A Portrait of Mike Hennessey

by Lawrence Brazier

Mike HenneseyNice chap is Mike Hennessey (photo by Tom Hanley)! It was a joy to hear a fellow Brit sign off with "cheers" at the end of our telephone conversations. The sort of man I would like to spend an evening with, together with a bottle of the same name. It seems now somehow sacrilege to select "English (USA)" when starting a new Word Doc.

Hennessey slips easily into a state of recall. The stories abound, about the piano playing, compositions, productions, books and liner notes. He has been there, done it, rubbed it and probably played it. Hennessey is the universal man, albeit one whom William Blake would have failed to understand, although Art Blakey sure did.

The hip among the British are likely to say "man" to each other, and then lower their eyes in embarrassment because it seems, well, not quite British. Appropriate to form, yours truly enjoyed conversation with a man one could easily meet at Lord's (cricket) or down the boozer (pub) for a pint of warm beer. Having said all that, we are talking about a bloke who has played with Messrs Griffin, Golson, DeFranco, Clark Terry and Nat Adderley, and plenty more besides. His own interviews have ranged from the sublime - trailing around Paris with Thelonious Monk in a interview that eventually took fourteen hours (he spoke slowly?), to the ridiculous - a two word comment from Miles Davis, the second word of which was, characteristically, "off."

Being British, of course, means that humor is among the Hennessey talents. Nothing loud and outrageous mind, but "CDs last longer because you can't get the cellophane off" or "Has there ever been a non-special special guest?" Since living on the Continent with his German wife he gets asked "How's your German?" and his reply is, of course, "She's lovely." However, Mike Hennessey likes his humor to be mostly British - The Two Ronnies, The Goons (among which was Spike Milligan, a Jazz fan beyond the call of duty), and above all "Only Fools And Horses," which two Brits can talk about for hours, retelling the highpoints of one episode after the next. This means that a salient awareness of the utter daftness of life (the root of all real British humor) has not passed unnoticed as far as Hennessey is concerned. Combine humor with Jazz and you get Ronnie Scott. The book on which Hennessey collaborated with Ronnie Scott is so loaded with humor one wonders how Scott ever managed to find time be the great tenor saxophonist he was. Hennessey has captured many of the Ronnie jokes (and there were plenty that got away; like when it was suggested that Scott played free Jazz and the man replied "Well, I sometimes play very cheaply, but never free."). Ronnie Scott could have been a stand-up comic any time he ran out of reeds. It was Ronnie Scott who was able to slowly drive a wedge between the ban against foreigners and a virtually incestuous British Jazz scene, which would bring American stars to that isle set in a silver sea. The Scott/Hennessey book, Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues, relates not so much the down side of running a Jazz club ("...we were so poor we were obliged to sell clothes-pegs to Gypsies to make a living."), but more of the will to survive coupled with an uncompromising dedication to presenting great music. The book is out of print and that is a shame, because a better read, and the chance to laugh out loud while doing so, is seldom found within the realm of published biography. (Publishers should go for this one, it's a guaranteed bestseller.)


Mike Hennessey was born in London on 25 February 1928, one of four children - two older sisters and a younger brother. "The family was musical, my mother played piano and had a good contralto voice and my brother took up drums as a hobby, and still plays (related without a jot of irony). He is managing director of the Welsh Jazz Society. I wound up learning to be a teleprinter operator in the RAF, prior to being given the opportunity to beat the system by becoming a musician and writer.

"I began playing piano, encouraged by my father, at the age of six. I would sit on his knee and he would teach me tunes, mostly in the key of F sharp. He had a most sensitive musical ear, which happily I inherited. He was also a nifty tap dancer. I remember that "Whispering" was one of the first tunes he taught me.

"Although my father left school at 14, he read books by Bertrand Russell, C. E. M. Joad and other philosophers and, having served in the 3rd Dragoon Guards in the 1914-1918 War (the war to end all wars, or should have been) was a dedicated pacifist as, indeed, I am. As far as philosophy goes, my own outlook on life has been taken primarily from my mother and father, and is summed up by the phrase "Live and let live." I think one of the most profound statements I ever read was made by the French writer, Madame de StaÎl, who said, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" (To understand all is to pardon all). A most compassionate philosophy. A book that has impressed me very much recently is Saving Private Power by Michael Zezima, which dramatically contrasts war, as portrayed by Hollywood, and war as it really is."

I asked Mike to offer his thoughts about what seems unavoidable to a life in Jazz: racism and integration.

"Integration is a long and painful process and it is bitterly resisted by people driven by insecurity. Jazz can help - though it doesn't always. One still sees leaders selecting sidemen on the basis of their ethnicity rather than their talent. The white membership of the Lincoln Center Orchestra is somewhat scanty and the much-vaunted Ken Burns documentary on Jazz did not give, in my view, a fair representation of the contribution made to Jazz by white musicians. At the same time it may be relevant to mention that it is not only Europeans who feel that Americans don't appreciate Jazz to the extent that Europeans do. Many American musicians feel the same. The great pity is that Black America gives so little support to its own music."

Despite the taboo subjects (especially for Englishpersons) of Sex, Politics and Religion, Mike Hennessey was able to give a succinct and straight-ahead statement on all three.

Sex: "By all means. Moreover, I believe in mixed marriages. The Pope should marry the Archbishop of Canterbury."

Religion: "Something of a closed book to me. I'm a cozy agnostic - so I'm keeping one foot in the door. Religious factions have been the cause of more wars than any other movement. I think the penchant some black American musicians have had for the Muslim religion is a response to the fanatical white religious fundamentalists who were prominent in the Ku Klux Klan and who have been, and still are, xenophobic. In my view, organized religious groups tend to distort the message of God."

Politics: "I'm passionately interested in politics and depressed by the fact that fewer and fewer people trouble to vote. This is not apathy - its disillusionment. They are not turning away from politics but from politicians. I was Paris correspondent for the Labor Party-supporting national newspaper, the Daily Herald for five years in the 1960s. One of the great characteristics of Jazz is that it is a socialist music, as that great British writer Max Jones was always pointing out. There is the communal, co-operative aspect of ensemble playing, plus you get a chance to display you own individuality in solos. But it is teamwork which makes a good Jazz group and a good political movement. I have been a member of the Labor Party for years, am a strong believer in unions (unlike Wal-Mart) and am a life member of the National Union of Journalists and a member of the Musicians' Union.

Hennessey the immigrant: "I am extremely happy on this side of the English Channel in Germany and, as a firm believer in a united Europe, I deplore the Little Englander attitude of some of my compatriots and their wish to preserve currency with a portrait of the Queen on it. Yes I miss cricket (though it is not the game it used to be - old fogies like me, of course, say that about everything), country pubs, English villages, and, of course, Ronnie Scott's. On the other hand, my wife Gaby and I usually make it to half a dozen different countries in the year - recent trips have included France, Switzerland, Israel, Lithuania, Spain, Cyprus and Corsica, mostly in connection with Jazz festivals.

Mike Hennessey and a life of Jazz. "My attraction to Jazz began when I heard a 78 rpm record of the Gene Krupa Orchestra playing 'Tuxedo Junction' - that would be around 1940."

Thereafter we read that that man has written for Jazz publications in Canada, the USA, the UK, Poland, Italy, Spain and Germany. He has chaired and spoken at music business conferences worldwide and is an acknowledged specialist on copyright and intellectual property protection. Together with the Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues book with Ronnie Scott in the UK, he also published Klook, a well-received biography of Kenny Clarke, and Tin Pan Alley, a book about the British music business. Hennessey covered the international music scene for Billboard.

Then there is Mike Hennessy, piano player. The CDs featuring Mike on piano are as good as it gets in the bop field. Unsung Hero features Chas Burchell, one of the undiscovered geniuses of Jazz. Burchell could be likened to the Austria Hans Koller. Both had a fantastic talent and both did not really achieve the fame they deserved. Koller is still an insider's tip among musicians, but Burchell simply died before his time. Hennessey took over "The Chastet" after Burchell passed on and "Shades of Chas Burchell" is a fine swinging CD, with some light yet persuasive piano interludes by Mike.

"One of the greatest experiences was having the honor to play and record with Nat Adderley, Billy Mitchell, Arthur Blythe, Benny Golson, Keter Betts and Jimmy Cobb on a "Tribute To Dinah Washington" tour in Germany with singer Jan Harrington. What more could a pianist want than to be backed by Keter Betts and Jimmy Cobb? Of course, I had great pleasure over the years playing with the "Chastet". I also have to mention Clark Terry, one of the greatest musicians and nicest guys in the business. Much satisfaction, too, from touring with the great Buddy DeFranco, playing with Nathan Davis, Johnny Griffin, Dusko Goykovic and Louis Stewart and recording (just one track) with Ronnie Scott.

"My idols - Lester, Bird, Diz, Clark and scores of pianists - Garner, Cole, Shearing, Flanagan, Hank Jones, Kenny Drew, Bill Evans, Pete Jolly, Wynton Kelly, Monty Alexander etc., etc. I guess I drew inspiration from all of them, plus others. My wife is currently knocking me out when I have the volume too high on the record player.

"I have many favorite songs, the choice of a very wide range depending on my mood. "Autumn Leaves" takes a lot of beating (just consider how many other composers have borrowed, and only slightly altered, the sequence). Potential standards are increasingly rare - there's been a general dumbing down in music - but now and again a worthwhile composition emerges - "Estate" is a good example. There are so many great songs. One of my all-time favorites, and one of my father's, is Poem by the Czechoslovakian composer Zdenk Fibich. The great benefit of having a 7,000-plus collection of LPs and CDs is the bonus of rediscovery. Just recently, I rediscovered the abundant talent of the Martinique-born, Paris-based pianist, Michel Sardaby - who was a good friend when I lived in Paris, he made a duo album in 1984 with Monty Alexander, Caribbean Duet, and it's a gem. I think the Lynne Arriale Trio is one to be highly commended, as is the brilliant German tenor saxophonist, Peter Weniger, who has just produced the album LegalParadizer with Decebal Badila on bass and Wolfgang Haffner on drums.

"Basically, of course, there is hardly any music that I'm not interested in? The hackneyed old maxim stands good: "There are only two kinds of music - good and bad." So I could give a flip answer and say, "Only bad music." But I detest rap and hip-hop and the more bizarre excesses of the Jazz avant-garde, (so-called, incidentally, because they avant-garde a clue). As for Classical music, well, I guess I simply don't have the chops to play myself and I don't read."

On the meaning of swing. "Just listen to Lester Young with Count Basie, or dig Zoot Sims."

Bass players. "When it comes to bass players, I'd happily settle for John Clayton, Peter Bockius, Keter Betts, Buster Williams, Niels-Henning, Ray Drummond."

Singers. "Apart from Francis Albert, one of the best singers of the great American songbook is Jack Jones." (Yours truly always felt that Jack Jones was really out on his own - Cockney joke.) "I also dig Peggy Lee and Greetje Kauffeld (apart from other qualities, they both have impeccable intonation), Nat Cole, Mel Torme, Billie, Ella, Sarah, Ernestine Anderson, Annie Ross, Anita O'Day."

Favorite club. "How did you guess? - at No. 47 Frith Street. I also dug the Paris Blue Note, Chat Qui Peche and Living Room in the good old days. And in New York - the Blue Note, where I played a few Monday jam sessions with Ted Curson, and the Village Vanguard."

Ambition. "To learn German." (Lord knows why.)

The entire interview was carried out by phone and e-mail and I for one loved every minute of it. It is a shame that Mike Hennessey and your correspondent didn't actually meet. Still, it doesn't seem to matter. Such rapport is seldom found and our relationship certainly transcended these earthly bounds. I am sure we will run into each other one day, I shall throw open my arms to await a friendly embrace, and he won't have the foggiest idea of who I am.

by Lawrence Brazier, Sept. 2003

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