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If there is any truth to the saying that you have to stay on your feet to keep up with the game, then John Hicks is a prize dancer and a marathon man combined. For the past 40 years the 64-year-old jazz pianist has plied his skills, to great advantage, in almost every department of the genre.
Hicks, who will perform here between January 31 and February 4 as part of this year's Hot Jazz series, cites influences ranging from Fats Waller piano rolls, Methodist church music, Gerorge Gershwin and bebop. You can throw in some avant garde forays into that rich mix plus a generous portion of the blues, and that might go some way to explaining why Hicks is one of the most sought-after pianists on the New York jazz scene.
For Hicks, it all boils down to one simple source. "I've played all kinds of stuff, and I teach at the New School [of Music, in New York]. I don't care how advanced my students are, I always start them off with the blues. It all comes from there."
Considering the fact that Hicks spent most of his formative years in St. Louis, with its strong blues tradition, that is hardly surprising. Then there is the parental-ecclesiastical influence, with a childhood romance thrown in for good measure.
"My father was a Methodist minister and my mom was my first piano teacher. I got great experience playing piano in church. I started playing there as soon as I learned how to read music," Hicks recalls. "They are some of my earliest musical memories. I think I was 11. I know I wasn't 12 yet because there was a girl I really liked who sang alto in the church choir. She was 13, and as I wasn't 12 yet, I didn't have a chance."
That was back in St. Louis - long before Hicks eventually made the inevitable move, at the age of 21, to New York. Hicks "blames" his relocation on one of the doyens of the global jazz community, octogenarian trumpeter Clark Terry. "Yeah, Clark helped me get to New York," says Hicks with a chuckle. "I'd had some wonderful mentors, like Clark and Miles Davis, before I got over there, and I'd had a lot of exposure to some really great musicians before, and that really helped. Of course, my dad and mom were also influences."
Prior to his New York move, Hicks had played with the likes of blues stars Little Milton and Albert King, and jazz master saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Johnny Griffin (the latter played here last month). So Hicks had a commensurately soft landing in the Big Apple and quickly found himself in great demand.
"I'd studied at Berklee [College of Music in Boston] and [jazz drummer] Tony Williams used to go to New York every weekend and then come back to Boston on the Monday and tell us everything that was going on there," says Hicks. "I knew what I was headed for."
What Hicks was headed for was a highly successful career playing and recording with a veritable who's who of the jazz pantheon, crossing genre lines and generation borders with aplomb. Saxophonists Sonny Rollins, James Moody and Frank Foster, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Roy Haynes have all benefited from Hicks' energized and inventive keyboard work, and he has led his own bands and big combos on recordings in the States and Japan. Around 10 years ago, Hicks enjoyed a fruitful reunion with legendary vocalist Betty Carter, with whom he first collaborated in the mid-Sixties.
"She was wonderful to be with and play with," says Hicks. "They don't make them like Betty any more."
Hicks also draws inspiration from modern jazz innovator pianist Thelonious Monk, and his forthcoming concerts here will be based on works by Monk plus some standards by other composers.
"When they asked me to do a tribute to Monk in Israel I said: 'That's fine by me.' He was a giant, and has influenced almost every jazz pianist for the past 50 years. It's an honor to play his music."
John Hicks will play with local bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shay Zelman at the Camelot Club, Herzliya on January 31 at 9 p.m.; the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem on February 1 at 9 p.m.; the Tel Aviv Museum on February 2 at 9 p.m. and on February 3 at 9:30 p.m.; and at Abba Hushi House in Haifa on February 4 at 9 p.m.