Roland Hanna began learning music from his father, a saxophone player and minister, at an early age. He began studying classical piano at the age of 11. Surrounded by a burgeoning, regionally distinctive bop scene, Hanna began playing with some of the Detroit area's noted jazz musicians, including Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Hank Jones, and Woody Anderson, while still a student at Detroit's Cass Technical High School. In the newsletter published by the Institute for Studies in American Music (ISAM), Mark Tucker described the characteristics of the postwar Detroit school of piano playing: "advanced harmonic knowledge, a strong relationship with bebop, a
percussively accented touch, economy, elegance, and unfailing swing." Hanna himself was never convinced the so-called Detroit style could be distinguished. "I don't know anything about a Detroit approach to playing piano. I didn't make that up, and I don't have anything to do with it. But I do know that there were many, many fine Detroit pianists—and a number of guys that you probably never heard of, because they didn't leave Detroit," he told the Kansas City Star in 2000, as recounted by the Washington Post in 2002.
Tucker also noted that Hanna, by virtue of his classical training, developed an especially personal style with "a preference for thick, full-bodied textures and a profound influence from Romantic and early 20th-century concert music composers (e.g., Chopin, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel)." While his more intellectual approach to composition and performance may have cost Hanna listeners, he remained steadfast throughout his life that the music, and not fickle audience preferences, came first. "Anyone who plays music should play it primarily for the love of the art," he told Down Beat in 1975. "[T]he business end of it should come as an afterthought; the music must be first."
Roland Pembroke Hanna was born on February 10, 1932 in Detroit, Michigan. Hanna began his musical education at an early age from his father, who was a minister and saxophonist. While still a young child, Roland received piano lessons from a local teacher named Ms. Josephine Love. At the age of eleven, he began to study classical music and further gained knowledge about the fundamentals of the piano.
Hanna was introduced to jazz as a boy by a friend and fellow aspiring pianist, Tommy Flanagan, and he has cited pianists Art Tatum and Hank Jones as his earliest musical influences.
Coming of age on Detroit's active local jazz scene, Roland began to perform with several musicians in the area including pianists Barry Harris and Woody Anderson while still a student at Detroit's Cass Technical High School. In high school, he expanded his musical education by doubling on the alto saxophone.
Upon graduating from high school, Hanna enlisted in the United States Army where he spent two years performing with the United States Army Band. Upon his discharge in 1951, Roland began to perform with trumpeter Thad Jones at the Blue Bird Inn club in Detroit. Shortly after, he began to study at the Eastman School of Music, but only stayed from 1953 to 1954, and left in frustration that he was not allowed to play jazz there. Hanna returned home to Detroit for a brief time and shortly after he married Ramona Woodard.
In 1955, Hanna moved to New York City in order to enroll at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. While a student at Juilliard, Roland was hired by clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman to perform at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and he also joined him on a European tour that ended at the Brussel's World's Fair in Belgium. The same year, he began to appear regularly with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on the television program Art Ford's Jazz Party.