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Friday, June 02, 2006

New York Daily News - News & Views Columnists - Stanley Crouch: Dimming the lights for a jazz beacon

New York Daily News - News & Views Columnists - Stanley Crouch: Dimming the lights for a jazz beaconDimming the lights
for a jazz beacon

Whether or not anyone outside of this town likes it, New York is the cultural capital of America. Writers, painters, actors, musicians, dancers and everybody else in the arts usually comes this way. So it is fitting that here, Lois Gilbert, managing director and owner of, perhaps the busiest jazz Web site, is set to begin what may become a new tradition.

This Sunday night at 9, in recognition of the recent death of pianist John Hicks, the lights will be dimmed in all of New York's major jazz rooms. For a minute, the lights will go down in the Cornelia Street Cafe, the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, the Jazz Standard, Birdland, Iridium, Smoke, and rooms outside of New York such as Cecil's in New Jersey, Blues Alley in Washington, and Yoshi's in San Francisco. On Friday and Saturday nights, there will be a benefit for the John Hicks family at Sweet Rhythm, where many of New York's finest pianists - Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller and Junior Mance - will be playing the music of John Hicks. As they used to say, "You can't beat that with a stick."

Why is all of this attention being brought to a musician whom most of you never heard play or never even knew existed? As running backs often observe, the touchdowns for which they are celebrated were made possible by the offensive line. That line protects the back and opens the holes in the defensive line so that they can make their best moves.

Though he was a superb soloist and a fine jazz composer, John Hicks was a great lineman. At the keyboard he was masterful at heating up the rhythm section, making sense of what the featured musician was playing, as well as following, guiding, or correcting either an instrumentalist or a singer. If someone wanted to play pretty, he knew just which notes and chords to pick. If fire was what they wanted, Hicks could bring more than enough logs to build quite a distinctive fire. When swing was the objective, he could put such a jubilant brand on the beat that the walls seemed to shiver with satisfaction and excitement.

In a historical moment as narcissistic as ours, it may be hard to appreciate someone who was loved for his ability to support others. In our empty celebrity culture it is now almost unthinkable that someone would be admired for expressing the essence of his personality through his empathy for fellow performers.

That is the deepest human meaning of jazz: it is about the individual rising from a collective. When you hear a jazz band take off, that is what you are hearing: empathy as self-expression.

As recognizable as his style was, as unique a man as he was, empathy was central to the virtuosity of John Hicks. He gave far more than most others and made it much easier to experience a great performing art as it made its way through the air.

Originally published on May 31, 200

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