Hampton Hawes: Jazz Great Pardoned by JFK

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The Jazz Pianist Received a Pardon from JFK

 A few months ago, I read with interest a New York Times article a story about how a jazz pianist and a great American president’s lives coincided in a small bit of history. The article was called, The President of the Cool.

Hampton Hawes (1928-1977) was one of the great jazz pianists; fiercely independent, he learned everything, improvisation, technique, harmony, theory, music history, on his own. Lester Koenig, who recorded his last album for Contemporary in the late 1970s, was one of his champions as was the great Art Tatum.

Hawes’ autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, is still one of jazz music’s best. Other great jazz books include Anita O’Day’s High Times, Hard Times, drummer Art Taylor’s super-honest jazz interview book Notes and Tones, as well as Art Pepper’s Straight Life. And don’t forget Three Wishes by Nica de Koenigswater. All these books give intimate portraits of the trials and tribulations of jazz life as lived by the musicians. Not some artificial Hollywood film portrayal, like Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm, with Sinatra playing Frankie Machine, a dope addict jazz drummer (I do like Elmer Berstein’s soundtrack though).

Raise Up Off Me
Hawes’ Autobiography (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Hampton Hawes, like O’Day, Pepper, and so many of his generation of jazz musicians,  was addicted to heroin. Back then you would be put in prison for being a junkie, maybe sent to dry out in a big Lexington, Kentucky hospital where addicts were sent then before hospitals treated the condition.

The New York Times piece, written by poet Ishmael Reed, tells of how Hampton Hawes watched Kennedy’s inauguration and was very impressed by the style and coolness of the new president. Remember JFK didn’t wear a hat at his inauguration, starting a hatless trend that has endured up til today (now hipsters are wearing hats and sporting beards). Hawes was in jail when he watched JFK, and because he was impressed by the new democratic president’s looks, suavity, and style, he wrote and asked for a presidential pardon.  JFK pardoned him on August 16, 1963.

I used to go to a small valley club called Donte’s and see Hampton Hawes, who was in residence there. He was an amazing self-taught musician. It was nice to see how JFK and Hawes’ paths crossed in such an auspicious way.