W. Howard “Hod” O’Brien III ’54 is an American jazz pianist who has influenced generations of jazz enthusiasts and has been a vital part of the international jazz scene for the past 50 years. Having played with many of the jazz greats, in the eyes of true jazz aficionados and critics alike, O’Brien is himself a living legend.
O’Brien came to Hotchkiss from the Westminster School for a postgraduate year. “My father had gone to prep school, and had hopes of my going to Yale. But around age eight, I started listening to Boogie-Woogie, and I was hooked.” O’Brien realized he had the ability to play by ear, as is typical of many jazz musicians. He recalls, “In those days, becoming a jazz musician wasn’t really an accepted occupation, so I learned to play on my own. I am a terrible sight-reader.”
By the time O’Brien reached the age of 21, he got his first big break. “I was hired to record with Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, and Idrees Sulieman on the classic, ‘Three Trumpets,’” winning for him almost immediate recognition from other musicians. “I remember playing a big fat B-minor 7th on the first chord of the bridge on ‘Cherokee,’ and Idrees cocked his head and smiled when we listened to the playback. I loved Idrees, although Art’s playing was beautiful, especially from that period. But Idrees stands out as being the most interesting in terms of ideas, sound, and energy.”
O’Brien was then asked by Red Rodney to take Bill Evans’ place in the Oscar Pettiford Quintet at New York’s famous club, the Five Spot Café, where they alternated sets with Thelonious Monk – it had been at the Five Spot where Monk had his first extended engagement. The club’s first official engagement had featured Cecil Taylor—a true pioneer of free jazz. When the Five Spot began, there was no cover charge, and history was being made at the packed club on a regular basis. The club hosted a wide variety of talent, and virtually every jazz musician aspired to play this club.
During the next few years, O’Brien played at many of the historical jazz clubs such as Birdland, Small’s Paradise, the Cork and Bib, the Black Pearl, and the Continental. O’Brien recalls, “At that time, Birdland was one of the foremost modern clubs, modern for that period.” The New York City art scene was booming in the 1950s, and jazz, along with the other art forms, was flourishing. There was a new postwar generation of jazz fans who had cut their teeth on the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Young people turned to Beat literature, a new cultural movement that tested the nation’s existing perceptions, including the consumer culture and the uptight tendencies of their parents’ generation. Jazz revolutionaries such as Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and O’Brien defined themselves.
In the mid-to-late 1960s and into the 1970s, jazz dipped in popularity, and O’Brien took a hiatus. “I returned to Columbia University to study mathematics and physics. Mathematics was the second love affair of my life. I also studied composition and became interested in electronic music and acoustic music.”
O’Brien played with Hotchkiss graduate and trombonist Roswell Rudd Jr. ’54 on occasion. They knew one another from growing up in Lakeville. While youngsters, O'Brien played stride piano and Rudd played trombone when the two played Dixieland in the company of Rudd’s father, also a Hotchkiss graduate, Class of 1926. Rudd and O’Brien went on to collaborate at one point and opened their own club, The St. James Infirmary. O’Brien led the house band with Cameron Brown and Beaver Harris, and backed some great artists including Rudd, Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, and Charlie Rouse. The club ultimately folded, but O’Brien ended up booking a five-year, five-night-a-week gig at Gregory’s. “I worked with Chet several times before he died in 1988, and it was one of my favorite experiences.”
O’Brien joined up with singer Stephanie Nakasian professionally in 1980, and they later married. In 1994, O’Brien and Nakasian welcomed their daughter, Veronica, who is now a budding jazz vocalist. The couple has since performed all over the world at major jazz festivals. They have recorded a number of CDs together as well. Independently, O’Brien has produced several new CDs and a Super Audio CD, and was selected as one of 10 pianists to perform in Japan on the Fujitsu 100 Gold Fingers Tour in 2007.
For O’Brien, playing live for an appreciative audience has the greatest appeal. “Certain clubs have reputations for presenting certain kinds of music. I have to feel it out each time. Sometimes there are not true jazz enthusiasts in the crowd, but I can be fooled, as jazz means different things to different people. For me, the biggest influence was bebop and the swing era.” But professional musicians have on occasion a bad day. O’Brien says, “You plow through it. Inspiration comes and goes. Sometimes it sounds great, other times it doesn’t.”
To what does O’Brien attribute his success? “I think it is luck of the draw. I was lucky in my early years. That first record was a twist of fate. Teddy Charles was performing, and I knew a working musician there. I figured if I showed up, they would ask me to play a couple numbers. I did and it sounded good, so they asked me if I wanted to do a record. ‘Three Trumpets’ was the outcome. Woody Shaw was heavily influenced by this record, which I viewed as a real feather in my cap.”
In his quiet manner, O’Brien says, “Bebop has always been in my gut. I flirted with some other things, but I always came back to bebop.” He made two Mezzrow appearances in New York City in July, has new CDs coming out, and a book due out this fall. At 79 years young, O’Brien is still swinging and is heading to Denmark and Japan (where he is especially beloved for his pure bebop approach) in the fall to perform. He will celebrate his 80th birthday on January 19, 2016, and for O’Brien, as the late Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
To hear Hod perform, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g7-1MvnMg0
Hod’s website: www.hodobrien.com