My music series continues with the people who worked in concert with Mary Lou Williams, featured two weeks ago, and how vital these individuals were to creating a vibrant music scene in jazz in Pittsburgh. This also continues to support the question of “why Pittsburgh” to show the many and varied contributions made by these artists.
Earl “Fatha” Hines played with Mary Lou a lot of the time. Born in Duquesne, which is just up river from Pittsburgh, he took up piano playing because he couldn’t play cornet as his father did. The cornet hurt him behind the ears, so Earl had to take up a different instrument. It’s a good thing for jazz history that he did, because it was on the piano where he composed and developed music. He, like Mary Lou, played widely for pay for various audiences in their youth all over Pittsburgh, allowing them to each develop their singular style. They are both given credit for helping to birth the style of bebop during the 1940’s and take jazz to a whole other lever. Or, jazz historian Linda Dahl puts it in her book on Mary Lou, Mourning Glory, “playing and developing jazz before the term became widely used.”
He left Pittsburgh at 22, but always carried his hometown roots with him as he played with everyone in the business: Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong—the list goes on and on. He also owned nightclubs, developed big band combos and helped other musicians develop recordings of their music so they could have some sort of autonomy. Hines represents a change of pace in the early music world in that he had a business sensibility as well as his musician’s temperament—two qualities that don’t often go together.
For me, it is the combination of business acumen and musical talent as an innovator that makes Earl “Fatha” Hines an interesting framework for a potential hero. Oh, and as I was reading about him, I thought his nickname was pronounced as some offhanded way of saying “father” as he was a father of bebop. However it was my own father who corrected me on the pronunciation—highly nasal “Fat-ta,” meant as a name of respect. There are lots of stories about the origins of the nickname, but it certainly must be a corruption of father in some way—the man originated so much in the jazz world, that nothing else really makes sense.