What can you write about a man who is a legend in his own time? What can you write about a man who has already had volumes written about him and his accomplishments? What can you write about a man that hasn’t been written or said already…and more than once? Sometimes what you read about an accomplished person goes little beyond the accomplishments and not far enough about the who and what are behind those accomplishments. 

What I hope to accomplish here is to remedy that as it applies to someone very special. From my vantage point, what I can write and will write here is mostly about the privilege and joy to have shared the joy of music with a man who masterfully and enthusiastically continues to apply his craft just as passionately at age 90 as he did at age 25. 

Earl Hesse is no stranger in the world of music, all the way from classical to Dixieland, to big band to jazz, and to performing with such notables as Ella Fitzgerald (his personal favorite), Al Hirt, Bob Hope, Patti Page, Lou Rawls, Chet Atkins, B.J. Thomas, and the list goes on…Then throw in such venues as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and I think you begin to get the big picture…but maybe not the whole picture. You see…he also taught music to high school students in Texas and New Mexico and college students just down the road at Henderson State University (for 27 years) and has played in numerous musical groups, including some in our local area. This is where my story of Earl Hesse picks up. 

Earl is a native of Arkansas, born in Stuttgart in 1934. His first public performances were in jazz bands on Beale Street while he was a high school student. On a music scholarship, he attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He later received his Doctor of Arts at the University of Mississippi. 

I first met Earl some ten years ago when he joined the Hot Springs Concert Band. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was, and he made no effort to draw attention to himself or his fame. If it hadn’t been for some of those in the band who did know him or of him, I likely wouldn’t have found out for a while. Oh yes, his playing could have given him away, but he chose to play third clarinet where he could avoid the limelight. Earl enjoyed the more incognito, laid-back routine, which he wasn’t used to, and he continued there for several years until his talents were needed on saxophone. Here, his special sound and style elevated that section and gave the band a special boost.

Earl Hesse:  Musician, Legend, and Friend Hot Springs Band image
Earl playing a Hot Springs Concert Band
concert in 2022

About three years ago, after the worst of COVID, I joined the Hot Springs Village Big Band (VBB). Well, again, I was fortunate to cross paths with Earl, and I had only thought I had witnessed his talent. Well, I had but… nothing like I heard in the VBB. He sparked not only the saxophone section, but the entire band. As a man approaching 90 years of age, Earl may have slowed down some, but his playing hadn’t shown it much. 

In basic terms, Earl Hesse is a musician who plays the clarinet and saxophone. In descriptive terms, Earl Hesse is an enormously gifted musician whose talent transcends the notes on the paper, and I would venture to often say…the expectations of the composers themselves. 

As any competent musician will tell you, everything musically depends upon the fundamentals of the craft, and Mr. Hesse has built upon these and has shared, exemplified, and mentored them with countless others. In doing so, he has equipped young musicians and others with the benefit of his hard work, experience, and talent. And…I might add. – with his infectious personality! 

Earl Hesse brings not only his magnificent brand of music to his audiences but also his special brand of camaraderie to his musical companions in the band, making our experience more fun and memorable. Earl’s love of music for music’s sake, his musicianship, and his encouragement help to bring out the best in his fellow musicians. Earl is a musician with both a sure sense of confidence and showmanship, but at the same time he is a man with a unique sense of humility and of his place in a band. Musically Earl gives all he has to give, but he also understands (as one musician friend once reminded me many years ago) “There is no “I’ in band.” He knows his fantastic playing complements and enhances the band but does not diminish others in any way. There, my friends is where the rubber meets the road and where Earl Hesse’s place in the hearts and minds of his fellow musicians benefit from his life and craft. I am hopeful that Earl will once again join the Village Big Band in one of our upcoming concerts. He loves the Village, and he loves music, so stay tuned….

The extent of Earl’s contributions to music and to people is almost beyond description. The scope of Earl Hesse’s legacy is as wide as it is deep. In 2000, he was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame. I encourage everyone reading this to visit that website and learn more about Earl Hesse’s magnificent career. https://www.arjazz.org/artists/hof/2000/2000_hesse.shtml

As I complete the finishing touches on this writing, I am listening to one of Earl’s CDs. His rendition of “Amazing Grace” is playing, and I can’t help but stop and take in his beautiful clarinet expression of this classic of the faith. Recently, Earl shared something with me that I thought quite astonishing. He told me that someone years ago commented to him that he was the strangest musician they’d ever known. Earl asked what they meant. The answer: Earl didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, and he had been married to the same woman for over 50 years. Yes, for a professional musician, I suppose that is a rarity, but it is also a powerful example of his character and priorities to complement his musical talent. This comment prompted me to ask Earl about his family, and let me tell you…he had more to say about them than his music. That revealed something about the man, a quality undoubtedly which did not escape the many young people Earl taught and mentored over the years. 

I got the sense that Earl is prouder of his family than of his music, and after reading what he wrote for me, I can understand why. He was married to his college sweetheart Kathryn (Kat) for 55 years. She was an accomplished woman in her own right, and together they raised four children – three boys and a girl. The oldest son followed his father’s footsteps, becoming legendary in the band directing profession and for 15 years led Arkansas’ top high school band program. One of his bands was selected to march in President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Parade in 1993. He has since retired but remains active through judging band contests and writing half-time shows for bands. Their daughter was an occupational therapist and head of two clinics prior to her retirement. Their other two sons became very successful attorneys with their own law firms in Dallas. Most importantly, his children love their father and continue doing what they can to take care of him and still have great times together. Earl lost the love of his life ten years ago, but fortunately, love found Earl once again. As he put it, “I met the second love of my life, Jean, and we have had some of the most wonderful years I ever had.” Continuing, he said, “ I always say – If I had known how great getting old was, I would have gotten older a lot sooner!!” 

Earl Hesse Musician Legend and Friend Hot Springs Concert Band
Earl as encourager at a recent Hot Springs Concert Band concert

Let me add one more thing before I close. I play in a small band called the Hot Springs New Horizons Band. This band was organized originally for folks, who previously played musical instruments in their younger days, to have an opportunity to resume playing their instrument again after absence due to careers, family, and other areas of life’s journey. Prior to one of our rehearsals several months ago, walked in none other than Earl Hesse. I thought to myself…Earl wants to play in our band? He told our director, Bill Crook, that he would like to play clarinet with us if it was okay with him. Well, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what Bill’s reply was….Typical of Earl Hesse, he not only played great clarinet, but fit right in with us and enjoyed the music and camaraderie as much (well, perhaps almost as much) as if he were playing with the Arkansas Wind Symphony, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Jazz Orchestra, or as a sideman with Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. He was and is more than a musician to them and to us. He is a comrade and friend. 

Need I say more? Thank you, Earl Hesse! Lead on, Sir!

Featured image: Earl sparking the saxophone section of the Village Big Band

  By Jeff Olson

Author Jeff Olson Hot Springs Village

Jeff Olson, Author

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