A Fireside Chat with Jim Hall
“ I heard a recording of the Benny Goodman Sextet with Charlie Christian on guitar and that really did it for me. That was my spiritual awakening. ”
Ignore the robust tone of Sonny Rollins tenor on "God Bless the Child" (The Bridge ) and you will hear the subtle elegance of Jim Hall. The man is class. The guitarist appears on one classic after another. The short list is as follows: Stan Getz's Cool Velvet, Ella Fitzgerald's Ella in Berlin (the one where she ad-libs "Mack the Knife"), Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction Sessions, and a virtual laundry list of Paul Desmond dates. I lament that Hall's name isn't mentioned in the same breath as Grant Green or Wes Montgomery because he ought to be. Sun Tzu recommends in the field of battle to attack the plans and alliances of your enemies rather than the enemies themselves. While I ponder that and call my bookie, may I present Jim Hall, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Jim Hall: Well, I grew up in Ohio and I had an uncle, Uncle Ed, whom I wrote a piece for later on. He kind of played country music and sang. He played the guitar. So that was some of the first music I guess I ever heard. When I, I can't remember if I was nine or ten, almost ten I guess, my mom bought me a guitar which we paid for a dollar a week or something. At the store we bought it at, you would take a lesson and a part of the money went to pay for the guitar and I had a good teacher. That was in Cleveland, Ohio. When I was thirteen, I had been playing in little groups in school and I heard a recording of the Benny Goodman Sextet with Charlie Christian on guitar and that really did it for me. That was my spiritual awakening. I still remember the piece and I learned Charlie's solo and I still remember. I remember thinking when I heard that, "I don't know what that is, but I'd love to be able to do that." That was the Benny Goodman Sextet playing "Grand Slam." In fact, I named a group Grand Slam a few years ago and we played a quartet with Joe Lovano and Lewis Nash on drums and a couple different bass players. That is kind of a long version, but first was my Uncle Ed and then I heard Charlie Christian and that did it for me.
AAJ: Let's touch on your work with Jimmy Giuffre.
JH: Well, Jimmy is a musician whom I really respected. I had moved to Los Angeles by then. I worked with Chico Hamilton and then, I remember Jimmy Giuffre from his arrangements for Woody Herman, especially "Four Brothers," that was one of my favorite big band arrangements. I knew Jimmy slightly from around Los Angeles, so he was getting this group together and he called and it was, it seems to be proving to have been more important to me even then I thought. Jim had a, he is such a fantastic musician and he had a background in composition as well as jazz. So his idea was to have a trio. Initially it was bass, Ralph Pena played bass, bass, guitar, and Jimmy playing clarinet, alto, tenor, and baritone, I guess four horns. The writing was really interesting. It was counterpointal and Jimmy saw the trio, never as clarinet with a rhythm section backed up, but always as a mobile where you would see different facets of the group at different times in the music. He helped me a lot with phrasing on the guitar, to change the way I would phrase a phrase, the way I would approach it so it would sound more like a saxophone and to blend in and so it was really very, very important. But then later, we had Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and that was a really marvelous experience because Bob continues to be one of my very favorite musicians. So it was a great experience. It really broadened my concept of music and had some long friendships there.
AAJ: Then came Sonny Rollins' now legendary The Bridge quartet, further erasing the color line.
JH: Well, just to back up a little bit, having grown up in jazz music, it really straightened me out on some many things. For instance, Charlie Christian was my first hero and if it wasn't conscious, if someone would say something derogatory about the group of people that had produced a Charlie Christian, I would say, "Yeah, if that is so, then how come he is playing like that and I'm still playing 'Come to Jesus' in whole notes?" So that was something I didn't even think about. I had grown up in multi-ethnic situations and Chico Hamilton's group was certainly like that. I was just used to that. But it was a great experience for me, Fred. I had met Sonny Rollins when he was with Max Roach's group along with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell. I'm drawing a blank on the pianist, I mean, the bassist's name (George Morrow). I knew Sonny a bit and I really admired him and we would run into one another occasionally on the road and then he called me to be in his group and it was a really, I didn't really understand what a great musician and saxophonist Sonny is. I joined the group with Walter Perkins on drums and Bobby Cranshaw on bass. Bobby still works with Sonny. During that time, I discovered that my jaw would drop every time Sonny would play a solo (laughing). I think in a lot of ways, as far as being accepted as a jazz musician, it was probably the most important job that I ever had. All the others were important too, but Sonny, he had just returned from a two-year hiatus in his career where he had been practicing and he lived down near the Williamsburg Bridge in New York and he would practice on the bridge. There is a walkway across the East River there and so that was the first CD that we did, the first recording called The Bridge. Just stepping back, Sonny was already acknowledged as an incredible saxophonist. Even when he returned from that break, that two year break there, he got a lot of attention and all kinds of people would come into hear. Art Blakey came in and John Lewis came in. I remember John Coltrane would be talking with Sonny and so I met all those people through Sonny and we're still in touch. I send him notes. He just sent me a photograph of this same quartet, only with Billy Higgins on drums and that was lovely. So it was really important and people still talk about that first CD that I did with him. It seems to be something I don''t think about when I'm doing it. The thing that really hit me was every night, I would be amazed by what Sonny was playing and then I would have to follow him with my solo, so it really got my attention. I had to spend a lot of time with the instrument. Then I had known Bill Evans for a while before this and Bill came in one night. I was working with Sonny and he asked me to do the duet album, the Undercurrent album, which also was evidently been really important. But you don't, I didn't think of it, think of things in those terms. I was doing a recording with a friend of mine whom I respected a lot, this is with Bill Evans too. I think I knew Bill better than Sonny at that point. I enjoyed it. I think, in general, you don't really think what kind of impact it is going to have. You just try to do your best at the moment and enjoy the friendship. Music in general and jazz music in specific is really kind of a family situation. We all know one another at least casually and it doesn't really seem so special as you're doing the recording. You try to do your best and later on, you see that was OK.