97 Years of Jazz: Happy Birthday, Dick Hyman!

Multi-keyboardist Dick Hyman, born March 8, 1927, will turn 97 years old this month. With a prolific career behind him he’s no longer performing publicly, but it’s important now to highlight his broadly diverse accomplishments in jazz music in all idioms.

From his younger days as a professional musician working in New York, he was a gifted improviser and a proficient sight reader blessed with a clean, complicated technique. In 1947 he won a radio station piano playing contest wherein the prize was twelve lessons with the great swing pianist Teddy Wilson. Wilson helped him to refine what he already did and guided his philosophy about the music, giving him great respect for all aspects of jazz piano from its beginnings in the early 1920s.

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Dick Hyman has recorded plenty over the years in his own contemporary style, utilizing adventurous chord changes and daringly difficult and fast improvisations. It’s his respectful and oftentimes creative, yet stylistically accurate interpretations of early piano idioms that has given him the greatest fame, from ragtime and blues to stride and swing to more sophisticated stuff. Proof of this can be heard on one solo LP he did on piano called A Child Is Born, made up of several versions of Thad Jones’ attractive title tune in styles from Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton to Art Tatum and Bill Evans among several others, concluding with a monumental seventeen-minute version as himself. He’s created A Century of Jazz Piano, a six-disc CD/DVD set for Arbors Records.

Dick Hyman (photo by Bob Haggart, Jr.)

As a composer Hyman has several compositions and tunes to his credit, most notably Etudes for Jazz Piano. He’s also created musical scores for motion pictures, including Scott Joplin and most of director Woody Allen’s films. He’s recorded numerous LPs and CDs solo dedicated entirely to artists and songwriters such as Scott Joplin, Zez Confrey, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen as well as orchestral albums dedicated to stomper Jelly Roll Morton and strider James P. Johnson. His CD featuring music of early jazzer Clarence Williams, called Gulf Coast Blues earned a rave review from Butch Thompson (no pianistic slouch himself) in the predecessor to The Syncopated Times, The Mississippi Rag. This CD also featured Dick Hyman’s only recorded vocal, a scat on “Cushion Foot Stomp.”

In the 1950s he appeared on TV with bopper Charlie Parker and a bit later on arranged and performed on an LP with his friend, ragtimer Max Morath. He’s performed nearly anonymously playing cheerful backup on the quiz show Beat the Clock and The Arthur Godfrey Show and completely anonymously as “Knuckles O’Toole” on several honky-tonk piano LPs. During the 1960s he recorded solo LPs for the Command and Project 1 labels, usually in his own style with contemporary repertoire, yet with an occasional rag or stride showpiece turning up. One disc was all stride and ragtime. Apparently having no egotistical need to be the “star” of everything he plays, he’s appeared as a sideman on dozens of recordings, notably Summit Reunion CDs led by reedmen Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern.

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Having recorded a couple of swing band CDs during his later career, most of Hyman’s recordings during this period were duets between himself and other musicians, usually piano players and usually highlighting a swinging repertoire. Duet formats create total exposure for the two participants. Any faux pas, however slight, or clash of styles, is glaring. Enabling himself to blend with and support the other player yet play outstandingly himself is a gift that Dick Hyman has possessed. No flaws show up anywhere.

The best non-piano duet albums are the six Dick Hyman did with the great cornetist Ruby Braff. Blessed with unmatched technique and non-abstract, melodic ideas, Braff did America The Beautiful with Hyman on theater organ, Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive with Hyman on Hammond organ, and four others featuring Hyman on piano. Two of these feature Broadway show tunes from South Pacific and My Fair Lady but all are digestible jazz duets with plenty of improvised interplay. The other non-piano duet recordings are Runnin’ Ragged with violinist Stan Kurtis (Joe Venuti hot fiddle stuff) and, with banjoist Howard Alden, Plays The Music Of Harry Reser. Playing 1920s style, Hyman is featured to greater advantage on the former album.

Although all the piano duet recordings are good to great, this writer’s personal favorite is Stridemonster featuring Dick Hyman with the late and truly great Dick Wellstood. They play a varied program of two handed (in this case four handed) stride classics, swinging jam tunes and one sophisticated ballad with unrelenting, joyous heat from start to finish. Other really good ones are Teddy Wilson In 4 Hands with German/American pianist Chris Hopkins and one simply titled Dick Hyman/ Ralph Sutton. This performance, recorded live, catches the oft recorded Sutton in inspired form (Hyman is always in good form. The results are terrific.

Other Dick Hyman piano duet CDs feature more Wellstood and Sutton, Derek Smith (all mainstream), Louis Mazetier, Bernd Lhotzky, and John Sheridan. On Jim Turner’s CD The Dazzler Dick Hyman guests on one tune to show his support for the young, unknown Turner, whom he considers to be an accomplished festival pianist. An excellent pianist that Hyman has not recorded with, but has shown admiration for is Rossano Sportiello, who has also shown a propensity for playing a variety of styles.

If I might conclude this article on a personal note, I’ve met and spoken with Dick Hyman four or five times over a space of many years. He’s always been, as they say, a nice guy. After one of his great concerts that I witnessed I complimented him afterwards and he replied, “I fooled ‘em again!” He knows how great he is but doesn’t have a swollen head. As this is an election year in this country, because of his versatility and overall astounding improvisational ability, I nominate him to be the greatest jazz pianist of all time.


At a jazz festival a few years ago where he was booked as a soloist, I was playing piano onstage with an eight-piece band. After finishing my solo chorus on the tune “Riverboat Shuffle,” the audience was unimpressed, but I heard the sound of one person clapping appreciatively from the wings. I looked up and it was Dick Hyman. That really made my day! By the time the set was over he was gone.

Most of the music cited here can be obtained from Amazon, Bandcamp, or (with luck) at a used record/CD store.

Ted des Plantes is an Ohio-based multi-instrumentalist who has been involved with numerous traditional jazz groups in a career spanning 50 years. Find a number of recordings he has released on his TdP Productions label on Bandcamp

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