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Subject: Roland Hanna, Jazz Pianist and Composer

New Jersey
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Date Posted: November 15, 2002 10:13:48 EDT

oland Hanna, a versatile jazz pianist whose deft touch, lush harmonies and encyclopedic knowledge enabled him to fit comfortably in a wide range of musical contexts, died on Wednesday in Hackensack, N.J. He was 70 and lived in Liberty, N.Y.

The cause was a viral infection of the heart, his family said.

Mr. Hanna was, as John S. Wilson of The New York Times said in 1985, "an impeccably polished performer" who was "as much at home in turn-of-the-century ragtime as he is in the works of John Coltrane."

Nor were his influences limited to jazz: his harmonically complex improvisations were also informed by his extensive classical training.

"Classical music has always been a driving force for me," he told Zan Stewart of The Los Angeles Times in 1988, "but jazz is my natural music."

Ultimately, Mr. Hanna said, his goal was the obliteration of musical boundaries. "For the average person, music is separated into categories, but not for me," he said in the same interview. "To me, music is food, and I don't have to say `These are apples and these are pears.' I can say `This is music and it tastes good.' "

Mr. Hanna's open-minded approach led to work with bandleaders ranging in approach from the traditional swing of Benny Goodman to the freewheeling modernism of Charles Mingus.

His grasp of jazz history led to work in the late 1980's and early 90's with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, the leading exponents of the jazz repertory movement, and to a tour as a solo pianist with the Smithsonian Institution's traveling Duke Ellington exhibition in 1999.

In his later years he focused on composing chamber and orchestral works, including some pieces he performed with a chamber trio in which he played cello. In 1993 he was the guest piano soloist when the Detroit Symphony performed his composition "Oasis."

That concert was, among other things, a triumphant homecoming. Roland Pembroke Hanna was born in Detroit on Feb. 10, 1932, and was considered one of the leading exponents along with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Barry Harris of the so-called Detroit school of jazz piano, a style that combined the dexterity and harmonic sophistication of bebop with the understated elegance of an earlier era.

Mr. Hanna left Detroit in 1955, when he moved to New York to enroll at the Juilliard School. (He had briefly studied at the Eastman School of Music two years earlier, but left because he felt his interest in jazz was being stifled.)

He had begun studying piano at age 11 and was introduced to jazz in high school by Flanagan.

"He sort of made it seem like I could do it too, so I jumped in," Mr. Hanna said.

Mr. Hanna once named Mr. Flanagan, who died last year, as one of his three greatest pianistic influences, along with Art Tatum and Artur Rubinstein.

It took Mr. Hanna some time to graduate from Juilliard because he kept taking sabbaticals to work with Goodman, Mingus, Coleman Hawkins and others but he finally received his degree in 1960.

From 1963 through 1966 he frequently led a trio at the Five Spot in New York, and he worked steadily in the 1960's and 70's with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, which he joined in 1966, and with the New York Jazz Quartet, featuring the saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess, which Mr. Hanna formed in 1974.

His main income, however, came from teaching. He taught at Eastman, the Manhattan School of Music, the New School and Queens College. He also continued playing in jazz clubs and at festivals, and was especially popular in Japan, where he became ill about three weeks ago.

Mr. Hanna is survived by his wife of 48 years, the former Ramona Woodard; two sons, Michael and Christopher; two daughters, Cheryl and Cheri; six grandchildren; two sisters, Winifred Wells and Ethel Brown; and three brothers, Leonard, Elisha and Lagorce.

For the last three decades Mr. Hanna insisted on being billed as Sir Roland Hanna. As he explained, the "Sir" was not an affectation or a casually bestowed title like Duke or Count. He was knighted by the government of Liberia in 1970, in recognition of benefit concerts he had given there.

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