Jim Hall, Jazz Guitarist, Dies at 83
Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Published: December 10, 2013
Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist who for more than 50 years was admired by critics, aficionados and especially his fellow musicians for his impeccable technique and the warmth and subtlety of his playing, died on Tuesday at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 83.
The cause was heart failure, his wife, Jane, said.
The list of important musicians with whom Mr. Hall worked was enough to earn him a place in jazz history. It includes the pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded two acclaimed duet albums, and the singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, the drummer Chico Hamilton and the bassist Ron Carter, his frequent partner in a duo.
But with his distinctive touch, his inviting sound and his finely developed sense of melody, Mr. Hall made it clear early in his career that he was an important musician in his own right.
He was an influential one as well. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield are among the numerous younger guitarists who acknowledge him as an inspiration. Mr. Hall, who never stopped being open to new ideas and new challenges, worked at various times with all three.
In his later years Mr. Hall composed many pieces for large ensembles, drawing on both his jazz roots and his classical training. Works like “Quartet Plus Four” for jazz quartet and string quartet, and “Peace Movement,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra, were performed internationally and widely praised.
If the critics tended to use the same words over and over to describe Mr. Hall’s playing — graceful, understated, fluent — that was as much a tribute to his consistency as to his talent. As Nate Chinen wrote recently in The New York Times, Mr. Hall’s style, “with the austere grace of a Shaker chair,” has sounded “effortlessly modern at almost every juncture” of his long career.
James Stanley Hall was born on Dec. 4, 1930, in Buffalo to Stanley and the former Louella Cowles, and spent most of his early years in Cleveland. He started guitar at age 10 and began playing professionally in his teens.
Like most of his guitar-playing peers, he was influenced by the first two great jazz guitar soloists: Charlie Christian, best known for his work with Benny Goodman, and the Belgian Gypsy Django Reinhardt. But he derived as much inspiration from saxophone players as he did from other guitarists.
“Tenor saxophonists really influenced the way I play,” he told The Times in 1990. When he was developing his style, he explained, “I’d try and get that lush sound of a tenor saxophone.”
While studying music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he played guitar on weekends “but wasn’t all that involved in jazz,” he said in an interview found on his website. His plan was to become a composer and teach on the side. But shortly after he graduated in 1955 and began studying for a master’s degree at the institute, that plan changed. “I had to try being a guitarist or else it would trouble me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Moving to Los Angeles, where he studied classical guitar, he became a charter member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, one of the first and most successful exemplars of the soft-spoken style known as cool jazz. (Mr. Hamilton died last month.) He then worked with the clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Jimmy Giuffre, whose adventurous approach to both composition and improvisation had a lasting impact on Mr. Hall’s own music.
Mr. Hall attracted further attention in the early 1960s when Sonny Rollins, a major star returning to music after a long hiatus, chose him to be in his new quartet. The contrast between Mr. Rollins’s aggressive saxophone playing and Mr. Hall’s quieter approach helped make the release of Mr. Rollins’s album “The Bridge” one of the most notable jazz events of 1962.
After a low-profile but lucrative television stint in the “Merv Griffin Show” band in the mid-1960s, Mr. Hall focused on leading his own groups, usually consisting simply of guitar, bass and drums, and recorded as a leader for CTI, A&M, Concord, Telarc and other labels. In the 1990s he taught at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York.
In addition to his wife of 48 years, the former Jane Yuckman, a psychoanalyst, Mr. Hall is survived by his daughter, Devra Hall Levy, who in recent years had been his manager.
Mr. Hall had back surgery in 2008 and other health problems, but he performed almost until the end, often in the company of other guitarists. This summer he performed with the 26-year-old guitarist Julian Lage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. His last appearance was on Nov. 23 at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert that also featured the guitarists John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein.
For all the accolades he received over the years — including a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 — Mr. Hall never took his mastery of the guitar for granted. “The instrument keeps me humble,” he once told Guitar Player magazine. “Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”