A recent liner note assignment from Italian pianist Roberto Magris (requisite plug: his new recording, Kansas City Outbound – the final recording by the great bassist Art Davis – will be out on Soul Note this fall) brought me in contact with the ghost of Hassan Ibn Ali. It's fascinating – and somehow reassuring – that in this age of Wikipedia, Google, etc., to learn that there are still some mysterious figures out there. It takes me back to my teenaged obsession with bluesman Robert Johnson, sparked by the ghost-story liner notes on the original Columbia Records reissue of Johnson's music in the '60s.
Born William Langford, Hassan became a ubiquitous figure on the Philadelphia jazz scene in the '50s and '60s. He gets passing mention in Lewis Porter's biography of John Coltrane and Francis Davis' Outcats. Francis kindly helped me find out a bit more about Hassan, as did another Jazz Journalists Association buddy, David Adler. The search also brought me back in touch with one of the first musical connections I made on the web: pianist Marc Sabatella. Even with their insights, though, Hassan remains more a specter than flesh and blood.
We know, of course, that the pianist was picked by Max Roach to fill out a trio with himself and Art Davis for a recording in 1964, but much else is speculation. Apparently, Hassan was an early influence on Coltrane – pushing him toward further exploration of certain types of chord voicings.
Unfortunately, it also seems that the pianist had some mental issues that may have limited his own career – or did he? Much remains to be discovered. Fascinating.