Since the mid-fifties Jim Hall has been at the forefront of jazz guitar- a true pioneer and one of the giants of the genre. He first came to prominence with the groundbreaking bands of Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Guiffre, with whom he recorded the classic "Train and the River". From there, he progressed through some wonderful combinations; two startlingly beautiful duo albums with pianist Bill Evans, his period with Art Farmer produced some classic, mellow jazz as did his association with Paul Desmond. Never afraid to push the boundaries, Hall has experimented with quasi-classical settings and even effects pedals in more recent times
Through it all however, has run the thread of lyricism, individualism. and the touch of genius present in all great artists. CHRIS BURDEN interrupted Jim's busy schedule (in 1996) to pose a few questions.
Jim Hall was born in Buffalo, New York on December 4th 1930. His early influences came from his uncle Ed (his mother's brother) who played the guitar and sang:
JH: Sort of Willie Nelson stuff - Wabash Cannonball and Plastic Jesus. You've probably never heard of Plastic Jesus! Also my grandad played the fiddle a little bit. But I think primarily it was my uncle.
CB What kind of music did you first start listening to and at what age.
JH I guess the first kind of music I heard was this kind of basically Country - music at around the age of four or five.
When did you first take an interest in the guitar and what style was that?
Well, my Mom must have noticed that I was interested and she got me a guitar on instalments when I was around nine years old. She bought it from this store in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. I took lessons at the store, I think it was a dollar a lesson and 75 cents a week towards paying off the guitar. Obviously it wasn't an expensive instrument!
At what age did you first come into contact with jazz guitar?
I started taking lessons and had a good teacher, a man called Jack Du-Perow, in Cleveland. And then when I got into Junior High School, I was thirteen I guess, I started working with this group which had clarinet, accordion, guitar and drums. The leader was a clarinet player called Angelo Vienna. He was a Benny Goodman fan so we went to a record store one time and I heard Charlie Christian for the first time. I still remember the solo, it was on Grand Slam, which is a blues in F. Charlie had two choruses. As I've said numerous times, I wasn't even sure what it was when I heard it, but I thought it was amazing and I thought I want to he able to do that I still feel the same way every time I hear that solo
When did you decide you wanted to play guitar professionally?
I was kind of already playing at the age of thirteen - not very well but I just kept at it. It may have actually dawned on me many years later when I was in music school; I was at the Cleveland Institute of Music and I was working on a Masters in Composition. I'd already got a degree in Music Theory. And I suddenly kind of panicked about my guitar playing, it having been put aside for five years and I wondered if I was going to spend the rest of my life in a school environment as many of my friends seemed to be planning. That panicked me and I kind of bolted from school. So a friend of mine, an alto player and I decided to deliver a car to Los Angeles. You could do that by just paying the gasoline. So I was kind of already a professional musician.
When did you get your first big break?
I would think that would have been with Chico Hamilton. I'd been in Los Angeles a short while - that would have been in 1955. Chico Hamilton just happened to call somebody's house where I was rehearsing and he was looking for a guitar player. That was the first group I was with that achieved any prominence.
Did you record with that group?
Yes, that was the Chico Hamilton Quintet with Buddv Colette who played flute, tenor sax, alto sax and clarinet, Fred Katz played cello, Carson Smith was on bass, Chico played drums and I played electric guitar. I also did a lot of writing for the group.
You played a Gibson ES175 with P90 pickups for some time…..do you still have it?
I still have that guitar, probably with a different pickup - I think it has some kind of Guild pickup on. I guess the virtues of the guitar are that it gets a good electric sound and has a nice acoustic sound as well. Not as good as a true acoustic guitar of course but it was a nice compromise between the two. Also, it was very comfortable to play; the neck is a nice size and so is the fingerboard. It's a little too fragile to carry around on the road now, but every time I pick it up, I realise what a nice instrument it is.
You also used an early Gibson amp in the sixties. Can you remember the model and why did you choose this over the more popular Fenders.
I used a Gibson, I actually remember the number, it was a GA50. I love the sound of tube amps in general. I don't know, I may have been able to get used to a Fender but there was something about the subtlety of that amp that I liked. I liked the way it looked, like an old radio.
You also frequently use a laminated top D'Aquisto archtop. Did Jimmy D'Aquisto approach you or you him?
We kind of approached one another. I'd known Jim since he was an apprentice to John D'Angelico. Jimmy used to do repair work on my Gibson and we became good friends. My wife Janey would go out to Jimmy's shop together. The first guitar I got from him was, I think, an acoustic one, a long time ago. Janey was also involved in helping with the colour. It was an acoustic guitar, which I no longer have. I gave it to him because he tried to give me a new instrument about four years ago and I said to him "You can't do that, they're too expensive". I couldn't afford one of his guitars any more (maybe I could). But I think I initially asked Jim about making an acoustic guitar for me and then, later on, we discussed an electric guitar. The first electric guitar he made was a little too shallow. The design of the instrument? Well, my memory is that Jimmy tried to make the neck and the fingerboard comfortable for me. He knew about the dimensions of the Gibson that was used to. I returned the first electric guitar to him having hung on to the acoustic one, because it, the electric one, didn't have enough acoustic sound. So in that sense, I did have something to say in that I said I need something a little deeper.
(Janey) But we kept the colour the same.
JH Yes, we kept the colour the same. When Jim was making the acoustic guitar for me, Jane and I were at the shop and he put the first coat of colour on it. We took it out in the light and Jim asked how it looked. We said it looked beautiful "Now what I do" he said, "I wipe the colour off so the binding can show through." But Janey said right away, "No, don't do that. It's great that way, it looks more like a cello. " So that's how that colour, with no white binding came from. It was actually Jane's idea. I think it looks great.
Eventually, some of the colour wore off in a couple of 'places and you can see the binding. But that white binding kind of looks stupid to me now. I like it so it looks like another member of the regular string family.
You made two lovely albums with Bill Evans. Did his playing inspire you and did you enjoy the piano/guitar setting?
Bill Evans' playing had inspired me way before we recorded. We knew each other socially, a bit and we'd both been teachers up at John Lewis' jazz school in Massachusetts. John put this jazz school together for two or three weeks every summer.
As you know, piano and guitar can he difficult because you tend to bump into one another. But with Bill, it was so easy. He had a beautiful sense of texture in that he would never let things get cluttered up. If I was playing rhythm behind him on one of his solos, he'd realise he didn't even have to use his left hand and wouldn't. So I enjoyed it a lot, especially with Bill.
On one of your early albums, "The Jim Hall Quartet", I think it was initially a trio album, was later dubbed with the addition of drums. Did you agree with this or have any say in the matter. Do you think it came out better with the drums or without and why?
I had nothing to say about that and I was really annoyed when I heard it I felt sorry for Larry Bunker, the drummer who was dubbed in. It wasn't Larry's fault but I think that the album was fine without drums. The explanation that Dick Bock from Pacific Jazz gave me was that he was trying to update the feeling of the record. I thought it was stupid and it's since been reissued as a trio. Another thing that happened with the quartet version was I think that some of Red Mitchell's solos were cut out or reduced. In any case, that was embarrassing to me and I did not like that at all.
What music do you listen to today? Are there modern players who interest you and why?
I rarely listen to jazz in my off time. For instance, at the moment on our CD player, we have Vaughan William's "Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis". I've always loved Vaughan Williams since l was in music school. Next Mondqy night, Gil Goldstein and I are going to hear Andre Previn conduct that piece along with some others. Jane and I listen to classical music a lot, Rachmaninov, Bartok and Mozart - we've rediscovered Mozart.
The newer players? I love Bill Frisell's playing for obvious reasons; he's unique and always surprising which is part of what being unique is. I recently did an evening playing with Greg Osby, a marvellous alto player. I found that really interesting and challenging in a different way. Another guitar player that I like a lot is Pete Bernstein; he's with Josh Redman's group. Peter comes from a Grant Green tradition but, and I say but for a reason, because I have very little patience with born-again beboppers. But Peter has a great ability to grow I think. He's a very melodic player and has fantastic ears.
You tour the world, how do you see the state of jazz guitar world-wide, particularly in Europe?
Jazz in general seems pretty healthy. Maybe partly because there seems to be, according to some recent newspaper articles, difficulty with some record companies being able to sell classical albums so they seem to be getting more interested in jazz. The audiences seem good. By good, I mean a lot of people show up. Specifically in Europe in jazz guitar, there are some terrific players. I think jazz guitar is doing very well. I do workshops, I did one in Hull, England last year and I was really impressed with the players.
Is there any particular setting that you prefer - Duo, trio etc?
Jane just mentioned strings. I did an album recently for Telarc where I wrote three pieces for strings and guitar. I do like that. But for a regular jazz setting, I would say probably duo or trio; trio including drums, like bass, drums and guitar. The drums kind of shape things up rhythmically. I'll be touring with Terry Clark next spring and Terry's very sensitive to guitar playing and Scott Colly will be playing bass. Scott and I will also be doing Bath and London as a duo. In any case, I like a piano-less trio actually, because that gives me a lot more leeway with chords and stuff. I play more of the guitar that way. If I'm working with piano, a lot of the time I just stand by and grin!
Do you think that playing a particular guitar and amp is in any way inspirational or do you see the guitar simply as a tool?
I do see the guitar as a tool it's true. I think of myself more as a pretty good musician who happens to play the guitar. I also think I'm a decent writer. On the other hand, if the sound is rotten; the amplifier is bad or the sound too edgy that is disturbing to me. Even though in the last few years I've started fooling around with various effects which changes the sound, I still like a basic, what I think of as a Lester Young sound or a Coleman Hawkins sound - that mellow guitar sound. Yes, it is important even though the guitar is a tool.
Do you still enjoy touring and how much do you do a year?
I would say one month in Europe, sometimes two months, once in the spring and then the European jazz concerts and usually three weeks in Japan. Then there are the individual concerts like the one in Bath and the one in London which are just four days. There are a few short trips but the long tours I try to limit to twice a year.
Is there any one you'd particularly like to record with and haven't yet done so?
I'm not sure about that. I regret that I never got to play with Miles Davis even though he called me a couple of times.
You've never done much with other guitarists. Is there a reason for this?
One of the reasons is that somehow, in general for me anyhow, more than one guitar kind of reduces both players. For instance, as much as I admire the various groupings of The Great Guitars, I admire all those guys individually, I don't know, somehow one is enough.
Do you have any plans to retire?
I have no plans to retire. I hope that I'll be doing more and more writing of music. I seem to have been writing more and more in the last couple of years and that's the kind of direction I'm going in. Touring is physically rough, not just on me but on guys half my age and on Jane as well. But I do enjoy performing - It's important to me.
From an interview with Jim Hall first printed in January 1996, in String Jazz Magazine by his editor, Chris Burden.