It's another cool fall Tuesday evening in Charlotte, and a couple dozen neighborhood locals have congregated at The Double Door Inn for its weekly jazz jam. It's easy to recognize the smooth tones reminiscent of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the air while walking past the walls filled with countless autographed photos of artists who have graced the blues club's stage over the years.
The center stage section in the little joint only holds about 20 seats on this night, but there's always time to grab a bottle from the gentleman behind the bar before claiming a place only a couple rows from the front. The band swiftly and elegantly moves into the first notes as if they have been synced up and ready to start for days, and the musician playing the piano, with the house lights reflecting gently off his glasses, introduces the other performers one by one.
On the piano is Bill Hanna, who has been playing jazz in its purist form in venues around Charlotte since 1960. Countless artists have joined him on stage over the years, from students to touring musicians who are just passing through and want to share the small stage with a local legend. But as much time as he spends in the spotlight, he spends even more working behind the scenes to bring other musicians forward.
Hanna taught music in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for 30 years before he began teaching at Central Piedmont Community College in 1990. Despite having previously toured the country with two of the biggest names in jazz at the time (the Woody Herman Band and The Stan Kenton Band), he says he never viewed his role as an educator with any shortage of importance. His love for music has lead him to have a huge influence on a lot of Charlotte's musicians, earning him the nickname "The Godfather of Jazz."
As an instructor, Hanna says that he believes individual attention is key to his students' development, and he has no problem paying them that attention. When he was teaching at Cochrane Junior High School, he personally organized, chaperoned and funded a jazz band that met on Monday nights for almost 25 years.
Phil Howe, 20, is one of the many students to share the stage with Hanna. He talks about him with a tone of respect and admiration in between drags on his cigarette just before the show. "Every jazz musician in Charlotte goes through Bill at some point or another," Howe explains.
After more than 50 years, Hanna says he doesn't see a reason to stop playing or teaching anytime soon, and that teaching has actually helped him to improve on his game. "If you play jazz, you will eventually know that you are never going to master it. You keep learning it until you die. When you die, you stop learning it," he says. "The more you know the more there is to know."
Adrian Crutchfield, who has recently performed on stage with Prince, Anthony Hamilton and Fantasia Barrino, says Hanna was instrumental in his development as a jazz player and has been integral in the local jazz scenes growth over the years. "If we didn't have Bill, we wouldn't have a jazz community here in Charlotte," Crutchfield says. "I mean we [would have] people that are playing, but not a community. Everybody would just be playing separately. They'd be doing stuff at their house, or maybe doing little sessions here and there, but Bill is like the face of the jazz community in Charlotte, and without him, the community here wouldn't be as advanced as it is."
Hanna has helped build that through his work with generations of musicians. He has students that are currently touring, playing locally and teaching their own students. At this point some of his students' students even have students.
"I kind of had a real idealistic approach when I came here," Hanna says. "I wanted to really turn Charlotte into a jazz Mecca. A lot of players in this town have gone through my classes, you know, and have sat in with me, and played better than me, really. I've taught some real well.