Sometimes even a glimmer of open-mindedness can spell good fortune. For a preternatural cool cat like Hampton Hawes, it took the form of allowing himself to think that the man he watched deliver the Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, had “soul and might listen.” What Hawes wanted the 35th President of the United States to listen to was his petition for a pardon on a guilty plea he’d entered after being arrested for possession of heroin on November 13, 1958, his 30th birthday. His plea resulted in a ten-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, Texas, the pianist’s second term at the minimum security prison-hospital.
In addition to the outstanding body of recorded work that Hawes produced over the course of his career, he authored one of the most candid autobiographies in all of jazz literature. The defiant tone and frankness that drives the narrative of Raise Up Off Me was also present when Hawes told prosecutors what they could do with their offer of a grant of immunity in exchange for his testimony against bigger fish in the narcotics trade. “Just before sentencing, I was visited by a fine, light skinned [sister] who asked me how I’d like to pay these white MF’s back. I said to her, ‘You work for the blue-eyed man, don’t you[?]’ She gave me a funny look and split. Next day I pleaded guilty and got a dime.” The “dime” was twice the recommended maximum sentence, but it later became a basis for his clemency petition, which Hawes angled with characteristic boldness.
Today is Hampton Hawes’s 88th birthday anniversary. The Los Angeles native emerged in the late ‘40’s as one of the finest bebop pianists on the West Coast. Charlie Parker and Bud Powell were his models, but Hawes, the son of a Presbyterian minister and a church pianist, was one of the first modernists to season his playing with gospel overtones. Hawes’s collaborator on Raise Up Off Me, the Worcester native Don Asher, said that when he first heard Hampton playing at Storyville in Boston in the early 50’s, “I had never heard any pianist crackle and burn up a club like this.” At Do the Math, pianist Ethan Iversen’s blog, he says that while Hawes had “a strong and urgent touch, there was always ‘air’ in and around his lines. He seemed to breathe his bluesy bebop into the piano…Every time I return to Hawes I’m refreshed by his unpretentious virtuosity and perfect jazz beat.”
While Hawes offered something unique as a pianist, he followed another kind of regimen that plagued modern jazz in the ’40s and ’50s. “Everybody I knew, except Wardell [Gray], was using heroin at that time. Some were turned on by Bird– not by him directly, but reasoning that if they went out and got [high] like him they might get closer to the source of his fire. Some learned, and others never did, that junk has no more to do with playing good than the make of your [car] or the shade of your skin…[But] it was the times and the environment that strung most of us out. You’re on your way to the gig, you see some cats tying up, you think, all right, let me try some of that; like a kid riding his first bicycle, drinking his first Cherry pop. You try it, it feels good, and there you go. And the casualty list in the ’50s– dead, wounded, and mentally deranged– started to look like the Korean War was being fought at the corner of Central and 45th.”
Hawes got away from the South Central war zone when he was stationed in Japan during his service in the Army between 1952 and ’54. The following year, he began recording for Contemporary Records, and over the next two decades maintained an affiliation with the label and its owner, Lester Koenig, who produced his records and guided his career. The brilliant recordings Hawes made at a prolific rate between 1955 and ’58 seemed to anticipate the need there would be to stockpile material that could be released in the event he was incarcerated again. In addition to the trio sessions he made during this period, he also led the multi-volume series, All Night Session, which introduced guitarist Jim Hall on record, and a pair of 1958 classics: Four!, with guitarist Barney Kessell; and For Real , with saxophonist Harold Land and the 22-year-old bassist Scott LaFaro. But with his arrest on November 13, 1958, that was it until he saw something in JFK.
In Raise Up Off Me, Hawes says, “Just after my third Christmas I was watching John Kennedy accept the presidency on the Washington steps. Something about the look of him, the voice and eyes, the way he stood bright and coatless and proud in that cold air… I thought, that’s the right cat; looks like he got some soul and might listen.
“The next day I told one of the medical officers I wanted to apply for a presidential pardon. He said, ‘That’s the root of your trouble, Hampton, you refuse to be realistic. When you leave here you’re probably going to go back to dope because you’ll still be thinking unrealistic.’
“They put so many obstacles in my path, warning me the effort would be useless and I’d be worse off than before, that it was a year before I even found out the name of the pardon attorney I had to contact. Meanwhile I took care of business, played some piano, watched the volunteers come in on their three-to-six month commitments, go back out on the streets and be back in the tunnels a week, month, or year later.
“Late in 1962 the official form finally arrived: Application for Executive Clemency. Raft of pages in funny type and at the bottom of the first page the date 1923, so I knew nothing in this field had changed for a long while.
“Most of the brief was made up of routine information questions. The last page was the heavy one, the place where you explain your reasons. I decided I didn’t want to make it a personal cry for help. What I did was send John Kennedy a directive: as you are the Commander-in-Chief, it is my duty as a citizen to inform you that an injustice has been perpetrated, one of your people is being subjected to cruel and unjust punishment, and it is your duty to consider the evidence and reciprocate. [I] made it professional and detached. I wasn’t asking for a shoulder to cry on. It was as if I were an officer in battle informing my commander that as things are coming down at present we’re getting our ass kicked, might be a good idea to switch to plan B. And then to round it off I added some heavy legal[ese] in the Latin I dug up in the library.
“Now at the time I was in the honor ward. Established, non-fretting. Cool, docile, and not contemplating escape. Had my own room, unlimited TV privileges, first in chow line, free to walk on the grounds; it was the next thing to the streets. I’d made a lot of friends among the staff and started collecting letters of recommendation to go with the brief. I hadn’t won anyone over, no one thought it was any use, thought I was crazy to try, but they wanted to help me take my best shot.
“By March  I had collected 18 letters of recommendation and made my move: sent the letters with the application to the President and tried to forget about it…In July, I was let out for an afternoon to play a jazz concert at Texas Christian University. My first day on the outside in five Christmases. Later, one of the musicians said he had heard that Lady Bird Johnson was in the audience and that was probably how it all came about. But I was looking inward and didn’t see any ladybird there that day or any other kind of bird.”
Good news was just around the corner. “On August 16, 1963, the President of the United States came through. I woke up in the morning just as I’d been doing for five years, took my little funny case into the can to wash up and brush my teeth, headed for chow as usual, here’s another day, man, and was stopped by a security guard. Deputy MOC wants you at the administration building. The guard drove me over
“Dr. Foley, the deputy medical officer, said, ‘Good morning, Hampton.’ Cool. Behind his desk with two flags, the American flag of the Public Health Service flag, and between them the big color picture of John F. Kennedy. ‘I’ve got some news for you, Hampton.’ He turned and called through a doorway to another doctor and now his voice was shaking a little. ‘Would you come in, Bob? I want you to hear this.’ He showed Bob the paper. ‘Ever see one of these?’ Bob’s eyes got wide and he shook his head. Never. So the top two cats in the hospital told me to my face that my struggle was over, the long five years was over and I wouldn’t have to do the other five. Executive Clemency granted by authority of the President of the United States. I had my final diploma.
“I sat down and asked them to read it again. That’s it then, I said. ‘Yeah,’ they said, and handed it to me. I saw a blur of Gothic letters on parchment paper, about twenty ‘whereases,’ signed with the Man’s name. I said when can I leave? They said forthwith.
“Someone drove me to Dr. Kay’s house on the edge of the grounds…Next thing I remember I was drinking a toast with his family downstairs, and now the curtains were parting a bit, clear light showing through, and it began to come in on me what had happened. August, Texas, dig it. Hot as blazes in the little linoleum kitchen. My first drink in five years. Made it. President told them to let me go. Right? Laid it on him in the Latin. Some hope left in the world. Nine years strong out, all those hospitals and dungeons, right? Made it, kicked. Standing up with this fine family tall, straight, [clean]. Looking good, feeling strong, together, confident. Never been so confident before. And all these people who’d help me thinking a miracle had happened. Wasn’t no miracle. The only thing that had happened was the most ordinary thing in the world– somebody was watching over the country. President sitting up there in his tower and a small cry for help had come out of the dungeon, filtered on up there. And the powers that be answered back, you don’t need to feel alone anymore. Wasn’t no miracle. What happened was normal, the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen if the person on the throne is watching the shop, doing his job. So how could it be a miracle?
“American Airlines lifting over Fort Worth. Heading west, 30,000 feet over the Pecos River. Dig it. Cute little smiling stewardess in an orange hat coming in at me with the first words I’d heard on the outside in five years. ‘Good afternoon, sir, would you like coffee or a beverage?’ I said, ‘Baby, please bring me a hard drink, any kind at all.’ And when she returned with it, still smiling, the cute cap perched just so on the top of her hair, she said, ‘How was your day today?’ Like I was coming back from a week’s vacation on a dude ranch or visiting old grandmammy in Abilene. ‘How was your day today?’ ‘Just beautiful,’ I said.”
Hawes celebrated his return home by going to see Thelonious Monk at the It Club. The last time he’d seen Thelonious was six years earlier in New York, where Monk gave him a “clean shirt, a bath, and a pep talk.” At the It, he was concerned that the inscrutable Monk didn’t recognize him now that he was “looking right and thinking right.” But Monk eventually “danced a couple of quick circles around me, and said, ‘Your sunglasses is at my New York pad.’ It was his funny way of telling me that someone on the outside had been thinking about me.”
A few pages later, the memoir takes the inevitable turn to the events of November 22, 1963. “In the autumn of my first year out, three months after throwing me the lifeline that reached from the White House to Watts, John Kennedy was murdered in Texas.”
Film footage of Hawes is fairly scant, but his fleet-fingered playing is seen to good advantage in this performance with Bob Cooper, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne at Shelly’s Manne-Hole in 1970. The group opens with a fast blues, followed by “Stella By Starlight,” and “Milestones.” Brown and Manne were also with the pianist on his final studio session, At the Piano, in 1976. Hawes died on May 22 of the following year at the age of 48.