What makes one concert stand out from all the others, especially in a group of more than 175 events? First, the music must be first rate played by exceptional musicians. We had that for Jazz in Black and White.”World-renown bassist Milt Hinton came from New York to join forces with two of Boston’s most outstanding players: Ray Santisi on piano and Alan Dawson on drums. Tony Cennamo, of WBUR-FM served as host for the event.
Milt was 80 years old at the time of the concert. In the words of Boston Globe critic Bob Blumenthal “Milt was a bass player and photographer extraordinaire, who has literally played with, and shot, everyone from Art Tatum to Branford Marsalis.”
Milt, alias “The Judge” had been active as a musician for nearly six decades and had performed and recorded with such legendary artists as Erskine Tate, Art Tatum, Jabbo Smith, Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Terry Gibbs, Bobby Hackett, Bob Wilber, Pearl Bailey, Zoot Sims, Buck Clayton and Erroll Garner. He had played several times at the White House. He helped organize an oral project for the National Endowment for the Arts that recorded the memories of dozens of jazz pioneers.
He was also an outstanding photographer. His book Bass Line contains 200 of the more than 37, 000 photographs he recorded during his long career in jazz. According to well-known photographer Herb Snitzer “Milt is very direct, very honest. He doesn’t try to be arty, he tries to be human….Milt is a visual historian with a clear sense of what is happening around him and who he is and he’s documented it.”
Second, there had to be an interesting program. We had that. Milt had agreed to have a conversation with Herb about jazz and black culture in America. As part of the discussion Milt planned to show some of his famous photographs with comments, analysis and sidelights. He showed dozens of photos and talked about the racism he had endured while traveling on the road in the South. He also shared remembrances about some of the famous musicians he knew such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. He revealed that Louis Armstrong kept a valet with him to operate tape players during the night because he couldn’t sleep without music. His Billie Holiday photo shows her near tears as she listened to the playback during her final recording session. It was a fascinating presentation.
Third, to qualify as a memorable concert there had to be some drama. We had that. When I arrived at Gasson Hall at Boston College where the concert was scheduled to take place, the custodian met me in the hall. In spite of several previous conversations, no chairs were set up. ”Not a problem,” he assured me; “there was plenty of time to do that.” However, I suddenly realized that the grand piano was locked solid. The custodian’s face was blank; he didn’t know the combination. He called one of the Jesuit priests who rushed over but could only apologize. Someone called the head of the music department but there was no answer. A security cop came by with a gun in his holster. “Well, why don’t you just shoot it off!” I cried. People were starting to arrive. I was becoming desperate. Paul Broadnax offered to bring in his electronic piano from the car. By some miracle someone arrived from the music department to attend the concert. She provided the home phone number of the department secretary who read me the combination of the lock. Lesson learned – any concert is one stop away from disaster.
Fourth, there had to be a personal component to make a concert stand out as the most memorable. We had that. I picked up Milt and his wife Mona at the airport. I had arranged for a Berklee student to follow me in his car to bring Milt’s large bass. Milt invited us both up to his hotel room, sent out for room service, and spent several hours with us sharing anecdotes about his years on the road. It was a fascinating afternoon.
Fifth, there had to be an emotional component. We had that. At the end of the concert I handed Milt a check for the evening. He refused to take it. He said I was working so hard to keep jazz alive that he wanted to donate his fee to Highland Jazz. We argued about it and finally I agreed to write him a smaller check. But I had a plan. I wrote to Mona and asked her to send me a picture of their home in Queens. He had talked a lot about his house when we chatted at the hotel and it was obvious that his home meant a lot to him. I used the photograph to do a watercolor painting. Mona said he loved it and hung it over the mantel in their living room. I had been able to thank him in a special way.
For all these reasons Jazz in Black and White stands out as the most memorable concert I ever produced.
Where are they now?
Milt Hinton died in 2000. There is an excellent web site about him that was created by David Berger and Holly Maxson. David worked on film and book projects with Milt.
Here are two excellent videos of Milt. In the first Milt plays “Old Man Time,” a favorite tune of his and the final tune at the Jazz in Black and White concert.
The second video is from the “Tonight Show” with Doc Severinsen featuring Milt’s signature slapping technique during the tune “Indiana.”