Roland Hanna: Interview 1
Roland Hanna: Interview 2

Roland Hanna (1932–2002)

Roland Pembroke Hanna was born in Detroit and studied classical piano from age 11 but was strongly interested in jazz under the influence of his friend and fellow pianist Tommy Flanagan.

Hanna grew up in the thriving Detroit bebop scene of the late 1940s and, after US Army service, played with trumpeter Thad Jones. He studied music at the Eastman School, then from 1955 to 1960 at the Juilliard School in New York. During that time, he joined Benny Goodman for a European tour and Coleman Hawkins in television appearances, and played intermittently with Charles Mingus, recording impressively on the Mingus Dynasty album (1959).

In the 1960s he accompanied vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Al Hibbler, led his own trio and worked again with Hawkins and Jones. From 1966 to 1974 he played and recorded with the important jazz orchestra co-led by Jones and drummer Mel Lewis, and then led his New York Jazz Quartet for some years. He also recorded in the 1980s with the Mingus memorial group, Mingus Dynasty and, in the 1990s, played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, his own trio and in solo concerts.

An outstanding, very sophisticated pianist, he drew on the whole history of jazz styles and on his classical knowledge and technique in his playing and composing. Hanna was knighted by the Liberian government in 1970 for his efforts in raising funds for the education of Liberian children through his performances.

Biography by Roger Cotterrell.


The two-handed pianist

Interviewed in 1971 by Les Tomkins, Roland Hanna spoke about pianists such as Tatum and Waller who influenced him, his love of Chopin, the instinctive greatness of Erroll Garner, and the development of jazz.


Max Harris

Roland Hanna: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1971
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Forename Roland
Surname Hanna
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

My musical life started very early. I was having lessons when I was two years old, but I actually began trying to play when I was five. I had some excellent piano teachers in Detroit. During high school I studied ‘cello with a member of the Detroit Symphony for about five years, in order to keep my musical education active. After doing my Army service, I went right into Juilliard. So there’s been ups and downs, decisions to make and whatnot, but it’s all been a straightforward thing, inasmuch as I made the decision long ago to be a complete musician.

From an early age, my interest always lay in how music made me feel, whether it was jazz, classical or what—whether it was jazz, classical or whatever. As I remember, in my young days I listened mostly to Artur Rachmaninoff, before he died in 1943. Also pianists of the calibre of Fats Waller, Meade Lux Lewis and James P. Johnson—long before the ideas of these fellows had passed into oblivion, as seems to be the case now. Thus I got kind of grass roots, not only in jazz but in classical music.  And I noticed that Artur Rubinstein, Jose Iturbi and Vladimir Horowitz all seemed to have the same touch as Fats Waller or Art Tatum.

That sense of building to a greatness was in all of them; they had the whole scope of pianistics. I believe this is the way the piano was meant to be played—the whole instrument. When. Rachmaninoff was playing, he wasn’t tinkling away constantly in the middle register. He wasn’t always duplicating his right hand with his left hand; he was trying to make variations and accompaniment to his music. Whether it was monophonic or polyphonic, at all times he used all ten fingers—and sometimes a foot, if he had to! In order to achieve complete technical proficiency—it’s hard to say musical proficiency—one has to really study all of the Chopin Etudes. Of course, one has to go into Czerny, some of the Liszt works and so on.

But for any pianist who has gone past ten years, it’s the Chopin Etudes I recommend devoting a lot of time to. Once he has mastered some of them, there isn’t much that he’s not equipped to do. Not to say that Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven don’t present formidable study projects in themselves. Oh yes, one can spend as many years working with them, but for sheer out–and–out strength and fortitude at the piano, I believe Chopin to be the ideal teacher. If he meant so much to Artur Rubinstein, that’s good enough for me.

As for Errol1 Garner—certainly I have as much admiration for him as I do for Tatum and Waller. When the sound of the piano is such that it speaks with authority, then I feel that this is the correct way to approach it. Although Errol1 Garner had no formal training and all that, he got a great deal of it by listening to a lot of people and learning the hard way how to get this approach. By being such an instinctive player, he developed what other players take years of study to achieve. There are not many people who have this natural ability.

The reason for Garner’s tremendous sound is that he modelled himself after Art Tatum and Fats Waller. They in turn had people like Rubinstein and Horowitz as their models.

In addition to that, they followed all the classic left–hand jazz pianists who came before them. So it all ties into one long thread.

Many pianists today seem to be at a loss for what to do—it’s been that way for about fifteen years. However, now, with the advent of musicians like Herbie Hancock, we’re coming back round to real, two–handed piano players. They are still few and far between, but we have such excellent craftsmen as Jaki Byard, Chick Corea, Stanley Cowell and Richard Wyands.

Actually, when anyone sits down to the piano, he should consider it as an orchestra—because that’s what it’s like. This is so important. If a pianist has difficulty playing the eighty–eight notes, what about the pianos that have the four–note extensions on either end? They go up to E flat in the treble and down to F in the left hand. You’d never be able to hear those if you were restricted to the middle of the keyboard.

Another very important aspect of playing the piano is being able to accompany as well as taking a solo. A person must develop such an ear that he can sense what’s going to come up; you can only get that by being an accompanist. When I worked with Sarah Vaughan in the early ‘sixties, it was her infallible intonation that enabled me to know what she was about to do. Then I was greatly helped by being with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Percy Brice—both exceptional musicians who listen quite a bit. To me, Sarah is the best female singer in the business, and my regard for her was so high, I listened to every note she sang and I tried to put the complementary sound to it. By trying as hard as I did, the necessary sensitivity developed in me. When you’re accompanying, there can be no competitive thoughts at all; you have to be completely open and free of inhibitions.

A great deal of my arranging has been for the singers I’ve worked with. I did about five or six for Sarah, including “Stormy Weather”, “Great Day” and “Out Of This World”. When I was with Della Reese for a while, I did some for her. I’ve been writing a book for a new young singer named Joan Madonna; you may not know of her yet, but I‘m sure you will.

Another young singer I’ve written for is Lisa Scott, who has played in and around New York. It helps people who are getting started to have their own book, in order to get into the music business in as professional a way as possible. .It’s good for me, too, to get this kind of experience.

Avant garde jazz? I don’t really know what it is. They call it ‘free’, but to be honest, I don’t hear much freedom in it. What I consider to be freedom is a complete knowledge of harmonies and keyboard and an ability to move at will within this realm. And I don’t hear that in the avant garde music. What I do hear are a lot of combinations that have little or no meaning. It’s not that I’m behind the times, I’m sure; the music just has no relationship to anything that has gone before. This is only my opinion. And I would rather not blame someone like Cecil Taylor. His piano playing is very exciting sometimes, but the music itself is on a plane that I can’t relate to. So I don’t know whether to say it’s bad or it’s good. It’s certainly not the kind of freedom that I know about. Pianists like Art Tatum are really free—because they have a mastery of the instrument.

Freedom is also being able to move from one style to another, and that I don’t seem to hear in these people’s playing. They fall into the same kind of clichés that I heard years before from the lesser players of that era called bebop—and disliked as much then.

If you talk about real avant garde, you must mention one of the greatest musicians who ever lived—Coleman Hawkins. He was much more avant garde than any of these young people today. The fact is that the man spanned four decades, and was able to do something fresh and new with each one. I don’t recall anybody else being able to play completely solo on the saxophone and make it seem like several instruments. And the tremendous sound that he had! He paved the way for so many others to follow.

But I don’t agree with the critics of jazz who say it hasn’t progressed in latter years. It has made progress by its inclusion of a variety of styles and forms of music. It grows ever more complex and yet closer to simplicity. You find somebody like Gary McFarland writing a symphony using all the idioms of today. His work “America The Beautful”, although it is a direct parallel with George Gershwin’s ideas, goes much further in contemporary terms. What about Miles Davis? His group is very different from the days when Miles and Charlie Parker played together; it’s developed fantastically. Even if Miles plays in a ‘free’ vein, there’s always some frame of reference in his music. I have to admit that a player such as Ornette Coleman also has a frame of reference, but his approach has not concerned itself with a theme and variations as such as with structural variations.

When any so–called critic said that jazz as a music form has not developed, I would have to ask him what kind of jazz he was talking about. There are so many different kinds. For instance, if he means James Brown jazz, certainly that has progressed too. The kind of music James Brown came from is what used to be called rhythm and blues; it has introduced many more complex rhythms than it had when I was very young—and I believe I’m no older than James Brown. And, in turn, these rhythms have been put to use in many out–and–out jazz groups. That’s progress all the way––just as much as Stravinsky coming along after Richard Strauss and doing something that seems a little different. With so many different people playing the music, there just has to be progress.

 Copyright © 1971 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.