Milt Hinton left us during the last Christmas season after a rich, full life of 90 years. Much beloved in the jazz community, “The Judge” was the dean of jazz bassists and one of the most recorded bassists in New York. At his funeral I sat next to George Avakian, who produced records for most of the major labels at one time or another. George thought so highly of Milt’s contributions to his recording sessions that once, after he called a date for 20 or so musicians and then discovered that Milt wasn’t available, he said, “My first reaction was to cancel the date. But they told me I couldn’t do that, so I reluctantly hired another bassist.” Milt was in such demand during the heyday of recording that it wasn’t unusual for producers to check his schedule before booking studio time. I finished up a couple of albums for him when he wasn’t available for extra sessions, and I know other bassists who did the same. Milt was always generous, sharing the work when he could.
Hundreds of Milt’s friends and relatives gathered at the St. Albans Congregational Church to see him off. In his eulogy Rev. Henry Simmons recalled how, when he first came to that church and heard that Milt was one of the famous musicians in the congregation, he kept looking around for him. It took him three Sundays to find him. Milt was a humble man, not one to call attention to himself. When they did meet, Rev. Simmons confessed that he was an amateur trumpet player and some time later, at an evening prayer meeting, he took out his trumpet and played something. When he saw Milt afterward, he asked, “How’d I do?” Rev. Simmons said, “Milt was the living example of the adage, if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything. He didn’t say a word.”
At one point in his eulogy Rev. Simmons asked, “How many of you here have been helped by Milt Hinton?” A sea of raised hands made his point. Later, outside the church, I met Bob Cranshaw, who said, “He sure got to me. I was new in New York, and was carrying my bass around in a raggedy old cover. I passed Milt on the street and he said, ‘Son, are you a professional?’ I said I was, and he said, ‘Well, you can’t be walking around with a case that looks like that!’ And he took me into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought me a new one!” Milt’s widow, Mona, says she gets calls almost every day from young musicians who tell her about things Milt did to help them.
Watching the recent showings of Ken Burns’s Jazz on Channel 13, I was pleased to see a couple of brief interviews with Milt, shot a few years ago when he was still in his prime. Fortunately, his reminiscences and photographs have been preserved in his two books – “Bass Line” and “Over Time” – thanks to the magnificent efforts of his friend and co-author, David Berger. Some time ago David discovered the treasure trove of negatives from a lifetime of photography that Milt was storing in his basement. Horrified at the possibility of what could happen to such a unique collection if there were a fire, a flood or a broken water heater, David created a safe archive for the material and began a project of making quality prints of the best negatives. In doing so, he discovered that Milt had not just made a historical record, he had created fine art. David’s enthusiasm led to the creation of gallery shows, posters and the two books. I hope that more of the images in the archive will find their way into publication.
Speaking of George Avakian, Jeff Atterton passed along a story about him that appeared in Steve Voce’s column in the British magazine Jazz Journal. It quotes George on Ben Webster, whom he described as “one of the strongest musicians I ever knew…Ben and I were listening to somebody, standing at the old Birdland bar, and for the third time since midnight I said, ‘Ben, I really have to get home.’ Ben looked me in the eye, said ‘Uh uh!’ and picked me up, turned me sideways and held me over his head! But he was a gentleman…the moment I said ‘I’ll stay,’ he set me down gently and picked up all the change that had fallen out of my pockets.”
Allen Berk called to tell me that a story I ran a while back misnamed a trumpet and violin player who worked in Newport, KY. The man’s name was Bill Mavity, not Bob. Sorry. While he was on the phone, Allen told me about a job he once had in a club in that same town, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio, in an area that had a reputation for rough and ready nightlife. The boss at the club where he was working called Allen into his office and told him the band was fired as of that night. “We’re union musicians,” Allen said. “You have to give us two weeks’ notice.” The boss pulled open his jacket to reveal a holstered pistol and said, “There’s your notice!”