Bassist's pictures are worth 1,000 gigs; Milt Hinton's other art form tells a story of American music
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 April 2008)

Forty-five years ago, the Metropole bar at Seventh Avenue and West 48th Street in New York was possibly the worst place in the world to hear good music. It was a long, narrow, noisy room, where musicians could be drowned out by sounds from the street, a loud cash register and many loud patrons. Incredibly, the musicians stood in single file on a narrow ledge behind the bar, playing over the heads of the bartenders.

Yet that dumb, awkward place had magic. Those who went there heard many of the grand figures in the history of American music -- Gene Krupa and Jimmy McPartland, Henry Red Allen and Peeweee Russell, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins.

Milt Hinton (1910-2000) was sometimes among the musicians on the ledge. He was a bass player who toured for 16 years with Cab Calloway's band, worked for a while in Louis Armstrong's group and played with most of the first-class jazz musicians. Hinton remembers the Metropole in his autobiography: "You got to the bandstand from one end, and it was so narrow that you had to be very careful how you crossed it." You could easily knock a drum onto the bar or fall onto a bartender. "The Metropole was a pretty unusual place."

Listening to our heroes play in that wretched environment, few of us realized how glad they were to be there. After all, it was work, and most of them were always short of work. Individual reputations rose and fell, jazz itself came in and out of fashion. So the heroism of the jazz players went beyond adventurous music. Every career represented the triumph of a determined spirit; often it also meant a lifelong struggle with racism. It seems a marvel not that some players died from heroin or alcohol but that so many succeeded in a complicated, demanding, insecure art form.

One excellent place to understand the lives of these artists is Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton's Life in Stories and Photographs (Vanderbilt University Press), edited by David G. Berger and Holly Maxson. Hinton, who died eight years ago at the age of 90, had two parallel careers over six decades: He was a superb bass player and an uncommonly dedicated photographer, determined to document the life of jazz as he watched it unfold. He acquired his first camera in 1935 and began building a visual record of his colleagues and friends.

He left behind about 60,000 images. Some have been published in two previous collections, but Berger and Maxson have now created the perfect Hinton book, reproducing along with his memoirs more than 140 previously unseen photos as well as 115 that his admirers already know.

The book includes a CD on which Hinton talks and plays, as well as a foreword by Clint Eastwood, probably the most serious jazz fan in the world of celebrities ("Hinton's body of work has inspired and guided me in my musical journey").

Calloway co-stars in Hinton's saga. He was his band's only star and treated himself like royalty. When the band travelled by train they filled two cars. A Pullman was divided in the middle, with Calloway filling half and the rest of the band the other half. A baggage car held instruments and band uniforms -- plus Calloway's Cadillac, essential to his image.

As Hinton remembers, Calloway "wasn't very interested in music" and mainly wanted an accompaniment to his singing. Still, something told him to hire good musicians, they in turn lobbied for more good musicians, and the result was a fine swing band.

Hinton's career placed him close to American history. As a 16-year-old in Chicago in 1926, he ran errands for a bootlegger in Al Capone's empire. On Saturdays, when Capone paid a visit to the distribution point where Hinton worked, two dozen uniformed policemen also showed up, waited patiently for his bullet-proof Marmon to arrive, and then formed an orderly line on the sidewalk to receive bribes, $10 for sergeants, $5 for patrolmen. In 1932, at the age of 22 and already working as a musician, Hinton played at the Democratic Convention that nominated Franklin Roosevelt. Three decades later, he worked a New York party where he met John, Robert and Ted Kennedy.

The issue of race was never far from his mind. In 1918, as a little boy in Vicksburg, Miss., he saw a lynching. A black man was hanged by drunken whites, who then fired bullets into his body and finally set it alight with a drum of gasoline: "I'll never forget that blaze and watching that body shrivel up like a piece of bacon while the crowd cheered."

When he toured the South with Calloway in the 1930s and 1940s it was always hard to find hotels and restaurants to serve blacks. In the 1950s, almost all radio and television studios in New York excluded black musicians, a prejudice rarely mentioned in public. When Hinton was hired to play in an orchestra for Jackie Gleason he realized that he was the only black among 50 musicians. Having helped break that race barrier, he became the most sought-after bass player in the studios and probably the most-recorded musician in jazz history.

There's little that was predictable in his life. Who would have guessed that Calloway and some of his sidemen, including Hinton, were Masons? They were initiated at a black lodge in St. Paul, Minn., the Masons being segregated at the time. There were enough in the band to hold back-stage meetings between shows. "Being a Mason is a sacred thing," Hinton explains -- and convenient. Once, mistakenly thrown in a police holding cell, he saw a sergeant with a Masonic ring, flashed him a distress sign, and got out. The book includes a picture of Hinton, Calloway and two others wearing Masonic aprons at a ceremony in Minneapolis.

He earned every ounce of his remarkable success. Long after he was well employed in a good band, he sought out a stern, demanding Russian teacher who took him much farther into the possibilities of his instrument. Hinton was optimistic, always learning, always teaching. Music, he instructs us, is really about cohesiveness and sharing: "All my life I've felt obliged to teach anyone who would listen." He writes of himself with becoming modesty, but readers will recognize him as an exemplary figure.

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