurt me behind my ears; so when I learned piano after I studied classics in piano and then decided to go into the rhythm side of music I said, well, what I wanted to do on trumpet the way I wanted to play 'cornet' at that time I just played it on the piano, you see. Now, there were such guys as Joe Smith, Gus Aikens—very good trumpet players at that time that I decided to copy some of my style off of them. Now, anybody who ever heard of Joe Smith—he had a very smooth style of playing and so did Gus Aiken. Joe Smith was with the Fletcher Henderson Band and Gus Aiken was with the Tennessee Ten Band. This is where I actually got my style and then with what I played on the piano the things I learned I certainly got in there in my style, you know. When I got to Chicago I was amazed to find a trumpet player like Louis who was playing the things that I wanted to play. You see, so we were actually playing the same things, the same style, only he was playing on trumpet, I was playing on piano. So we used to copy from each other—if he used to make a run I'd steal it and say thank you and I'd make one and he'd steal it and say thank you and those kind of things. That's how my trumpet style piano came. So many people think that I've got it from Armstrong but l didn't! I was playing this way before I met Louis because when I made the records with him I was already playing like this. The way they hear me. So, many people have misunderstood that, not that I feel envious toward Louis—I don't mean it that way I just want to let people know that there are other people that were involved in my getting that particular style: Joe Smith and Gus Aiken—they played the way I'd have wanted to play trumpet and it was similar to the things that Louis was playing—you see—but these were unknowns.  

Mohr: The repertoire you played with Armstrong, was that a mutual thing that was already established? Had you both played the numbers before or did you work them out at the time you played together?  

Hines Well, you see, they were nothing but standard tunes with the exception of his originals and we used to do the "head arrangements" at that time and by being advanced on your own instruments all you had to do is tell a guy "you play this" and "you play this" and so forth and first thing you know we had an arrangement. But these are all standard things that we were playing, just everybody played their own style. And that's what that was as far as Louis is concerned. Louis and I, we just enjoyed each other's work. Louis was a happy-go-lucky fellow at that time and so was I and we ran around together. I couldn't start to tell you the things we did together. And even today, he called me when I was in New Orleans and I talked almost a half hour on the phone. We're the best of pals. But the styles we had—it just so happened that I was playing the things similar to the things he was playing—not the same things but similar to it. But the idea was, it was "trumpet style" - in other words, I used octaves to be heard—I used octaves like this and played it like a trumpet would play it rather than a whole lot of fingering like a lot of other guys were doing years ago. They were playing the ragtime stuff, I wasn't doing that. I was playing the fingering but didn't do it when I was in the band because I called myself another instrument similar to what they had—in other words I used to team up with the other instruments with my right hand, see? So that's the reason why they call it that.  
Mohr: And this, conversely, must have bad a strong influence on Louis' playing also.  

Hines Well, you'd have to get that from Armstrong. I'd like for Louis Armstrong to elaborate on that himself, because I can't speak for Louis.  

Mohr: Were there any idols that you might have had on your instrument at that time or were you breaking away from the tradition of piano playing up until that time?  

Hines Well, you see, I actually didn't have any idols because in studying classical piano, as I said before, I happened to be taken to a couple of night clubs in Pittsburgh by my relatives, cousins, during the time when I majored in music in school and it was there that I heard an unusual guy named Toodle-oo—that's what they called him—and this rhythm was being played in this night club. Well, after all, the best danceable, best likeable music I found during those days was in night life. Because most people who were in the Theaters were playing what they called Theater Music but the night clubs were playing the kind of music that lasted because it had the blues effect, it had the thing the people were looking for that went to night clubs. People that were out late at night and wanted someplace to go and had someplace to tap their foot and listen to something or some of them beautiful ballads during those days. This is where I got the idea. Now I didn't hear anybody. Fats Waller, I didn't hear him until I got to Chicago; I heard James P. (Johnson) in Pittsburgh; Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake actually were the first two guys that I heard that actually didn't play ragtime—they played it, but then they concentrated on ballad style, because Luckey Roberts wrote music and so did Eubie Blake. So naturally they had a different style themselves—although they could play the ragtime—but they were more commercial because they were ragging these things now, there was no style to be gained from them. Actually, I came to this style all by myself. Now, when I came in contact with Fats Waller later in the 20s, why, he was playing the style that I had in mind and his was similar to what I was doing.   The reason why the youngsters grabbed my style was because of the trumpet style. Fats wasn't playing trumpet style. He was playing some beautiful chords and beautiful things, but everybody was using my style so-to-speak because there were so many big bands cropping up and that was the only way to be heard because we didn't have amplification like we have now. So we had to use those octaves to cut through the band. This is why most of those guys got my style because I had that night-club feeling, I had that beat that they use in the night club with my trumpet style and I played dances by myself a lot of times, without rhythm section and I still do it. I still can play that way. It was a danceable thing, it wasn't ragtime and the people would dance and were having a ball and nobody but me—my left hand was my bass drum and my bass, you see?  

Mohr: Some of your favorite compositions like Rosetta and My Monday Date and others, when did those come to be created, was that in the Armstrong era in Chicago or later?  

Hines Rosetta was later. Monday Date was with Armstrong. That happened when Louis used to stand me up and we used to go someplace and Louis said "I'll see you tomorrow about 11" and I said "allrlght!" and I'd miss him and something happened and I asked Louis "what happened?" "I don't know, I got turned around!" so I used to say: "Don't forget our Monday Date that you promised me last Tuesday!" That's how it came up in a gag. Then there came up a recording session and we gave it the name Monday Date. Like I also did Child-disordered Brain and also 57 Varieties. They were putting out a new piano that was electrified and they were trying to advertise it and I just sit down there and call myself "working out the piano" getting all I could get out of it for the people to find out whether this type of piano would be profitable—would it sell? —so I just played. And we just called it "Child-disordered Brain" because so many things went on then. I never played it again, I just was "working the piano out". On the other side was Body And Soul.   Then when Louis and I were resting I was just fooling around on the piano to keep my fingers warm—it was the winter time in Chicago—and so I was playing and I don't know that they are back there recording this and one dame came out and quietly said "finish it!" and I said "what?" and just finished it. After the record stopped I said "what happened? What's going on?" He says: "We just recorded that!" So then they waited ‘til the wax cooled—that's when we had hot wax—you had to wait for it to cool before you played it again—so I said, "well, what are you gonna do with that?" They said: "What shall we call it?" and they started a discussion back there, so finally they said: "Well, your name is Hines and 57 Varieties of Hines' Pickle Factory!" Well, I never played that again!  

Mohr: Yes, that 57 Varieties is really , beautiful rhythm number, I have it in my collection. Did you just play this off the cuff as a sort of exercise?  

Hines Yes. And at that time I had nothing on my mind but music.  

Mohr: What about the musical elements concerning harmony in your playing. What predominant elements were used at that time, was it the "seventh chord" that was used then?  

Hines Well, the funny thing about it, the seventh chord came in while we were at the Sunset. And we thought that was unusual to make a seventh!  

Mohr: Was that a discovery of yours?  

Hines Oh, no, no, no! This came in through arrangements. I really can't pinpoint who did it. Some stock arrangements came out with this seventh chord in it. We thought it was a little unusual then too. Well, that's about as far as it went, the seventh chord and then after that seventh chord the band started to get arrangers and they then started venturing out and they came into all different ideas, different conceptions of chords and stretching out and voicing the band, putting the proper instrument into the right place. Now, Ellington at that time was making unusual chords, now whether his were seventh chords or not I don't know. But his inversions of his instruments—he would use a baritone playing a top note and use an alto playing a bottom note—would give you that weird sound. The sound was very different, very creative. This is Duke's life!  

Mohr: Before leaving the Armstrong era in Chicago, was there any other significant technical aspect besides the seventh chord harmony that came into play at that time?  

Hines Well, the only thing that I could think of was the fact that Louis brought into prominence that high note. Being able to play it in that upper register there was nobody thinking about that at that time, see? And Louis got to the place where he would develop a beautiful tone, he insisted on having a good tone and being able to play with an open horn and not being obnoxious to other people by being open. At the same time he developed the idea of being able to hit those high notes very smoothly. In fact, during those days we almost had jam-sessions every time we'd meet. Not for the enviousness but for the learning. So, Louis developed this high note, being able to play up there and with a lot of soul and a lot of feeling and I think that was the beginning of the trumpet going as high as it can go.  

Mohr: Was that also the era that you developed your famous trills?  

Hines Well, I used to use the tremolo, because trying to play a trumpet player's things I wanted to hold and I would use sustaining pedal to hold it but reduced the weight of the note, the note would get thinner. And this way (using the tremolo) I was able to hold it.  

Mohr: Did you at that time already use the tenth in the left hand?  

Hines ah, yes, I learned that in Pittsburgh from a fellow named Jim Fellman and he used to stretch a tenth. And he is another guy from whom I learned how to play piano without a rhythm section. He could play the smoothest piano, his hands all chords and rhythm and I learned it from him. He used to like Mail Pouch (chewing tobacco) and beer, so, I was making $15 a week and gave him Mail Pouch and beer and he helped me develop my left hand. And then there was another guy by the name of Johnny Watters with a terrific right hand, stretching twelve keys on his right hand. He used to play a melody in his middle fingers and harmony with his other fingers in the right hand. Now, I couldn't do that but I learned how to make a tenth in my right hand from watching him, so that's where I got mine from there. And I developed as I went along, as my hands grew.  

Mohr: Did your classical training also help you in achieving this technical perfection?  

Hines Yes. In my classical training you "jump" the chords but the more advanced books after I became a teenager had the tenths for some people who naturally had big hands. My hands happened to be in between.  

Mohr: Did you at that time hear Willie 'the Lion' Smith?  

Hines I heard him a few years later when I went to New York. I never heard him before that. But I heard of different piano players around New York—James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith—but records weren't plentiful then. Didn't hear him until I went to New York and we made this club with Luckey Roberts where he was working and he used to try to scare all piano players: "I'm the Lion" and would roar like a lion to try to scare you. I never was a man to challenge anybody! I went to listen to learn. Fats and I used to play with each other; Art Tatum and I used to sit down and we used to play understandable piano, we used to sit there and play for a couple of hours—just us—playing. We had a Club in Chicago and Tatum was working downstairs and he'd come back up to our club and we used to have a thing after 4 o'clock called the "House of Blue Lights" and he'd sit there all night and when I used to come down to check with my secretary on my beverages and what have you at 11 o'clock he'd still be in there with bottles of beer and stuff he'd bought all night - I left the waiter to wait on him and he is paying the whole bill, nobody's paying but him, Art Tatum, but he just loved to play! He was the greatest soloist, I don't think there'll ever be another one—that a rhythm section was in his way, 'cause he did as much with his left hand as he did with his right. But he never knew what he was gonna do. I don't believe the man knew how much piano he could play, he'd just make impossible things!  

Mohr: I knew that you wrote Blues for Tatum, recorded on one of your albums from which I gather that Tatum is very high in your books.  

Hines Oh, yes. He is a man who didn't go around taking advantage of people. He felt very fortunate to be able to play and he didn't realize how much piano he could play, that's the first thing to start off with! And this is what made him so high in my calendar.  

Mohr: Then in 1928, while Louis Armstrong and Zutty Singleton joined Carroll Dickerson's Orchestra once again, now playing at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom you yourself joined Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club and recorded extensively again?  

Hines Yes, besides recording with Jimmie Noone I also recorded with Armstrong under a variety of titles such as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, Then I went to New York to make a series of QRS piano solos and while at New York during that time I was contacted by Lucky Millinder from Chicago who was desperately trying to organize a band to open a new Chicago night club, the Grand Terrace. He phoned me and asked me whether I had a band and I told him that I did. He asked me whether I would come out to Chicago and I said yes. I had rehearsed with a small group before leaving for New York. I then went to Chicago and opened up the Grand Terrace with an upright piano on December 28, 1928, and stayed there for twelve years.  

Mohr: What ever made you go to Chicago from Pittsburgh?  

Hines Working with Lois Deppe at the Liederhaus in Pittsburgh for $15 a week. Lois Deppe had been in show business for many years and he is the one who found me. Deppe moved to Chicago and sent for me after he settled there, and I started to play at an after hours place from 12 to 6 called Elite, No.2 and I was always tall and thin and all of the show people used to go there after hours and they got out an article there on "this skinny kid from Pittsburgh". So then I had a guy Lovie Taylor—one of the world's greatest tap dancers at that time. And he heard me in Pittsburgh and when I came to Chicago he was like my publicity man, Teddy Weatherford—another piano player—had his gang. And Lovie Taylor had his gang with me, and then people heard me. Then Carroll Dickerson asked me whether I wanted to join a big band after he came down to hear me and he had a big band at the Entertainers' Cabaret. I joined him at the Entertainers' and we then went on a forty-two-week tour of the Pantages vaudevi1le circuit which took us to California and back. We went into the Sunset Cafe after that tour and got Louis to join us as I told you before.  

Mohr: Now I would like to hear more about the Armstrong All-Stars. When was the band formed?  

Hines It was formed before I joined them and Glaser came and got me in '48 and I stayed with them for three years from 1948 to 1951. They were going to make a trip to Europe with Panassie and he wanted me to come over with Armstrong. So I had a club in Chicago and Glaser flew out there to talk to me about it. So I talked to him and said I might go with Louis.  

Mohr: What were the major highlights of that band?  

Hines Well, they were all experienced musicians. Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Arvell Shaw, Big Sid Catlett, Louis and myself. They were all finished musicians You had nothing to worry about. All you had to do was start a tune, they all knew it. Everybody knew his position. Barney knew what register to play in, Jack knew what the trombone's parts were and we all knew all the tunes.  

Mohr: Were there a lot of arrangements you played, did you have an arranger?  

Hines Oh, no, no, no, no! As I said before, everybody knew their position. Louis carried the melody.  

Mohr: And you took care of the rhythm and how to hold everything together!  

Hines That's right! We also had a good rhythm section. When you have a man like Big Sid Catlett who is strictly a rhythm drummer you're just gonna have a ball!  

Mohr: Was there anything harmonically new added?  

Hines No. The big band went out of style and they were not doing so hot. That's why we all got together after Jack Teagarden conceived the idea to take us bandleaders who had this experience of being bandleaders plus being musicians so we had made ourselves a little reputation and Louis' band wasn't doing anything and mine wasn't doing anything and Jack's wasn't doing anything—so we decided this organization would be—when you cut it down to all of the bandleaders—which they called All-Stars—something for the public to look at. So that's what started that. We went into a lot of places where they used to have big bands but we were so expensive because we all charged so much money, so this is where Glaser in some of the places lost money.  

Mohr: Did the All-Stars get disbanded for economic reasons?  

Hines No, we all quit individually. I only joined the band for a limited duration. And after three years I decided to have my own group again. The same with Jack.