This blog post was authored by Maria Judge, Jake Hanna’s niece and the business administrator in the Berklee Admissions Office.
On January 16, 1956, Jake Hanna rode his bike from his Dorchester home to 284 Newbury Street in Boston, filled out an application to Berklee School of Music, submitted it, was accepted, and started classes that afternoon. At least that’s how I think it happened.
Prospective Berklee students today go through a rigorous and time-consuming application process, but things were different 56 years ago. The school was just 10 years old and had expanded its scope of instruction beyond the Schillinger System of harmony and composition on which it was founded. The student body included many World War II veterans studying on the G.I. Bill, and my uncle Jake was one of them. His Berklee application was dated the same day the semester began, which is why I assume he condensed the entire application, admission, and enrollment process into one day.
Last year, while writing a book about uncle Jake, I contacted some of his Berklee colleagues and classmates to find out about his time as a student here. They remembered him as a great musician and a funny guy, two constants throughout his decades as a performer. He was as well know for his impeccable comic timing as he was for his time on the drums, so it seemed appropriate to call the book Jake Hanna: The Rhythm and Wit of a Swinging Jazz Drummer.
Toshiko Akiyoshi, the great jazz pianist, recalled meeting him that January. “We had some classes together,” she told me, “and he would make remarks in class that other people laughed at, but because I understood very little English I didn’t know what he was saying.” The language barrier did not prevent them from making music together, and he joined her and bassist Gene Cherico in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio. “Jake and I played together for quite some time, both in school and afterwards. We spent two months at a time at the Hickory House, a long time to play in one place.”
[Berklee president] Roger Brown told me that while jazz is now considered one of the great musical traditions, people tended to look down on it back then, so Berklee was just about the only place for someone like Jake to study at that time. “Jake was probably one of the first great drummers to come through Berklee and started the tradition of great drummers here,” he told me. “Jake would be considered one of the pioneers at Berklee, one of the people who came here a decade after the place started, and went out in the world, did great things, and was a great representative of the school.”
In a DownBeat Magazine interview Jake said, “I went to Berklee because that was the place. All the guys went there after the service. That’s where the action was. Never have seen anything like it in the world. What an experience! Like most of the other guys at Berklee then, I used the G.I. Bill to pay the way. The place was crawling with good players preparing to enter or re-enter the civilian job market.”
Ray Santisi recalled that Jake was highly respected by all other musicians surrounding him because of his natural talent and his sense of perfect timing. He also said that the presence of veterans with limited formal music education tended to give classes a certain Dirty Dozen atmosphere. In a theory class one day he asked Jake for the definition of a G6/4, a group of three chords with the one in the middle having the fifth in the bass. In his wonderfully spontaneous way, and with a somewhat whining W.C. Fields delivery, Jake said, “Ah yes, a G6/4. A group of three men walking down the street, the one in the middle having a fifth in his back pocket!”
Phil Wilson met Jake in Herb Pomeroy’s B Band and later worked together in the ’62-’65 Woody Herman Band. He recalled many adventures they shared traveling on buses across the U.S. and around Europe.
Toshiko and Roger and Ray and Phil, along with Charlie Watts and Jeff Hamilton and Marian McPartland and Bing Crosby’s son Harry, were among the 192 people who contributed material to this book about a great musician, a generous teacher, a funny guy, and a memorable character. It’s available in the Berklee Bookstore, and you can stop by my office for an autograph or to hear more stories about Uncle Jake. I got a million of them! Or check out the blog at http://jakehannablog.blogspot.com/