One of the more exciting goings-on since coming to NYU has been a recently established Friday afternoon interview series at a local Barnes & Noble Book Store between the NYU Director of Jazz Studies, Dave Schroeder, and many different jazz legends. Among those interviews that I've been fortunate enough to see have been, among others, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Heath, Bill Charlap, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Maria Schneider, and most recently, guitarist Jim Hall.
Hall is a bonafide jazz legend and he is, arguably, the most influential jazz guitarist of all-time. However, listening to Hall speak and watching his totally unassuming demeanor, he seems almost completely unaware of this, or at least surprised to hear to this. It was awe-inspiring and totally humbling to see someone who has played with Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, and just about every other jazz great, repeat more than once, "I had no idea what I was going to talk about on my way here [to the interview]." (In fact, there was even a point in the interview when, seemingly baffled by the turnout and the care with which the thoughtful questions were asked, Hall remarked, "I'm just honored to be here talking to you all.")
To me, Hall has always been the "Hank Jones of guitar"; a master of elegance, touch, subtlety and taste, but watching and listening to Hall that day, he reminded me more of how I remember Hank Jones, the person.
When asked what he practices these days, Hall said, "Man, I'm still learning how to tune the guitar correctly." This reminded me of a time when I was backstage after a Hank Jones concert and a famous classical pianist came backstage to greet Hank. As soon as someone made the introduction, telling Hank who this man was, Hank said only, "Oh - a real pianist!"
This self-depreciating humor and honesty is extremely refreshing and inspiring. To see an absolute legend in ones' field so humbled, unassuming, and almost seemingly unaware of just how good he is, is just amazing. Seeing something like this reminds me of a Herbie Hancock quote I once read: "Being a musician is what I do, but it's not who I am." It's just refreshing to see this same idea come across in a legend of the stature of a Jim Hall or a Hank Jones. It reminds me that, more than anything, they are human, just like the rest of us, and this, to me, is inspiring.
Jim Hall, now 80 years old, is quite the comedian, too! When asked to speak about his childhood, he stated, "Well...I was born at an early age..." Then, when asked to elaborate on his childhood, he poked fun at his age saying, "Beethoven was a real pain in my ass."
Hall has really seen and been through it all and it was amazing to listen to him speak on many different subjects including Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Ella Fitzgerald.
He spoke about Lester Young when recounting the filming of "The Sound of Jazz," a 1957 CBS TV segment produced by Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, among others. He said that after the filming was finished, he left the building and saw Young across the street, walking with his son. He said that he approached Lester and thanked him, telling him how much his music has meant to him. I wish Hall could retell it here; the way he told it was very touching. It was emotional and full of imagery, and, imagining Lester Young walking down the street, - at least by the way Hall told it- reminded me of all the romanticism in jazz that I have grown up believing in and hoping for for so long.
He recounted his first meeting with Freddie Green, the great guitarist with the Count Basie Band. Hall said that the first time he met Green, he walked up to him and asked, "Would you mind if I took a look at your guitar?" Green responded quickly. "Yes," he said. "I would."
It was obvious that Hall is in awe of Ella Fitzgerald. "I used to tune up to her," he said.
When it came time for audience questions, I couldn't resist asking Hall about his love of B.B. King. I've read many times that Hall loves King's guitar playing, and despite possessing much more actual technique on the instrument than King does, I've heard that King is one of Hall's favorite guitarists, and I asked him what he loved so much about his playing. "I'd rather listen to B.B. King play two notes than most guitarists play all night," he said. "He plays so succinctly...each note is perfect for the situation."
Someone asked what guitarists Hall listens to today. He spoke for a minute before saying, "I don't listen to Les Paul anymore. But then again, he doesn't listen to me either."
Hall recounted his days with Sonny Rollins, saying that they were the most helpful for his musical development. He also spoke with a bit of regret, saying that once Don Cherry joined the group and the band headed in a more free-jazz direction, Hall's playing didn't fit the group and Sonny basically fired him. Hall said that he wishes he could have another chance at that band, that he thought he'd do a lot better today.
Hall also said, "The driver on the way up here was playing 'The Bridge' in the car." After a short pause, he added, "I sounded pretty good on that!"
It was really a thrill to be in the presence of Jim Hall, a true music legend. However, there is something special about being around Hall -as there was with Hank Jones- that is greater than music. Jim Hall is a great human being, a nice person, and a humble genius who seems to have really figured out what life is all about, and that, maybe even more than the music, is what gravitates us all towards him and other people of such stature and makes me feel so lucky to have spent a little time with him, even if it was only an hour.