Guitarist Jim Hall, NEA Jazz Master, Dies at 83
Posted 12/10/2013

Jim Hall, an NEA Jazz Master and one of the most important contributors to the evolution of jazz guitar since the mid-1950s, died Dec. 10 at age 83.

Hall was widely admired for his skilled yet subtle technique, textured tone, understated compositions, attention to dynamics and unfaltering grasp of advanced harmony. His prowess on the guitar put him in the company of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt.

“Jim’s impact on the evolution of this music is transcendent,” said guitarist Pat Metheny, who was profoundly influenced by Hall and collaborated with him on the 1999 album Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (Telarc). “It goes way beyond ‘the guitar’ or ‘jazz.’ Jim invented a way to be. He found a space in the music that was all his own and sparked the imagination of his listeners and fellow musicians that is wholly unique. He was also one of the best human beings around—a fact instantly recognizable in his every phrase.”

Bassist Christian McBride, who played on the 2001 album Jim Hall & Basses, a collection of guitar-bass duets, said, “Jim’s playing reflected his personality—warm, gentle, sensitive, but extremely witty and clever. I was honored to work with him several times. He will be missed.”

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., on Dec. 4, 1930, Hall was surrounded by music as an infant. Most of his immediate family lived in one large house, where he heard his grandfather play violin, his mother play piano and an uncle play guitar. The uncle interested Jim in guitar, and he began taking lessons when he was 10. He started working professionally when he was 13, which was against union rules.

After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Hall joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1955 and became a member of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 in 1957. He continued to hone his craft playing with Ben Webster, Paul Desmond, Ella Fitzgerald and Lee Konitz, as well as touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic.

He joined Sonny Rollins’ quartet from 1961–’62 and appeared on the saxophonist’s historic album The Bridge (RCA). Hall collaborated with Bill Evans on the 1962 United Artists album Undercurrent (reissued on Blue Note) and again on the 1966 Verve release Intermodulation.

Starting in 1962, Hall co-led a quartet with Art Farmer, and he soon began leading his own trio with Tommy Flanagan and Ron Carter (and later Red Mitchell). He also performed as a session musician on numerous recordings and in the orchestra for Merv Griffin’s hit television show.

In addition to leading his own trio, Hall continued to collaborate and perform with various musicians, including Carter, Mitchell, Bob Brookmeyer, Itzhak Perlman, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman, George Shearing, Bill Frisell, Metheny, Gil Goldstein, Michel Petrucciani, Wayne Shorter, Joe Lovano, Greg Osby and numerous others. He remained active through this year: One of Hall’s last performances was at the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival in early August.

Between 1963 and 2002, Hall won the Guitar category of the DownBeat Critics Poll 15 times, once in a tie with Montgomery. He was voted top guitarist in the Readers Poll five times during that period.

Hall recalled his invitation to join Rollins’ group in the July 1, 1965, issue of DownBeat: “I was living on 49th Street with another guitar player, Park Hill, and sleeping on the floor. Sonny had heard me somewhere and, since I had no phone, came on up to 49th Street and left me the invitation. He didn’t have a phone, either, so I went downtown to Grand Street with a note accepting.

“It was a tremendously rewarding year with Sonny. I learned more from him, and was inspired more by him, than anyone in recent years. He is such a virtuoso that it scares you to be on the same bandstand. I felt I had to practice every day so that I wouldn’t let Sonny down. I produced because I was scared of Sonny. … He and Bill Evans are the only virtuosos I’ve ever played with.”

Well studied in classical composition, Hall produced many original pieces for jazz orchestral ensembles. His composition for jazz quartet, “Quartet Plus Four,” earned him the Jazzpar Prize in Denmark. In 2004, Towson University in Maryland commissioned a work by Hall for the First World Guitar Congress called “Peace Movement,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra performed by Hall and the Baltimore Symphony.

An ambitious instrumentalist, Hall continually sought to broaden the horizons of the guitar. “I would like to see it played more in a piano style, a more original and balanced combination of single-line and chord improvisation,” he said in the 1965 DownBeat article. “Tal [Farlow] and Wes Montgomery have done quite a bit in this direction, but it should be taken farther.

“I’m interested, too, in the guitar as an accompanying instrument. Comping is almost second nature to a pianist, but I really can’t think of any outstanding guitar accompanist for horns or singers. You don’t hear too many guitarists that can accompany that well. I sometimes think the art of accompanying is neglected because there is so much emphasis on being a soloist. You know, accompanying is really not an instrumental technique—to listen and to anticipate what the leader or singer is going to do so that your comment fits it perfectly.”

One of the keys to Hall’s success and longstanding popularity was an acute artistic sensitivity made manifest in his inclination to listen closely to his fellow musicians. “I think what I do best is listen,” he said in the July 19, 1962, issue of DownBeat.

“Listening is a hard thing, and I think I do it well. If you can’t do it well, if you can’t hear the group as a whole, you can’t do your job right. My job, as I see it, is to help make the parts fit the whole. For example, the thing I pay the most attention to when I’m on the stand is the time-feeling. In other words, I’m listening to the rhythm section all the time. I guess that also puts me in the old-style jazz class.

“I’m always most interested in the blending, no matter who I’m playing with. So my idea is to fill out, to add color to what’s going on around me. Even when I don’t make it individually, I feel I add something—a spark, a feeling that generates excitement.”

Some of the more notable recordings from Hall’s immense discography as a leader and sideman include Trav’lin’ Light (Atlantic, 1958) with the Jimmy Giuffre 3; Live (Verve, 1975); Live At Village West (Concord, 1982) with Carter; and Hemispheres (ArtistShare, 2008) with Frisell.

New York-based, Prague-born guitarist Rudy Linka was deeply inspired by Hall’s recordings during his formative years and enjoyed a mentor-protégé relationship with the master early in his professional career.

“Jim Hall was the guy who got me to play jazz guitar when I was still in communist Czechoslovakia,” said Linka. “He was the reason why I escaped the country at the age of 19 to come to America and hear him play. When I got the Jim Hall fellowship to attend Berklee in 1985, I went to New York to see him at the Village Vanguard, and he was so kind to me. He started to give me private lessons, even though he did not teach at the moment—and for free. We became friends, and he would call me if he needed something like a cable for a recording session, which he would always return with my name tagged on it.”

To read the article “Form/Function/Fulfillment: The Musical Philosophy of Jim Hall” from the July 19, 1962, issue of DownBeat, click here.

To read the article “The Unassuming Jim Hall” from the July 1, 1965, issue of DownBeat, click here.


Jim Hall onstage at San Francisco‘s Herbst Theater in 2000 (Photo: Mars Breslow)


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