Born June 23, 1910, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and raised in Chicago, Milton John Hinton received his first music lessons from his mother, whom he describes as a "home style" music teacher. He also studied violin at Wendell Phillips High School, gravitating to bass saxophone, tuba, and cello before settling on the bass violin. One of the most compelling family portraits in his possession is that of his grandmother, a former slave of Jefferson Davis.
She taught him the value of looking out for one's own, a tenet he's exercised in his career.
Hinton graduated in 1929, and the release that year of The Jazz Singer, the motion picture feature with sound, markedly altered his career choices. Movie theaters dismissed their pit orchestras wholesale, and legions of live accompanists, including many black violinists, were forced to seek work elsewhere. Jazz combos gradually began to anchor their sound with the string bass, phasing out the bellows-like sound of the tuba.
Continuing his musical studies at Crane Junior College and Northwestern University, Hinton became a private pupil of Dmetri Shmuklovsky. As he recalled, "Some white teachers wouldn't even want to teach me because I was black, but the first time he listened to me, he agreed to." When he wasn't tossing newspapers, Hinton worked wherever he could.
Traveling to California in the early '30s with violin great Eddie South, Hinton performed in clubs and also made some of his earliest recordings in Chicago. While in Chicago, Hinton witnessed an instance of a black musician accompanying a white singer while concealed behind a screen. Hinton was undeterred by this exclusionist norm, shrugging off similar affronts until they ran their course. While in a band with no drums, Hinton perfected a more complex technique of slapping the bass because "older guys were doing it on their solos and I wanted to take it one step further."
In addition to Eddie South, Hinton gained added bandstand experience with Freddie Keppard, Johnny Long, Cassino Simpson, Jabbo Smith, Erskine Tate, Art Tatum and Joe Venuti.
By 1935, Hinton had established himself as Chicago's premier bass player as a member of drummer Zutty Singleton's band. Singleton was respected for his work with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, Earl Hines and others.
One night, a rakishly dressed Cab Calloway scouted Hinton at the Three Deuces, conferring with his boss after their set. The next morning, with Singleton's blessing, Hinton became Calloway's new bass player, the band's youngest musician.
While with Calloway's band, Hinton worked alongside Danny Barker, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, Jonah Jones, Ike Quebec and Ben Webster. Gillespie, the affable, creative firebrand, became a lifelong friend of the bassman. The pair would rehearse on the roof of New York's Cotton Club after a performance, then walk to Minton's in Harlem to attend jam sessions. One can say he was both artificer and witness to the new bop music.
The challenging practice regimen developed by his bandmates from 1936 through 1951--rearranging tunes, rehearsing in pairs and small groups--coupled with his ability to read charts, provided invaluable preparation for Hinton's later session work, where spontaneity, musicianship and adaptability were the order of the day. After Calloway's orchestra disbanded in '51, Hinton became one of the first black full-time studio musicians in New York City. There he secured numerous studio bookings, and entertained and succored fellow musicians at the home which he and his wife, Mona Clayton Hinton, purchased in Queens in 1948.
In his heyday, Hinton recorded numerous jingles, film soundtracks, and radio and television programs. Using bow, rapid-fire fingering or percussive "slapping" techniques, Hinton's formidable skills cut to the quick like a razor, his the emotional precision of his sound has him in demand to the present day.
Hinton's studio punctuality spawned his nickname, "The Judge." "I'd always be the first guy at recording sessions," he remembered. "Then the producer would arrive and say, `Well, we can start the session now, "The Judge" is here.'" Hinton's technical skills served him in good stead for marathon stretches. "I'd do three record dates a day...10 a.m. to 1 p.m., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m." For several years running, his most noted cohorts were Hank Jones, Osie Johnson and Barry Galbraith--the famed New York Rhythm Section--who performed in an off-duty combo and appeared on diverse numerous projects.
"Bass players have made more improvement than players of any other instrument in the last 40 years," observed Hinton, who absorbed the time-keeping innovations introduced by Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton firsthand in the '30s. The lowest voice in the orchestra became a liberated and expressive one. Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Charles Mingus, and Ron Carter are a part of a continuum that "the oldest bass player standing" can appreciate.
Hinton hasn't only championed jazz with his tutelage of younger players. When the recording industry was thriving in the '50s and '60s, Hinton made efforts to keep jazz musicians--turned studio players--in touch with their jazz roots. He held Sunday rehearsals in the basement of his home, affectionately known as "The Trap," where a devoted cadre of fellow musicians purchased charts with pooled funds, practiced jazz arrangements and kept their technical skills fresh. For a few to whom it mattered, the dignity of the music was preserved with monk-like devotion.
Since 1935, Hinton has documented jazz life with his camera. His collection of candid photographs of jazz luminaries on the road, in recording sessions, in segregated Pullman cars and facilities, parties and other settings, has grown to more than 35,000 images. With the assistance of sociologist David G. Berger, and paper conservator Holly Maxson, Hinton's work has appeared in individual and group exhibits in the United States and Europe. His photographs have also appeared in magazines, documentary films, and have been published in Bass Line: The Stories And Photographs Of Milt Hinton (Temple University Press), and OverTime: The Jazz Photographs Of Milt Hinton (Pomegranate).
As an educator, Hinton has taught jazz workshops at Hunter and Baruch Colleges in Manhattan. He holds honorary doctorates from William Patterson College, Skidmore College, Hamilton College, DePaul University and Trinity College. He has received the Living Treasure Award from the Smithsonian Institution for his contributions to its oral history project. He has been a panel member of the National Endowment Of The Arts, and was awarded its prestigious American Jazz Master Fellowship. In 1980, to celebrate his 70th birthday, the Milton J. Hinton Bass Scholarship was established in his name for promising jazz bassists.
With the subtle textures of LAUGHING AT LIFE, Hinton has retained a prime instruction from his session playing, given right at the moment when he'd absorbed a chart and conveyed exactly what was written to its composer: "Have some fun with it, Milt." For a man who's played "Minnie The Moocher" a few thousand times in his career, there can be no other way.