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We Are the Music Makers

Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” – Kahlil Gibran

Hank Hehmsoth discusses a composition during a residence at Instituto Profesional Projazz in Santiago, Chile.

Jazz is ethereal. Its free-flowing form represents the emotions, intensities and uncertain beauty of life.

Hank Hehmsoth, Texas State University associate professor of jazz piano and composition, would find freedom in the rich heritage of the art form, which embodies the traditions and musical expressions of African and European peoples.

His devotion to music inspired him to learn and grow as much as he possibly could, and so he has faithfully followed the melodic path — a path that led him to Dan Morgenstern.

Rediscovering Rare Moments of Jazz

Few names in the jazz community elicit the same level of admiration and esteem as Dan Morgenstern. Jazz advocate, producer, writer, scholar, mentor and historian.

Since the 1940s, he has epitomized the term aficionado. Living, breathing, sharing and writing about the genre, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master thrived through the “golden era” of jazz, writing extensively and shaping the way we hear and think about the music along the way.

Morgenstern is a testament to the power of jazz, and Texas State’s very own music extraordinaire, Hank Hehmsoth, was keenly aware of that.

The School of Music associate professor has labored vigorously over the years to create a central repository of Morgenstern’s work, stating, “the danger of losing this vital part of American history is considerably lessened by the Dan Morgenstern Collection. Now, professionals, as well as new generations of jazz musicians and students, can get a sense of American society at this time, especially the Black experience.”

Funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Texas State University, the digitalized collection is a complete archive of Morgenstern’s 70-year career, research and associates. The most complete repository of Morgenstern’s life, the project was essentially 40 years in the making.

It seems as if the universe always intended to bring the two in concert.

Morgenstern was on the NEA grant committee that awarded Hehmsoth his first grant in 1979. Since then, the duo has developed a personal relationship, with Hehmsoth noting, “By picking him up at the airport, driving together, eating Texas barbecue year after year, I not only know the man’s genuinely engaging personality, but I am in awe of his unique mind. He’s a walking encyclopedia, and remembers the details of jazz history in the most engaging and fascinating way — because he was there!”

Now, decades later, Hehmsoth has found a way to honor that tie.

Hehmsoth’s recent research focused on Jazz Master Dan Morgenstern.

Dig It: Investigating the Legacy of Dan Morgenstern

To delve into Morgenstern’s body of work was a memorable — albeit immense — task.

 “The fact that he knew all the greats, from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Art Tatum, and so many other names, was the essence of [Dan’s] unique writing style. His creative and discerning journalism is the touchstone by which all others are judged,” notes Hehmsoth.

Delving deeper into Morgenstern’s chops, Hehmsoth notes, “He explained how to listen, what to listen for, how an improvisation develops and how bands communicate with each other. His liner notes for jazz albums were how everyone came to understand the artist.”

Morgenstern’s immense passion for jazz and exceptional journalism would eventually earn him 8 Grammys for Best Album Notes, with “his level of detail and obsession, and just close listening [to the records] bringing the whole album of each artist to life.” His close friendship with artists, their confidence and love for him, and fresh scholarly approach to jazz journalism gave him insights that few other writers of the time — if any — could match.  

As Hehmsoth explains it, “In Dan’s work, with his marvelously detailed, ebullient and loving liner notes, you realize you are reading someone who is an extreme fan, someone who has a very strongly typed aesthetic, and someone who really gets into the granular aspect of listening to music on these notes.”

Hehmsoth’s days were filled with coffee, names, places, concert dates, contacts, searching for photos, and emails to friends, families, librarians and colleagues in jazz research. His research didn’t just focus on Morgenstern either. He explains finding names that were unfamiliar and “finding out everything about this person.”

Hehmsoth’s efforts would culminate in 2018 and 2019, when he was awarded an NEA grant and named Morroe Berger-Benny Carter-Edward Berger Jazz Research Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. Through the NEA grant, Hehmsoth was able to travel to New York City, where he recorded interviews with Morgenstern, the Jazz Master’s lifelong friends and other internationally recognized jazz historians.

In January 2020, Hehmsoth’s journey would lead him to Rutgers. With access to the university’s Institute of Jazz Studies, which houses the largest and most comprehensive library and archive of jazz and jazz-related materials in the world, he inspected over 60 boxes of Morgenstern’s uncatalogued memorabilia.

His findings were astounding. Amongst the essays, record reviews and plethora of other works, Hehmsoth would run across an unlabeled VHS tape.

This nondescript discovery was a collection of the 1970 PBS television series “Just Jazz” produced by Morgenstern. These recordings had been presumed lost for 50 years and included appearances by jazz legends and rare videos of musicians such as Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon and Don Byas.

Even Morgenstern’s method of research and investigation influenced Hehmsoth’s own. “Dan’s emphasis on the personal, the life and inner workings of an artist’s mind, his relating this in the most personal way to the reader, and his exhaustive and relentless research for details has been the biggest element influencing my work. I call it Creative Research.”

Since unveiling The Morgenstern Collection, Hehmsoth has received accolades and praise from international jazz historians, researchers and professional communities, like the Jazz Journalists Association, for his research.

A Bad Musician & Educator: The Eclectic Hank Hehmsoth

Beyond his work as an external researcher and associate professor of jazz piano and composition, Hehmsoth also has quite a notable reputation as a musician and performance artist.

Hehmsoth performing in a jam session.

With a career that spans more than 30 years, he’s been the featured jazz pianist in major symphony productions, won composer competitions, and performed at over 200 venues in the United States, from the Hollywood Bowl to the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and everywhere in between.

His phenomenal musicianship has even taken him overseas, where he’s played internationally at the London Palladium, Tokyo Budōkan, and Montreux Jazz Festival, as well as in Switzerland, Honolulu, Athens, Greece, Rancagua and Santiago. That’s not including grooving alongside the greats like Bob Hope, Beverly Sills, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bonnie Raitt, Red Skelton, Bob Newhart, Steve Allen, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles.

Aside from performing, Hehmsoth has also had the pleasure of scoring films, creating professional compositions, jamming in a band and working on numerous other projects, including being a professional voting member of the Jazz Journalists Association, a Fulbright Senior Specialist for the U.S. Department of State and a lifetime voting member for the Grammy Awards.

Despite all the honors and achievements, his scorching passion for music has yet to falter. “What motivates me more than anything else, what I wake up in the morning wanting to think about, and talk about, and engage in, is living composition.”

Drawing inspiration from all types of mediums including television series, movies and fresh artists he finds on YouTube, he’s enthralled by “the people that are alive making art music, people that are making it right now … there is so much creativity, and it is being embraced so broadly. This is one of the things that excites me so at this particular moment in time.”

Ever the pupil, Hehmsoth gives credit to his students for introducing him to newer artists, music he voraciously devours, adding to his eclectic repertoire of fresh sounds.

When describing his art, Hehmsoth says, “My jazz work is my own conception, no-holds-barred. For me, jazz is an approach, a way to view, hear, interpret and appreciate all music. I can listen to Bach, Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, movie scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Bartók, Lutosławski … it’s a way to appreciate good music as a creator, a participant and an audience. I live and breathe jazz improvisation every day, and it is the essence of my music.”

Like most, 2020 has been an unprecedented experience for Hehmsoth. But he hasn’t let the circumstances throw off his commitment to growing as an artist. In fact, during the pandemic, he undertook learning all 70 of Thelonious Monk’s compositions to grasp just how Monk would’ve heard the music. Hehmsoth claims that it was one of the most satisfying things he’d ever done.

And while many of the festivals and concerts he was set to perform in were canceled, that didn’t stop him from creating. Along with the other members of the jazz group Times Ten, Hehmsoth composed a virtual record. Each band member performed their piece separately, recording their parts and then turning that work over to Hehmsoth.

After six weeks of video editing and over 200 hours of intense effort, Hehmsoth helped to produce John Mills TIMES TEN - Basement Panorama.

But that hasn’t been all.

In lieu of a live performance at the 2020 Fredericksburg Jazz Festival, he was asked to create a one-hour master class video about professional success. Hehmsoth recognized this as an opportune time to touch upon meaningful insights he had gained throughout his decades’ worth of experience, and he created a work that he felt his students would benefit greatly from.

And Hehmsoth certainly still has more to give.

Music Transcends

“Music transcends borders, languages, politics and is a great universal common language for the people on earth,” says Hehmsoth. This same notion could be said of him.  

The passion and appreciation Hehmsoth exudes for jazz and all other genres of music is impossible not to notice. Whether it’s pushing forward extraordinary research, developing fantastic musical concepts and compositions, or his commitment to sharing his wealth of knowledge with novice musicians from all across the world, the love he has for music breaks through like the lushest seventh chord.

“The world is a continually emerging mystery of thought, visions and sensations that you can view with fresh, open eyes.”

That’s one wise cat. ⭑

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