Jon Hassell 1937-2021

by Jan Bang

jan jonThe title belongs to musician Richard Horowitz, a longtime collaborator and friend of trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell - writing in respond to the Royce Hall concert in LA a decade ago.

Surrounded by his family and friends Jon died peacefully in his home in LA on Saturday June 26. As one of his two goddaughters, Uti Cleveland mentioned after the ceremony: “Jon could tell how the world was, not what he would like it to be”.

Some musicians have the ability to speak directly to the heart. That is a gift of God or whatever you choose to call it.  Jon had that gift. It´s something about hearing a tone in a special way, that when listening, you immediately recognize it as something almost private. A personal thing you possess in your life knowing it will be with you forever.

In many ways Jon became my mentor, part of my DNA. I had the fortune of getting to know the man very well over a period of five years from 2005 when he first came to the Punkt festival in my hometown Kristiansand together with guitarist Eivind Aarset. 

Two years later upon his return to Norway, I became a regular member of his band and from then we travelled the world together performing in various places ranging from Reykjavik to Sydney. Wherever Jon got invited to perform, I would be there right next to him. Playing alongside him in France with Gnawa musicians, or in Carnegie Hall in NYC and various places in the US and throughout Europe was just great. 

When performing at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Texas – he would tell how familiar the landscape would be to his growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. The swamp and the heat. As a teenager he would listen to blues in small clubs. Later studies in Rochester and hearing Gesang de Junglinge he would decide going to Europe to study with Stockhausen. 

He had great admiration for Terry Riley being the true originator of minimalism and their journey to India and studies back in the US with Pandit Pran Nath where Jon would learn to first sing and then transfer the vocal lines to his trumpet playing – like calligraphy, but with sound where he would learn to draw a perfect line with the sound of his trumpet.

Through Jon I met Brian Eno and remember fondly a long breakfast in London the day after performing at London Jazz festival. The two of them had taken up their friendship from a few years without contact. When driving out of London to the airport I mentioned to Jon how beautiful it was seeing two old friends making up after years of silence. Jon simply responded: “Well, Brian´s my homeboy”.

In 2008 we went into the recording studio with Manfred Eicher and recorded what was to become Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (ECM). The recording took place at La Buissone Studios in Avignon, France. The musicians were all American and consisted of Rick Cox (guitar); Jamie Muhoberac (synthesizer); the late Peter Freeman (bass); Jon (tpt, keyboards) and myself on live sampling.

Arnaud Mercier who faithfully was working with Jon since 2003 and right up to his passing in 2021 – was there as a second engineer next to the studio´s in-house engineers, and with Manfred producing the album. The end results incorporated live recordings from Courtrais, Belgium and later recordings from when bringing Punkt to London the same year. Finally J.A Deane, Helge Norbakken and Kheir-Eddine M´Kachiche would be added to the mix.

When our collaboration came to an end, he would tell me the only music he would listen to was Ravel´s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit.

On the day of the private memorial service, I was on my bike heading home from town when hearing the church bells ring. And I remembered when Jon did the Punkt commission playing the church bells. Jon and Arnaud had organized it in a way so that the pitches would play high notes in the morning and would slowly transpose downwards during the day and ending with a beautiful low sounding gong at midnight.

Reminded by the Paul Simon song about the two Johns – John Lennon and the late great Johnny Ace. Adding a third Jon to the song – singing to myself: 

On a lovely Sunday morning
In beginning of summertime

When a friend called up and asked me 

if I´d heard Jon Hassell died

And the two of us went to this bar

and we´d stayed to close the place 

And every song we played was for 

the late great Johnny Ace

(free adaptation from The Late Great Johnny Ace)

Jon Hassell was my friend and I loved him madly.

  • Jan Bang, Kristiansand July 5, 2021