He was born in Louisville, Ky., the only place his father could find textile work during the Great Depression. After living there for only one year, the family made their way back to North Carolina, living in 36 different addresses in cities across the state: Burlinton, Shelby, Rutherfordton, Mooresville, Rockingham, and others.
In those days, Hanna had no intention of becoming a musician. He had started playing the piano in first and second grade, but did not start playing again until he was 25. He picked up the trombone in the sixth grade, but after three different schools in three years, all without a band, he fell out of practice.
Back in Mooresville in the tenth grade, he joined the band, having to play catch-up with his friends, who had been playing since the sixth grade.
After high school, Hanna wasn’t sure on a career, and was accepted at Davidson College, where he began business school.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to study,” Hanna said. “I didn’t want to be a preacher, and I didn’t want to be a doctor, so the only thing left was to be a businessman.”
By the end of his junior year, Hanna’s grades weren’t up to snuff, and in 1954, he was drafted into the army.
At Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., Hanna got started in the army band, avoiding heavy weapons or infantry duty. And one night, he heard some music.
“I got inspired one night, because I heard some fellows playing in the barracks, they were jamming you know, playing jazz,” Hanna said.
Wanting to join in, Hanna asked if he could take a turn on the improvisational playing, and when his turn came, he heard the music in his head, but could not find it on the trombone. The musicians told Hanna that if he were going to play with them, he’d have to start practicing.
Later in ’54, Hanna was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, with the 4th Infantry Division band, which he describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
In Germany, Hanna was immersed in a group of musicians that eat, breathe, sleep, and live jazz, and he describes it as being set on fire about jazz, a feeling that persists today.
After his tour, he finished his business degree at Davidson and enrolled in Indiana University, to get his master’s in trombone.
The plan was to get to New York, L.A., or another musician’s town, playing gigs, teaching privately, the life of a professional jazz musician.
Then, after finishing at Indiana in 1958, he got a chance to play in the Stan Kenton Band, one of the biggest jazz bands of the time, playing for three months in place of a band member who was on leave for the birth of a child.
Stan Kenton asked Bill one day, “What do you want to do when you leave my band?” and Bill replied “I want to play in Woody’s band.”
Woody Herman’s band was the other huge jazz band in the world, and Kenton told Bill not to worry, that when they formed the band again he’d be on it. And he was.
They called Bill to New York to start rehearsing, and Bill went on the road. After a year and a half, Hanna decided that he had had enough of the hard work and one-nighters on the road, and decided to come home to his folks, who were living in Wagram at the time.
After “treading water” for a while, he auditioned for a job with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Hanna did not think he had the patience for teaching, but he went for the audition anyway, spoke with Oliver Cook, and after Cook learned about Hanna’s master’s degree and experience with the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman bands, he was hired.
That was August 1960, and it marked the beginning of Bill Hanna’s 52-year teaching career.
Hanna moved through the CMS system teaching band and orchestra at a number of schools. When Independence High School opened in 1967, Hanna went out as band director, teaching marching band, which he hates, so after three years, he moved to orchestra.
While he was teaching, Hanna was still gigging at night, playing in groups and on recordings, in big bands and at ice shows and circuses. Hanna taught the orchestra at Independence, from 1970 to 1990, a full orchestra which averaged about 80 members.
“I hate to brag but I was a dang good teacher, I had great sounding groups, my orchestra at Independence High School—we played first class stuff,” Hanna said.
But the students at Independence weren’t the only ones Hanna was educating.
“When I first came to Charlotte, that’s what I was trying to do was educate the area around here about jazz,” Hanna said. “Some of the first concerts I played in Charlotte, I even put a blackboard on the bandstand with us and diagramed the chord changes on there that we were using in hopes that the audience would get some idea about what we were doing.”
In 1987, Bill Hanna got his pilot’s license, beginning his second love affair—flying.
“As long as I can remember, I have always loved seeing airplanes,” Hanna said. “Even when we were young we’d pass an airport and I’d say, ‘Good grief, look at that. Let’s go watch the planes take off and land.”
On Halloween 1996, Hanna purchased a Cessna 150, which he has been working on ever since, replacing parts left and right: interior, windshields, intercom, long range gas tanks, and even the engine.
He usually flies within a 50-mile radius, going to grab a burger or some barbecue at his favorite spots, but he has flown to Blowing Rock, and Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers became the first to fly.
“Man, that’s some kind of marvelous feeling to go out there and see that area where they flew for the first time.” Hanna said.
After leaving CMS in 1990, Hanna had a short one-month break before starting at Central Piedmont Community College, where he currently teaches jazz classes.
Today, Hanna plays regular gigs at the Double Door Inn in Charlotte every Tuesday from 9 pm to midnight, and at the Cajun Queen on 7th St. in Charlotte every Wednesday and Friday, and the First Thursday of every month, he plays as part of a big band at Grand Central in Charlotte.
He’ll be playing Christmas Eve, at the Myer’s Park Methodist Church, and January 3, the next Grand Central big band performance.
“I’m just all about music. Any shape, fashion, form, whatever. I like all kinds, but jazz is my favorite, I love classical, I like some country some rock n roll I like, but jazz is my favorite,” Hanna said. “It’s the creative part you know, where you’re not playing anything that’s written, you’re making it up here, and that’s a challenge, it’s one heck of a challenge, or at least it is for me,” Hanna said.