Commentary Magazine



• Milt Hinton, who died eight years ago at the age of 90, was the most versatile jazz bassist who ever lived. He played with—just for starters—Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Bing Crosby, Paul Desmond, Aretha Franklin, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Jackie and Roy, Michel Legrand, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, John Pizzarelli, Pee Wee Russell, Barbra Streisand, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters and Teddy Wilson. (It might be easier to list the famous musicians with whom he didn’t play.) He was also a serious amateur photographer who started bringing a camera to his gigs in 1935, and in 1988 he published a folio of his pictures called Bass Lines whose accompanying text amounted to a concise autobiography. The resulting volume was one of the finest illustrated books about jazz ever published, for Hinton, in addition to being a vivid writer, had a sharp eye and a knack for capturing his colleagues in unpremeditated poses.

Now Bass Lines has been reissued in an expanded edition called Playing the Changes: Milt Hinton’s Life in Stories and Photographs (Vanderbilt University Press, 364 pp., $75) that fills in the blanks in Hinton’s story and brings the narrative down to 1999, just prior to his death. If you love jazz but don’t own Bass Line, it’s an absolute must, and you’ll probably want to buy it even if you already have a copy of the earlier volume, since the new material in this edition is similarly interesting.

Though Hinton’s photographs are always striking, the real significance of Playing the Changes lies in its text. Time and again he tells us stories about the great jazz musicians he knew that illuminate their lives with the immediacy of a candid snapshot. A good example is this priceless glimpse of Louis Armstrong’s offstage life on the road:

Wherever he traveled, he took three tape recorders which were hooked together and stacked up on shelves in a special trunk he’d had made. One of his two valets would load all three machines and, as soon as Pops got into bed, the first one would be turned on. The music was always the same—his own or Guy Lombardo’s—and usually within a couple of minutes, he was snoring. The valets would take turns staying up and watching the machines. When a tape finished, they’d quickly switch on the next recorder, then reload the empty. They knew that if the music stopped, even if only for a few seconds, Louis would wake up.

This anecdote is accompanied by a photograph of Armstrong standing next to his triple-barreled music machine, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a plaid shirt and smiling proudly. It is one of hundreds of pictures so revealing that I can’t even begin to list my favorites, though I do have a special liking for one which was taken at the birthday party that Richard Nixon threw for Duke Ellington at the White House in 1969. It shows Duke Ellington and Willie “The Lion” Smith seated together at a grand piano, playing a duet for a cluster of dazzled onlookers and looking very pleased with themselves. I also like the 1940 photo of two weary musicians from Cab Calloway’s band standing under a sign in front of a North Carolina lunch counter that says HAMBURGERS HOT DOGS LUNCHES FOR COLORED ONLY. Such fragments of life as it is lived are the stuff of which history is made, and Milt Hinton preserved more of them for us to ponder than any other jazz musician of his generation. Thanks to Playing the Changes, he will be remembered for that achievement at least as well as for his ever-tasteful, immaculately swinging bass playing.