James Johnson, who runs the Afro-American Institute of Music in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, said it would be tough for any jazz piano player to go through life without being influenced — consciously or not — by the legacy of Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Born in 1903 in Duquesne, Earl Kenneth Hines went on to become one of the most influential jazz pianists of the genre.
He will be formally recognized by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission with a historical marker in his hometown.
“It would be tough to get around him, period, as a piano player,” Johnson said. “Piano was a lot more of the ragtime type of tradition when he started. Earl was with Louis Armstrong for a long time in Chicago, and eventually he began imitating trumpet lines on the piano.”
“He’s one of the original jazz legends from Pittsburgh,” said Nelson Harrison, a Pittsburgh native, jazz musician, composer and clinical psychologist. “Every time a Pittsburgher hit the scene, their particular style formed a whole new approach to the music. And their dependents became very famous.”
Harrison said Hines’ signature piano style was forged during his time with Armstrong.
“He was playing with the strongest trumpet player of the day,” Harrison said. “And he would say, ‘They need to hear my notes, too,’ so he would play ‘trumpet-style’ piano using octaves, so he could be heard better.”
Harrison got a chance to perform with Hines in 1975, when he played a weeklong engagement at Heinz Hall with Billy Eckstine’s orchestra.
Harrison said Hines is “essentially the father of the modern school of jazz piano.”
“Nobody disputes that the greatest jazz pianist of all time was Art Tatum,” Harrison said. “But his idol was ‘Fatha’ Hines.”
Below, hear Hines’s distinctive piano style during a solo performance at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival:
Hines’s bands in the 1940s helped launch the careers of jazz mainstays like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and he worked extensively with other Pittsburgh jazz luminaries like Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn.
Jazz legend Duke Ellington once said that “the seeds of bop were in Earl Hines’s piano style.” Hines even fronted Ellington’s orchestra briefly, when Ellington became ill in 1944.
Marva Josie of Clairton was Hines’s lead singer between the 1960s and ’70s. During their time sharing the stage, they performed for two U.S. presidents.
“He deserves it,” Josie said of the historical marker. “I was on the road with him for 16 years and he overwhelmed people, playing every night. He was just a very happy person.”
Josie said she was immediately drawn to Hines’s creativity.
“I wasn’t his age, but I’d heard so many other musicians talk about his approach to playing,” she said. “The way he was playing taught me how to ‘sing through’ the rest of the band. He gave us a chance to be creative on the spot, and it was wonderful. A lot of times when you work with musicians, that doesn’t happen.”
In Gillespie’s book, “To Be or Not to Bop,” he encapsulates Hines’s massive influence extremely well.
“He changed the style of the piano,” Gillespie wrote. “You can find the roots of Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, all the guys who came after that. If it hadn’t been for Earl Hines blazing the path for the next generation to come, it’s no telling where or how they would be playing now. There were individual variations but the style of … the modern piano came from Earl Hines.”