When asked about influences, most musicians tend to cite the marquee names: Django, Doc, Jimi, etc., but people like Seattle-area music icon Jack Hansen, who passed away May 23, tend to exert just as much, if not more, influence on young musicians than do the standard-issue guitar heroes. At least that was the case for me.
Jack never saw much of the limelight and you’ll be hard-pressed to find much about him on the Web, but he played a large part in the Pacific Northwest’s musical life during the last 40 years. He played electric guitar with late-’60s rock band Fat Jack (which included vocalist Kathi McDonald, who, after being fired by Fat Jack for not rehearsing, went on to sing with Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and the Rolling Stones), bluegrass banjo and mandolin with Southfork, archtop swing guitar with violinist Paul Anastasio (who has fiddled with Merle Haggard’s band as well as Asleep at the Wheel), and even lap-slide guitar with the Hawaiian band Stowaways in Paradise, among many, many others. And Jack made much of his living as a guitar repairman, a trustworthy caretaker of the vintage instruments prized by the Northwest’s folk and bluegrass scene.
I was lucky enough to play in a couple of bands with Jack during the 1980s and he was always welcoming, friendly, and forgiving, even to a young whippersnapper like me who could barely keep time and who didn’t know who Jo Jones or George Shuffler were—just two egregious lapses in my swing and bluegrass education. He taught me how to swing—not just to emulate the pulsing flamboyance of Django Reinhardt but the profoundly precise, laidback feel of Count Basie and the melodic, laconic brilliance of Lester Young.
What impressed me the most about Jack was his ability to play bluegrass, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and folk music equally well, with no hint of pretension or dilettantism, and with a deep understanding of what gave each kind of music its underlying soul and style. When I think about it, that’s pretty much what I’ve aspired to during my own equally broad musical career. Jack seemed to understand exactly why people loved a particular kind of music and his playing never strayed too far from that: Beatles songs are to be sung, swing is to be danced to, etc.
And Jack never took himself or anything else too seriously. I’ll always remember one of my first weeks teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in the early ’80s when Jack and a few others decided to turn the unsuspecting church camp into the MASH 4077th and Jack appeared at dinner dressed in a bathrobe, cradling a pitcher of martinis. Then there was the time he did an open mic playing a six-string banjo-guitar while his friend Gene Wilson played a wood-body five-string banjo (think about that for a minute).
Jack would have cringed at the idea of his musical life being boiled down to a sound-bite philosophy, especially a namby-pamby new age one, but I think Jack’s can be summed up with the admonition to “play music you love, with people you love, and play it with love.” But perhaps I’m just getting maudlin thinking about the fact that I’ll never get to play “Minor Swing,” or “All Day and All of the Night,” or “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” with Jack again. What Jack knew was that music is something fun you do with your friends, like playing basketball, or poker. That’s why legions of his friends are mourning with me today the loss of one of our biggest influences.