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The Masters At His Fingertips, Art Hodes Pays Tribute To Bessie Smith

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Jazz pianist Art Hodes, born in Russia in 1904, grew up near Chicago. His recording career really took off in the 1940s in New York, where he also hosted a radio show and wrote for the magazine The Jazz Record. Later, he moved back to Chicago and the atmosphere that nurtured him.

Hodes' generation of jazz musicians, the ones born around 1900, held tight to the music that first inspired them. Louis Armstrong, listening to some of his early Chicago classics 25 years later, kept flashing back to even earlier New Orleans days. White Midwesterners like Eddie Condon and Hoagy Carmichael never stopped talking about the effect of hearing Bix Beiderbecke's rapturous cornet. These memories helped fuel whole careers.

For Art Hodes, one formative experience was seeing singer Bessie Smith headline a Chicago theater show. Writing about it for The Jazz Record decades later, he remembered the atmosphere before she came on: "Now comes the big hush. Just the piano goin'. It's the blues. Something tightens up in me."

We think of Bessie Smith as a roof-raising powerhouse who worked without a microphone. But Hodes was struck by the stillness when she performed.

"As she sings, she walks slowly around the stage," Hodes wrote. "On and on, number after number, the same hush, the great performance, the deafening applause."

A half century later, in 1976, Hodes waxed a set of blues and pop tunes Smith had recorded, including "Back Water Blues," "Cake Walking Babies From Home" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band." I Remember Bessie has just been reissued on Delmark Records with a few extra tracks, and it's a gem.

Most of the time, Hodes doesn't try to match Bessie Smith's shouting power; he evokes that reverential hush that got to him way back when. And he has her way of bringing out the blues even in non-blues material like "Baby Won't You Please Come Home."

Art Hodes relished playing the role of the old piano professor. By the 1970s, he was an anachronism, pulling off techniques lost to many younger pianists — like playing those ripples up and down the keyboard in the midst of everything else going on. The effect is like a passing wave while you're standing in water.

Listening to Hodes play Bessie Smith with so much feeling, you can hear that the power of the great masters was still accessible to him. But you also feel his sense of loss, a recognition that giants like Smith won't be coming back. That made it imperative for a conservator of old ways like Hodes to do some roof-raising of his own, while he still could. Art Hodes died in 1993, 17 years and a few dozen recordings later.

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