The bass player is late, so Art Hodes fills the time with some solo blues on his piano. He sits with his right profile to the audience. Hodes doesn’t smile much. He doesn’t like to show his cards.

Most of the time he shuts out the audience while he plays, his eyes closed tight. Bessie Smith used to close her eyes like that when she’d sing at south-side theaters and ballrooms in the 1920s and ’30s. Art Hodes felt most at home in that world, where a Russian immigrant in his 20s was most out of place. He lived for any chance to just sit and absorb the masters. Hearing Bessie in a theater in the days when you got live music and a movie, too, changed his life. He wrote about it in Selections From the Gutter, a 1973 anthology of oral histories of jazz giants originally published in Jazz Record, a magazine Hodes put out briefly in the 1940s:

“Now comes the big hush. Just the piano goin’. It’s the blues. Somethin’ tightens up in me. Man, what will she look like? I ain’t ever seen her before.

“Then I hear her voice and, gosh, I know this is it . . . my lucky day. . . . There she is. Resplendent is the word, the only one that can describe her. Of course, she ain’t beautiful, altho she is to me. A white, shimmering evening gown, a great big woman and she completely dominates the stage and the whole house when she sings the “Yellow Dog Blues.” . . . She just reaches out and grabs and holds me. . . . This gal sings from the heart. She never lets me get away from her once.”

No one has a touch for slow blues like Art Hodes. But even when his jazz band swings at its most ferocious, the music is always steeped in the spirit of the blues. It seems like every time Hodes introduces a song, the word “blues” is in the title. Hodes wrote a tune called “Blues, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow” that sums up his musical life. He’s the master of a musical genre that pays constant homage to the blues seeds that germinated into jazz and all modern American music. His style is often called two-fisted, his left hand as busy as the right, keeping a steady rhythm. Almost everybody played two-fisted in the old days, Hodes says, back before pianists were “liberated.” They played in clubs by themselves, so they had to be their own rhythm sections.

The bass player has arrived, so Hodes introduces his band. “And now, coming out onstage and making it under their own power, which is pretty good these days . . . ” Actually, the only member of the quintet close in age to Hodes, who’s 87, is Franz Jackson, a round black reedman with white hair, a white shirt, and suspenders.

They come out of the gate swinging. If you have to give the style a name, call it trad, says Hodes. It’s not really Dixieland, and don’t call it Preservation Hall. “Preservation Hall musicians, none of them were great to begin with. What they’re playing is very simple folk music. It doesn’t require a lot of dexterity or musical education. I work with people who are very much up on their instruments and are functioning right now. They don’t have time to become preserved.”

There was an audience of all ages at this, Art Hodes’s most recent gig. It was last November. The morning of January 31, Hodes was sitting at the piano in the living room of his Park Forest town house. His wife Jan, 36 years his junior, noticed he was playing with only one hand. He was trying to raise the other arm but he couldn’t. Hodes tried to get up from his piano bench but his right leg buckled. Jan asked him if he was all right. He couldn’t speak.

Jan called an ambulance. Hodes was having a stroke. Thank God it happened on a Friday. Any other day of the week Jan would have been taking a class at nursing school. Hodes was home in days and playing the piano within a week. The doctors say there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be back playing as much and as well as ever any day now.

The scuffler’s life is the life he’s led–from gig to gig. “Off and on. Off and on,” he says. Selections From the Gutter got its name from a blues Hodes wrote when he was scuffling in New York in the 1940s. Back in the early days there were two ways to play jazz. You played it hot or you played it sweet. If you were a hot man, you were a swinger. Art Hodes was the hot man. Still is.

Hodes kept his poker face as we talked. But if it suggested reluctance to unbend, quite the opposite was true. He spoke freely and with increasing passion about jazz life in Chicago over the last 70 years, until his throat became so rough and congested, after about 90 minutes, that we had to pause for another day. That poker face is just cool confidence, contentment rather than petulance.

The building where young Art Hodes grew up still stands at 1039 S. Racine. It’s a sturdy, gray-stone three-flat with a subtle gargoyle above the entrance, crammed into an overcrowded block. These days there are housing projects across the street.

Art Hodes was born in Nikolayev, the Ukraine, on November 14, 1904. His parents fled to the United States when he was six months old. “As soon as I was old enough to travel they picked me up and left. There was some sort of trouble. Probably political. I never found out what. It was a family secret. They didn’t discuss it with the kids.”

The apartment on Racine was in the 20th Ward. They called it the bloody 20th for the gangland turf wars there, especially the ones that raged after Prohibition began in 1920. The street gangs trained kids in mayhem. It was a predominantly Italian neighborhood. “If you weren’t Italian you were fair game, so I had to move pretty fast to keep from getting beat up. I was going to summer school and the gangs weren’t much for people going to summer school, so they’d hang around and when you came out they chased you. You’d fight or run. I couldn’t fight so I’d run. Sometimes they’d hit you with sandbags. They thought that was funny.”

Hodes doesn’t know how he managed to stay out of trouble, although music helped. “I never traveled with gangsters. They owned the clubs and I worked for them but that’s as far as the relationship went. I played the piano and did what I was told. You’d see different things going on. You’d sit with people and hear different talk. You’d leave it there. Do your work, go home, don’t talk about it.”

As a teenager, Hodes became obsessed with this new music called jazz. He wanted to go home and turn on the radio, maybe catch the sounds of Coon-Sanders or Paul Whiteman. Nothing else interested him, except the musical training he was getting at Hull House. Technical school was a bore. He was so distracted by the music in his head that once he almost sawed a finger off.

“First I chose the many jobs a young man chooses–delivering the mail, errand boy, pencil pusher.” He also played an occasional wedding or dime-a-dance hall. In 1925, when he was 21 years old, he got his first steady musical gig, at a place called the Rainbow Gardens on West Madison near Laflin. He’s done nothing for a living since but make music. Even in times of total poverty, he refused to do anything else.

The Rainbow was owned by a squat Italian gangster named Lawrence Mangano. “He was built solid, dark countenance.” His friends called him Dago. He listened to Hodes play for a couple minutes and said, “OK. Start next week. Thirty-five bucks. Be here at nine o’clock.”

So then Hodes had to go home and break it to his parents that he’d be working every night from 9 to 5 AM in a mob-owned nightclub. He recalls it with a bemused look. “They just looked askance, wondering, ‘What’s this all about?’ My father couldn’t imagine you could make money out of music. Where he came from, that was impossible.” But Art told them that the Dago said with tips he’d be making $125 a week. That was nearly four times what his father was making as a tinsmith. With that, he received his parents’ blessing.

Some of the former young hoods from the bloody 20th showed up one night at the Rainbow. They were adult hoods now. For amusement one of them pointed to the piano player and said to the bartender, “Give him a drink.” And the drinks kept coming, 18 straight. Hodes didn’t know what would happen if he refused them. “I didn’t want to find out by being dead.” He passed out and had to be taken home.

All the Dago wanted him to play were the popular tunes, like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally.” Nothing too jazzy, except sometimes maybe in the wee hours. The Dago loved jazz, but he thought it was a little too radical for most people. But the Rainbow days were essential to Hodes’s musical evolution. “I developed my ear,” he wrote in Selections From the Gutter. “I began to hear harmonies I never knew existed.”

The Dago could be a violent man. One night during Prohibition a Rainbow customer acting like a big shot pretended to be a G-man and went around confiscating people’s drinks. The bartender called Mangano and when he arrived he cleared the place and closed the doors. “Go hide somewhere,” he told Hodes. The Dago began kicking the big shot until he doubled over and straightening him up with punches to the jaw. Then he threw him down the stairs. The Dago’s goons dragged him to the alley and dumped him there.

But Hodes enjoyed Mangano. “I liked him and he liked me. He had music in his soul. He had a banjo tuned up like a ukulele and he could sing you some of the filthiest songs you ever heard.” His favorite song was “It’s Tight Like That.”

The Rainbow gig lasted 18 months, until Hodes wanted more money than Mangano was willing to pay. The next chapter began when Hodes was playing in a club whose name he can’t remember and in the basement was Wingy Manone, a one-armed trumpeter with a large smile and slicked-back hair. Wingy always had an entourage. His sense of humor attracted people. Wingy was looking for a pianist for his band and when he heard a young man playing upstairs he said, “That’s the man I want.”

“And so started the most important period of my life,” Hodes wrote in Selections From the Gutter. “In a short time we were roommates–then buddies–then the best and closest of friends. We lived every minute of every day, and each day was a complete life in itself.”

It was a scuffler’s life, to be sure. They lived all over town–the west side, Lawrence Avenue, pay-by-the-week hotels. Whoever got up first in the morning cranked up the Victrola. “The music went on right away. Before you opened your eyes it was on. Our lives were simple. We were interested in music and nothing else. There was nothing to distract you.

“Wash your mouth, comb your hair, hit the street. Get something to eat. And the next move was always to go see Armstrong. Hang out. Go to the ballroom where he was playing. If not, his band always had a place where he would hang out, somewhere on the south side.” And by night it was go play. “Make enough money so we could hang out some more.

“Sometimes I’d find myself in a room with Louie and his mentor, King Oliver.” King Oliver had come up to Chicago from New Orleans and was the king of 1920s jazz. “King Oliver told Armstrong, ‘You can always come to Chicago and put your stinkin’ feet in my bed.’ And that’s what he did. They’d swap tales and it was like a dream. Louie always made me feel like I was one of the guys. ‘Hey, you’re in this room, you belong.’ But I always laid back. I didn’t have much to say. I was growing into the music.”

It was Louie Armstrong who got Hodes hooked on the blues by taking him to the black neighborhoods, where jazz was hottest. He took him to a rib place at 48th and State. Everybody just called it the rib place. “If you were a piano player coming up to Chicago, you knew that was where to go. You could get a meal, be able to play a little, pick up a couple dollars. Most of the time I just sat around. I came to absorb, not to play, because I had nothing to say. I was able to play blues, but not near what I was hearing.”

When Hodes finally got up the courage to play some blues on the piano at the rib place, he heard some people laughing. He supposed they were laughing at him. He didn’t perform blues again for seven years. And even that was an accident. Hodes had taken up with a guy named Jackson. That’s the only name he went by, Jackson. Hodes dropped by a place where Jackson was playing on Division Street. They wouldn’t let him in until Jackson looked at him through the slot in the door and said to the bouncer, “He’s OK.”

It was a noisy place. There were card games going on, a dice game. Jackson took a break and said to Hodes, “You play some.” So Hodes played the blues. And soon the place grew quiet. The card games stopped, the dice game stopped. People gathered around. “I became aware I was being listened to and that broke the mood and I stopped,” Hodes says. “But that was my arrival.”

Most of the Chicago hot men moved to New York in the 1930s as work became scarce in the Depression. Hodes stuck around because he felt he still had a lot to learn from the few bluesmen who remained. But he got married in 1938 and the money was in New York. He’d never been there, but in 1939 he packed his wife Thelma and their belongings into his car and headed east. Hodes once had a roommate in Chicago named Bill Kennedy, a boxer. When Kennedy took off for New York years earlier he told Hodes, “If you get ready to come to New York, look me up. I got a place for you.”

So that’s what Hodes did. “We knew nothing about how to get around, but we found the place. He was surprised to see me come up with a wife. We stayed with him three months.”

Coming up was the best year of Hodes’s career, followed almost immediately by the worst. Gigs were steady and the money was good. He and jazz writer Dale Curran published 60 issues of Jazz Record, and the magazine gave Hodes a chance to meet and talk jazz at length with some of his idols and contemporaries. Hodes would interview them, often after loosening their tongues with a bottle of booze, and Curran would take it all down on a typewriter.

The beboppers were revolutionizing jazz in the 1940s. Hodes had no desire to become a bopper himself, but he fit in with them well. He knew most of the bebop giants–Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young. He had plans to do some recording with Young but they never came off, something Hodes blames on jazz critic Leonard Feather. The critics were deifying the boppers and writing obituaries for trads like Hodes. “You were either a bopper or an old-timer. The critics said, ‘You went out with button shoes. You’re old-style. You don’t belong. Pack up and go.’ It paid for the boppers to snub us. You separate yourself from the old people because they aren’t doing you any good.”

Hodes says Feather often singled him out as a prime example of a has-been. His eyes still flash with anger when he talks about it. “He was in the center of the mess. Somehow I infuriated him. They said in the trade that he had been kicked in the ass by a Dixielander. He got miffed at me for one reason or another. Within the last ten years he’s semiapologized, said he overreacted. He said some nice things about the way I play the blues. But I don’t trust him, nor do I believe him.

“Someday someone’s going to come along that’s more progressive than you care to be. It got to be where Miles Davis would have to introduce Diz. ‘Don’t you know who this is? This is Dizzy.’ And then Miles had to get introduced by someone like Wynton Marsalis. You can’t be all things to all people. Somewhere you find something you like and stick with it. A great painter paints one style. People say, ‘That’s him.’ You notice him right away. If you’ll be all things to all people, you open a department store.”

This was Hodes’s low point. A record with Young and his career might have skyrocketed. Instead, he went back to scuffling. One day he picked up a New York paper and saw a headline, “Chicago Gangster Killed.” The story said Lawrence Mangano was shot in a drive-by while sitting in his car. They didn’t finish him off the first time around and he got out of his car, so they came around again and shot him dead. Five bullets in all.

“He was my first boss. He put up with me while I was learning.”

In Selections From the Gutter Hodes wrote, “His day was an era of lawlessness–policemen that could be paid off; politicians that could be bought; opposition that was done away with. Jazz lived and flourished in that atmosphere. . . . I’ll bet he’d a loved to have a real jazz band play at his funeral.”

Hodes felt as if his life was starting over when he returned to Chicago in 1950 to lead an all-star band at the Blue Note. If he’d known this gig would last only 11 weeks he never would have done it. But there was too much drinking and the band burned out. “It was like a ball. They didn’t take it seriously. When the job was over they’d be getting knocked out.”

Hodes worked 18 months at a north-side place called Rupneck’s. But the rest of the 1950s he was scuffling. In 1957 he found a sideline doing school assemblies on jazz appreciation around the midwest. That helped him through more lean times. The 1960s were quite like the 1940s, with the avant-garde rising like the boppers had, leaving scraps for the trads. “I would get a job for one night where the rest of the week the modernists held sway. I walked on eggshells. You played what they thought was passable. Ballads. If you tried to swing to the old-time music they’d walk out on you.”

In 1968 Hodes produced a show for public television called Plain Ol’ Blues. It won a Chicago Emmy and it still shows on cable now and then. Hodes appeared in about 20 other TV shows between 1968 and 1972 and they got the attention of Columbia Artists, which offered him a touring contract. Hodes toured for six years and played the Newport Jazz Festival for the first time in 1978. The money was coming in steadily and Art Hodes was finally getting widespread recognition.

But Thelma died of cancer in 1980. Hodes was so despondent that for the first time in his life he didn’t care about music. For four months he didn’t care about anything. But he came back strong, and played what he considers some of the best blues of his life. A New York gig at Hanratty’s lasted a couple of months in 1980, and he returned to Chicago for an engagement at the Mayfair Regent Hotel that went on nearly two years.

Jan came into Art’s life in 1978 when she signed up to take piano lessons from him. Thelma was alive at the time and Jan was involved with someone else. They met again socially in 1982, dated for nine months, and got married in 1983.

Recent years have seen more scuffling, though Hodes describes them as the most peaceful time of his life because he can set his own pace. It’s often a swift pace. Last year he played twice in Europe.

There’s no financial or artistic urgency to take the next gig that comes along. But he doesn’t refuse many. If it was up to him he’d have three or four gigs a week. It’s been a long time since he’s been that busy. He thinks he’s as appreciated now as he’s ever been, so it’s probably just the recession that’s making things so slow.

Hodes still practices every day, mostly to keep his hands in shape. He also gives piano lessons in his home. And he still spends a lot of time trying to keep in touch with the elusive, fickle muse of his blues. “Playing the blues, you’re better off if you don’t know too much. Blues music is something that you live with. Unless you live with it, it doesn’t sink in. It’s just something that you like. It has no depth. It has no home in you. That’s what it became for me. It had a home in me. In fact, it was everything to me.

“When I’m feeling joyful, I have a hard time getting into the blues. When I’m down, I can get into them like mad. I don’t sink into it like I used to. I’m too content.”

Art Hodes has watched the careers of many other jazzmen die within the span of his own. The breadth and timelessness of his style have kept it going longer than almost any other in the Darwinist world of jazz music. Maybe it’s the breadth and timelessness of the blues itself. During a Hodes set you might hear his version of Herbie Hancock’s modern funk jazz classic “The Watermelon Man.” Or you might hear a blues rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“If it appeals to me, I play it.”

Hodes has written the story of his life. It’s a memoir called Hot Man, and the University of Illinois Press will be bringing it out this spring. His collaborator is Chadwick Hansen, who helped him edit Selections From the Gutter.

His place in jazz history? “Somewhere in the middle,” says Hodes. “That’s fine with me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Ed Rice, K. Christian Lenskold, Chilton-Butler, Hans Harzhelm, courtesy Sun-Times.