Remembering Charlotte music legend Bill Hanna, “The Godfather of Charlotte Jazz”

By Daniel Coston

January 14, 2021

On any given day or night over the last sixty years Bill Hanna was somewhere in Charlotte, sharing the music that he loved. Teacher, musician, bandleader and ringleader, he was an all-around force of nature. He was the tree with deep roots, determined to grow and reach out to others, so that they might grow as well.

From the beginning, Hanna’s life was in music. Proficient in both piano and trombone, he played across the country with Woody Herman’s Herd, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Stan Kenton Orchestra. His heart, however, lay in Charlotte, and in teaching. Hanna began teaching in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in 1960. When he retired in 1990, he transitioned to CPCC to start teaching again.

Bill Hanna at the Double Door Inn in 2016. Photo: Daniel Coston

“If you play jazz, you will eventually know that you are never going to master it. You keep learning it until you die,” Hanna once said. “The more you know, the more there is to know.”

Hanna was always restless, always thinking, organizing, and playing music. He believed that Charlotte could be a mecca for jazz. A home for a city full of talented musicians, built one person at a time, and one gig at a time. 

Hanna led by example, and that meant leading on stage. Shows at the Cellar, Cajun Queen, his Vintage Dance Band at Grand Central Station, Tuesday nights at the Double Door, Thursday nights at Jack Straw’s, and Sunday nights at Petra’s. Playing music of all styles and colors, but always returning back to jazz. Along the way, Bill acquired the nickname, The Godfather Of Charlotte Jazz. Young musicians learned from him and developed their own voices, and Bill pushed for that. Play, learn, get better, and grow.

“Bill Hanna took me under his wing when I couldn’t even read music,” acclaimed Charlotte saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield posted Thursday morning. “At age 14, he let me join his jazz improv class for free. Called me on my bull when I needed [it], and let me slide when I make mistakes.”

Bill Hanna was proficient in both piano and trombone. Photo: Daniel Coston

Last year, Middle C Jazz held an appreciation show and jam for Hanna. Ziad Jazz Quartet, Airstream, Doug Henry, Tyrone Jefferson, A Sign of The Times, and the David Pankey Trio played that night. All friends, students, fellow musicians in attendance. Sixty years after Bill Hanna began teaching, a show dedicated to him sold out the newest jazz venue in Charlotte. 

Hanna’s passing at age 88 means that we– his friends and fans– are left to ponder his works and music. Taking stock of a person’s life when that person never paused to do the same can seem strange, but somewhere tonight, the music plays on. Which is what Bill Hanna always wanted. To learn, grow, and play on.

The legacy of Bill Hanna is more than his music. It is the musicians that grew from his influence. As Bill once said, building a jazz mecca, “one student at a time.” In its ongoing echoes, the music and teachings of Bill Hanna live on, for all the seasons to come.

Remembering Bill Hanna “The Godfather of Charlotte Jazz.” Photo: Daniel Coston

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