In conversation with jim hall
By Patrick Spurling
Were family members an influence on your early interest in music and jazz?
I didn’t really know my father, who split when I was about seven. And my mom’s family was hillbilly WASPS from around Ohio on the Great Lakes. Somebody once put together a bootleg record of some of my stuff and the liner notes said my mother was a pianist, my uncle was a guitarist and my grandfather was a conductor -- which is all true. But my mom played a kind of horrible church piano, my uncle Ed, probably a very bright guy, played country music and drank himself to death; and my grandfather was a conductor. He was a conductor . . . but on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
Can you remember the reason for choosing guitar?
I heard Charlie Christian on a record when I was 13. I didn’t know what that was but … I realized then that that was my calling. A guitar teacher who was really important to me was Fred Sharp, who played with Red Norvo and others. I stayed in touch until he died about a year ago. He really opened up the guitar for me.
You earned an undergraduate degree in music theory and worked on a master’s degree in composition. Why not guitar performance over theory and composition?
That was in the 1950’s. I graduated in 1955 and there was no jazz at the school. If you were not killed in the service there were GI schools that taught jazz but that was not ‘serious’ music. I had a marvelous teacher for composition and theory, but I was this hillbilly kid and he scared the hell out of me somehow -- Marcel Dick. He played viola in the Kolisch String Quartet and was a good friend of Arnold Schönberg.
Did you play other instruments early on?
In high school there were never enough bass players for the orchestra so I played string bass. At the Cleveland Institute I played bass again in the orchestra, but when we’d have a concert they’d get some real bass players and I’d move down to the end. I would intentionally not practice because I didn’t want to mess up my hands. Fortunately I hear the bass now as a lower extension to the guitar.
Was there a good reason for your leaving the Cleveland Institute without completing the graduate degree in composition?
Ray Graziano, a good friend and I had talked about going to Los Angeles. Finally he said one day I’m leaving Saturday if you want to go. It was an impulse I guess. I don’t know if it’s still possible but you could deliver a car –- say Cleveland to L.A. -- and just pay for the gas. We sort of delivered it.
How do you feel about your honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music?
I thought about saying where were you when I needed you? But it was great. Ray Brown was there, Milt Jackson and my friends. … [Presented at the Umbria Jazz Festival - at the Sala del Notari in Perugia, Italy - July 16th, 2005]. Sometimes I’ll read, ‘this is Down Beat award winner and honorary doctorate Jim Hall.’ I could understand if I were involved with some kind of medical profession. Okay, I’m a doctor, that sort of thing. But It depends how far you go with that. I dislike titles.
When Jane and I got married [in 1965] -- which was great -- I needed to get off the road. We were looking around for work so I made the trip up to the Berklee ‘School’ of music for an interview. I assumed having worked with Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald that [I would be offered a job] but I didn’t get hired. Instead I ended up doing the Merv Griffin show for three and a half years. Good guests but some pretty putrid music.
Little by little Berklee did offer the Jim Hall Scholarship [Fund for guitarists]. Sometimes I’d be so broke I’d want to apply for it.
Your experiences with Ella Fitzgerald and that tour of South America – memorable moments?
Everything with Ella was pretty amazing. Going to South American was incredible for me, especially the first stop. We played at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. We played three weeks in this great hotel right on the water. The bossa nova was just starting up and the music was just kind of coming out of the air. I couldn’t believe it. We went to São Paulo after that, Montevideo and then on to Buenos Aires. I heard Astor Piazzolla’s music for the first time. I’d never heard tango music and it was an ear-opening experience.
Ella was just stunningly good. I think I heard her miss one note. Working with Gus Johnson we once played an arrangement by Nelson Riddle at the Academy Awards. There was a quick key change and she missed one note. She was amazing.
And you stayed on a while in South America after that tour?
I did. We were supposed to go to Chile but Santiago had had a bad earthquake so that part of the tour was cancelled. I borrowed some money from Norman Granz and stayed in Buenos Aires for about a month.
Norman Granz also managed Jimmy Giuffre so I was able to work with Ella Fitzgerald because of him -- took Herb Ellis’s place. I felt like Lou Gehrig without the disease -- always in the right place at the right time.
About Ron Carter -- both of you had classical backgrounds. Did that have an impact on your work together as a duo?
I am not sure it did -- maybe unconsciously. I met Ron through Art Farmer though I’ve not worked with Art Farmer. His group at that time included Ron Carter and Walter Perkins. Ron hadn’t been in New York too long and we were working together on 7th Avenue one night, and Miles Davis came in and was skulking around. He asked Ron about working with him, but Ron said you’d have to talk to Art. Anyway Ron went to work with Miles Davis and Steve Swallow took his place. That happened a lot in those days.
Later I somehow got a job at this place called The Guitar where Kenny Burrell was part owner. I called Ron and we started doing these duets together in the mid and late sixties. About 15 years later we hooked up again and played the Blue Note in New York and then three Blue Notes in Japan.
Did you have opportunities to play with Eddie Gomez?
Yes, though I didn’t play with Eddie a lot. Of course he is entirely different from Ron Carter. He is a cool friend and actually lives in my neighborhood in New York City. We each have a dog so we talk about dogs. I think I recommended him once for the Bill Evans trio.
It was a "turning point" when playing with Sonny Rollins in the early sixties?
Sounds corny but I felt accepted somehow by the jazz community. In spite of everything that was happening, I got this note in my mailbox one day from Sonny Rollins. I remember the first performance in an upper west side club. God, everybody came in. Max Roach, John Lewis and Wes Montgomery used to come to hear me play -- because of Sonny. It is amazing the camaraderie among musicians. Of course, Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I still can’t believe the way he can play.
Who has something to say among the younger players?
People like Bill Frisell get my attention because I never know what the hell is going to come out. We’ve been working on a duet recording for a while. I kind of like young people who surprise me and keep pushing the envelope. I love Chris Potter’s playing. He composes as he plays rather than plays what is under his fingers. He is surprisingly good. Dave Binney is another but not as well known as Chris. I love Tom Harrell’s playing, especially considering what he’s been going through. Joe Lovano of course, I love Joe’s playing. Tenor saxophone has always been just about my favorite instrument. I had the honor of working once with Ben Webster before working with Sonny.
What attracts you to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Béla Bartok?
Béla Bartok was my hero more than Rachmaninoff. Some things are pretty obvious, like the melodies he uses in his orchestral pieces, but his interest in folk music is part of it. In school I loved his quartets. When I first got into the Cleveland Institute of Music [Paul] Hindemith was a favorite because he reminded me of Stan Kenton. I knew nothing about Mozart and thought he was elementary, but in five years he got so much better. I don’t listen to music very much now because it tends to influence what I am doing. I look more at paintings and that sort of thing. If somebody asked what recording I would take on a desert island, "4’33” of silence by John Cage would be my choice.
‘Clarity is the thing you are after.’ What is clarity in improvisation?
It means listening to what you just played then reacting to that and making something out of it -- which is not to say that you can’t push the envelope a lot too.
You once said the guitar is still a mystery to you.
Absolutely. You get all of these awards like the Chevalier from the French Government  -- which is startling -- or the NEA award [Jazz Masters Fellowship, 2004] and then I’ll be doing an interview on the telephone with someone and the guy says, ‘Mr. Hall, you played with Beethoven…blah … blah.’ And the guitar sits there in the corner and says ‘yeah big deal. Try to tune me today.’ Yeah it is a mystery. Which is good too, I think.
You live in Greenwich Village?
We’re across from the New School for Social Research.
So you’re in the good neighborhood?
Yeah, well, yeah it is. But it’s not my fault. It’s a fascinating neighborhood. Meryl Streep had a building right down the street and Ramsey Clark is a neighbor. We got to know each other by grimacing at one another over the years. He was going all over on genocide trials when I first knew him. Some people I know from just being out there with my dog Django.
After the first election –- what ever you call that thievery -- I never heard so much cursing as on our block. And the second election, it was so blatant with all the Supreme Court meddling. I was in mourning for months after that second election and had to tune everything out for a while. Somehow it was mildly amusing, but I wonder what is going to happen now?
Do you vote?
Yeah. But I’m in a quandary about what to do this next time. It’s going to take us 50 years to recover no matter who takes power. We [Americans] feel badly about cigarettes, McDonald’s, Americana, George Bush and fascist governments.
Why have you not done more composing?
In a way I regret not doing more with composition. But its sort of come full circle since I got with Telarc Records. The first record I did for Telarc was just me and over dubs. They were understandably leery of investing in that, so I said okay, I’ll do it for free. Then later at the Village Vanguard I did another one and that Helped. Telarc has been great.
Did you consider conducting the compositions By Arrangement (1998) and Textures, (1996)?
No, but funny you should ask. André Previn asked me the same thing. I said I couldn’t conduct electricity.
How did you feel about your recordings with Itzhak Perlman and André Previn?
It was great being around Itzhak Perlman. André Previn had called Shelly Manne to play drums and Red Mitchell to play bass –- both old friends of mine. I had known André Previn in California from years before. My favorite part of it was as soon as Itzhak and Shelly were introduced their eyes met and that was it -- the Jewish jokes started. Anyway, I don’t think they are very good records, but it was a lot of fun.
How did you feel about performing at the new Jazz at Lincoln Center venue?
It’s not like the Village Vanguard, but then why should it be. On one hand I am not a huge fan of Wynton Marsalis, but on the other I could never have done anything like what he has accomplished. They’ve created a lot of interest in jazz, though it’s not particularly forward-looking.
Then you feel there is a bias there toward older jazz?
Exactly. Duke Ellington or Art Tatum certainly wouldn’t have felt like that. I heard a piece that Wynton recorded on some classical concert and he sounded terrific, but it was like the preservation society. I dislike the term classical jazz. I do like Stanley Crouch and Wynton too but, in spite of himself, Stanley and I always get into these kinds of arguments.
For young musicians interested in playing jazz what do you say to them?
What I usually say is a long distance quote from John Lewis. John had this School for jazz at the end of summer for three weeks up in Lenox Massachusetts. At the end of one three week session he was talking to the graduates and a couple of guys asked if there were any gigs out there? John said: “Wait, wait, you got it backwards.”
What he was saying was that music gives you so much already. What the hell else do you want? This is your reward right here just being involved. And it is really just stunning what you can get out of music. It’s unique; it’s yours and its something to be cherished. Making a living is an added bonus occasionally, but I think you already have quite a bit if you can play. . ..
Would you like to see a picture of my dog Django? He is very demanding but he has a calming affect.
Many thanks to Jim Hall for graciously offering his time while on tour, to Rebecca Kilgore, to AllBlues.com and to Moods Nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland.