Earl “Fatha” Hines has been called the first modern jazz pianist, hence the moniker “Fatha” and is perhaps best known for his “trumpet style” approach to the piano. His musical aesthetic differed greatly from other pianists of the time in his use of what were then considered unusual rhythms and accents. His work set jazz piano playing on a new course that was to have profound implications for later developments in the music.
Earl Kenneth Hines was born on December 28, 1903 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Duquesne, Pennsylvania. His father, a foreman at the local coal dock, played cornet; his stepmother, who entered his life when he was three, was an organist. After a brief stint with the cornet, Earl took to the piano and applied himself, both with formal school training and private lessons, hoping to become a concert pianist. At this time, in addition to possessing a great technical facility, he developed an uncanny ability to read music that served him throughout his career.
In 1917, Hines moved to Pittsburgh to live with an aunt and attend high school. Here, he was exposed to a broader world of music that included jazz. He first played professionally in 1918, accompanying the singer Lois Deppe, with whom he later made his first recordings.
Hines moved to Chicago, which was then becoming the center of the jazz world, in 1923. He played with Carroll Dickerson’s Orchestra at the Entertainer’s Club in 1925, ventured on an extensive tour to the West Coast and Canada in the following year and ultimately returned to Chicago to perform at the Sunset Club. During this last engagement, Hines met a musician who would have a profound impact on his musical conception, Louis Armstrong.
In 1927, Hines became director of Dickerson’s group with Armstrong as the prominent soloist. The following year was incredibly productive for Hines. He recorded his first ten piano solos including versions of “A Monday Date,” “Blues in Thirds” and “57 Varieties.” Hines worked much of the year with clarinetist Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra and joined Armstrong on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recording sessions, playing on the classics “West End Blues,” “Fireworks,” and “Basin Street Blues.” Perhaps one of their most original collaborations was the trumpet and piano duet, “Weather Bird” for the Okeh recording company.
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Hines debuted his own band at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, where he remained for ten years. His band garnered greater exposure through nationwide tours and, from 1934, radio broadcasts.
Hines continued to lead big bands until 1947 that highlighted such important figures as Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and experimented with the harmonic lexicon and melodic language of Bebop. This collaborative effort demonstrated Hines’s openness to change and interest in the evolutions that were developing in the music; many of which could be attributed to him.
From 1948 to 1951, Hines returned to his Hot Jazz roots and capitalized on the burgeoning Dixieland Revival by joining Armstrong’s All Stars. Pivotal engagements included performances on The Ed Sullivan Show where Hines accompanied Armstrong on “Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans” and “A Song Was Born.”
By the early 1960s, when jazz was no longer a commercial entity, Hines settled in Oakland, California, opened a tobacco shop and entertained the idea of foregoing a musical profession. However, in 1964 he was rediscovered following a series of concerts in New York City; consequently, he earned the 1965 “Critics’ Choice” for Down Beat Magazine’s “Hall of Fame.”
Hines led his own small band into the 1980s, and continued to perform regularly in the United Stated and abroad until the weekend before his death on April 23, 1983.