In 2012, jazz guitarist Chris Beyt had the honor of sitting down with jazz guitar legend Jim Hall in his apartment in Manhattan. The interview was never published.
Photo above by Roger Sadowsky.
Chris Beyt: The interview, in support of my doctoral thesis “Compositional Structures and Characteristic Ideas in the Improvisations of Jim Hall,” was focused on how he treated each performance as a composition and how collaborations with greats such as Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins shaped his playing. It was certainly a memorable insight into Jim’s musical mind as well the larger history of jazz, but what sticks with me to this day is his approachable humanity. When I greeted him at his door, a bit befuddled, I said, “It’s an honor, Mr. Hall.” He said, with a casual and sarcastic yet friendly smirk, “It’s Jim. Call me anything else and it’ll be the last time we speak.” For two hours, he graciously volunteered his personable time to answer the questions of someone who was a complete stranger. It was inspiring to become acquainted with a personality that was as remarkable as the music it created.
Jim Hall Interview – February 19th, 2012, in his apartment in the Village, New York, NY
Jim Hall: I got into the Cleveland Institute of Music but there was no guitar and no jazz, so I had to—it was kind of a long —it took me six months to get my piano playing so I could pass the test I had [take], and I played on weekends the whole time. It was a great school and I was going to go on and get a master’s in composition and I didn’t really like the composition teacher, so I took off.
Chris: Yeah, you were only there for one semester, right? For your master’s degree?
Jim: That’s right. I started, and I won’t dwell on the past, but they had this thing were you could deliver cars to the west coast and just pay for the gas. Someone bought a car in California, or something like that. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: It was a Cadillac, right?
Jim: Right! Purple Cadillac. [laughs] So I went out there, and there I am, anyhow. But the improvisation part, I guess I just kind of think that way even though I was just trying to tune that thing, which is impossible. You can’t really tune a guitar. But I just sort of automatically go into listening to what I play, and react to it, and tune that way.
Chris: Could you describe your take on your job as an improviser?
Jim: That’s a good question because it takes up a couple of areas, and one is being involved with the other musicians. And then as a performer in public, it has to do with recognizing that there’s people out there listening. Which is great, actually. In fact, I was talking about this a bit recently with Brian Camillio [who] started this Artist Share thing. I actually enjoy recording in front of people because even with screw ups and everything, at least you’re communicating to somebody. I guess I have decent guitar technique, but it’s the not the regular chops thing at all so I don’t really have the zing that a lot of guitar players do so I kind of rely on listening to what I just played an reacting to it and making it come out logically. That’s the idea, anyway. Even when I’m practicing, I do that. I will just warm up my fingers here. I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. And then I’ve been really fortunate [with] some of the people I’ve gotten to work with. I think I even said something about it in that book or some interview. When I worked with Art Farmer, I got a feeling that Art liked me to play a chord, and then he’d play over, and that was great. But if I did that with Sonny Rollins that would annoy him, that I’d wait and see where he was going in from. So it was kind of a learning process the whole way. And it’s still evolving. Again, it depends on, at least as a per- former, it depends on the other people you’re playing with. Ron Carter and I have a great rapport. I really listen care- fully to his bass lines. When I work with Ron, I don’t even bother with the low E string usually; he’s got all that area covered. And then I worked with Don Thompson, a bass player from Canada, and his whole thing is completely dif- ferent. His solos are all in the thumb position. I guess what I’m saying is that I just interact with the other people, and it’s kind of what I do. And I guess it’s the same with my solos. I listen to what I just played and then try to make a decent composition out of it. Did I wander too far?
Chris: In general what qualities do you think go into making a good improvised solo?
Jim: I would think that the same qualities that go into making a composition make sense. When I do workshops some- times I use that tune “All the Things You Are” and I kind of take it apart and show how it’s <singing the intervals of the melody> Just the basic motive and how it’s developed. I think that’s a brilliant piece of music, actually. Just the way the composer, whose name I’m drawing a blank on now, took that one perfect fourth interval and really worked on it for the whole thing. And then the bridge is a little bit different. So I guess that’s kind of the way my brain works, whether I’m performing or writing or whatever. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: Can you elaborate on a quote when you said “listening is key”
Jim: Yeah, if you’re playing just by yourself, listening to what you’ve just played and then reacting to it and making something out of it as opposed to just running ahead with just a bunch of finger stuff and diving in, and then listen- ing to the whole ambience, whatever’s happing with the other musicians, and what kind of mood is evolving out of it, and reacting to that. With Frisell—Frisell’s amazing—this first thing we did, it’s got his name on it, it’s called “Throughout” but it’s complete improvisation. He started with one of his foot pedal tones or something, and I waited quite a while. The I came in and we just took it wherever it went. But he’s really marvelous at that too; I can leave all my foot pedals at home because he’s got that covered. So kind of a composition; that’s the way my brain seems to work.
Chris: Can you also elaborate on when you said “Form should mean something”?
Jim: Well, in a way it’s like a life. The form of a building maybe—it has some logic to it. And your brain, and with any luck, the brain of the audience, the listeners, you can see this thing start and then build-just one idea anyway-build someplace and then comeback and resolve. And it seemed logical; it seemed like a composition to me. And it is. And for some reason, that’s sort of the way I imagine music, and that’s the way I hear it. And even when I’m practicing I sort of work on that sort of thing.
Chris: Would you say that your playing over the course of your career was largely shaped by your collaborations?
Jim: I’m sure a lot of it was, yeah. I was really so fortunate right from the beginning with the people I got to work with and everything. Starting with Chico Hamilton, because I could write for that group; it had a cello and everything. Then I ran into John Lewis out on the West Coast. He got me to move to New York, and I did some stuff with John. I think each experience [shaped my playing], good and bad. Sometimes, I can’t think specifically, but I’ll get into something and say “Well, I hope I don’t have to do that again.” It was a great moment, I [with] played Sonny Rollins [when he] got an award at the Kennedy Center a couple months ago. That was so marvelous. Christian McBride got a band together to play for him. Then I played a trio of piano, trumpet, and guitar. I remember when Sonny and I worked together the racial thing was still so horrible sometimes we couldn’t even find hotels or restaurants to get, now here he is getting an award. The experience with Sonny was incredible. But Sonny also really listened closely to what the accompaniment was doing and what I was doing. And, I think I mentioned that I got the message right away that if I tried to lead him around with chords—that didn’t make it, so I’d wait to see what he did and I tried to follow it. I talk about those things in that workshop outline I did. [shuffling through pages of workshop handout] You have elements of music to think about…different tempos…comparing them to different colors….performance considerations. I put this together quite a while ago, but that just about sums everything up.
Chris: I know you got your first guitar at age 10, and at 13 is when you began gigging a little bit?
Jim: Yeah, I was in junior high school, I guess, and there was a clarinet player, I don’t know if he was in high school or junior high. Anyway, we had a quartet. It was clarinet, accordion, drums, and guitar. No bass. He had an interesting name, an Italian guy but his last name was Vienna. Angelo Vienna. We went to a record store to get a Benny Good- man record, and that’s when I heard Charlie Christian, on this record. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: Do you know how old you were?
Jim: I must’ve been 13, maybe. It was a tune called “Grand Slam” because I named a group that later. It was a blues in F and Charlie Christian played two choruses. I remember thinking “I don’t know what that is, but I wish I could do that.” And I still feel that way. So that was a huge moment for me.
Chris: Before you heard that, when you were learning guitar, were you focused on classical guitar?
Jim: No, it was just kind of Nick Manoloff books, and scales, and arpeggios. I took some classical guitar lessons after I got to Los Angeles with Sandy Gomez. I think he’s from Mexico. He had done some movie background stuff. He was really good, but I can’t really play classical guitar at all.
Chris: When you were studying with him, when you were studying classical guitar, do you feel that any of those studies have left residual effects on your playing style and technique now?
Jim: It probably reinforced what I already was trying to do, maybe unconsciously, which was to think of the guitar as a small orchestra, or something like that. And he, Mr. Gomez, was really great about what kind of sound you get out of a string. Well, I was trying to play this way. There was a funny moment too. He was writing, I don’t think it was an orchestra score, but he was writing a piece for a movie about Mexican men–they went searching for gold–so he asked me to look at it. Let’s see: [speaking rhythmically] Three men went searching, searching for gold. And when they started. And-when-they-started–that’s five, but he had six notes there. So I was very cautious. I said, “Mr. Gomez, I think you have one too many.” “And when they a-started” Then he said “Oh!” [laughs] But, yeah, that was a great experience for me because he was so sensitive to how the string sounded in different–if you hit the string down towards the bridge or if you hit it up towards the neck. I was really fortunate, the people that I fell in with that way.
Chris: In Cleveland, you majored in theory, yes?
Jim: Yeah, music theory, right.
Chris: Well how do you feel that non-jazz curriculum contributed to your jazz playing?
Jim: Well, the ear training was incredible, and I discovered a whole bunch of stuff that I hadn’t–I think I even say in this book–I knew nothing about classical music. I think I liked Stravinsky because it made me think of Woody Her- man’s band. And Hindemith: I thought maybe Stan Kenton’s band. And Mozart I thought was silly, and at five years Mozart became a genius. And then I got really hooked on Bela Bartok. I knew nothing about that kind of music, and he became my unconscious mentor when I was in school. So I’m sure it really had a big effect on my playing. I was in a terrific school, and the guy that I studied composition with, he was from Vienna, had to leave because of the Nazis. He was involved with Arnold Schoenberg and all that stuff. There was incredible people there, but again, no jazz and no guitar. So I was [studying] music theory, and I had to work really hard on the piano.
Chris: What does the body of work of Charlie Christian mean to you?
Jim: He was just so incredible. And there are a bunch of jam session [recordings] too. I think Thelonious Monk was involved. But there was something about how decisive his playing was, and clear, crystal clear, and great. And it swung like–almost etched in stone, or whatever you do. I still can’t get over that when I hear his records; it’s just so clear. No nonsense at all. I don’t even think he made it to age 25; I think he died really young. I call him my spiritual awakening.
Chris: What about Django?
Jim: That was amazing too, in the other way, though. Actually, I got to meet Django’s son one time. Babik, I think was his name. There was a Django Reinhardt festival along that river where Reinhardt grew up, and I played with Larry Goldings, piano player. We played on that outdoor festival, and Django’s son played before us. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: I think he heard us. [gesturing to Jim’s dog, Django, who had come into the room]
Jim: There we are. Hello there, Django! [laughs] That’s funny because Django was known for his acoustic guitar. And Babik had these huge amplifiers. It’s like, “I’m going in a different direction, and to hell with that.” But for some reason, that things that he played, they don’t really stick with me. My whole brain set is different from that, but I really admire what he did, especially with these two fingers.
Chris: Yeah, that I can’t fathom.
Jim: I can’t either.
Chris: So when you are starting a new musical relationship with somebody, whether Bill Frisell or anybody, how do you approach building that new musical relationship?
Jim: That’s a great question. Usually I’ve heard or–well, I’ll give you an example. Julian Lage. We’re going to do some stuff together, because I’ve gotten to know him over the last, three or four years, I guess, and I love his playing. Ac- tually he was supposed to come over tomorrow, but we couldn’t get together. I want to get some of his music, and just get together with him and see how it goes. I’m trying to write some new stuff for him as well. I’ve got a couple of things that I wrote that never got played, really, or one thing in particular. I really want to do that. But mostly I’m interested in what Julian brings to the quartet. It’ll be Joey Baron, and Scott Coley, and Julian Lage and me. It’ll be at the Blue Note just a few weeks away, I guess. So I want to hear what he–it helps me to keep growing, I think, to be around fresh talent like that. He’s incredible. Nice guy too.
Chris: So generally, when you’re approaching new situations, you see what they bring?
Jim: Yeah. And Julian, he’s such a lovely young guy too. He’ll want to do my stuff and all that, and he’s come in to hear me play. And I’ve never really gotten to hear him play. Just on records, you know. But he was out with Gary Burton’s group for a while. We have the–my friend Brian Camilio, he has Artist Share, he puts together these fun lunches, maybe, once a month. And he invites all–I don’t know–Julian comes. Chris Potter, Scott Coley, Adam Rogers. And it’s just so much fun. It’s a real family feeling.
Chris: So going back to Chico Hamilton. When you were in his group, you had a lot of different roles. Between, I think you said that you had the role of the rhythm section, sometimes the part of the melody instrument, and you did some composing. Do you feel that that kind of situation expanded your scope of the function of the guitar?
Jim: I’m sure it did, because [this was] my first serious, professional job, I think. Also, the first trip to New York we played opposite of Max Roach’s group with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. Richie Powell, the piano player, they were both killed in an auto accident. I just met so many people. And that’s where I first heard Sonny Rollins. And I did get to write for Chico as well.
Chris: You had said that playing with Jimmy Giuffre was one of your most enlarging experiences.
Jim: Yeah. Jimmy helped me play the guitar differently, actually. Jimmy was extremely kind and cautious about, well, not cautious, just a kind guy. He would help me with phrasing. He would say, “Well, try to make this phrase more like a wind instrument.” In other words, don’t pick all the [notes]. So he got me tuned in, no pun intended, to phras- ing and blending with the clarinet or saxophone or whatever. He was a huge help, that way. And also the shapes of things, because he was such a great writer himself. I’ve got a couple of orchestra things that Jimmy did. The same with Bob Brookmeyer; I’ve got some orchestral stuff that Bobby wrote. And for a while it was just a trio with Bob on valve trombone and Jimmy and me. There was no bass and drums. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: How did you have to adjust to being the only chordal instrument? or rhythm instrument?
Jim: I tried a couple of things. I got the guitar maker, D’Angelico, he–well, anyway, for a while I had a guitar that was tuned a fourth lower, so I could cover the low end. Then occasionally I’d get on a record date or something, and I’d have to read with the thing. But anyway, Jimmy was a huge help, mostly with phrasing and shape. That sort of thing. I was really lucky. I feel so fortunate to have bumped into the people that I have, and have them help. And Brook- meyer, of course, was a fantastic musician. And then with John Lewis I got to play with Milt Jackson and Percy Heath. Connie Kay. So I feel really very fortunate that way.
Chris: You had said in another interview somewhere that the time spent on the road with Ella Fitzgerald: one of the rea- sons it was so wonderful was getting to experience music in Brazil.
Chris: What did you take from all that?
Jim: Man, I was so ignorant. I thought Brazil was going to be all jungle or something. [laughs] The first stop was Rio de Janeiro. I couldn’t believe the kind of music–everybody played the guitar! It was just great. Then, of course, she was this kind of famous lady singer, so we had a good crowd and everything. I got invited to dinner in Rio one time. Dinner or lunch with about six guys sitting around a table. Somebody had a guitar, and they passed it around. One guy played a bossa nova; another guy played Villa-Lobos. It got to me and I played a blues with my thumb and passed it on real quick. But that was a growth experience. Then the next big stop was Buenos Aires, Argentina. I just learned so much; I had no idea about the tango music and all the Brazilian music. I was getting paid on the band- stand too, so that was great.
Chris: Did it change your linear perspective on improvised lines?
Jim: It must’ve, yeah, even unconsciously, because all that stuff is still stuck back there somewhere.
Chris: Tell me what you got out of playing with Ben Webster.
Jim: That was kind of a personal experience; he was a character. He had this group—I think I mentioned it in that book. Red Mitchell was playing bass, Jimmy Rowles, Frank Butler was playing drums, and Ben. I had gotten to know Red through playing with them. He had asked me to come sit in, so I did. And Ben in effect said, “OK, you’re in the band.” So they all chipped in a few bucks, and I got to play with them. It was a great experience, just listening to the power and the care that he put into each note and each idea. He could play a ballad that would just tear you apart. He had a beautiful sound and a great time feel. Each note was kind of essential; there were no frills. And that was a great experience; it really was. I still think about him, maybe unconsciously, when I’m playing a ballad. I’ll think about Ben, and unconsciously I think, “I wonder if he would take a breath here.” So it was just a few notes, but perfect. And a great band too: Red, and Jimmy Rowles, and Frank Butler. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: So would you say he helped you develop your sense of melodicism?
Jim: Yeah, sure he did. Not by telling me, but just by the fact that I got to hear him all the time. Sonny Rollins could do all those things, plus hundreds of other things too. He could play the melody of a ballad just fantastically, and also he could go completely out.
Chris: Well, along similar lines, what about your time with Paul Desmond?
Jim: I got to know Paul, actually I met him in Cleveland when he came through with the Dave Brubeck group. And then I’m not sure how it developed. He used to come by the apartment here, and he and Jane would play Scrabble and I would just watch because they were both great at it. Then he invited me to be on a couple of records with him. Again, it was a really great experience, because he was also a fantastic melodic player. So again, I feel so fortunate to have stumbled into these great situations all the way along.
Chris: You had once described playing with Sonny Rollins as “a turning point in your career.” Can you elaborate on that a little?
Jim: After I had left Chico’s group, and I think I told you John Lewis got me to come back to New York, and I had a sublet. It’s kind of ironic; it was right down the block. It was Dick Katz’s apartment, a small apartment with a piano. Dick had just gotten married, so he moved out and I sublet it. I started getting these notes in my mailbox. I don’t even know if I had a telephone; it might have been disconnected. Anyway, again, I had really only heard Sonny when he was with Max Roach’s group, and I had known that he had disappeared for a couple years. And I got this note that said, “Dear Jim, I’d like to talk with you about music.” And I can’t remember if I called him or if I went out and left a note on—he lived not too far from the bridge that he used to practice on.
Chris: And that’s where the album title came from?
Jim: Yeah. Anyway, he came over to the apartment, and we sat down across this table. He had this little plastic bag, and he put it on the table and started talking to me. It was kind of the turning point in my musical life. This bag was kind of wiggling, and I said, “Sonny, what’s in that bag?” And with his focus, he said, “We’ll talk about that later.” So we talked, and I said, “Yeah, I’d love to work with you.” Then he opened the bag. He had been to a pet store, and it was a little chameleon or lizard or something. He says, “Look, isn’t this great!” But he said, “No, that’s later.” That kind of outlines Sonny’s personality, in a way too. Very definite. Then we started practicing, and that was a great experi- ence.
Chris: What did he pull out of your playing?
Jim: Well, one thing: listening harder. Because, I think I mentioned earlier, I would listen to what he played, and then if it needed a chord, it happened fast, of course, I would try to fill it in. But I didn’t try to push him anyplace. And then sometimes we’d have these incredibly bright tempos, and so I had to start practicing a lot. Fitting in with the group behind Sonny was a great experience, and he was so idolized wherever we went. Good crowds all over the place. And as I said, the racial scene in the states was still pretty primitive. There were a lot of times people would think I was the manager or something; I would always say I was the least manageable one in the group, probably. I’ve been really lucky to step into these fantastic groups with these people.
Chris: Like Bill Evans?
Jim: Yeah, I got to know Bill earlier, when I was in the trio with Jim Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer. It’s funny; we played in a theater on a show with Mort Sahl. Remember him? The comedian? He was pretty popular for a while; he had this show. Bobby, Jim and I played a couple of tunes, and then we’d go up to a club. I’ll think of the name of it; it was down in the Village here. And Miles Davis’s group was playing. It was that great group with Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Miles, of course. I forget the bass player; he used to be a good friend too. And I had heard Bill before. I kind of knew him from the John Lewis summer camp. But then he came over to the apartment one day. He had wanted to do duet records—I was working with Sonny—he came by and said, “Do you want to do a duet record?” And I said, “Why not?” I think we might have rehearsed or discussed tunes. We just sort of went in and did it. The first duet one; then we did another one later on.
Chris: What’s your reaction to what musically came out of that?
Jim: Well, Bill, again, he was really unique, I believe, and listened carefully. And, for instance, he liked me to play a rhythm while he was playing a solo, but he was so sensitive that as soon as I’d start playing rhythm, he would al- most put his left hand in his pocket because he figured I had that area covered. He was very tuned into the whole texture there, and that was a big lesson also.
Chris: And your time with Ron Carter: how would you contrast that to playing with Bill Evans?
Jim: I still work with Ron a bit. In fact, Ron’s getting a big thing from Julliard in about a month. I’d forgotten he’s on the staff at Julliard, and I’m going to play something with him. We play mostly duets, Ron and I, and it was a similar kind of thing, just listening and reacting. It got so I wouldn’t even mess with the low E string on the guitar because he had that whole area covered, and I would listen to him and where he was going. Each one of those guys is bril- liant as each one is, or was, each one was different—and Ron certainly. I heard Ron recently play a duet with Hubert Laws, just flute and bass, for the National Endowment, and it was incredible, just the two of them. Ron has an or- chestration sense. That’s really been great; we’re good friends and everything. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “he has an orchestration sense?”
Jim: He’s very tuned into —[Jane Hall passes in the hall behind Jim] Who was that?
Chris: That was your wife.
Jim: [to Jane] Are you here?
Jane: Django [their dog] left us a present.
Jim: Oh, no. [laughs] I guess that means Django pooped on the rug.
Chris: My wife’s dog is seventeen and has the same problem. Well, that’s at her mom’s house. Our dog is three and a half. Full of energy. So, I’m sorry, Ron Carter?
Jim: Oh yeah. It’s the same kind of thing, just recognizing each other as people and as musicians. I know that the way Ron plays is different, say, from the way Scott Colley plays. Scott is also incredibly tuned in, but the whole tech- nique and the sound of the instrument [is different]. So you just sort of set your mind that way, or I do. And I listen to what Ron says, and I know he’s listening to me really carefully too. I guess it’s like having dinner or a conversa- tion with different people, I mean a verbal conversation.
Chris: Such as with you and Bill Frisell?
Jim: Yeah. Bill actually came for lessons when he was about fifteen or something. In fact, I stumbled on this; I’ll show you real quick. I haven’t seen it years. He did an interview with me a few years back, and it’s kind of funny. He came for lessons when he was about fifteen, I think. I had met him in Denver; I got to know his teacher and every- thing. It says on here he went to Berklee school for a while, and he didn’t really connect there. They’d been living in Denver, and his folks moved to New Jersey. So his dad used to drive him into town every week, and he’d take a les- son from me. He was about fifteen, I think. I forget the first connection, but after that we did records together, and that sort of thing. And we’ve done some trips together in Europe. And it’s just fun, again, listening and reacting. His playing is quite different from mine, but it influences me. I hope vice versa.
Chris: How would you say it influences you?
Jim: Well, he just develops ideas kind of uniquely, I think. It keeps my mind active, and I never know for sure what’s going to come out of him. And also he’s a whiz at those foot pedals. Sometimes we’ll be playing something, and all of a sudden I hear this thing come out of the air —“oh, he did that with his foot pedal.” But it fits in somehow. I have to watch it. I got sort of hooked on foot pedals for a while, but I think I may give them up.
Chris: I could never do that. It’s such a slippery slope, and I realized one day—I was thinking about how jazz is a pas- sion and profession and what I love to do. I was thinking outside of that, “well, I don’t have any hobbies.” I really enjoy the cinematic arts and watching movies, but what are my hobbies? I realized gear is kind of my hobby. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved gadgets.
Jim: That’s interesting. That makes sense, in a way, except I’m not good at it. I had an [effect]—I can’t remember if it was a foot pedal or something—in any case, we were in Europe. I had to have the power [adapter], you know the European [adapter]. Something got screwed up and I blew the lights in the whole auditorium or something like that [laughs]. That kind of thing has happened. I think Bill is really creative with everything. And he still so kind of, he says [mimicking Bill’s voice] “Hey Jim. Hi. It’s Bill” That’s the way he talks. [laughs] Embed from Getty Images
Chris: So in all these different playing situations, did you ever come across any challenges in adjusting to these new situations, new collaborations?
Jim: I guess, in a certain sense, each one is a challenge, but a positive kind of challenge. Certainly with Sonny, with the fast tempos and that sort of thing. Actually, I saw a video of us playing “The Bridge” when I was with Sonny, and I actually made it through it ok. [laughs] I was pretty proud. I think that’s part of the fun; part of being a musician is running into those different situations and adjusting to them.
Chris: In the past, would you say you were kind of drawn to piano-less situations?
Jim: In a way, I guess, yeah. I’m trying to remember who—this is embarassing—a very famous piano player I played [with] at that tribute to Sonny Rollins. I’ll find it; anyway, it doesn’t matter. In a way, you tend to run into the piano if we’re playing chords or something. Again, Bill Evans was so tuned in; he was perfect that way. But it depends on who played. Gil Goldstein was fun to play with. And Bill, certainly. And John Lewis, of course he didn’t get in the way very much. I guess, again, it depends on the person, on the player. What comes to mind is it’s not my favorite situation, playing with a pianos.
Chris: In your improvised ideas, in your solos, how much does playing with a piano player or not playing with a piano player affect how you treat the harmony?
Jim: Funny, because I was thinking about that before you asked because I was wondering that myself. I guess I feel a lot more at liberty with just a bass because I figure I can kind of mess with the chords however. But with a piano, I have to really pay attention and hope that the piano player is paying attention too. Herbie Hancock, I played with him on this tribute to Ron, and a great trumpet player. Anyway, it was Herbie, a trumpet player and me, we played, I think it was “In a Sentimental Mood.” And I just played the bridge; I had about eight bars. The piano makes it so you have a pay a little more attention to what’s going on.
Chris: Regarding your guitar tone, do you model it after anybody?
Jim: That’s a good question. I think so, actually. I think, for instance, I still hear Ben Webster all the time, especially on ballads. Somehow Django Reinhardt didn’t work for me, technically or anything else. Yeah, probably I’d like to think Ben Webster playing [ballads]. We’d play “Chelsea Bridge” sometimes. And I always hear Ben Webster play- ing that melody. [singing mimicking Webster’s playing] You know, the way he played a melody.
Chris: Well, of the guitar tone itself, just the sound of the guitar, the acoustic properties and whatnot? I’d been listening to some of your records, and then I put on Charlie Christian. And maybe it was just the two recordings I heard side by side, and I was kind of struck by how similar the tone itself was…
Jim: That’s nice. Thanks!
Chris: …between yours and his instruments. Ironically, I think it was one of the recordings where your were using a mi- crophone in addition to an amp versus him which was completely electric with a single coil pickup into probably the old Gibson GA—whatever it was, the old Gibson amps. And I was kind of stuck by how similar they were.
Jim: Well, that’s nice to hear. Thank you! Embed from Getty Images
Chris: I know you worked with Roger Sadowsky. I know you worked with him for a while on developing this guitar. What drew you to the thinner body and its laminate maple?
Jim: I really don’t know. For a long time, I had a D’Aquisto, and there’s one still over there. Well, a couple of things happened. I got so I was nervous about taking them on the road, getting them on airplanes and stuff. Then Jimmy D’Aquisto, we got to be really good friends, and his shop was way out on the tip of Long Island. It was like a two hour drive. And Roger had a shop in mid-town New York. So a lot of times I’d take the D’Aquisto in there, and Roger would straighten it out for me. Gradually, Roger developed his own brand of guitar. And I think he took into account, for this one (it’s got my name on it), what my feeling was about the D’Aquisto. It’s great because it’s really dicey taking instruments on airplanes. It used to be so that you take it in a soft case and put it in the overhead, and a lot times someone would slam a briefcase in there. But you sort of have to check it through. And when I had a tube amp, I would take all the tubes out and pack them separately. So now I just sort of order a Polytone or something. Anyway, then Roger gradually came up with this thing, which I assume he tried to pattern after the D’Aquisto so it’d feel comfortable for me, and it’s great. As I’ve said, if something goes wrong, Roger’s shop, it’s now in Brooklyn, but I’ll just leave it downstairs, and he’ll pick it up and bring it back in a couple of days. That’s worked out great.
Chris: I think you might be happy to hear that Congress passed something making standardized guidelines for instru- ments on planes. Something about—because different airlines had different policies, now they have a flat policy. If you ever want to buy a seat for your instrument, you can. I can’t remember all the details, but it certainly seemed like good news.
Jim: That’s marvelous! I remember that that used to happen sometimes; I could actually take the guitar in the plane. It may be a made up story, but supposedly Segovia took his guitar on the plane. And sometimes he’d put his guitar next to him in first class, and his wife would have to sit in economy. [laughs] Something like that; it may be made up. Well, that’s good news.
Chris: My wife would relate to that story. So, getting back to your playing specifically and the style of your playing and your stylistic elements, how would you describe your playing? The style and approach.
Jim: Cautious. I don’t know for sure, something I kind of touched on at the beginning of the conversation, I try to listen to what’s going on, and add to it, and maybe make something out of it. And I think it’s kind of a collective attitude I have. Even if I’m playing solo, I’m still aware of what I just played on the low string, and I try to—I guess it’s com- positional approach. I guess. And I really never had the chop speed that a lot of guys have, so in a way that worked out OK.
Chris: Do you feel like that’s affected the way you approach things?
Jim: Yeah. It’s probably, without realizing it, it’s probably forced me to pay more attention to texture and good stuff, because I can’t just whiz through a bunch of chord changes fast.
Chris: When you’re listening, and we’ll get back to your style in a sec, what is your aesthetic reaction when you listen to those players, those players that I sometimes call “machine gun” players? Where it’s very long, through lines.
Jim: I guess it depends. If I hear Art Tatum do it, it sounds perfect. But then to hear Count Basie go “plunk, plunk, plunk”, and that sounds perfect too. I guess it just depends what music comes out of either playing a few notes or playing with great technique. I think Bill Evans had incredible piano technique too, but he used it intelligently. I say this so often, but as soon as I start playing rhythm, Bill would sort of not use his left hand. So he was aware of the texture, the duet texture. I guess that’s the main point: to create, whether it’s a big band or a duet, to create some- thing that makes sense out of it and isn’t all jumbled up.
Chris: How do you feel your playing was different, say, in the 70’s and 80’s, than it is today?
Jim: I’m not really sure, except that it’s based on a lot more experience than I had then. I think what comes to mind as I’m talking about it is that I think about specific players. I’m really curious about getting together with Julian Lage, and seeing how that goes. So, still, I’m looking for new things and, with any luck, things that I can relate to musical- ly. And I hope vice versa; I hope the other people feel the same. It’s always been great—I work with Steve LaSpina a lot over quite a few years now. And I’ve heard how Steve’s playing has evolved. Man, he’s playing great now. I mean he always did, but it used to be just really time and all that stuff, but he plays gorgeous solos now. It’s good to hear him move ahead like that too.
Chris: How would you describe the changes in your playing from the mid and late 50’s into the early/mid 60’s?
Jim: Well, gee, I don’t know for sure except that during that period I heard lots of different music. In the 50’s I was still fresh out of Cleveland and just learning—I still hope I’m learning all the time. I guess I felt, in a certain sense, more confident now, and a little more courage to go ahead and try things, than I did before. I hadn’t really thought about that.
Chris: Because when I listen to recordings from those different periods, for instance your first album Jazz Guitar, at least on my ears, and you can tell me I’m wrong, I hear much more of the Charlie Christian influence and post- swing kind of style.
Jim: Exactly. That’s what just came to my mind as you were saying that.
Chris: And then in the 60’s, I start to hear more of the style that I hear in your playing up to today of melodic—maybe more focus on composition.
Jim: Yeah, that’s good. I think about that once in a while too. I sort of like that record most because of Red Mitchell, and the piano player. I’m drawing a blank on his name. But it is kind of based on Charlie Christian.
Chris: You had, in one of the interviews, talked about when you saw Duke Ellington’s band. And you talked about that experience of the presence of the unknown before a show, between the audience and the performer. How does that effect your performance? How do you use that?
Jim: Well, it made me aware of how important those first sounds or those first impressions are, because I still remem- ber—I guess I was 13, and I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t heard of Duke Ellington. I went to the theater, and I could hear guys warming up behind the curtain. Then they started to play, and it was just great. But they still had this scrim curtain in front of them, so it was really kind of show bizzy. Then it opened, and there they were! “Take the A Train.” So yeah, I’m aware of all that stuff: making it into a composition and making it enjoyable for an audience, and making it full of surprises so you don’t get bored playing, or you don’t want to bore your audience. But I think they kind of go together that way. Embed from Getty Images
Chris: What in your career would you say you’re most proud of?
Jim: I feel good about this moment, actually. I try to live in the moment. Well, I liked getting married to Janey and then getting [my dog] Django and all that kind of stuff.
Chris: I like that. I was expecting “oh, this record and this record with so and so.” I like your priorities.
Jim: Yeah, it’s still a work in progress. It’s funny: I was thinking about the Sonny Rollins tribute, and it was great. The President was there. Then afterward we all went to the State Department. It was a huge big deal, and Hillary Clinton spoke. And Bill Clinton was there, and he was raving about Sonny. Then we went to the White House, and Obama was there. And I was thinking—Jane was with me when we went to the White House when Nixon was President. And I wasn’t going to go, because he was part of my becoming aware of political craziness, and we were at war in Vietnam and everything. So I wasn’t going to go, and then I talked myself into it. Gerry Mulligan had written a bunch of charts. And I said, “Well, it’s not his White House. Screw him. I want to see it, but I won’t shake his hand.” I managed not shake his hand; it was a receiving line. And then we played. Then at the very end he got up on the stage, and I couldn’t go like this [makes gesture], so I shook his hand. But then I found out Duke Ellington was there, and I absolutely adored him. I noticed none of Duke’s band was there, except Freddy Guy who had played guitar like a hundred years ago. And I found out from someone who knew Duke Ellington really well that he didn’t want to go. He was of the same mindset, and he had booked a job for the band that night trying to get out of it. He was great. So my point is that this visit to the White House was the exact opposite as the last one. [laughs] That’s the point of this.
Chris: How do you feel that your inspirations have changed over the years?
Jim: Things that inspire me? In a way I hope they’re getting simpler. Like this little guy, Django [points at his dog], he inspires me all the time, just seeing his spirit and his stubbornness sometimes. [laughs] And there’s a girl that lives next door, she’s 15 or 16 now, and I’ve known her since she was about 7. I think she’s some kind of a genius. I’ve collected her poetry since she was 7 years old. I’ve got a whole bunch of it. She plays the guitar, great and every- thing. So it gives me hope for the future, and she’s really tuned into, quote, world affairs and political stuff. So that’s really important. And then there’s Julian Lage; he’s 23. That really gives me a lot of grins. I love that, that he’s mov- ing ahead all the time.
Chris: So what’s your general take on the current state or direction of jazz guitar?
Jim: Well, it seems great to me. People are trying different things. I’ve always had trouble with loudness, anyway. I think I say it in my book. I use an amp so I can play softer.
Chris: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting.
Jim: Because you can get a really nice sound without banging the strings. Especially if you do a tour of Europe, you’re dealing with sound men all the time. I feel really very positive about things, in general. The, quote, political things and the musical things and young people. Well, just about everybody is younger than I am, now. I like the way the music is going, the jazz music. And I think a guy like Julian, he’s a good example of that. He’s really, extremely gifted. I met him when he was 11 years old, out in California. We played in Yoshi’s.
Chris: San Francisco?
Jim: North of San Francisco, yeah. He came in with his family, and he’s just great. So that’s really encouraging to hear and get to know young players that are still pushing ahead.
Chris: Is there anyone else that stands out to you?
Jim: Well, Julian is the stand out, really. He’s the only one I can think of immediately, but I’m sure that— I taught at the New School for a while. I didn’t really teach guitar; I had a jazz ensemble. But that was great. Pete Bernstein was in the group for a while, and Larry Goldings. And Chris Potter was a student there; he wasn’t in my group. It’s just great to see that—we talked about it earlier that there no jazz and no guitar at all at the conservatory when I went to school. So, it feels very positive to me.
Chris Beyt: We closed by discussing potential follow-up questions, the idiosyncrasies of each of our dogs, and a book Jim was eager to show me about odd animal friendships.
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