Doin’ the Chameleon

Dick Hyman has a lot to answer for. Had it not been for him, who knows if I would have turned out to be a jazz fan. It all happened in 1986. My brothers and I had watched – and recorded – a movie over the Easter holidays, and become absolutely obsessed with the music, in a way that only teenagers can. We played the same scene over and over till we knew it off by heart and were able to sing it even without the video playing.
The film was a TV movie biopic of the pioneering ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin, and the scene which caught our imagination was one where the unknown Joplin and his accomplice wipe the floor with the established “professors” in a piano battle that culminates in Joplin’s rafters-raising rendition of his Maple Leaf Rag.
Three months into the obsession with this scene, my jazz-daft dad – who had already used such devious methods as midnight feasts for Louis Armstrong’s birthday to kickstart the brainwashing process – casually mentioned that the guy who had played the piano in the Scott Joplin was coming to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. His name was Dick Hyman – would I like to come?
So it was that, at the age of 14, I accompanied my dad around the Edinburgh Jazz Festival’s erstwhile Pub Trail for a day. The Dick Hyman gig took place in one of the rooms in the labyrinthine Royal Overseas League, on Princes Street. The bespectacled American made an immediate impression. To play the rickety old upright piano at a comfortable height, he was perched on two stacked chairs, but what struck me most of all were how thin and fast his fingers were as they flew about the keyboard – not least on the showstopping Maple Leaf Rag.
I heard more than just ragtime that night. Hyman has the unique ability to mimic the styles of all the great jazz pianists – and he morphs seamlessly from one into another, on a sort of whirlwind tour of the jazz piano hall of fame. A solo set from him is an education in jazz history, as he elegantly conjures up the spirits of the likes of Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson (who gave the teenage Hyman lessons) and his personal favourites, Art Tatum and Bix Beiderbecke.
He is truly a chameleon of the keyboard, and it’s therefore highly appropriate that he should have been the man responsible for the music for Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary Zelig, about a man who takes on a similar appearance to whomever he’s standing beside. For Zelig, Hyman drew on his talent for recreating period music, in this case the novelty tunes of the 1920s. The soundtrack was an integral part of the success of the film because it added another layer of authenticity and humour.
When I embarked on my own Woody Allen phase, I was thrilled to discover that Hyman was my then favourite filmmaker’s regular musical director: indeed, when I heard him in Edinburgh, he was undoubtedly in the midst of composing the brilliant jingles and themes for the nostalgic, 1940s-set comedy Radio Days. He arranged music or wrote for all the period Allen films – plus his bold musical Everyone Says I Love You – and is heard on several more.
Over the years, I have seen Hyman performing in all sorts of concerts – in spine-tinglingly moving duets with the trumpeter Doc Cheatham, in trio sets of Disney and Wizard of Oz music, in showcases for his compositions for an orchestra, in organ recitals, in two-piano extravaganzas with such formidable fellow ivory-ticklers as Jay McShann, and in the all-star extravaganzas which he co-ordinated with flair and characteristic unflappability (and zilch time to prepare) at several Edinburgh Jazz Festivals in the early 1990s.
Hyman is such a class act that he elevates any event into a different league, and his gift for rounding up a rag-tag bunch of soloists and arranging them, on the spot, into a slick band is legendary. At one Blackpool Jazz Party, it fell to Hyman to conduct 30-odd world-class solo stars through a grand finale. As the cast of what seemed like thousands swung a Basie-style riff, the beady-eyed Hyman – whose nickname should really be The Headmaster – walked up and down in front of the stage picking out soloists, sectioning off bands within the band, and bringing it all together with his usual aplomb.
He may seem a rather cool character but his enthusiasm and passion for jazz (and classical music) is apparent not just in his playing but in his voracious appetite for new and often off-the-wall projects. Shakespeare sonnets set to jazz? He’s done it. An album which imagines how Bix Beiderbecke’s bands might have sounded playing Gershwin? Yup. An hour-long blues tune? Uh-huh.
But all the above-mentioned events and achievements only skim the surface: during a six-decade career, Hyman has played with legends ranging from Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker (that’s him on piano in the one existing bit of footage of Bird), he’s written pop hits (Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time; kd lang’s Shadowland), pioneered the Moog synthesizer, penned innumerable classical compositions, scored ballets, served as musical director of two major festivals plus a string of classic TV shows, and recorded a CD-rom (A Century of Jazz Piano) which is now a library reference tool.
Now in his 83rd year, Hyman shows no sign of slowing down. Coasting is not an option – certainly if his forthcoming week in Scotland, which includes a harpsichord gig, a four-piano spectacular and a History of Jazz Piano concert is anything to go by. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of converting the next generation: my children are primed and ready for brainwashing…
* Dick Hyman is at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival (0131 467 5200; www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk) from August 2-5, then at the Nairn International Jazz Festival (01309 674221; www.nairnjazz.com) from August 6-8.
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