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Milt Hinton: Age 90
December 19, 2000
Old Age
Milt Hilton

Milton John Hinton
 

 

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OBITUARY

Jazz Bassist 'Judge' Hinton Dies

By LUKAS I. ALPERT, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Milt Hinton, a jazz bassist and photographer known as ``The Judge'' by the jazz greats he worked with and photographed during a 70-year career, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Hinton died at a hospital in Queens after battling an extended illness, his longtime friend and collaborator David Berger said.

Considered the dean of bass players, Hinton performed with almost every luminary of jazz and popular music, from Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Paul McCartney.

Hinton also documented his world with a camera, compiling close to 60,000 negatives depicting hundreds of jazz artists and popular musicians on the road, in the studio, backstage and at parties. His photos have been exhibited around the world.

But it is the film footage he and his wife, Mona, shot as photographer Art Kane gathered jazz and blues greats in 1959 for a picture - known today as ``A Great Day in Harlem'' - that may be his most recognizable work.

``I didn't even remember having it until we started going through all the pictures in the garage'' 20 years later, he once told The Associated Press. ``I had just gotten this camera and brought it to Harlem that day to try out. I just wanted to take some pictures of my friends.''

Born June 23, 1910, in Vicksburg, Miss., he moved as a child to Chicago, where he was inspired to play music after seeing an orchestra performance during a silent movie. During that performance, he saw a young Louis Armstrong and Erskine Tate perform.

Hinton began his musical career playing the violin, but switched to bass because he said he could find more work.

After years of playing in and around Chicago as a free-lance musician, Hinton joined Cab Calloway's band in 1936. During his 15-year stint with Calloway, Hinton was also featured on dozens of recordings with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday, among others.

When Hinton left Calloway's band in the early 1950s, he moved to New York and continued to work as a studio musician. For the next 20 years he played on thousands of jazz and popular music albums, jingles and film soundtracks.

Hinton was humble in his role as an accompanist, once saying, ``It's necessary that you have enough humility to make somebody else sound good.''

Hinton earned the nickname ``The Judge'' from a joke he told repeatedly during his days performing with Calloway.

The nickname later grew to include his outstanding ability to keep time and be on time.

``I was always on time, ready to go. People would say, better be on time because `The Judge' is going to be there,'' he said.

Hinton's collection of photographs has been featured in two books, ``Bass Line: The Stories and Photographs of Milt Hinton'' and ``OverTime: The Jazz Photographs of Milt Hinton,'' as well as in dozens of magazines and newspapers.

Hinton received eight honorary doctorates, a ``Eubie'' award from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, as well as a Living Treasure award from the Smithsonian Museum.

Hinton is survived by his wife, Mona, a daughter and granddaughter.

   
     

NY TIMES

Milt Hinton, Dean of Jazz Bassists, Is Dead at 90

By PETER KEEPNEWS

Milt Hinton, one of the most recorded musicians of all time and the dean of American bass players, died on Tuesday at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens. He was 90 and lived in St. Alban's, Queens.

One of the first great bass soloists in jazz, he began his career when the string bass was just replacing the tuba in jazz bands and remained as one of the most sought-after jazz musicians more than seven decades later.

Mr. Hinton's high standards, superb intonation and impeccable timing made him a favorite accompanist for some of the biggest names in jazz and for a wide range of performers outside jazz. His comment that he had made "more records than anybody" was not a boast but a simple observation, and no one has disputed it.

Estimates how many records on which Mr. Hinton played range from 600 to well over 1,000. The list of artists he worked with begins with Cab Calloway, with whom he spent 15 years, and includes instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman; and singers like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby.

Mr. Hinton's big round bass tones can also be heard on early rock 'n' roll hits by the Drifters and the Coasters and easy-listening albums by André Kostelanetz and Guy Lombardo. Musicians valued Mr. Hinton not just for musicianship and versatility but also for his easygoing nature and his professionalism. He earned his nickname, the Judge, because he would invariably be the first to arrive at a recording session and the other musicians took to greeting him when they showed up with the punch line of an old joke, "Well, good morning, Judge!"

A Technique for Slap Bass

Mr. Hinton was among the last acknowledged masters of the exaggerated pizzicato technique known as slap bass, in which the strings are pulled back at high tension and released suddenly. But his slap technique was more fluid than that of predecessors like Pops Foster, and he had a greater technical arsenal. Mr. Hinton's bowing technique was considered superior to that of any jazz bassist before him and those of most who came after him.

"The bass is a service instrument," he once said. "The word `base' means support, foundation. If you put up a building, the foundation must be steady and strong. I must identify the chord for everyone, and only after that can I play the other notes. You learn to have a lot of humility. You must be content in the background, knowing you're holding the whole thing together."

He was devoted to helping younger musicians carry on the jazz tradition. He taught jazz courses at Hunter College and Baruch College in the 1970's and 80's. In 1980 he established the Milton J. Hinton Scholarship Fund for young bassists.

For six decades he also actively pursued a hobby that virtually qualified as a second career: photography. Shortly after he received a $25 Argus camera as a birthday present in 1935, he began taking candid shots of the musicians he worked with. "I wanted to show them the way they are," he said. "Everyone sees musicians up on a stage, but I wanted to show them asleep in a bus or in a railroad station or listening intently to a playback."

He graduated from the Argus to a Leica and became almost obsessive about documenting the jazz life. His photographs also documented changes in American society, from the days when black musicians traveling in the South ate at "colored only" restaurants to the days when racially integrated bands were more the rule than the exception.

Mr. Hinton put on several photo exhibitions and published two books of photographs and reminiscences, "Bass Line" (1988) and "Over Time" (1991). Both books were written with David G. Berger, a Temple University professor who spent years helping him catalog his photographs.

Milton John Hinton was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on June 23, 1910. His parents separated when he was an infant; his mother soon moved to Chicago and sent for her mother and her son when he was 9. Four years later, with his mother's encouragement, he began studying the violin.

At Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago, he played violin in the orchestra and tuba in the marching band. He later attended Crane Junior College and Northwestern University briefly before leaving to pursue a career in music.

Mr. Hinton taught himself to play the string bass in 1929 because opportunities for violinists were limited: big movie-theater orchestras were being phased out with silent films, and symphony orchestras were not yet hospitable to black musicians. The bass was in its infancy as a jazz instrument, with the tuba still providing the base line for the ensemble melody and solo improvisations in many bands. Mr. Hinton's technique stood him in good stead.

"Studying the violin gave me the ability to play melody on the bass, and it also gave me a great deal of dexterity," he said. "All the guys I heard used their arms to slap, but I developed a way to slap with my wrists."

He was soon working around Chicago with the bands of Eddie South, Erskine Tate and other stars. He was at a Chicago nightclub, the Three Deuces, with a group led by the drummer Zutty Singleton in 1936 when Cab Calloway offered him a job. Calloway, already one of the biggest stars in jazz, was on his way back to New York from Hollywood. His bassist, Al Morgan, had abruptly left and Calloway hired Mr. Hinton just a few hours before the band's train was to leave Chicago. Mr. Hinton recalled years later that Calloway had told him he planned to "find him a good bass player" once the band got to New York. Instead, Mr. Hinton remained with Calloway for 15 years.

"Calloway was my musical father," Mr. Hinton said. "He was so kind to me, and he gave me the opportunity to grow." Mr. Hinton was one of the first jazz bassists to be featured on records as a soloist. The Calloway band's recordings of "Pluckin' the Bass" in 1939 and "Ebony Silhouette" in 1941 were showcases for Mr. Hinton. Along with similar recordings made by Duke Ellington's orchestra, then featuring Jimmy Blanton, they were, as the jazz historian Gunther Schuller said, "pioneer efforts, unrivaled at the time."

As big bands began to fall out of fashion in the late 1940's, Calloway eventually scaled his big band down to a small combo, retaining Mr. Hinton as his bassist, and broke that band up for good in 1951. For the first time in 15 years, Mr. Hinton, who by now had a wife and daughter to support, was out of work.

Helping Hand From Jackie Gleason

That did not last long. After a brief period of scuffling, he began to get freelance work at New York nightclubs. He spent two months with Count Basie in early 1953 and that summer joined Armstrong's sextet for a seven-month engagement.

He also became one of the first black musicians to gain entry into the New York recording studios, largely thanks to Jackie Gleason, whom Mr. Hinton had known since his days as a nightclub comedian and who was then fronting an orchestra that put out mood-music albums .

"One day on a street corner, I ran into Jackie Gleason," Mr. Hinton said. "He asked me what I was doing, and I said, 'Not working.'  He immediately told his manager to hire me for a record date the next day. The manager had already hired a bassist, and now he had two! That's how faithful a friend Jackie was."

"When I got there all the white musicians recognized me, and it was never a problem with them," he added. "It was the powers that be who were scared to send a black person on TV into a living room down South. After that, Clark Terry, Snooky Young, Jerome Richardson, Hank Jones and a lot of other musicians started to work and we were appreciated."

As word of Mr. Hinton's talent spread, numerous singers, instrumentalists and band leaders quickly followed Gleason's lead. Mr. Hinton's studio work soon extended into radio and television, beginning with a call to join the band on Robert Q. Lewis's daily television program in 1954.

His presence occasionally seemed a bit anomalous in the white world of early television, as when he was part of a group of musicians and singers dressed in Confederate Army uniforms for a performance of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" by an ensemble led by Mitch Miller on Gleason's show. Things had changed by the early 70's, when Mr. Hinton — in a suit and tie this time — was a prominently featured member of Bobby Rosengarden's orchestra on Dick Cavett's late-night talk show.

By that time, the situation in New York's recording studios had changed as well. The rise of self- contained rock groups and electronic instruments, among other factors, had led to a sharp drop work for studio musicians. But Mr. Hinton adapted. He agreed to tours with Paul Anka, Pearl Bailey and other vocalists. He began teaching. He joined the jazz panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. He became the unofficial bassist in residence at the New York cabaret Michael's Pub, which honored him on the occasion of his his 75th birthday in 1985 with a five-week engagement as a headliner.

He is survived by his wife, Mona; a daughter, Charlotte Morgan; and a granddaughter.

He also began recording prolifically as a leader for the first time. Among recent albums under his own name the most noteworthy was "Old Man Time," a two-CD set on the Chiaroscuro label with guest stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, and spoken reminiscences by Mr. Hinton. His last album, "Laughing at Life," was released by Columbia Records in 1995.

"I was pretty young when I realized that music involves more than playing an instrument," Mr. Hinton wrote in the closing passage of "Bass Line." "It's really about cohesiveness and sharing. All my life, I've felt obliged to try and teach anyone who would listen. I've always believed you don't truly know something yourself until you can take it from your mind and put it in someone else's."

 

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All-Music Guide

Milton John Hinton

Born: June 23, 1910 in Vicksburg, MS

Died: December 19, 2000 in Queens, NY

Bassist Milt Hinton has probably appeared on more records than any other musician in the world and he remains a vital figure in jazz even at the age of 86. He grew up in Chicago and worked with many legendary figures from the late '20s to the mid-'30s including Freddie Keppard, Jabbo Smith, Tiny Parham (with whom he made his recording debut in 1930), Eddie South, Fate Marable and Zutty Singleton. He was with Cab Calloway's Orchestra and his later small group during 1936-51. Considered the best bassist before the rise of Jimmy Blanton in 1939, Hinton was featured on "Pluckin' the Bass" (1939) and was an ally of Dizzy Gillespie in modernizing Calloway's music.

After leaving Cab, Hinton worked in clubs with Joe Bushkin, had brief stints with Count Basie and Louis Armstrong's All-Stars and in 1954 became a staff musician at CBS, appearing on a countless number of recordings (jazz and otherwise) during the next 15 years; everything from Jackie Gleason mood music and polka bands to commercials and Buck Clayton jam sessions. By the 1970s Hinton was appearing regularly at jazz parties and festivals and his activities have not slowed down during the past two decades; in 1995 he toured with the Statesmen of Jazz. Although a modern soloist, Hinton has also kept the art of slap bass alive. A very skilled photographer, Hinton has released two books of his candid shots of jazz musicians including one (Bass Line) which has his fascinating memoirs. Milt Hinton has recorded as a leader for Bethlehem, Victor (both in 1955), Famous Door, Black & Blue and Chiaroscuro and as a sideman for virtually every label! — Scott Yanow

      
 

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