Kicking off a four-stop book tour, author Maria S. Judge spoke at the “hometown” launch at the Dorchester Historical Society on October 7. Her new book is Jake Hanna: The Rhythm and Wit of a Swinging Jazz Drummer, a biography that documents the life of her late uncle, musician Jake Hanna.
Judge compares Hanna, a Dorchester native who became a popular figure in the American jazz scene, to a traditional Irish storyteller or seanachai, specializing in humor and creativity.
At the tender age of 7, Hanna followed in his older brother Bill’s footsteps and joined the St. Brendan’s Bugle & Drum Corps. Without a drum set, the brothers got creative and used their mother’s sewing machine instead until the finish came off. With a good pair of both ears and drumsticks, Hanna set out to do what he loved.
“And he never looked back,” said his older sister Eleanor Judge with a laugh. “He just had those drumsticks in his hands for the rest of his life.”
The author and the book’s contributors agreed - Jake’s natural gifts of humor and storytelling weren’t learned.
“[They] really just came from him - he was that clever and that witty.”
As an admirer of W.C. Fields, Hanna adopted his sense of comedic timing, delivering zingers to everyone, even the likes of Harry James.
James had a habit of counting off a song one way but his shoulders wouldn’t follow the same beat. When Hanna questioned James about whether he should follow the count-off, his shoulders or just play the song as they always played it, James replied, “You’re the leader, Jake.”
“You really mean that?” Hanna asked.
“Yes, I do,” James answered.
Without missing a beat, Hanna replied, “Well, in that case, you’re fired.”
Judge, who is the Business Administrator in the Admissions Office at Berklee College of Music, had not realized the connections Hanna had made at the institution. In her research, Judge found Hanna’s college application on microfilm, stating his intended semester start date of January 16, 1956 - the same day he filled out the application.
While a Berklee student, Hanna worked with pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi’s trio and Buddy Morrow’s big band. After leaving the school, he became Boston’s Storyville Club house drummer, then landed his 10-year gig on The Merv Griffin Show as the drummer of the big band and finally began freelancing, working with smaller groups and individual singers. In his time, he worked with such talent as Tony Bennett, Woody Herman, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Carl Fontana and Rosemary Clooney, whom he coaxed back into recording. Hanna’s resume was one that few drummers could tout.
Prior to his college enrollment, Hanna joined the Air Force in March 1950 just before the Korean War broke out. He enlisted so that he could choose what branch to join and have the opportunity to remain on home soil rather than be sent overseas. As a service emember, Hanna learned how to read music from Lloyd Morales, a sergeant of the military band and a well-respected musician who went on to play with Frank Sinatra, Patti Page and Barbra Streisand.
A week after Hanna’s death in February 2010, Judge accompanied Hanna’s widow, Denisa, to the San Diego Jazz Party where Hanna was to be honored as the Jazz Legend of the Year. Each time a group played that evening, at least one member would share a “Jake story.” It continued throughout the night and Judge recalls that “After a few people had done it, I thought to myself, ‘What a shame that we never saved these stories.’”
Judge started collected stories from others and eventually had enough material for a book.
“It didn’t start out to be a book,” Judge said. “It just became one.”
Though she originally planned on self-publishing, Meredith Music picked up the tome for publication. Hanna lived on the West Coast while most of his family called the East Coast home, but visits were rich, though few.
“It was more the quality of the time we spent with him than the quantity,” Judge said.
Hanna, who is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, always had a strong connection to Dorchester, coming to neighborhood reunions every five years if he could.
“They just loved to have him because he was the same character that they remembered,” Judge said.
“He never forgot where he came from.”
The book is now available on shelves and online. Visit jakehannablog.blogspot.com for more information.