At the time of his passing, in 2000, Milt “The Judge” Hinton was considered by both fans and fellow musicians the Dean of Jazz bassists. About 70 years ago, I began listening to jazz broadcast on Chicago radio stations, and countless times I heard “Milt Hinton on bass” among the announced band personnel. But I didn’t get a chance to see and hear Milt in person until the early 1980s.
The Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz used and mixed several all-star groups at their fest, as well as “set” bands. Milt always stood out on most of the recordings I’d heard. That’s when I discovered that he was not only a solid rhythm section bassist; he did things with tunes that most bassists wouldn’t try, mostly while accompanying other players, and his solos were always special.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to finally meet him and see him on the bandstand. At the time I was a DJ with WTRC in Elkhart, Indiana, doing Patterns in Jazz. Eddie Banjura introduced me to Milt, and after talked a while I did a short tape recording for my radio show during which Milt told of his recent travels. That’s when I discovered that Milt worked most of the time in New York city, where he lived.
Milt had a busy schedule as a studio musician for various radio programs, in addition to playing his club gigs. That allowed him to spend more time with the love of his life, his wife Mona. At one point, he asked if I knew his second vocation, photography. When I indicated an interest, he stood and told me he’d show me some of the photographs he’d taken. In his room he pulled out a large leather portfolio and began showing me his work. I didn’t know, but should have guessed, that he took most of his pictures at gigs, recording sessions, and whenever he was around other jazz musicians. He truly worked magic into his pictures, visibly capturing the souls and personalities of his subjects, as can be clearly seen in his two published volumes of images, Bass Line and Playing the Changes.
A few years later when we featured his photographs at the Midwest American Museum in Elkhart, he gave me his favorite: a picture he took of Billie Holiday at a recording session. It was break time and when he saw Billie’s expression of deep sadness, he snapped it. He had copies of the picture and my copy is displayed above our fireplace. (Copies of his work may easily be found online by Googling “Milt Hinton photographs.”)
A few months after our first meeting, we joined Mona and Milt in Indianapolis at a jazz festival featuring most of the greats at that time. We thoroughly enjoyed the music and we enjoyed our time spent with the Hintons. Milt loved a good barbecue so we found one nearby. After the meal, Mona asked me about the plans for the first Elkhart jazz fest. I explained that it was in the early stages of development. We had decided to keep it eclectic to attract different kinds of jazz lovers and we wanted to use a downtown location to help attract people back to the downtown. (Last year, 26,000 people came downtown over the three day festival.) Mona asked about the budget for musicians. Milt then interjected and said most musicians would come at a very affordable price to help start the fest and he was correct. (The salaries they accepted then were about a third of what we pay them today.)
When we begin discussing the possible musicians, I had already met some very good ones on a jazz cruise that year but I mentioned that I did not have addresses or phone numbers. I mentioned that I intended to contact former Basie band members but I didn’t know how to contact them. Mona pulled out a postcard and jotted down around a dozen names with phone numbers. That initial list is now is in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, thanks to Mona and Milt. Many of the “names” that performed at the Elkhart Jazz Festival in those early years were suggested by Milt. (I could list a hundred or more but I’m afraid I’d forget someone!)
Milt worked several of the festivals into the ’90s. Every year that he came, Mona was with him—and, of course, my wife Jean and I attended several of the same festivals and had fun spending time with the Hintons.
The last time I had a chance to visit with Milt and Mona was in the late ’90s at Mat Domber’s jazz party at Clearwater Beach, Florida. Mat always provided free jazz in the bar, so Jean and I headed over. When Mat saw us there, he said he had a couple of good seats in the main ballroom and he’d give them to us. We found Mona and Milt sitting at the next table. (That also was the beginning of a long association, helping Mat with the jazz party.) His label, Arbors Records, used most of the folks we have had at Elkhart. (I believe I have most of the Arbor discs, all gifts from Mat.) I remember that Mat called Milt to the bandstand to perform his “Old Man Time” vocal. Milt played less in his last couple of years but he rarely turned down a chance to be back on the stage.
We often talked on the phone. He made one call to me after leaving Bill “Count” Basie’s bedside. Milt was worried about Bill and wanted to talk about it. A few days later, he called again after leaving Bill’s side after Bill “passed,” as Milt put it. Milt knew how I felt about Bill Basie and his great band. Mona had taken care of the Basies’ daughter and they lived within walking distance of one another. A few days after Bill’s death, they walked by Bill’s home and found a huge stack of sheet music that had been left for trash. Naturally, Mona and Milt made certain it all was saved.
Another important contribution Milt made to the Elkhart Festival was some very sound advice. He remarked to me that most of the musicians felt a special kinship with the festival because they were workers or “hired help.” They enjoyed the concept I had of hiring several all-stars, usually three trumpets, three trombones, three reeds (or more), three pianists, three bassists, and three drummers. Before the weekend ended, they all had played together. We had some regular “set” bands too but the crowd loved the mixed groups. Again, that was Milt’s idea.
Yes, I do miss the Hintons. They personified a solid marriage. In the early years, Mona and other band wives would go the next Cab Calloway gig to find places of them to stay, particularly in the South. When Milt was working mainly in New York, she would help transport his bass to his studio engagement—when he played a morning gig with the Arthur Godfrey show, for example. We rarely saw them apart.
Milt could sense sincerity and he repaid it. I had one “sour” encounter with him in the mid-’90s at Elkhart. He was doing an afternoon set and told me he was headed for the Midwest Museum with some folks. The gig was at three p.m. and a few minutes before the set was to begin I became nervous and asked John Bany to fill in for Milt until he arrived. John had no more stepped on the stage and Milt walked in with his bass. Bany made a hasty retreat and Milt came to me and said, “When I say I’ll do something, I will do it.” And throughout his life, that’s exactly what he did.
Admittedly, I’ve made this piece about Milt Hinton rather personal, in the belief that most Syncopated Times readers are already aware of Milt’s history with so many great players and bands. For the uninitiated, Google will point you in the right direction. Wikipedia does a great job of summarizing Milt’s life.
(editors note: try these sites first for biographical info, discography, and amazing examples of the 60,000 pictures Hilton took as a jazz photographer.
Van Young (email@example.com) has helped keep the Elkart Jazz Festival a swinging proposition for the past three decades.
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