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Arts & Humanities

Has the ultimate Dick Hyman movie been made yet?

By Paul Hond |Fall 2006

PJ Loughran

Somebody should do a documentary on Dick Hyman's 48CC. Here's the pitch: a young, white, meek pianist with an almost superhuman ability to play anything finds himself in the midst of the raging jazz world of post-war New York; and while defying classification - no one can really pinpoint him - he has had a career as long, varied, and colorful as any other in American music.

The film's soundtrack would of course come from Hyman's extensive oeuvre, which is really the soundtrack of 20th century America: ragtime, stride, boogie-woogie, swing, bebop, rock'n'roll, bubblegum pop, elevator Muzak, soap - Opera organ swells, game show lard, space-age electronics. The visuals would be equally impressive - photos and newsreels from the ragtime era to the jazz era to the Great Depression, along with split-screen footage of Hyman and the piano giants whose styles he can imitate: Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, even Art Tatum, whom Rachmaninoff considered to be the greatest pianist of all styles. Then there is that priceless TV picture tube from 1952, which Dick explains in his eloquent, unobtrusive way: I was on a local show on the DuMont station that aired every night called Date on Broadway , and one evening the guests were Earl Wilson, the Broadway columnist who introduced Leonard Feather, the jazz writer, and presented the Esquire Award to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. So of course we did a number together, and that little movie turned out to be the only filmed evidence that Charlie Parker played live.

Intoxicating stuff, but Parker and Gillespie weren't the only legends caught on film with Dick. As New York's most popular piano player, Hyman did a lot of television work in the 50s and early 60s, including the hugely popular one Arthur Godfrey-Show . From 1959 to 1961 Dick Godfreys was musical director, a kind of proto-doc Severinsen (or Paul Shaffer), whose musical guests included acts such as the vocal group The Hi-Lo's and the brilliant jazz stylist Erroll Garner, with the Dick duo pianos played. And certainly the Columbiana archive could provide footage of Morningside Heights in the mid-1940s when Hyman arrived on campus: keyword Benny Goodman's Stompin 'at the Savoy, accompanied by a montage of fresh-faced college men in single-breasted jackets and straight leg pants and the occasional one Harlem-influenced zoot suit with a successful Hyman voiceover: I was a humanities major in college and took as many music courses as possible. There was music history with Paul Lang and composition with Jack Beeson. But just as important as anything else were the activities of the WKCR, then called CURC [Columbia University Radio Club]. We see photos of Lang and Beeson and yearbook recordings from the radio station. I've done a lot of programs at CURC - a jazz program or two, and we got famous jazz guests sometimes, like Willie 'The Lion' Smith. Inset: A recording of the cigar-chewing Stridemaster Smith playing a rental party in Harlem. Hyman: The radio station was just as important as anything - a place where like-minded people could meet and play. And it wasn't just jazz - there was musical comedy, original texts written by Robert Bernstein and Seth Rubinstein, both brothers of mine at the ZBT. Then I wrote a varsity show called Dead for the Right and I think I played the piano in one of them - Lou Garisto composed it. '

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Then we see the hot lights and smoky jazz bars of 1950s New York that Hyman was about to graduate from - places like Wells Music Bar in Harlem, Café Society in Greenwich Village, and a new club on 52nd Street and on Broadway called Birdland (named after Charlie Yardbird Parker), where Dick became a resident pianist and jammed with the likes of Parker and Lester Young. Hyman: The advantage of Columbia from my point of view was that it was close to Harlem and only a subway ride from Greenwich Village, where I would occasionally sit in clubs and listen to all of my idols - that was possible back then. [Trumpet player] Max Kaminsky had a band in a place called The Pied Piper on Barrow Street, and I remember going there and sitting in there. There were two pianists on site. One of them was James P. Johnson and the other Willie 'The Lion' Smith. So I met Willie back then and visited him once or twice at his Harlem apartment. '

It would be a film for music lovers. Critics and musicians could weigh up Dick's place in the jazz cosmos. The Beastie Boys could deconstruct the lyrics of their song Root Down, which contains the line I'm electric like Dick Hyman. Handsome commentary could come from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom hosted Hyman's appearances on the White House lawn. (Shame Bill didn't come to Dick with his saxophone - who else could say he performed with a US President? and Charlie Parker?)

It could even include clips from a dozen Woody Allen films for which Dick served as composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist.

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Richard Roven Hyman was born in New York in 1927 and grew up in the suburb of Mount Vernon. As a child, he studied classical piano with his mother's brother, Anton Rovinsky, a concert pianist known for premiering Charles Ives' composition The heavenly railroad . While learning Bach and Beethoven from his uncle, Dick also listened to the 78-rpm jazz records brought home by his older brother Arthur, whom he greatly admired. Through Arthur, Dick learned the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, and others, and during high school he played in dance bands across Westchester County.

After Dick completed his freshman at Columbia, his studies were interrupted by the war. In June 1945 he joined the army and then switched to the navy via the gang division. When I got into the band department, I was working with much more experienced musicians than I was used to, he says. I had played and danced in a few kid bands in New York, but the Navy was serious - I had to show up, read music, and be with a few better players than I had ever met.

When the war ended and I returned to school, jazz itself had taken a different direction. We were in bebop now so we all changed course after playing swing and dixieland and I became that kind of gamer. All the younger guys had to emulate Charlie Parker, but I never stopped playing the older styles and, paradoxically, that later became more of my thing.

Back in Columbia, Dick took part in an on-air piano competition on radio station WOV. First prize was 12 free lessons from Teddy Wilson, the great swing-era pianist who broke the racial barrier a decade earlier as a member of the Benny Goodman Trio. Dick won the competition. From Wilson, Dick Wilson learned chord changes and elegant tatumesque runs; and in a satisfying twist he would become Goodman's pianist himself in a few years (a live recording on the TCB label, Lausanne 1950 , shows a nimble, self-confident 23-year-old Hyman who, accompanied by Goodman, the trumpeter Roy Eldridge and the tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, swings with virtuoso ease.

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And so, in the company of legends, Dick Hyman continued the business of inventing himself - amassing styles and, in increasingly hair-raising proportions, developing the amazing technical equipment that is central to the Hyman phenomenon.

I was never one of those concert pianists who practice eight hours a day, he says when asked where he got such creepy chops. When you work in nightclubs, you are in such good shape that you play six hours a night that you really don't need anything else.

This is the kind of answer you would expect from Hyman, who, when talking about his extraordinary skills, is as factual and pragmatic as a map enthusiast giving directions. Presumably, it is the same sober temperament that has allowed him to work with showbiz personalities far less pleasant than himself: that he got along well with both Arthur Godfrey and Benny Goodman, two men notorious for it not getting along with anyone confirms Hyman's reputation as a sideman of outstanding professionalism; and while back then many players self-destructed by alcohol and drugs, it's safe to say that Dick Hyman never fell from the bandstand.

As a studio musician in the 1950s and 60s, Hyman was just as skilled and dependable, as evidenced by his seven Most Valuable Player Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the eclectic list of names he recorded with: Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Guy Mitchell, Joni James, Marvin Rainwater, Ivory Joe Hunter, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, The Playmates, The Wildcats, The Kookie Cats, The Four Freshmen, The Four Sophomores, Mitch Miller, and hundreds more.

And then, in 1968, Hyman put on another hat and made a record that was different from everyone else before, and that got him on the following year Billboard Top 40 - without the help of a piano or organ.

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This part of our history bears a special Columbia stamp. After the enormous success of the 1968 album Switched on brook by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos '65GSAS, played entirely on the revolutionary keyboard synthesizer invented by Robert Moog' 57SEAS, Hyman of his Command record label was approached to make his own contribution to the early Moog, the Hyman as. describes resembles an old switchboard. The result was the album Moog: The Electric Eclectic by Dick Hyman . The single The Minotaur - a long modal improvisation over a funky electronic lounge beat - climbed the charts in 1969 and landed at number 38 of the year, alongside hits from Elvis, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and The Who. (A year later, progressive rock group Emerson Lake & Palmer released an album, wisdom , with keyboard superstar Keith Emerson's Moog pasta that sounded a lot like Dick's work on The Minotaur - so much so that Dick took legal action even though Emerson was in England and couldn't be summoned to court.)

Yet Hyman's success in the exotic new world of electronic music has never drawn him from his acoustic roots. On June 17, 1973, Hyman played a solo date at The Cookery in Greenwich Village. Those present heard New York's most dazzling pianists at their best, attacking every melody with breathtaking fluidity and ingenuity, evoking the ghosts not only of Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton, but also of Bach, Chopin and Gottschalk. But these exciting, intimate pianistic fireworks would have been lost forever had Dick not brought a portable tape recorder and placed it on the piano. About 30 years later, the lost tape was dug up from Dick's files and saved on CD as a. released An evening of cooking .

All of these could appear in our film about Dick Hyman.

Of course, some would argue that in some ways the final Dick Hyman film has already been shot.

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Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig is a fake documentary about the life of a Leonard Zelig, a curiosity of the 1920s and 30s. Zelig , known as The Human Chameleon, possesses a mysterious ability to take on the outward characteristics and mannerisms of those around him, and has a knack for appearing at key historical moments, a background figure who mixes anonymously with the famous and powerful. It is a film about assimilation and adaptability, alienation and survival and the power of the mind to overcome physical limits. The authentic-sounding music of the era, written and arranged by Hyman (who also wrote the funny lyrics for the songs), suggests the composer's intense identification with the zeitgeist. Of all of Woody Allen's films, Zelig remains Dick's favorite.

And so the strange Dick Hyman case ends where it begins. How can a musician be so good, so convincing in so many styles? Is there, as Woody Allen suggested, a psychological explanation for such restless, versatile talent? Is Hyman himself a Zelig-like character, a musical chameleon who constantly has to reinvent itself in order to adapt? Or should we watch a real documentary, Martin Scorsese's No direction home (2005), in which the subject Bob Dylan, the multifaceted, spiritually attuned consumer of Americana, describes himself - as one might call Hyman - as a musical participant in the expedition?

Maybe Dick should make his own statement.

I just started adding styles and getting as rounded as I could, he simply says. So after that, when I was lucky enough to become a studio gamer, I was known for versatility. Without irony, he adds: I still am.

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