That's SIR Roland Hanna to You, Pal

by Con Chapman

In America by constitution there are no titles of nobility, although the House of Jazz has its counts (Bill Basie) and dukes (Edward Kennedy Ellington). What, then, is a guy supposed to do who is deserving but without honor in the country that gave birth to jazz—a not uncommon phenomenon in a world where the music seems exotic from far away, but a product of disreputable people and neighborhoods when close at hand?


Sir Roland Hanna


Well, there is knighthood, which in England is an honor without honor, so to speak, handed out like candy at Christmas to over-the-hill rockers. In Liberia, apparently, they hold the title of “Sir” in higher esteem, where it is reserved for truly accomplished musicians such as Roland Hanna.


Apres un Reve (After a Dream, by Faure), Roland Hanna, Ron Carter, Grady Tate


Hanna came from Detroit and followed in the footsteps of Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, to name two other keyboard greats from the Motor City. He could swing in a variety of styles and on his first album, Sir Elf, pulled off admirable homages to Art Tatum and Errol Garner. His versatility was perhaps held against him, the way piano lounge patrons find it easy to ignore a player whose sounds are as familiar to them as their favorite cocktails. Nothing to listen to here—I'll have another Scotch.



He played with Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus at the beginning of his career, but thereafter did most of his work in trios that he led, although he was long associated with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He was also in demand as an accompanist, performing sympathetically behind Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughn, among others.

Lots of players suffer from lapses in taste over the course of long careers, usually the result of a bad case of commercialism brought on by a need to pay the rent, but Hanna continually raised the bar, as Jimmy Heath put it. He composed over 400 works, including a jazz ballet for orchestra and strings, trios for cello, flute and French horn, and a symphonic composition—“Oasis”—that he performed as guest soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra near the end of his life, returning home after a career that included performances around the world, particularly Europe and Japan.


Earl Hines


Hanna, who died in 2002, was knighted in 1970 by President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia for humanitarian services, which you can avail yourself of to this day on his recordings. A good place to start, in my opinion, is his solo treatments of Duke Ellington compositions. Chasing the Duke is a competitive sport—players ranging from Earl Hines to Thelonious Monk have tried and succeeded in producing interpretations of Ellington in their own styles—and Hanna's is up there with the best of them.