Pulling up to Audio Images recording studio in his light-blue Mercury Sable, jazz pianist Dick Hyman could easily be mistaken for any retired Florida driver. But when the Venice, Fla., resident walks into the small Bradenton studio, he is in his element, where an entire history of jazz piano can be channeled through Hyman's 10 fingers on the beautiful Baldwin grand piano that's never far from reach.
For more than 50 years pianist/arranger/composer/organist Dick Hyman has been considered the man to call for any musical needs. Literally every popular piano and organ style that has been played in America is ensconced in Hyman's hands and mind. This versatile virtuoso can replicate the style of all the American giants of jazz piano, note-for-note, and has recorded well over 100 albums under his own name since the early 1950s. In addition to investigating the earliest periods of jazz and ragtime, his explorations on the Moog synthesizer from the late '50s have been recently reissued and even sampled by rapper Busta Rhymes.
Ever busy at age 73, Hyman now splits time between his home in Venice, performing concerts around the world and composing as the musical consultant to film director Woody Allen since they met in the '70s. Hyman has gone on to score nine of Allen's films, starting with "Zelig" (1983) and including "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995) and their latest collaboration, "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999), which opens Feb. 25 at Enzian Theater.
"Sweet and Lowdown" is the biography of a fictitious jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray, "the second best guitarist in the world," who clashes with love and life in the colorful 1930s jazz scene. Sean Penn stars as the musical genius, but it was Hyman who suggested that masterful guitarist Howard Alden provide the music for Penn. The resulting powerhouse of a soundtrack on Sony Classical Records includes a few pieces Hyman wrote for the film and original recordings of Django Reinhardt and other 1930s players.
"Creating music for film is far from being a solo process," explains Hyman. "The music has to underscore a given bit of action. It has to enhance the action in some way. This is worked out in a dialogue with the director. Woody takes the position that the expert has a deeper knowledge of his/her specialty than he does. He's very humble in that way," he reveals.
"In "Zelig," Woody and I thought it was a good idea to have a piano in the cutting room, so that even before the film went through any further processing, we could both view it and I would play along with the scenes exactly like a silent-movie pianist. We could see whether Woody and I were on the same wavelength. But the film "Sweet and Lowdown" dictated very clearly what was needed."
Another recent project is an interactive CD-ROM called "Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano," produced by JSS Music. The disc distills all of his knowledge of the piano and its players into a single educational and entertaining package. By navigating through the interactive venues, you encounter Hyman playing and discussing hundreds of styles and techniques. Video lessons are provided in the professional version so you can learn the piece exactly as Hyman plays it. What has taken a lifetime to learn took only five years to digitally capture, but Hyman enjoys the process.
"If I'm playing like Jelly Roll Morton, it's a very different touch than when I'm playing like Art Tatum," he explains. "There are two games you can play. One is to try and sound exactly like some early pianist. The other is to sound like him, but not play anything that he ever did. In other words, to learn a style so thoroughly that you can play a song that that pianist never encountered and figure out how he might have played it. ... It's an interesting exercise and it's very educational."
That education coupled with Hyman's wealth of experiences makes for some great storytelling. Any jazz fan would drool to hear some of the tales that Hyman twists from his personal history, including how he won lessons with definitive swing pianist Teddy Wilson, an impeccable soloist whose smooth and steady style fueled his stints with Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter.
"When I was going to Columbia `University`," recalls Hyman, "the local radio station -- WOV -- announced a jazz piano scholarship contest that took place live on the radio. The winner won 12 lessons with Teddy Wilson. ... When the great evening arrived, I abandoned whatever homework I was supposed to be doing and hurried down to WOV. ... I won that contest and studied with Teddy for 12 enlightening lessons at his studio."
The greater part of Hyman's career was spent in New York City studios, playing organ for television game shows and children's shows, or composing music for commercials and playing jazz sessions. He even was a key figure in the honky-tonk piano craze of the 1950s, when he recorded numerous albums under pseudonyms like Knuckles O'Toole or Rip Chord. But it wasn't until later in his career that Hyman became adept at drawing an audience into his unique style.
"In the early days, I was completely focused on playing and somehow resented the idea that someone was looking over my shoulder," he says. "You have to outgrow that if you want to become a performer. I began to enjoy it a lot more later on, and now I love playing in front of audiences."
Hyman is far from slowing down his hectic professional lifestyle. He is currently organizing the Sarasota Jazz Festival, slated for March 12-26. With his busy agenda, when does he get the chance to practice his playing? With straight face Hyman jokes, "I only practice when I need it, but I find that I need to everyday."
The radio episode "Dick Hyman: A Life in Music" airs 10 p.m. March 29 on WUCF-FM (89.9), as part of the Riverwalk Live From the Landing series.