Share this article

print logo


It's been there in all the capsule biographies for the almost half-century that people have cared a whit about one of the all-time great masters of jazz guitar: Jim Hall was born in Buffalo on Dec. 4, 1930. ("I think Mel Lewis and I were born in the same hospital," he says now.)

And yet what is going to happen next weekend is a bit of local musical history: For the first time in anyone's memory -- probably ever -- Hall will headline a couple of gigs with his trio in the town where he was born.

It is no exaggeration to say that there are local jazz listeners who have been waiting a lifetime for it.

AT 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. next Sunday, the great jazz figure will play a brace of concerts in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Auditorium as part of the gallery's Microsoft Art of Jazz Series. Accompanying him will be two players who have been making music with him for more than three decades -- bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke.

That Hall is one of the great living jazz guitar players has been universally known for more than three decades. Other guitar players can play faster, swing harder and toss off pyrotechnic fretwork with showy ease Hall couldn't begin to match. But no other jazz guitar player begins to have Jim Hall's history.

He freely admits "technically and literally, I'm not a virtuoso player. So I sort of rely on my surroundings to react and make something happen. A guy like Joe Pass -- although there's hardly anybody else like him -- was sufficient unto himself. I thought he was amazing all alone. I could never do that."

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that everyone who is anyone in jazz has relished the opportunity to play with Jim Hall. Not only has he played with scores of the greatest musicians, he has been the key factor in groups (led, for instance, by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Desmond) where his very presence made them them unique and among the greatest in those disparate leaders' careers.

He is, without question, the greatest duo guitarist jazz ever had, whether playing with pianist Bill Evans, fellow guitarist Pat Metheny or bassists Ron Carter and Red Mitchell. There is no greater illustration in jazz than Hall that listening is as important to the art of improvisation as playing. If there is such a thing as a virtuoso listener among jazz players (and indeed there should be), Hall would be many people's nomination for the greatest who ever lived.

And on top of all that, he has, throughout his life, been involved in some of the most convincing meldings known of jazz and classical music.

Every bit as well known as his history within jazz is his modesty, friendliness and congeniality. When you talk to Jim Hall on the phone for close to an hour, he makes it a point to know his interviewer's first name. And he laughs constantly as he talks the way a man does when he is genuinely embarrassed to be talking about himself that much.

Just minutes before the interview, he says, he had been scuffling with a toner cartridge in his fax machine and, one gathers, losing badly. "I lost my temper," he admits. "Very unlike me."

Easy to believe. And yet his losing battle with recalcitrant technology doesn't diminish, for a second, the precision of his answers or -- interestingly -- his ability to construct an answer like a complex solo, with a main argument interrupted by a sudden return to an earlier subject and then a pristine joining together of everything into a conclusion.

This is a very friendly man and a discursive one but also a supremely logical and orderly one. It begins to dawn, after a while, on an overprepared interviewer that a phone interview with Jim Hall is a kind of duo performance with a master. To put it mildly, that knowledge is flattering.

Some words from one of the greatest musicians ever to take his first breath in this city.

How long has it been since he played in Buffalo?

Boy, I don't remember. You know I was born there. That's the weird thing. So that's been a few years. (Laughs.) I remember something with (guitarist) Barney Kessel and (drummer) Terry Clarke (at an edition of Great Guitars at an Artpark Jazz Festival). I don't know is the answer. Maybe I haven't ever. I know we were in the area of Niagara Falls which ain't too far I guess.

How old was he when he left Buffalo?

I think I was an infant. (My father) must have done something very unsuccessfully, because I went to 10 different schools and then he just finally cut out when I was 6, I guess. I don't really know what he did. I was there (in Buffalo) because my mother went into the hospital and this is what happened.

I have a quick early memory of New York City. I think we were here (in New York) for just months. I had a wagon and somebody in the building had painted a nice Mickey Mouse on it for me. So I just have that visual memory. Mostly, though, it was Columbus, Ohio. That's where I grew up -- and then Cleveland. I was 4 or 5 in Columbus and then, in Cleveland, I was there from about age 10 to 25.

On his first fabled gigs in Los Angeles.

I took off for Los Angeles with a buddy of mine. You could deliver a car and just pay for the gas. So we drove to Los Angeles in a lavender Cadillac. I think it was a convertible. I had a friend out there named Joe Dolmy. We're still in touch. He was a marvelous big-band arranger. I had studied big-band arranging with him. He had a rehearsal band at the union once a week with really good musicians. I played with that.

There was a French horn player with that band named Johnny Graas. Johnny was rehearsing and wanting to start a small group. I was at Johnny's rehearsing with him. The phone rang. It was Chico Hamilton. Chico was telling him "I'm looking for a guitar player,' and Johnny handed the phone to me. That kind of stuff seems to happen to me all the time.

He's played with just about everybody. Was there anyone he'd have liked to play with but didn't?

(The answer is instant, before the question is even over.) Yeah. Miles Davis. I knew Miles. He actually called me a couple times. I never got to play with him. I worked opposite him a few times. I really admired Miles a lot. (Thelonious) Monk might have been fun. I would say Miles Davis, though, just to be around him and hear him.

And now?

Keith Jarrett. I really admire Keith's playing. I don't know if we could play together or not. I thought about that. In general, I try to find musicians who will push my brain a little bit. I'm determined to live in the present and the future. I'm not interested in playing the the way I did in the '60s. I look for younger players, then, though not always. And guys who will push my brain.

Scott Colley, the bass player, he's worked out amazingly well with me. And of course, (bass player) Don Thompson. We played together a lot over the years.

I heard (saxophonist) Greg Osby. He's a guy that I sought out. I was driving my car, and I turned the radio on. I heard somebody playing a standard ballad -- alto and rhythm section -- and I said whoever that is, I want to call him, and it was Greg. I had heard his name before. I didn't know if he was Egyptian or what. Or Indian. We worked together and that worked out great. He's a younger guy. He's not a kid, but he pushes my brain.

Can Thompson, Clarke and he still surprise each other after all these years playing together?

That's a good question. I hope so. Who was it -- Whitney Balliett -- had a book out called "The Sound of Surprise'? I'll let you know. Somehow that's connected with humor. All the jazz musicians I know -- except for maybe one or two -- have an amazing sense of humor. I think it's connected with the music somehow. Humor has to do with surprise and so does music and certainly improvised music. I hope we can surprise each other.

Why has his music seemed to contain more humor over the years?

Maybe because I'm not restricting myself or trying to predict what's going to happen. I'm not determined to sound like (guitarist) Charlie Christian like I was in my 20s or 30s. . . . I just feel looser about it. One of my expressions is "I make a living recovering from mistakes.' That's true. If you're going for something, kind of stretching, you're going to screw up -- or at least think you do. And then you say, "Well, that might work,' and you can make something out of it.

How did he get to be everyone's favorite collaborator in duets?

I'm not sure. It's probably Bill Evans' fault. I knew Bill, of course, before we played together. I knew him when he was with Tony Scott's group in the early '50s. (When) I was working with Sonny Rollins, he came in and said, "Would you like to do a duet record?' I just said, "Sure.'

What I find looking back is obviously, you're one half of the ensemble when you're playing in duet. It's more fun than standing on the stage smiling while the tenor player plays 20 choruses. In that way, it's more rewarding. If you find the right partner, it's really thrilling. . . . I love playing with a bass fiddle, just bass and guitar, because I hear the bass as a downward extension of the guitar anyway. And a drum just adds to the excitement.

I enjoy the interaction with people rather than just playing solo and standing around for a while. I have a low boredom threshold.

His all-time favorite musicians to play with.

Bill Evans, of course. Sonny Rollins. He's still my hero. He seems more amazing as years go by. Every time he'd start to play, my jaw would drop. And then I'd have to follow him! Art Farmer, of course. I loved playing with Art. And Paul Desmond, he was a close friend. I enjoy playing with Scott Colley very much, just in a duo setting. Next week, I'm doing a week at the (Village) Vanguard with this Geoffrey Keezer on piano, so we'll see how that goes. He's great. We haven't played together in quite a while, and we'll have no rehearsal so (big laugh) we'll see what happens.

On the great jazz guitarists whose music intimidates him.

I think Django did. It's a direction I sort of refuse to even go in. Actually being intimidated was a help to me in a lot of ways, because I got to be close friends with Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Wes Montgomery later. I finally realized hanging out with Tal for a while that I could practice every minute of every day and I'd never be able to do that. Something happened inside. I said (to myself), "Dummy! Find your own voice!'

I never got to see Charlie Christian, but he seemed to have a combination of intelligence and musicality that's really stunning. It still knocks me out.

Shortly after I had my spiritual awakening, I listened to saxophone players -- Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and stuff like that. That seemed more possible to me.

On what he tells the young guitarists who revere him.

I usually tell students "enjoy yourself.' Even if you can't make a living at music, you're already getting so much back being exposed to it and being able to play it. I usually just say, "Enjoy yourself and learn about other things besides just playing the guitar.'

I try to get people -- and me -- to grow personally. I think that helps one's musicality.