Sometimes, love stories do come true. Just ask Mona Hinton.
For 61 years, she was the woman behind the man with the bass. The Judge Milt Hinton. In an exclusive interview with the PRESS, she described the legendary Jazz musician by merely saying,” he was the best man and father God ever put breath into — the greatest husband, the sweetest dad.”
From home they shared in Addsleigh Park, St. Albans on a cross-street of Queens that could soon carry his name, Mona Hinton talked about the love of her life and the music at his heart.
The Early Days
Mona Hinton was born into a large Ohio family and “raised in the church.” So when she moved to Chicago, the family advised her to join the local church to make friends, with the added warning to beware, “you can find a devil the church.”
What she found was a man worth spending six decades with. Looking back since his severe illness and his death in December 2000, the conclusion about their life together is simple: “I was lucky.”
Mona had never been around musicians before so when she began touring with Milton, there was a bit of a culture shock. “Chorus girls” – as they were called – were the only other women travelling on the road, and they became her female companions. Although there were times when the “foul language” that she never used was surprising, her memory of the time is one of friendship and camaraderie. “Every one of them treated me with the utmost respect,” she recalls, to the point where after years of friendship, Louie “Pops” Armstrong still wouldn’t call her by her first name. “I told him, ‘Pop’s it’s infuriating,’ and his answer to me was ‘baby, I couldn’t call you Mona, because you’re a lady.”
She wouldn’t admit to any bad times during touring years. Still, Pops was right, Mona Hinton is a true lady, and her depth of character and quiet strength wouldn’t let her complain, even if she had cause to. But she did admit that it was “disheartening” to live within the “racial situation” of the 1940s Jazz world as incredible musical talent rushed the predominantly black artists into the pop culture of white America.
While Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey had no trouble finding fine hotels to stay at, the black musicians searched for black homes to stay in. “We were living in somebody’s homes. It was the same thing with food . . . it was an accepted way of life.”
But wherever they went or whomever The Judge performed with, Mona Hinton recalls it being said that he always travelled with three things “his bass, his camera and his wife.” The camera “was always a hobby with him . . . someone gave him a camera and he set up a darkroom in the bathrooms.” An exhibit of some of his more than 60,000 photographs that offer a rare window into the history of Jazz will be shown in Holland during the upcoming North Seas Jazz Festival and are currently on display in California.
Why The Judge?
Mona Hinton laughed and traced the nickname back to a long-forgotten joke told when they were “in Japan with Louie” Armstrong. She added “Milt believed in being on time. He was the first one at every recording session” and that, added to his stature as a senior talent in the building of the fame of Jazz, helped to keep the nickname alive, she supposed.
Married to the Judge
After touring with Cab Calloway in the early 50s, Milt started studio work. In 1955, he got a call from a 14-year-old boy who lived in Kew Gardens Hills and wanted to learn to play the bass. He told the young man – David Berger – to come to his home in the part of Southeast Queens that was then called Brick Town where he lived on Ruscoe Street. A friendship was born between the two that would lead to a collaboration on two books, Mona referred to David as their adopted son, and a memorial service Berger helped organize for Milt on June 23 at the Riverside Church. The service – attended by thousands of mourners from around the world – ended with 50 bass players performing as an ensemble and a eulogy by the Rev. Henry Simmons of Milt Hinton’s church, St. Albans Congregational. Simmons said that knowing Milt Hinton helped the reverend understand the concept of “grace.”
When the Hinton’s moved to Addisleigh Park in the mid-fifties, visiting musicians, famous neighbours, and support for aspiring artists became commonplace. Mona Hinton recalls that Count Basie used to get bored with the pool parties his kind-hearted wife would throw to share their Olympic-size pool, and so he would sneak over to the Hintons. “He and Milt would go down in the basement and play,” and were once recruited as the party entertainment when the scheduled musicians failed to show.
Meanwhile, Milton worked hard at recording sessions, and his wife believes that he holds the record as being the most recorded musician. He maintained Manhattan recording schedules at an amazing rate of three shifts per day: 10-1, 2-5, 7-10.
One of those shifts was with a young musician working under his own name for the first time. His name was Quincy Jones.
In recent years, The Judge received a letter from Jones that contained a torn-up check and a note. The note was a reminder of that first recording which . . . due to a mistake on Jones’ part . . . took an hour of overtime. Jones had to pay each of the 16 men the hour our of his own pocket, but Hinton tore up the check and returned it to the young artist, who kept it always with him in his datebook as a reminder to pass the help along to another aspiring musician.
The Woman Behind The Bass
Milt tried to teach Mona the bass once, and although she learned the basics, it meant she had to give up her weekly manicure and keep her nails cut short. After a short time living with the look, she laughed, “I decided I’d rather have my nails.”
But she went through periods where caring for her husband and her family and volunteering in the neighbourhood and at shelters wasn’t enough. Her brain needed stimulating, she explained, and so she would take classes.
In 1972, she finally put all those classes together into a degree in Education from Queens College and started teaching at P.S. 116.
When the Board of Education opened P.S. 251 – the school that now makes headlines each year as parents camp out to get their children in – Mona was invited to go to the new school with the assistant principal from P.S. 116 who was recruited to be principal at 251. She went and taught for several years in the public school that is now a standard of excellence in the community.
Keeping The LEGEND Alive
Mona Hinton’s hospitality now extends to jazz lovers and tourists from around the world who travel the Queens Jazz Trail tour created by the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts. As has always been the tradition for her and her husband, she opens the door to the tour members and invites them to share in the memories that sixty years of love and the sound of jazz created in her life.
The Council’s Executive and Creative Director Jo-Ann Jones hope that New York City will soon show its gratitude for the talent and the spirit of Milt Hinton by re-naming the street that his wife still lives in the memory of the Judge.
Jones first proposed the change when Hinton was celebrating his 90th birthday but was told that “we don’t name streets for living people.” In April of this year, she wrote to Community Board 12 Chairperson James Davis to try and again create support for the name change and has yet to receive an answer.
But from Milt Hinton’s favourite chair in their house filled with honours from around the world for the musician whom the Smithsonian Institute had declared “a living treasure,” Mona Hinton reacted to the proposed Queens honour quietly, simply and humbly. “I think he would like that,” she said.