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.
AAJ: Blue Note just reissued Undercurrent. The subtleties of both players are audible and the trust palpable, so it is not a stretch to find you were both friends.
JH: I think you summed it up, Fred. We were friends and I had heard Bill play a lot. I worked opposite Bill Evans when he was with Miles Davis' group, the fantastic group with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. We worked with Jimmy Giuffre's last trio, the one with Bob Brookmeyer. We worked opposite them for quite a while down in Greenwich Village. I had heard Bill play a lot later on when he started his own trio and I was very influenced by his approach to playing the piano and to accompanying and just the incredible musicality of his playing. I thought it was really kind of groundbreaking at the time because so many piano players especially, were sort of into some kind of macho bebop thumping on the piano and Bill wasn't into that. We were particularly well attuned to one another when we recorded. As you said, it is kind of a relationship where you have to trust the other person and with Bill it was as if he was part of my brain. He would just sort of sense what I was going to do and help me out. For instance, on the beginning of "My Funny Valentine," when I start my solo, there is several places where I could see I was scuffling a little bit, so Bill would just lead me right into the next phrase. And then he liked me to play rhythm behind him and when I did, he would automatically stop using his left hand as if he knew that part of the texture was covered. He was pretty special that way.
AAJ: Columbia/Legacy just reissued Concierto on Creed Taylor's CTI label. It features your interpretation of Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," which Miles Davis made infamous on Sketches of Spain. But it was originally composed as a guitar piece.
JH: It is. It is a beautiful piece. In fact, Fred, I had qualms about recording it. It was Don Sebesky's arrangement. He brought it into the date. In general, I feel that classical pieces that I respect don't need further tampering with (laughing). So it is a little bit different than playing a popular tune. Well, I had a great lineup of musicians, Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, Roland Hanna, Steve Gadd, and Ron Carter were on that. That worked out really well.
AAJ: You were the recipient of the Danish Jazzpar Prize. Chris Potter was in the band because he is featured on the record, but was Scott Colley still with you?
JH: Actually, Scott wasn't in that one. I worked with Scott a lot. In fact, I have recorded with him a heck of a lot. When we went, the Jazzpar Award is from Denmark and there was kind of, not really pressure, but I was asked if I could use a Danish bassist because there are so many good ones over there and so I did. I can't think of his name right now (Thomas Ovesen). But, yeah, I played with Chris a lot and before that, I worked with Scott. In fact, I still do. We were just at the Village Vanguard a few months ago and Scott's on most of the, I guess all of the Telarc records that uses a bass. The last one before the collection, before the Critic's Choice thing, was a CD with five different bass players and Scott is on that as well.
AAJ: Jim Hall & Basses featuring Scott Colley, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, George Mraz, and Chris McBride, a virtual who's who of bass players.
JH: I know. It is not bad. The only thing I thought was I was scuffling about bit and I was bugged with myself. I think partly because I was playing two or three different guitars and wasn't really used to that. I know how each one of those guys plays so I could write things specifically for them or think about things that they could do. For instance, George Mraz plays arco bass, bass with a bow, just about the greatest that I've ever heard. There's a lot of good ones, but George is amazing. So I wrote some arco things for George and Christian McBride had that great pulse going so I thought about that when I wrote for him and then Charlie Haden has a different approach to playing.
AAJ: I admittedly haven't heard every Jim Hall recording, but I have listened to my share. Have you recorded a solid body electric guitar session?
JH: Oh, years ago, when I was with Chico Hamilton, I had a Les Paul, one of the early Les Paul guitars. It just, yeah, I think I did one record with that and it felt a little bizarre because it didn't vibrate against you or anything and you couldn't play rhythm on it really and so I don't really use that.
AAJ: What is your instrument of choice?
JH: Well, I have a, do you play music yourself?
AAJ: I had a horrible run in with a violin in my youth.
JH: Really, because your questions sound like they are coming from a musician, which is great. I use a guitar, my primary guitar now is made by a man, a young man who died really prematurely, Jimmy D'Aquisto. It's a hollow body, orange top guitar, basically, it is an acoustic guitar with a pickup on it and I use that. I have an acoustic guitar that Jimmy made too. I think it is on some of the things with the basses and I used it on a couple of tracks on different Telarc records with a string section. Just last week or so, there is a man named Roger Sadowsky that made me some guitars to try out to see if I would like to endorse them. They are based on the D'Aquisto. Jimmy had epilepsy, Jimmy D'Aquisto and he died really, I think he was in his fifties when he died suddenly. So that line is gone, but Roger is trying to duplicate that and maybe keep it at a lower price level because collectors get involved in all this stuff. Jimmy D'Aquisto made me an acoustic guitar, the one that I use and he came over to the apartment and he just gave it to me and I said, "You can't give me a guitar. You only make about five a year." So I gave him one back that I had bought for fifteen hundred dollars year ago and he sold it for a lot of money and so I felt better. But when Jimmy died, the price of this acoustic guitar went out of sight and I couldn't even get it insured and so it became a liability as if he had played a joke on me. Anyway, Roger Sadowsky is trying to overcome that and he is following in the D'Aquisto tradition.
AAJ: A handful of years ago, you had a week at the Bakery and prior to the show, there was a showing of 'Jim Hall: A Life in Progress,' a fascinating film.
JH: My wife and the, oh, boy, before we get off the phone I will think of the guy. I can't think of the guy's name. That's embarrassing. He made the Thelonious Monk film, 'Straight No Chaser' and he's done a bunch of really good films.
AAJ: Bruce Ricker.
JH: Bruce, thank you, my name department was out to lunch. But yeah, Bruce Ricker and it was just going to be a promotional short film and Telarc could use it for publicity for this CD called By Arrangement. At first, I didn't like the idea. I didn't want cameramen tromping around the studio while we're trying to record, but then Bruce and actually, my wife Jane was really involved in this too. It turned into Gone with the Wind. The first showing of it was in Boston at the Museum of Fine Art and then we played a concert afterwards with Scott Colley and Terry Clarke and Jane made sure I had a seat at the end of the isle in case I wanted to leave because it is very difficult watching one's self, but if I could separate myself from it emotionally, I really enjoy it. Art Farmer is on there, John Lewis, all kinds of people.
AAJ: Down Beat Critics' Choice, a befitting title, are the accolades and the acclaim any comfort?
JH: (Laughing) It is interesting, Fred. I don't really think of myself in those terms. For instance, as we speak, I am working tonight at the Village Vanguard. My guitar is sitting here frowning at me like big deal (laughing). It is a daily process. I feel very privileged. I think that is the main word that I come up with all the time. I feel privileged to be a musician. There is all these great rewards from it such as traveling. For instance, just a year ago, Greg Osby, Terry Clarke, and Steve LaSpina playing bass, that is the quartet that's at the Vanguard. We went to Europe for a little over three weeks and it was right after the atrocity with the World Trade Center. We got so much empathy from all over the world, but in Europe, each night we would dedicate something to peace at the end of the concert. We'd do a free improvisation and so mostly, it just feels like a privilege. But it is literally, a day-to-day process, just one note at a time.
AAJ: Is it easier?
JH: I think I feel more of a focus now, a direction. As you say that, I am looking at this score paper. I am trying to finish a piece for guitar and orchestra. It's fun. I wouldn't say it is easy. It continues to be fun. I try to allow myself to grow everyday, the same as I would if I were a painter or a writer of words. In some ways, it is becoming easier, just because I know that it will probably be all right because I do have a history of getting assignments finished. They turn out pretty well. I know that in performing, one has good nights and not so good nights and times when things click and the players are playing well together and then sometimes not, just like if you were an athlete, so in that sense, I've been able to tolerate that and I don't feel like it's been a disaster, so that is easier.