Jim Hall: The Elegant Guitarist
Hall's playing in any setting is clear and uncluttered. The stories he tells are told with economy, but it is the sense of time, the expressive feeling and the serious search for something a bit different that have attracted other musicians and fans to the Buffalo, New York, native for decades. He's gentle and subtle, also playful. And the approach can vary somewhat with the six of the group. Hall prefers small band configurations.
"With a quartet, occasionally I'm part of a rhythm section. It's like the difference between being with somebody and talkingjust the two of us in a roomthen going to a party together where we're still friends, but we're across the room from one another. There are other people involved.
"I like the smaller groups. Certain piano players I loveGeoff Keezer is amazing to play with, and of course, Bill Evans was too. But sometimes with the piano you can bump into one another. If the group gets big, I end up standing there smiling a lot," he says, chuckling. "I like either duos or trios. Quartet? I dunno. The quartet with Joe Lovano was fun. [Documented on Grand Slam, Telarc, 2000] But I enjoy smaller settings."
Writers for years have talked about his spare, bluesy "round" sound, "lyrical," "harmonically fertile," "poetic" and subtle way with his instrument. It's all accurate. Elegance can also be applied.
"I probably got my idea for the sound partly listening to [saxophonist] Ben Webster and people like that. I tend to take the sharp edge off, unless I use a foot pedal or something. I'm looking at a drawing of Ben Webster as we speak. Ben was a big influence. I got to work with him. I listened to him. Even when I was a kid, in my early teens, I would listen to Coleman Hawkins records, Ben Webster, Don Byas. I loved Don, especially for his ballad playing. It was really dramatic.
"I imagine my own sound and concept came from stuff like that. Because I think of breathing, rather than just playing a million notes. A phrase should have a destination, and you take a breath and let your brain, and maybe the audience, think about it. I think a lot of it came from saxophone players," says Hall, adding, "Paul Desmond was a close friend too."
Hall didn't spend much of his life in western New York, where he was born. By about age eight, he was in Cleveland. He was introduced to music at home by his mother, who played piano.
"My mom gave me a guitar when I was nine or ten. She had a brother, my Uncle Ed, who played guitar. He played country music and sang country songs. So I got a guitar and started taking lessons. Then I started working with these little groups. There was no bass. It was drums, accordion and clarinet, maybe saxophone. So I played rhythm as well."
Hall was 13 when he started working in a local band, led by a clarinetist. "That's when I first heard Charlie Christian on record with Benny Goodman [a recording of 'Solo Flight']. That changed everything." Later, Django Reinhardt also had an impact. Though the music gigging around Cleveland wasn't usually jazz music, still it was work. "We had a trio and we worked in a club on weekends. I even played string bass on gigs sometimes. Weddings and things like that."
Says Hall, "Somehow, I knew I wanted to be a musician. I managed to get through the Cleveland Institute of Music. I was there for five years. I had a friend who worked in the office, so they let me pay the tuition a little at a time. That was one of the brightest things I've ever donewas to go to school to become a better musician. That worked out great for me."
"I was going to continue and get a master's in composition. I knew nothing about classical music. I liked Hindemith, probably because he reminded me of Stan Kenton. And Stravinsky made me think of Woody Herman's band. But I thought Mozart was pretty stupid. In the five years I was at school, Mozart got so much better I couldn't believe it," he recalls. He started working toward a master's degree, but began wondering about his musical future from there. "I was curious about my guitar possibilities and opted to make a move to the west coast and concentrate on performing."
"There was this thing then where you could deliver a car somewhere and just pay for the gas. My friend, a saxophonist, was going to Los Angeles doing that. So I just took off and went with him. We drove this lavender Cadillac out to L.A. I had a friend there. I stayed with my great-aunt for a while. I was 24 or something like that. Maybe 25."
It was there he landed a gig with the Chico Hamilton Quintet with Buddy Collette on reeds. "My friend, Joe Dolnyhe had a rehearsal band at the musician's union. He was a great arranger. I was playing with that band. There was a French horn player in the band, Johnny Graas. I went over to John's house to rehearse some stuff. Chico called, looking for a guitarist. I always say I feel like Lou Gehrig without the disease. I was just there. John says, 'Here's one.' So I talked to Chico and we hooked up. That worked out great."
From there, he moved on to Jimmy Guiffre's band that was experimenting with different improvisational forms. Eventually, the trio was Guiffre's reeds with Hall and the trombone of Bob Brookmeyer, a group that can be seen on Ben Stern's classic 1960 jazz film, Jazz On A Summer's Day (now distributed through New Yorker Video), that chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Guiffre was eventually managed by Norman Granz, which brought the guitarist to the famous producer's attention and led to opportunities like joining Ella Fitzgerald's band.
"I took Herb Ellis' place with Ella. That was a marvelous experience. I told Tommy Flanagan once, who had worked with her, that her pitch was so good I would tune up to Ella. If I had a choice, I would listen to Ella and tune my guitar to her. And playing with that great rhythm section, [drummer] Gus Johnson and [bassist] Wilfred Middlebrooksit was great. I really learned a lot from that. I had to practice my rhythm guitar playing quite a bit. Also what was interesting was working with somebody who was that famous. Huge crowds would turn out to see her. All of that was pretty different for me. I went to South America for the first time with her. We were in Brazil and Argentina. That was fascinating."