Jazz bassist Milt Hinton was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1910 to Hilda Gertrude Robinson, the woman he called Titter. When he was three months old his father split, leaving Hinton to be raised by Titter and her family in a rented shack on stilts in the town’s impoverished black ghetto. By 1919, when the family migrated to Chicago, he had already witnessed a lynching, already seen the body of a black man twisting above a mob of hooting whites.
Chicago seemed like another world. The city was booming, and the stockyards and packinghouses, looking for pawns in their struggle with the labor unions, were recruiting southern blacks by the thousands. “People went from earning five dollars a week to thirty dollars a week,” Hinton recalled recently. The south-side neighborhood they were crammed into (roughly 31st to 43rd, State to the lake) was vibrant, with black professionals, black-owned businesses, and a strong sense of community that Hinton attributes to the fact that, like his own family, many people there were the children of slaves.
Hinton’s first home in Chicago was a row house at 36th and Vincennes, where he lived in an apartment with Titter, two unmarried aunts, and his grandmother, who was “Mama” to all of them. Two uncles lived nearby. With this extended family, a division of labor evolved in his upbringing: Mama provided hot meals and hugs, the aunts were friends, and his uncles were a source of spending money and the occasional masculine adventure. The role of disciplinarian fell to Titter, who neither coddled nor cuddled and didn’t hesitate to show him the back of her hand. “I had a young mother who acted more like a bossy older sister,” he would complain 60 years later in his autobiography, Bass Line. “I don’t ever remember a time when my mother took me in her arms and made me feel like I was her darling.” In photos he took of her in the 40s, when he was a grown man, she meets the camera with a rawboned, steel-eyed directness that makes us think we know where he’s coming from. Still, it was Titter who presented him with a violin when he was 13, sat in on his lessons, forced him to practice every day, and let him know he was expected to be a serious musician.
She’d brought him to the right place for that. “During the early 20s, when I was growing up, the south side was unbelievable from a musical standpoint,” Hinton wrote. “There were three times as many theaters and nightclubs as New York. Every kid in our neighborhood was taking music lessons”–and the kids included Dorothy Donegan, Eddie and Nat Cole, and Lionel Hampton. Sunday afternoons were spent at the Grand Theatre or the Vendome (and later the Regal), where the program consisted of a live stage show with a full orchestra, followed by a silent film. In these venues Hinton saw Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and his personal idol, violinist Eddie South. At night, when Chicago bands broadcast, he was glued to his crystal set.
Job opportunities for black violinists dried up when talking pictures came along. Hinton, then a senior at Wendell Phillips High School, made a strategic switch to bass, and the rest is history. A few years out of Crane Junior College, he was playing in a club at State and Lake, on a bill that included Art Tatum, when Cab Calloway dropped in to listen and hired him. He left Chicago the next morning on Calloway’s private Pullman.
When Hinton boarded that train, he brought a camera along with his bass. Over the next half century he photographed everyone he played with, and he played with everyone. His collection of 40,000 images is a pictorial history of American jazz shot against a backdrop of diners, hotels, and railroad entrances “For Colored.” Some of these photographs have been published in Bass Line and a second book, Over Time, both written with Hinton’s longtime collaborator David G. Berger. Fifty of his photos are on exhibit in a show that opened this week at the Gahlberg Gallery at the Arts Center, College of DuPage.
“Milton Hinton: Jazz Photographs” continues through May 23 at the gallery, 425 22nd Street in Glen Ellyn. Hours are 11 to 3 Saturday and Monday through Thursday; the gallery is also open Thursday evening from 6 to 8. The exhibit is free; call 630-942-2321 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C., c. 1958”; “Dizzy Gillespie, Nice, France, c. 1981”; “Aretha Franklin, recording studio, N.Y.C., c. 1960”; “Billie Holiday and Count Basie, television stdio, N.Y.C., c. 1957”; and Milt Hinton photo by Mona Hinton.