John Josephus Hicks Jr. (December 21, 1941 – May 10, 2006) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. He was leader for more than 30 recordings and played as a sideman on more than 300.After early experiences backing blues musicians, Hicks moved to New York in 1963. He was part of Art Blakey's band for two years, then backed vocalist Betty Carter from 1965 to 1967, before joining Woody Herman's big band, where he stayed until 1970. Following these largely mainstream jazz experiences, Hicks expanded into freer bands, including those of trumpeters Charles Tolliver and Lester Bowie. He rejoined Carter in 1975; the five-year stay brought him more attention and helped to launch his recording career as a leader. He continued to play and record extensively in the United States and internationally. Under his own leadership, his recordings were mostly bebop-influenced, while those for other leaders continued to be in a diversity of styles, including multi-year associations with saxophonists Arthur Blythe, David Murray, David "Fathead" Newman, and Pharoah Sanders.
== Early life ==
Hicks was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 21, 1941, the oldest of five children. As a child, he moved with his family around the United States, as his father, Rev John Hicks Sr, took up jobs with the Methodist church. His family was middle class; "I was brought up as a decent human being, where you had aspirations and there were expectations", he commented. He began playing the piano aged six or seven in Los Angeles. His mother, Pollie, was his first piano teacher. He also took organ lessons, sang in choirs and tried the violin and trombone. He began playing the piano in church once he could read music, around the age of 11. His development accelerated once his family moved to St. Louis, when Hicks was 14 and he settled on the piano. In St. Louis, he attended Sumner High School. While there, he played in schoolmate Lester Bowie's band, the Continentals. Hicks cited influences "from Fats Waller to Thelonious Monk to Methodist church hymns", as well as local pianists. He was initially interested in the blues-based compositions of Horace Silver and popular songs such as "I Got Rhythm" and "There Will Never Be Another You", for their easily recognised harmonies.Hicks had summer gigs in the southern United States with blues musicians Little Milton and Albert King. His stint with Little Milton provided his first professional work, in 1958; Hicks stated that his playing in a variety of keys improved because the venue's piano was so out of tune that he had to transpose each piece that they played. Hicks studied music in 1958 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he shared a room with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. He also studied for a short time at the Berklee School of Music in Boston before moving to New York in 1963.
== Later life and career ==
=== 1963–80 ===
In New York, Hicks first accompanied singer Della Reese. He then played with Joe Farrell and toured with trombonist Al Grey and tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell. In 1963 he was also part of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' first band, and appeared on CBC Television backing vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon. After periods with Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson, Hicks joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1964. His recording debut was with Blakey in November that year, for the album 'S Make It. Early in 1965, Hicks toured with Blakey to Japan, France, Switzerland, and England. Blakey encouraged his band members, including Hicks, to compose for the band, although they also played compositions by previous members of the band. He stayed with Blakey for two years, during which time his playing was compared with that of McCoy Tyner, for the level of energy displayed and for some of the intervals that they used.
In the period 1965 to 1967 Hicks worked on and off with vocalist Betty Carter; her liking for slow ballads helped him develop his sense of time. He then joined Woody Herman's big band, where he stayed until 1970, playing as well as writing arrangements for the band. Hicks "also recorded with Booker Ervin and Sonny Simmons (both 1966), Hank Mobley (1967), and Lee Morgan (1968)". From 1972 to 1973 Hicks taught jazz history and improvisation at Southern Illinois University. From the 1970s he also played in more avant garde bands. "He recorded with Oliver Lake (1970) and performed and recorded in the Netherlands with Charles Tolliver (1972)." He played with Blakey again in 1973. Hicks' debut recording as leader was on May 21, 1975, in England. The session resulted in two albums – the trio Hells Bells, with bassist Clint Houston and drummer Cliff Barbaro, and the piano solo Steadfast. They were released by Strata-East Records, but not for several years: Hells Bells emerged in 1978 or 1980.Hicks reunited with Carter in 1975, including accompanying her in a musical play, Don't Call Me Man, that year. After recording with Carter on her Now It's My Turn in 1976, Hicks returned to her band full-time; this raised his profile and led to his own recording – After the Morning. His recording continued, including with "Lester Bowie (1974), Carter Jefferson (1978), and Chico Freeman (1978–79)." Hicks was dismissed in 1980 by Carter, a forceful bandleader, for drinking.
=== 1981–89 ===
Some Other Time in 1981, with bassist Walter Booker and drummer Idris Muhammad, revealed more of Hicks as a composer, and included his best-known song, "Naima's Love Song"."Hicks led bands from the mid-1970s. His small groups included a quartet of Sonny Fortune, Walter Booker, and Jimmy Cobb (1975–82, from 1990); a trio, without Fortune (from 1981); a quartet or trio, with the flutist Elise Wood added or replacing the drummer; another quartet, with the addition of Gary Bartz; a different trio with Curtis Lundy or Ray Drummond on double bass and Idris Muhammad on drums; quartets involving various of these musicians, as well as Watson, Blythe, Murray, Herring, or Craig Handy, and with Victor Lewis added to the pool of drummers; quintets and sextets whose members have also involved Robin Eubanks and Tolliver (both from 1982), Branford Marsalis (1982–4), Hannibal Peterson (from 1983), Wynton Marsalis (1983–4), Craig Harris (1985–6), Eddie Henderson (1985–6, 1988–90), and Freeman (1985–8); and a big band (formed in autumn 1982 and revived on occasion into the late 1990s)". He played in the UK with Freeman's band in 1989.From 1983, the flautist Elise Wood was frequently a member of his groups. As a duo, they played mostly jazz, but also some classical music. They formed a business partnership – John Hicks-Elise Wood, Inc. – and toured the US, Europe and Japan in the 1980s.From the early 1980s until his death he performed solo and led his own groups, including the Keystone Trio, with Idris Muhammad and George Mraz. He also freelanced, including with more contemporary players such as Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Pharoah Sanders. "During the 1980s Hicks played as a sideman in numerous groups, including those led by Richie Cole (1980), Arthur Blythe (In the Tradition), David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Art Davis, and Pharoah Sanders; he recorded with these musicians, as well as with Ricky Ford (1980, 1982), Alvin Queen (1981), Peter Leitch (1984), Vincent Herring (1986), and Bobby Watson (1986, 1988)". In 1984 he had a big band that rehearsed; a sextet from it played concerts. From around 1989 into the 1990s he played with the Mingus Dynasty band, including for performances of the symphony Epitaph. He recorded two albums in Japan in 1988 – the trio East Side Blues and the quartet Naima's Love Song, with altoist Bobby Watson added. He became "a fixture at international music festivals" as well as continuing to play in New York.
=== 1990–2006 ===
Hicks divorced his wife, Olympia, in the early 1990s. The couple had a son and daughter (Jamil Malik and Naima)."Like so many straight-ahead jazz artists, John Hicks did his share of label-hopping in the '90s. Instead of recording for one company consistently, he would offer different projects to different labels." He continued to record in the 1990s, including "in duos with Drummond (1989), Jay McShann (1992), and Leitch (1994); as a leader; in cooperative sessions with Kenny Barron (1989), Cecil McBee and Elvin Jones (as the Power Trio, 1990), with George Mraz and Muhammad (as the Keystone Trio, from 1995), and with Eric Alexander, Mraz, and Muhammad (1998); and further as a sideman with Murray, Leitch, Blythe, and Freeman, as well as with Roy Hargrove (1989–90, 1995), Bartz (1990), Lake (1991), Steve Marcus and Valery Ponomarev (both 1993), Nick Brignola, Russell Gunn, and Kevin Mahogany (all 1994), the Mingus Big Band (c1995), Fortune (1996), and Jimmy Ponder (1997)." As leader, his choice of material in the 1990s was often of commonly played standards. He played in the UK with the Mingus Big Band in 1999, and played on their album Blues and Politics from the same year.His most commercially successful recordings were tributes to other musicians, including Something to Live For (1998), Impressions of Mary Lou (2000), and Fatha's Day (2003). There were five such albums, all linked to Pittsburgh-associated pianist-composers; the other two were Nightwind: An Erroll Garner Songbook, and Music in the Key of Clark.Hicks played and recorded with jazz artists such as Joe Lovano and David "Fathead" Newman. He played on five of Newman's albums for HighNote Records. He was described in 2000 as the "HighNote house pianist". The pianist recorded the seventh instalment of the "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall" series of solo concerts, which were recorded for Concord Records. He was part of Lovano's quartet in 1998, which led to Hicks being part of the saxophonist's nonet from its formation the following year.Hicks and Wood married in 2001. He made a rare recording on organ (Hammond B3) on saxophonist Arthur Blythe's Exhale. "over the last 12 years [of his life, he] released several collaborations with his wife Elise Wood to mixed reviews (Single Petal of a Rose, Trio & Strings, Beautiful Friendship)".Towards the end of his life, Hicks taught at New York University and The New School in New York. Asked about his teaching, Hicks replied that "I don't care how advanced my students are, I always start them off with the blues. It all comes from there." Early in 2006 Hicks again played in a big band, this time led by Charles Tolliver. In January and February, he toured Israel, chiefly playing Thelonious Monk compositions. Hicks' final studio recording was On the Wings of an Eagle in March 2006. His last performance was at St Mark's United Methodist Church in New York City a few days before he died. He died on May 10, 2006, from internal bleeding. Hicks is buried at South-View Cemetery in his hometown of Atlanta.Wood survived him, and has led a band dedicated to his music. In the view of AllMusic reviewer Michael G. Nastos, "Hicks died before reaping the ultimate rewards and high praise he deserved". A collection of his papers and compositions, as well as video and audio recordings, is held by Duke University.
== Playing style ==
Hicks had a style of his own, containing a "combination of irresistible creativity and responsiveness [...] encompassing swing, hard bop and the avant garde, and made him a first-call choice for many of the most important American modern jazz groups". "Hicks had his critics, some of whom condemn him for insubstantiality." The Penguin Guide to Jazz commented that "This [...] is missing the point. Almost always, he is more concerned to work within the dimensions of a song than to go off into the stratosphere."A reviewer of a 1993 release, Lover Man: A Tribute to Billie Holiday, commented that Hicks "mastered the technique of shaping a piano chord so it sounds like the rising and falling of a breath". Fellow pianist George Cables stated that Hicks "was a very strong and energetic player, and a very warm player, very much part of the tradition". His "left hand carries subtle dynamic shadings [... He has] a reverence for melody and a sense of musical destination that gives form to his improvisations."As an accompanist, Hicks played delicately, with carefully voiced chords.
== Compositions and arrangements ==
His compositions "are wandering and melodic, suggestive and malleable yet memorable". He "enjoyed writing arrangements for a quintet or sextet, often, like the finest jazz composers, tailoring parts to specific musicians. In the past, these have included artists of the caliber of Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring; more recently he has been working with Javon Jackson and Elise [Wood]".
== Discography ==
An asterisk (*) after the year indicates that it is the year of release.
=== As leader/co-leader ===
=== As sideman ===
== References ==