Documentary on legendary jazz bassist to be screened at Fairfield University


Milt Hinton may not be a household name, but in jazz circles the journeyman bassist is a legend - a grandson of slaves whose incomparable talent and vision led him to gigs with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, and a career as one of the most recorded musicians of all time.

On Monday, Nov. 1, filmmaker David Berger will bring his intriguing documentary "Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton" to Fairfield University for a free public screening. The film, which has been shown at film festivals, but has not been released commercially, will be shown at 7 p.m. in the multi-media room of the DiMenna-Nyselius Library.

Brian Torff an accomplished bassist and composer and director of Fairfield University's Music Program, considered Hinton a trusted mentor.

"Milt was one of the great jazz musicians and bassists of the 20th century," Torff said of Hinton, who died in 2000. "He played with everybody and helped people get started and, more than that, he was a really soulful guy."

Hinton was born in 1910 in Vicksburg, Miss., and his first home was a two-room cabin on stilts over the Mississippi River. His mother was one of 13 children and his father, who abandoned the family early in the marriage, was a Monrovian missionary from Africa brought to the United States to teach former slaves about agriculture.

"Keeping Time" touches on the times in which Hinton grew up, especially on racial tensions in the South. Lynching was so common, Hinton's grandmother sprinkled pepper in his socks "so the bloodhounds wouldn't come near," he remembered.

Hinton seemed destined to find a career in music. After moving to Chicago, he was a childhood friend of his church minister's son, future star crooner Nat King Cole. He soon got a paper route, joining the Chicago Defenders, a paper boys' band that included then-drummer Lionel Hampton, who would grow up to be a legendary jazz percussionist. On Saturdays, Hinton took music lessons alongside a young, aspiring clarinetist named Benny Goodman.

Soon, the inspired bassist was playing and socializing with some of the greats. He toured with the Cab Calloway Orchestra, recorded with Hampton, Gillespie, Holiday and Dinah Washington, and rubbed elbows with Eubie Blake, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others. When he had a free moment, Hinton was always willing to help up-and-coming musicians who sought him out for lessons and advice.

Though he wasn't a marquee name, Hinton was so respected and prolific, his New York Times obituary recalled him as "one of the most recorded musicians of all times and the dean of American bass players."

In addition to his music, Hinton honed his visual skills through photography, assembling a huge collection of photos he took that document the hardships and elation of the jazz world. The documentary, which Berger co-directed with photographer Holly Maxson and filmmaker Kate Hirson, includes more than 180 of Hinton's photos.

"I was only interested in seeing us the way we see ourselves," Hinton said of his photography, a medium he revered as "the closest a man can come to having a child."

In addition, 32 of the 39 musical selections on the soundtrack feature Hinton on bass.

Hinton was well aware of his place in history and how his life might inspire others, and the vision he passed on to those inspired by him is a cornerstone of the extraordinary film.

"When I look back I realize that I've achieved and experienced things in my life I never expected to do," Hinton once told Torff in an interview. "I see my talents as God given and in that sense they belong to everyone and deserve to be shared. I see it as my responsibility to pass on what I have to future generations and I hope I've done everything possible to achieve that goal. If I spot a young child who is interested in the bass, I try to help because it's tough for a family to pay five or six hundred for a bass. So it goes on."

The screening of "Keeping Time" is free and open to the public, but space is limited. For more information, contact the library at (203) 254-4000, ext. 4044.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 1, 2004

Vol. 37, No. 70