When he was only in his teens in the 1940s, Hawes was playing with the likes of Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Shorty Rogers, and other musicians active on the West coast. At age 19, he spent eight months with the Howard McGhee Quintet, which included Charlie Parker.
After serving in the Army in Japan from 1953 to 1954, Hawes formed his own group and hit the recording studios. His trio sessions from 1955 (Hampton Hawes Trio Vol. 1 - The Trio, This is Hampton Hawes Vol. 2 - The Trio, and Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes Vol. 3 - The Trio), with Red Mitchell on bass and Chuck Thompson on drums, are spectacular. His speed, rhythm, and innovative harmonies are all on full display. (Just listen to this fantastic version of “All the Things You Are.”) The All Night Session (three volumes) with guitarist Jim Hall, recorded as the name suggests in the course of a single overnight session, are also top notch, with Hawes incorporating elements of gospel and classical music into his brisk and bluesy pianism.
In 1956, Hawes won the “New Star of the Year” award from Down Beat magazine. He had struggled with heroin addiction for many years and it finally caught up with him in 1958: he was arrested (on his birthday!) for selling heroin to an undercover cop. Hawes refused to squeal on other dealers and was given a ten-year sentence in a federal prison hospital, twice the minimum sentence.
Here’s where things get strange. While in prison, Hawes watched the inaugural speech of President John F. Kennedy and immediately felt that Kennedy would give him a pardon. And in 1963, against all odds, the President granted Executive Clemency to Hawes.He continued playing, touring, and recording after his release. In 1974, he published his acclaimed autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, which detailed his struggles with drugs as well as his thoughts on jazz. Hawes died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage in 1977 at the age of 48. Even today, Hawes remains one of the more obscure jazz piano greats, which is unfortunate because his bluesy, hard bop style, combined with a surprising emotional lyricism and astounding dexterity in playing, deserves to be widely heard.