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“Opening Chorus”


Frank Hewitt died of pancreatic cancer, possibly compounded by untreated lymphoma, on September 5, 2002. At the time of his death he was 66 years old and, in practical terms, homeless. In his final years, he had often slept in a stripped-out walk-in refrigerator in the back of Smalls, the Greenwich Village after-hours jazz club where he had played piano two or three nights a week for nine years. At the time of his death he had no known living relatives, and no recordings under his own name had ever been released. Here the story would end, were it not for someone named Luke Kaven. While participating in a graduate internship program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Kaven had gotten seriously hooked on Smalls, with its all-nights sessions, its close community, and its culture of openness and passion for the music. He decided to start a record label “to document the Smalls scene,” and to “build the label” around the player who, within that scene, was acknowledged as its master—Frank Hewitt. Kaven recorded the material for #We Loved You# and #Not Afraid To Live# (Smalls Records SRCD-0001 and SRCD-0007 respectively) in 2001 and 2002. Hewitt did not live to see their release in 2004. Those who discover Hewitt for the first time through these piano trio recordings—which is to say, almost everyone who hears them—will be shocked and delighted and baffled. The shock and delight will come, not only from Hewitt’s incandescent creativity, but because his music defines an original style. Its antecedents are Monk (in Hewitt’s clanking left hand dissonances and ferocious right hand tremolos), Powell (in Hewitt’s speed and lucidity and hammering touch, and also his darkness), and especially Elmo Hope (in Hewitt’s density of ideas, irregular phrases, surprising accents and chord patterns—and, again, his darkness). Once heard, Hewitt’s style sounds inevitable, a logical and necessary extension of the work of his three great predecessors. Hewitt uses their jagged, often turbulent musical languages in the service of dramatic narrative. In his trills and ornaments and sweeping flourishes, a hard-won, unsentimental romanticism prevails. Unlike Monk and Powell and Hope, Hewitt was not a notable composer. His repertoire is the Great American Songbook and jazz standards, and his interpretative assaults on pieces like “Polka Dots And Moonbeams” and “Green Dolphin Street” are exhaustive and definitive. The bafflement comes in a question: How could an artist of this importance, who did not die young, who retained his creative powers to the end, who lived and worked his entire life in the jazz capital of the world, remain so unknown in his lifetime? In late March of 2005, between sets at Smalls, three members of a band called Across 7th Street shared memories of Hewitt. Ari Roland, Hewitt’s bass player of choice, appears on the two Hewitt recordings that have been released to date. (Kaven has enough unreleased material for approximately five more Hewitt CD’s.) Roland’s arco solos are like twisting filaments of bright song threaded through Hewitt’s deep textures. Roland remembered, “Frank used to say, ‘Every time you play, make it like it’s going to be your last time.’ Frank’s whole thing was, every single time, no matter who it was with—Louis Hayes, or Art Blakey, or the single worst drummer in the world at a jam session—he was going to play #hard#, as hard as he could. For Frank it was like, ‘This is what I do in my life. You may like it, you may not like it, but I’m going to give you exactly who I am, every single time.’ And man, the consistency was frightening.” Alto/tenor saxophonist Chris Byars, who collaborated often with Hewitt at Smalls, said, “I don’t think there was anybody faster than Frank. Nobody on any instrument could take this guy. He could play really fast #at any tempo#.” Pianist Sacha Perry, who acknowledges that, when he was starting out, he “followed Frank around,” had some thoughts on the subject of Hewitt’s neglect: “He was an intransigent man. To Frank, asking for a gig was like kissing ass, and he wasn’t going to kiss ass to any mortal.” Roland added, “I believe it was a kind of perfect storm. There was Frank’s personality—very difficult and prideful. There was his alcoholism and drug addiction. Timing was also a factor. If he had come up in 1945 or even 1950, he might have had a better shot. But by the time Frank was fully formed, styles had changed. And of course, there was the music industry not wanting to hear anything real.”
On his way out the door for the next set, Roland remembered something else. “When Frank met young musicians who were complaining about the scene or whatever, he would always say, ‘Never stop. Never stop playing. I never stopped playing.’ Man, Frank had day jobs his whole life. But he always played hard, and he never stopped.”
--Thomas Conrad