In these challenging groups, Jim established his musical voice and reputation. In both ensembles, he had to perform as part of team that executed a tight choreography of lines. But as a soloist, Jim forged a new sound that was tender and exciting. Rather than function simply as a rhythm-keeper, his guitar emerged as an independent voice, chiming in with soft sophistication but also engaging passionately with other instruments. [Pictured: Jim Hall and Chico Hamilton in 1955]
In Part 2 of my interview series with Jim Hall, the guitarist talks about developing his sound in groups led by Chico Hamilton, Hampton Hawes, Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster and Ella Fitzgerald:
JazzWax: How did you come to join the original Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1955?
Jim Hall: French hornist Johnny Graas [pictured] was playing in one of Joe Dolny’s rehearsal bands. I was over at Johnny’s house one day rehearsing when Chico called. He told Joe that he needed a guitar player for a group he was putting together. Joe said, “I have a guitar player right here.” He handed me the phone and I spoke to Chico. I went over to his place to audition. The group Chico put together included Buddy Collette, Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Chico and me.
JW: What was your role?
JH: I had several roles. I was part of the rhythm section, I was part of the ensemble of melody players, and I’d write compositions. Sometimes I’d just turn off the amp and play rhythm guitar.
JW: Who was the group’s driving force?
JH: Chico [pictured]. He had the personality and drive to meet people, make phone calls and make groups happen. He was a natural leader. With my formal training, I was able to write for cello and clarinet. Chico wanted a combo that could play light jazzy classical music and straight-ahead swing. We all brought in original compositions.
JW: Your first gig was at The Strollers in Long Beach, CA. Was it a tough house?
JH: Not that I recall. It was a great experience for me. The room's design configuration was tough. The bandstand was against the wall and people sat at the bar right in front of us. So the acoustics were bad and my hollowbody Gibson wasn’t able to resonate loud enough. So soon after we started there, I traded it in for a solid body Les Paul. Soon after I did a recording with John Lewis [Grand Encounter]. Percy Heath looked at the guitar and said, “No rhythm playing today?” [laughs] There’s a picture of me on the back [pictured] holding the Les Paul.
JW: You recorded for Contemporary as part of the Hampton Hawes Quartet. Different sound?
JH: I loved Hampton’s group. The time he kept was terrific. So was the feeling. Hampton swung so hard. That sound could carry you for hours. I think we went into that studio in the afternoon and hung out straight through the night. There was enough recorded for three LPs.
JW: Your next group was the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which also had a different chamber jazz sound.
JH: Jimmy had gotten into folk music at around this time. He also had a background in classical composition and had studied with Wesley La Violette. Jimmy was a lovely person. He was a curious guy, very interested in people and very positive. He helped me enormously with my phrasing. He’d write a line and I’d work to make my playing blend better with Jimmy’s sound. That group and approach helped my playing a great deal.
JW: How so, specifically?
JH: Jimmy [pictured] worked with me to get my guitar to sound more fluid, like a wind instrument. To do this, he encouraged me to ease off on the picking with my right hand and to use my left hand more on the neck for slurring, so notes would blend with what he was doing on the clarinet and saxophones.
JW: What do you recall about recording with June Christy in 1959 on Those Kenton Days?
JH: Oh, that was with Pete Rugolo. I thought June was fabulous. On a break, I went out to the parking lot and saw her there. I went over to compliment her but she was so upset with herself. She felt she hadn’t delivered what she wanted to, which surprised me. She was a star and had been great on the date. She beat herself up terribly.
JW: What did Ben Webster teach you in 1960 when you played with him at the Renaissance in Hollywood?
JH: That a melody could be played straight and mean something. Ben talked me into playing fewer notes and to be poignant with those notes, to make listeners care about them. Ben could bring songs like Chelsea Bridge, In a Sentimental Mood and others to life with a highly emotional reading. He also had a fantastic sense of swing, and he never over-played.
JW: Were you two close?
JH: Yes, very. We saw things in each other that we recognized. Ben had a reputation as someone who could get tough when drunk. I didn’t see that side of him too often. He had loved working with Duke Ellington’s band and told me that he felt bad he didn’t stay longer.
JW: How did you land a job with Ella Fitzgerald in 1960?
JH: Norman Granz had been managing Jimmy Giuffre and Ella. When guitarist Herb Ellis left Ella, there was an opening and I got the call. That was a fantastic experience. Playing behind her required enormous listening and support. My job was to avoid stepping on her toes. Offer support but not to play on top of her while she was singing.
JW: What was Fitzgerald like, personally?
JH: She was lovely. She would get emotional sometimes though.
JW: How so?
JH: Ella could be easily offended. When we traveled between gigs, whenever she’d want to sing on the train or bus, I’d accompany her on guitar with a small amp. It was fun. She’d often add passages or words with off-color double entendres. One time she did that and I pretended to be shocked and offended. She got mad. She didn’t realize I was just kidding [laughs]. But we patched it up.
Tomorrow, Jim Hall reflects on his recordings with Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Ron Carter and Chet Baker, and he talks about his favorite singer and songwriter—his wife Jane.
JazzWax tracks: Jim Hall with the Chico Hamilton Quintet can be found on several fabulous CDs. The first is Live at Strollers (Fresh Sound), an exciting album that features the group's live sessions recorded at the California club in 1955. You'll find the CD here.
The group's studio sessions are on The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings (Fresh Sound) here. Or you'll find some of the material at iTunes on The Chico Hamilton Quintet in Hi Fi.Jim's recordings with the Hampton Hawes Quartet in 1956 are tremendous. The group swings from start to finish, and Hawes is exceptionally electric. These recordings are on All Night Session! Vols. 1-3 (Fantasy). The quartet features Hampton Hawes (piano), Jim Hall (guitar), Red Mitchell (bass) and Bruz Freeman (drums). You'll find the recordings here, here and here.
The Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Ralph Pena on bass) began recording in December 1956, releasing The Jimmy Giuffre 3 (Rhino Atlantic). It's available at iTunes or here. Live recordings by the group are on Hollywood & Newport 1957-58 (Fresh Sound) and can be found on CD here. Travelin' Light by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer in and the bass out) is available combined with The Jimmy Giuffre 3 here.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1956 playing Topsy. The quintet features Buddy Collette (reeds), Fred Katz (cello), Jim Hall (guitar), Carson Smith (bass) and Chico Hamilton (drums)...