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An Interview with Hank Hirsh

As a “new kid on the block”, I must confess to my more-than-mild trepidation concerning participating in any of Portland’s numerous Jam Sessions. We’ve all heard the horror stories (probably most of them wildly embellished with our super imaginative artist’s sensitivities) but nevertheless, it took me several months to muster up the courage to show up at Jax for the Wednesday night, KMHD Jazz Jam, with Hank Hirsh and his band.

I had the good fortune to meet Hank through a shared musical endeavor, and he began encouraging me (and several others) to come into Jax and check it out. That’s just the kind of guy he is. He loves to play, and he wants to give others the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of playing too. Among the full house at Jax on the night I recently went, there were at least 12 people who had come for the express purpose of joining in on the jam session. For me it was a positive and stretching experience, and something I’ll always remember as a good step in my journey. I definitely plan on returning, and I hope to bring others with me.

In case you’re wondering (like I was) I asked Hank some questions about the KMHD Jazz Jam. Here are his answers.

Q. How and when did the KMHD Jazz Jam get started?
A. I think we started in April of 2006. The first evening featured the quintet. KMHD had a promotional idea whereby each DJ invited a few listener/guests to the opening night. The guests could meet the DJ, the band and in some cases the guests were musicians themselves, as were some of the DJ and administrators of KMHD. From that point on we have been there every Wednesday evening. We all hope it continues, but anything can happen in this business.

Q. What were your hopes when it began, and has it turned out the way you imagined?
A. Initially, from the business perspective I had hoped to get something going for the people at Jax. They seemed sincere about promoting jazz and becoming a part of the jazz scene in Portland. We began with a few rooftop sessions, which were quite nice in the warmer months, but there seems to be a city ordinance forbidding music after 10:00 pm. This put us in a situation where we could play longer but we wouldn't be able to continue the rooftop sessions. We opted to play longer. If you want to see nature you take a hike on the weekend at Mt. Hood. If you want to play jazz you do it in a club, and that's where it stands now. Anyway, as nice as it was up there, I didn't like to have our session dependent on the weather. Eight months of the year Portland is the wrong place for that.

My hopes for the session were that we could create a congenial atmosphere for players and fans to come out and kick back. I think we have accomplished that. Play if you feel like it, sit and listen and drink if you don't. The fact that this venue is open to all ages makes it somewhat different than the typical bar. Some younger players come out, and in many cases they have to have their parents drive them. Mom and dad usually seem very supportive and enthusiastic. I love seeing the young kids get up and do this for the first time. It makes me know that the music I love is not an endangered art form.

Q. What does a "normal" jazz session look like?
A. Normal is a subjective term and all sessions seem kind of cyclical. Some nights there are 5 or 6 drummers, 3 or 4 bassists, a couple of vocalists a trumpeter or two. Saxophonists seem to be the predominant players. One night I think there were 6 trombones! In all my experience I had never seen so many bones on a session. It was a gas. Other nights I will stand as the lone horn player and only drummers come. There is no escape from that situation. We play and everyone is happy. Sometimes exhausted, but happy.

Q. Who is invited to participate?
A. Anyone who plays or owns an instrument is invited to participate. It's not as though the rhythm section is a live karaoke machine. I won't let them be mistreated. As I said, everyone is invited to participate, the question is will they be invited to continue or return. I am pretty open minded, but like the vaudeville shows, I possess the hook. "thanks very much. we have some wonderful parting gifts for you..."

Q. What are the benefits of sitting in on a jam session?
A. The benefit of sitting in for an aspiring young musician is immeasurable. You can practice at home all you like, but there is no substitute for standing up in front of a room full of people trying to sort it all out and make a sensible, musical, hip statement. Performing in front of an audience is something that comes naturally to some and not to others. First one must find out which one of those you are. As an experienced player you learn new tunes and new changes for old tunes, hear other players' take on what you just played. It is a beautiful thing to get up and connect with the rhythm section and/or play something nice with another horn player. Make a personal connection.

Q. Who is part of the house band?
A. My band is the house band. The nature of this gig requires that each player has a backup for unforeseen situations or just a night off to spend with wife or girlfriend. Jonas Oglesbee began the session as our drummer and left a few months ago for personal reasons. Kenny Johnson, a Portland mainstay with tons of experience and young Harry McKenzie, a brilliant, swinging junior at Grant High School (the drummer in Sam's trio) have filled in at times and both are familiar with our book. Presently Alan Tarpinian is our drummer. He has been with us for about three months now. He is a great player and wonderful human being. He is always smiling and his exuberance and positivity bring something special to the bandstand. We are just starting to know each other musically and personally. I feel it is going well. I look forward to making our next record with him.

We have two regular bassists. Brendon Lamoreaux has been on the gig since its inception. He has worked very hard at his instrument and is getting better all of the time. He has great stamina and that is a requisite quality for a jam session bassist, especially on the nights when no other bassists show up to sit in. He is also a very good guy. He is also the bassist in my son's trio. He alternates with Patrick Harry, who is presently a student at PSU. He too is a fine bassist and sincere musician. I have known him only a short while, but I dig his work ethic and his committment to the music. Dave Speranza also joins us occasionally and he is my favorite bassist in Portland and a member of my recording band. He is a great young player who improves every second.

The core trio of our quintet is something precious to me. Trombonist Dave Bones is my good friend. We began playing together about 10 or 12 years ago and went our separate ways, then connected again about 4 years ago. Our feeling about the music is our common thread and we are also on the same page about life in general. I don't know a more straight-up honest man, musician or otherwise. He is a fine player and I have learned a lot from him. We get together every Monday and play. Sometimes it is just the two of us or, more often with Sam. Sometimes we don't even play much; just hang. His attention to detail keeps me in line. I have a lot of respect for Bones and when he suggests something, I am all ears. I consider him the co-leader of the band.

My son, Sam is the third member of our core trio and the driving force in the band and, along with his sister Emi, the driving force in my life. Dave and my son Sam have a special relationship that has grown over the years as Sam has progressed. Bones has been insturmental in that progress. No pun intended. Sam is far beyond the level of musicianship of his peers. He has an innate sense of swing and is very creative. He loves the music and plans to make it his life. He has been listening/hearing it since before his birth.

Sam will be auditioning for some music schools out east in the very near future and I am sure he will be accepted. It will be very difficult for me to replace him. He is the real deal and proves it night after night. I used to get bugged about being upstaged by my 16, 17 and now 18 year-old son but I have gotten used to it. I am very proud of what Sam has become and have the greatest confidence in what he plans for his future. This interview is not sufficient time for me to expound about how I feel about Sam. I can only hope that he will let me sit in with him when he gets to the top, or at least put me on the guest list.

Q. What are some of your favorite stories about the jam?
A. There have been many amusing stories about the session. One of my favorite moments was when Cary Campbell, one of Portland's hippest, swinginest and most under-appreciated female vocalists sat in with us. There was another female vocalist, whose name escapes me at the momment, present at the time and she too was quite good and experienced. The two of them did a couple of duo things that rocked the joint. They were embracing and laughing. It remeinded me of a famous picture of Bird and Dizzy hugging with a young John Coltrane in the background. It was the essence of what I (we) strive for. No egos involved, just the music. They didn't know each other before they sang together and probably haven't spoken since, but for that brief moment something extraordinary occurred. Another of my favorite moments was just recently when Cal Hudson, a great local tenor player and I were left to do an unaccompanied cadenza together on a ballad. He is a very sensitive player and we made some nice music. The number of good things that have happened has been far greater than the not-so-good ones or we wouldn't be still doing it.

Q. When did you first become exposed to jazz?
A. My dad had some jazz records around from the swing era. They were on 78's and have long since been lost. He was an opera singer and tried to make it in NY, but did not succeed. I thank Joe Segal, a famous promoter of jazz in Chicago for making the music available to me as a young teenager. He had Sunday afternoon sessions at the North Park Hotel. I could go in and hear Gene Ammons, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Lockjaw Davis, Kenny Dorham, Milt Jackson, Philly Joe Jones, Sonny Rollins, Randy Weston, Elvin Jones, Count Basie, James Moody, Barry Harris, Cannonball and Nat, Dexter, Griffin and many more that I can't think of right now. All the cats! I think the cost back in the 70's was $3.00. My mother had a record of Oscar Peterson's trio playing West Side Story and I didn't know what it was but liked it. I heard Larry Coryell once and searched out his first record (Lady Coryell). That record had Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison on it and it was a great side. After that I started looking for records with those two guys on it and stumbled onto John Coltrane. After that it was off to the races and I discovered Bird and that changed my life.

Q. Who are your greatest influences?
A. Bird, Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Phil Woods, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Jordan and many others too numerous to list here have been my influences on the saxophone. Oh, did I say Bird? Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Cedar Walton, and Duke Ellington have had a lot of influence on my composition.

In my early years in Chicago local legends Tommy Ponce, a great multi-instrumentalist (saxophones and piano were his main instruments but he played trumpet, flute, drums and sang. He and Ira Sullivan grew up together and they were always good friends.), and Lin Halliday, a great saxophonist were very encouraging to me. Tommy was the one who told me to quit my day gig and play. Both were good friends and taught me a lot about playing, not in an academic way, but in the spiritual way. Merle Boley was a wonderful trumpeter, with whom I had a quintet for many years in Chicago. He was a great friend and I loved him.

Q. What do you want people to take away from the jam sessions?
A. I hope that the listener walks out of the session feeling joy. It is the joy of hearing a musician express how he/she feels about the state of things. I hope that the younger players feel inspired to go home and learn the tunes that they didn't know that night, and come back next week and call them. I hope that the more experienced players feel satisfied that they got their notes and thoughts out. That they were able to say what they had in mind and that nobody got in their way that night. I hope that my band enjoys the gig and doesn't feel tortured. I want to feel that I am promoting the art form I love and connecting with people at some personal level. That is the most important part for me. The connection.

Q. What lies ahead in your musical future?
A. I have many new compositions to record and plan to do so as soon as I feel the band is comfortable playing them. I don't like us to read in the studio. I hope that will be happening in the next couple of months. I am sure it will be a nice record. I really like my most recent compositions and musicians that play them tell me they do too. There is an independent film maker who will be using some of my music in a new film and a few of my tunes have been used on an ABC TV series called Wildfire. I would like to have more of that sort of thing.

As I said, Sam will be going to be off to college in the fall I think and I will have to begin life after Sam. That will be one of the biggest life transitions that I have undertaken in some time. I am sure I can find a pianist, but not one that also rides home with me and hangs out in the kitchen after the gig talking about the events of the night or subsitute chord changes. I plan to continue writing because that is the most important part of the whole thing to me. Some day I would like Sam to play my compositions on his own record. Hirsh plays Hirsh. Can you dig it? We will see.


Copyright 2007, Jazz Society of Oregon