Jim Hall Remembered

February 20, 2014

IN THE INTRO TO JIM HALL’S MAY 1983 cover story, Jim Ferguson and Arnie Berle wrote, “While most jazz guitarists are bebop-influenced and therefore somewhat alike stylistically, Jim Hall has managed to develop an approach rivaling that of Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery in individuality. Inspired by tenor sax men Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster, Hall’s horn-like solos are either passionately lyrical or abstract and angular, but never predictable. Yet he’s equally know for the notes he doesn’t play—his work is unusually sparse. And Hall’s playing always reflects the gentle warmth and thoughtfulness of his own personality.”

Hall had an extraordinary career that saw him work his melodic magic with the greatest jazz musicians on the planet, including Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Ron Carter, Chet Baker, Steve Gadd, and many, many others. Along the way he made a profound impact on scores of jazz guitarists such as Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell, and just about anyone whoever played a lilting melody.

Jim Hall passed away December 10, 2013, less than a week after his 83rd birthday and the world and the world of music are poorer because of it. Here are some of Hall’s thoughts from his ’83 cover story.

On Soloing

“I like them to have a quality that Sonny Rollins has—of turning and turning a tune until you show all of its possible sides.”

“Sometimes it’s fun to play a cliché and maybe make something out of it, but I try to keep the solo sounding like it was just invented. I try to find a different way of ending a phrase. Players should force themselves to hear something and then play it, rather than just doing whatever comes under their fingers.”

“Many guys, including some well known artists, play solos that are too long. The reputations of some of the greatest jazzmen were built on eight-bar solos.”

On Practicing

“I try to make my playing as fresh as possible by not relying on set patterns. When I practice, I often tie off some of the strings with rubber bands to force myself to look at the fingerboard differently. For instance, I might practice on the G and D strings only. You can’t help playing some familiar patterns, however.”

On Improvisation

“It’s the fun part of playing—a way of reflecting the melody of a tune and sharing it with somebody else. I’m sure that most of the terrific classical composers were good improvisers.”

On Race Relations

“A lot of times I was the only white musician in a band, but usually I felt privileged to be there. Occasionally there would be the kind of social side effects you might expect. For instance, when checking into a hotel, I was often mistaken for Sonny Rollins’ manager.”

On Advice for Guitarists

“Don’t just listen to guitar players. But if you have to listen to one, study the way Freddie Green plays rhythm with Count Basie’s band. If you pruned the tree of jazz, Freddie Green would be the only person left. In the long run, I think it’s more important to look at paintings than to listen to the way somebody plays bebop lines”

On Jim Hall

“I am self-critical, but I do feel good about my playing. The instrument keeps me humble. Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”

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