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POEM: 91

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I wasn’t going to write about the passing of jazz pianist Hank Jones until I saw this article in the New York Times.

UPDATE: Hank Jones’ manager, Jean-Pierre Leduc, posted this in response to the NYT article:

Hank had a huge farm up in Hartwick, NY, and he had most things he needed. He was not unhappy or hermit-like. I wish he had treated himself to a bigger space (he could have lived anywhere), but it was clean and right where he wanted to be — Upper West Side. On tour he had the best suite in the best 5-star hotels, and he was on tour a lot, even very recently. The article in The Times was a clear invasion of privacy.

I considered making revisions to the poem based on this, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

(Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images)


“On the cluttered night-table was a book of Sherlock Holmes stories.”
— From a New York Times article on what was found in jazz pianist Hank Jones’ tiny one-room apartment after his death.

the detective used the violin
as a tool to sharpen his thoughts
the pianist practiced on an electric keyboard
using headphones so he wouldn’t disturb the neighbors

91 years is a long time
to be good at something so few understand
unlike Holmes, Hank never got a chance to stand in the parlor
to explain how he’d figured it all out
how he’d arrived at the real answer

he had to depend on ears and brains and beating hearts
to understand the messages pushed into ivory
by two hands, ten fingers, a billion synapses firing

when he died they broke into his room with a hammer
it was locked from the inside
a detail the detective would have appreciated
they found rumpled sheets, accolades
long ago forgotten and newly given
manifestations of his talent not sufficient
to encapsulate the world-altering beauty of it

there is nothing elementary
about 91 years of a black man playing the piano
no sidekick to remark on just how heavily
the odds had been stacked in opposition

could even the most talented sleuth
have pieced together the long road from Detroit?
inspected the dust of a thousand thousand footsteps
and traced the route from segregated hotels
to the grandest stages in the world?

91 years is a long time to breathe in and out,
to push down on the keys, to bear the weight of memory
the memory of waiting for his time in the spotlight

yet he could have walked down any street in America
and no one would have looked twice
he was a king, an 88-keyed deity who could
swing you into the ground and could pass
completely unnoticed among the multitudes
more concerned with the camera flash

in the end he went out playing
in a world that was richer for his footsteps across the stage,
his particular selection of notes
his attention to detail, elegance
and the long slow curve of 91 years of history

Published in Audio Poems Jazz Music My poems Poetry


  1. […] an article in the New York Times that changed my mind. The article and the resulting poem are at var a2a_config = a2a_config || {}; a2a_config.linkname="A poem in tribute to Hank Jones"; […]

  2. Thank you for your poem. The article kind of saddened me but somehow your poem made things feel a bit better.

  3. Cheryl A. Rice Cheryl A. Rice

    Gee, many poets are blessed with the same kind of anonymity on the streets, aren’t they? Nice poem, Jason… Tribute to the art and artist without belaboring the obvious issues of race, age, etc.

  4. Charles Curly Eason Charles Curly Eason

    Touching!!! I liked, Thank you for keep the world up to date on Jazz…

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