[Written for Allegro, monthly newspaper of Local 802 AFM, New York]
Milt Hinton, Local 802's beloved dean of jazz bassists, will celebrate his 89th birthday on June 23rd. A major figure in the jazz and recording world for over sixty years, Milt has also accumulated a wonderful collection of photographs of the musicians he has worked with. He started taking pictures in 1935, when he was given his first camera as a birthday present.
When Milt and his wife, Mona, bought the house in Queens where they have lived for over forty years, Milt took the opportunity to install a darkroom in the basement, and began printing his film collection, some of which had remained undeveloped for years. His friend David Berger recognized the importance of Milt’s photographic work, and has worked with him to conserve it in an archive, and to make prints available to the public.
I ran into Milt a few years ago at the Oslo jazz festival, and offered to carry his bass for him. He waved me off with a good-natured smile. "No, Judge," he said, "like I told Mona, when I get so I can’t carry it any more, I’ll quit playing it!" (In the late 1950s, Milt developed a tendency to call everyone "Judge," and that has been the nickname his friends have used for him ever since.) Unfortunately, Milt’s legs have been giving him so much trouble lately that he has indeed stopped playing the bass. "I can’t stand up well enough any more," he told me. "But I guess I played it enough, didn’t I?"
He sure did. He started playing the string bass at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago during the late twenties, switching over from the violin he had been playing since the age of thirteen. He also learned to play the tuba in high school. He joined Chicago’s Local 208 and began working as a musician right away. "I’ve only had two jobs in my life," he says. "My high school paper route, and musician." While freelancing in Chicago, he studied music for two years at Crane Junior College.
Milt made his first recording in 1930, while he was with Tiny Parham’s band. He said, "It’s called Down Yonder. I’m playing tuba, and I’m terrible....in fact, if you listen to it a couple of times, you can hear my chops give out about halfway through." It was the beginning of a long and fruitful recording career, and was probably the last occasion on which Milt’s chops failed him.
Jobs around Chicago with the violinist Eddie South gave Milt some early jazz experience, as did gigs with Jabbo Smith and Zutty Singleton. He was working with Zutty’s band when Cab Calloway heard him. Cab had just lost his bass player, and he asked Zutty to let him have Milt. "It was just like a baseball trade," said Milt. "Nobody ever asked me." But a job with Cab was one of the best paying in the business at the time, and Milt happily signed on. Cab told Milt he would be just a midwest stopgap until the band got back to New York, "...Where I’ll get me a real bass player." But Milt became an outstanding performer with the band, and stayed for sixteen years, until the band broke up. During that time he studied with Dmitri Shmuklovsky of the Chicago Civic Opera, and developed his jazz playing through his association with Calloway sidemusicians like Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole, Doc Cheatham, Tyree Glenn, Jonah Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. The job with Cab also enabled him to acquire a fine Italian bass, which helped him develop his individual sound. By the time Cab’s band finally broke up, Milt had established a reputation as one of the finest bassists in the business.
While Milt was freelancing around New York at the end of his stint with Calloway, he found his way into New York studio work when Jackie Gleason, an old friend, hired him for his "Music For Lovers Only" album that featured Bobby Hackett. Milt’s playing, and his Italian bass, impressed the studio musicians and contractors, and before long he became one of the busiest bassists in the recording industry. In addition to over six hundred jazz albums that Milt has recorded, including several under his own leadership, there are at least an equal number of recordings that he has made with non-jazz performers.
When New York studio work slowed down, Milt still found himself in demand in the jazz world, working clubs, jazz parties and festivals. He spent a lot of time at the Metropole, and for about two years he was the house bassist at Michael’s Pub. He was able to fit into his schedule some work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and he occasionally went out of town for short engagements with some of the singers he had been recording with, like Paul Anka, Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby and Pearl Bailey.
I spoke to Milt recently on his return from his daily exercise at a swimming pool near his house. I asked him if he was still taking pictures. "Yes," he said, "I can still do that." His photographs are now housed at the Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection in Philadelphia, and many of them have been published as posters, calendars, and in two books, Bass Line, (Temple University Press), and Over Time, (Pomegranate Art Books). More art books are planned for the future.
Bass Line also contains the story of Milt’s life and career, told in his own words. I have drawn on it for this article, but I recommend the full text. Milt’s story, with the marvelous pictures that accompany it, is too good to miss.
MILT HINTON 1910-2000
Milt Hinton left us during the last Christmas season after a rich full life of ninety years. Much beloved in the jazz community, "The Judge" was the dean of jazz bassists and one of the most recorded bassists in New York. At his funeral I sat next to George Avakian, who produced records for most of the major labels at one time or another. George thought so highly of Milt's contributions to his recording sessions that, when he once called a date for twenty or so musicians and then discovered that Milt wasn't available, he said, "My first reaction was to cancel the date. But they told me I couldn't do that, so I reluctantly hired another bassist." Milt was in such demand during the heyday of recording that it wasn't unusual for producers to check his schedule before they booked studio time. I finished up a couple of albums for him when he wasn't available for extra sessions, and I know other bassists who did the same. Milt was always generous, sharing the work when he could.
At the St. Albans Congregational Church where hundreds of Milt's friends and relatives gathered to see him off, Reverend Henry Simmons gave the eulogy. He said that when he first came to that church and heard that Milt was one of the famous musicians in the congregation, he kept looking around for him. It took him three Sundays to find him. Milt was a humble man, not one to call attention to himself. When they did meet, Reverend Simmons confessed that he was an amateur trumpet player. He said that some time later, at an evening prayer meeting, he took out his trumpet and played something, and when he saw Milt afterward, he asked, "How'd I do?" The Reverend said, "Milt was the living example of the adage, if you can't say something good, don't say anything. He didn't say a word."
At one point in his eulogy Reverend Simmons asked, "How many of you here have been helped by Milt Hinton?" A sea of raised hands made his point. Later, outside the church, I met Bob Cranshaw, who said, "He sure got to me. I was new in New York, and was carrying my bass around in a raggedy old cover. I passed Milt on the street, and he said, 'Son, are you a professional?' I said I was, and he said, 'Well, you can't be walking around with a case that looks like that!' And he took me into Manny's on 48th Street and bought me a new one!" Milt's widow, Mona, says she gets calls almost every day from young musicians who tell her about things Milt did to help them.
Watching the recent showings of Ken Burns's "Jazz" on Channel 13, I was pleased to see a couple of brief interviews with Milt, shot a few years ago when he was still in his prime. His reminiscences and photographs have fortunately been preserved in his two books, Bass Line and Over Time, thanks to the magnificent efforts of his friend and co-author David Berger. Some time ago David discovered the treasure trove of negatives from a lifetime of photography that Milt was storing in his basement. Horrified at the possibility of what could happen to such a unique collection if there were a fire, a flood or a broken water heater, David created a safe archive for the material and began a project of making quality prints of the best negatives. In doing so, he discovered that Milt had not just made a historical record, he had created fine art. David's enthusiasm led to the creation of gallery shows, posters and the books. There are still more images in the archive that one hopes will find their way into publication.