Jim Hall sounds like your heart. Whether the guitarist is playing in a medium-sized group or just a duo, your ear is instantly drawn to the hushed pulse of his tasteful chords and notes. There's a tenderness and shyness to Jim's playing that makes your soul want to seek him out, like the person at a party you're hosting who's off by himself because he doesn't know anyone.
Jim in the mid-1950s re-invented the jazz guitar. Or put differently, he created a new poetic niche for the instrument. Before Jim's recordings with Chico Hamilton in 1955-57, the jazz guitar was heard mostly as a big swinging instrument that swooped down on melody lines and swaggered through improvised passages. In Jim's hands, the guitar became a more humble and introspective voice that no longer rushed up to you. Instead, you had to meet Jim's guitar halfway.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Jim, 79, the guitarist talks about taking up the guitar in his teens, driving out to Los Angeles to play in a studio rehearsal band, and studying with classical guitarist Vicente Gómez:
JazzWax: When you listen to yourself on recordings, do you realize how pretty you sound?
Jim Hall: [Laughs] It’s hard to evaluate myself that way. On the other hand, I judge myself constantly. I know I have always aimed for melodic playing versus technical wizardry. I believe I listen to what’s going on and react appropriately to those I’m playing with. I enjoy coming up with new melodies over standard chord changes.
JW: Why do you think you wound up on so many key recording sessions of the 1950s and 1960s?
JH: Part of it was my friendship with the musicians leading the dates. But I hope it also was my melodic sense. And 800 years of experience [laughs].
JW: You were born in Buffalo, N.Y.?
JH: I was born there but my family lived all over the place. I never knew why we moved so much or what my dad did for a living. We finally settled in Cleveland when I was 8 years old and I lived there until I was 25. My dad was a traveling salesman of some kind. I never knew what he sold, and I never really saw him after I was 7. My parents by then had separated.
JW: When did you first pick up the guitar?
JH: When I was 10 years old. My mother bought me a guitar for my birthday. I had asked for it because my Uncle Ed, who lived in Geneva, Ohio, played country guitar and my grandfather played the violin. I don’t know how my mother paid for the instrument. We were not well off. My mother, brother and I lived in a housing project in Cleveland.
JW: How did you learn to play it?
JH: When my mother bought the guitar, part of the deal was 10 free lessons with a teacher.
JW: Who was your teacher?
JH: Jack DuPerow, who was terrific. Then I studied locally with Fred Sharp, who also was great. Once I knew enough, I started playing in small groups at age 13. One quartet I played in had an accordion, clarinet, guitar and drums. That instrument mix produces a terrific sound for a guitarist to listen to.
JW: How did you come to jazz?
JH: One day, the group’s clarinet player, Angelo Vienna, took me with him to a store to buy a Benny Goodman record. That’s when I first heard Charlie Christian playing with the Benny Goodman Sextet on a record from 1940.
JW: What did you think?
JH: I was amazed. Christian played two choruses of blues on Grand Slam. I bought the record right away. We didn’t have a record player at home, so I carried it around with me and played it wherever I could. But I had to be careful how I held the record sleeve. Covering “tet” in sextet left the word “sex” exposed and could get me in trouble [laughs].
JW: What did you do after high school?
JH: I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. I also started playing string bass there in addition to the guitar. It was a fantastic school. Many of the teachers there were highly trained. They had escaped Europe before World War II. My composition teacher was from Vienna and was a friend of Arnold Schoenberg’s. Classical music was always part of my training.
JW: How could your mother afford the tuition?
JH: I was able to pay tuition a little at a time. I was there for five years. I remained after my undergraduate studies to get a masters in composition. But then professional gigs began to pour in so I didn’t finish.
JW: What happened?
JH: A friend and trumpeter, Joe Dolny, had moved to Los Angeles and started a rehearsal band. He asked me to come out and play. I knew a couple of people who lived there, like my great aunt. So a buddy of mine, Ray Graziano, a saxophonist, and I decided to go. This was late 1954.
JW: How did you get there?
JH: They had deals back then where you could deliver a car to the West Coast and get a free ride. We drove a lavender Cadillac out. It took about a week.
JW: What did you do for income when you arrived?
JH: I worked in a music store sorting sheet music. I also took on a few students. In my spare time, I played in Joe Dolny’s rehearsal band. It was made up of guys who worked in the studios, like bassist Ralph Pena and drummer Mel Lewis [pictured]. It was incredible exposure for me.
JW: You studied with classical guitarist Vicente Gómez?
JH: Yes, I studied with him in Los Angeles. At the time I had ambitions to play classical guitar. He helped me enormously to develop my style.
JW: How did he do that?
JH: Many guitarists at the time played rhythm or supporting lines for leaders and soloists. I wanted to play so that my counterpoint and alternative melodies stood out clearly. My work with Vicente Gomez [pictured] forced me to concentrate more on what was going on with other musicians playing with me and on the sound coming out of my strings.
JW: Did classical have a big influence on jazz in the early 1950s?
JH: Oh, yes. It was always there because more and more musicians were formally trained. I could hear how classical composers were influencing jazz artists at the time. For example, Paul Hindemith was clearly influencing the writers on Stan Kenton’s [pictured] band. Classical study also opened my ears and helped my writing technique. I've always believed that the idea of form—the shape of things and solos—should mean something.
Tomorrow, Jim talks about joining the Chico Hamilton Trio and Quintet starting in 1955, playing in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, teaming up with Paul Desmond, building a friendship with Ben Webster and the day he said the wrong thing to Ella Fitzgerald.
Here's the back story:
First, the cover was photographed by William Claxton. The artist working furiously behind Jim? That was John Altoon, a Los Angeles abstract expressionist painter. Altoon painted while Jim played and Claxton clicked. Altoon's involvement was an experiment by Pacific Jazz owner Dick Bock to have the artist capture the sound of Jim's jazz guitar. [Pictured: A rare outtake from the photo session featuring, from left, Dick Bock, Jim Hall, John Altoon and William Claxton, with the camera's shutter cable in hand]
Second, Jazz Guitar was re-issued in stereo in 1963 with Larry Bunker dubbed in on drums. Jim says he was annoyed that Dick Bock had done this and doesn't know why he did it. In the early days of stereo reissues, Bock likely was trying to fill out the left or right channel with another instrument. Jim also says that Bunker was a great musician and at the time told Jim he felt funny doing the dub.
The version that has been released on CD is the original, without Bunker's drums dubbed in. You'll find it here, as Jim Hall: The Complete Jazz Guitar.
JazzWax clip: Here's Jim Hall and Art Farmer in 1963 with Steve Swallow on bass and Walter Perkins on drums playing My Little Suede Shoes. Listen to Jim's chords and how they compel Farmer to play on tiptoes...