Earl “Fatha” Hines Day

December 28, 1903 – April 22, 1983

A birthday tribute to one of jazz’s greatest pianists

Pianist, leader and songwriter Earl “Fatha” Hines was born December 28, 1903 in Duquesne, Pennsylvania.

Hines originally wanted to play cornet but, due to health problems, he switched to piano, taking classical lessons, playing organ in church, and playing solo piano in Pittsburgh area clubs as a teenager.

His first major job was with Lois Deppe’s Symphonian Serenaders when he was 17, making his recording debut with Deppe in 1923.

Hines moved to Chicago in 1925, becoming a member of Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra and meeting Louis Armstrong.

Even at that early stage, Hines had his own style, often playing ringing octaves with his right hand (which became known as “trumpet style) and breaking up the stride rhythm with his left by taking death (and time) defying breaks that seemed avant-garde at the time, leading the way to more modern styles of jazz.

In 1928 Hines had quite a year, recording a series of stunning piano solos, working and recording with Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, recording innovative performances with Louis Armstrong (including his “A Monday Date,” “West End Blues” and their duet “Weather Bird”), and debuting his big band at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Café on his 25th birthday.

Hines, who became a major influence on such pianists as Art Tatum, Joe Sullivan, Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy among many others, led his big band for 20 years, making many record dates with them along with an occasional solo outing.

After breaking up the orchestra, Earl Hines was a sideman with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars during 1948-51, played regularly in San Francisco (often with dixieland-oriented bands) in the 1950s, and made a major “comeback” in 1964 when a couple of concerts at the Little Theater in New York alerted East Coast critics that he was still in his prime.

During his final 19 years, Hines performed and recorded prolifically, either at the head of a quartet or at special solo concerts, never losing his exciting style or his enthusiasm for playing classic but creative music.

Here is Earl Hines performing a solo piano set in July 1974 from the Montreux Jazz Festival.

-Scott Yanow