Hall Overton, Thelonious Monk, Jack Reilly

Most jazz listeners know Hall Overton (1920-1972) for his orchestrations of Thelonious Monk piano solos. Those arrangements are a major factor in the success of Monk’s concert with a 10-piece band at New York’s Town Hall in 1959, preserved in this essential album. Musicians familiar with Overton’s other accomplishments and broad scope respect him for his knowledge of music and his effectiveness in sharing it. During Overton’s time at Juilliard, he learned from great teachers, including the legendary educator of composers
Vincent Persichetti. Following his graduation from Juilliard in 1951, Overton taught at his alma mater as well as at Yale University and The New School, and became part of New York’s community of composers. We see him here with Aaron Copland.

In addition to writing classical works, including string quartets, a symphony and the opera Huckleberry Finn, Overton worked as a pianist with Stan Getz, Jimmy Raney, Teddy Charles and other jazz artists. But his biggest impact on jazz came in an informal setting. At his New York loft on weekends and evenings, he and the photographer W. Eugene Smith, who lived next door, hosted jam sessions. Some of them were surreptitiously recorded and released years later. At his and Smith’s lofts, Overton provided instruction to musicians who sought him out for his skill at unveiling the mysteries of counterpoint, theory and polytonality as applied to composition and the act of jazz improvisation. Monk (pictured with Overton) frequently hung out at the loft. It was where the two worked out the arrangements for the Town Hall concert. Raney and Charles spent time there, as did Zoot Sims, Vic Dickenson, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Crow, Gerry Mulligan, and dozens of other musicians during what many think of as the last golden age of jazz in New York.

Pianist and composer Jack Reilly studied with Overton in 1957, during the loft’s heyday. He got an intensive education not only in technical specifics but also the mystique of jazz improvisation. Here is a short passage from Reilly’s account of the experience.

The biggest surprise after a few weeks of lessons was graduating to playing with bass and drums at the lessons. People like Joe Hunt, Chuck Israels, Steve Little, Chuck Andrus, Teddy Kotick and other top players on the New York jazz scene were invited by Hall to play at my lesson and accompany me on my repertoire assignments. Hall knew that learning to play jazz piano meant more than practicing alone; it meant interacting, playing/jamming with others, but above all learning to listen to what’s going on around you!

To read all of Reilly’s “Hall Overton: Ashes to Ashes” memoir, go here.

To hear “Friday The 13th,” one of Overton’s charts for the Monk Town Hall concert, click on the arrow in the frame below. The photo, like those above of Overton and of Monk with Overton, is by W. Eugene Smith, complete with his proof sheet crop marking.

Thelonious Monk (composer, piano); Jay McAllister (tuba); Bob Northern (french horn); Eddie Bert (trombone); Donald Byrd (trumpet); Pepper Adams (baritone sax); Charlie Rouse (tenor sax); Phil Woods (alto sax); Sam Jones (bass); Art Taylor (drums); Hal Overton (arranger). W Eugene Smith (photography). Town Hall, New York City, February 28, 1959.

A few years ago, jazz scholar Sam Stephenson created a website and a book about the Jazz Loft. To tour the site, which includes a thorough biography of Overton, and to find out about the book, go here.

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  1. says

    Hall Overton, the most appropriate name for the man. “Hall” = reverb/ echo in German, and “overton(e)” explains itself, (“Oberton” in German).

    Phil Woods and Donald Byrd are the lead voices in Hall’s arrangement on “Little Rootie Tootie,” one of the most thrilling lines ever written down by a jazz arranger. It’s Monk’s solo, transcribed note for note from the initial studio recording for Prestige.

    In Jack Reilly’s quote, we find again the crucial word which should be the “categorical imperative” for every music student:


    P.S. Hall’s chart on “Four In One,” with Steve Lacy’s soprano saxophone lead, can be found on Who’s Afraid Of The Big Band Monk?.

  2. don frese says

    In 1963, I was in the tiny undergraduate degree program at the New School, and needed a music course. I had hoped to take Martin Williams’ jazz appreciation class, but there was a scheduling conflict with a class I had to take for my major. So I signed up for Hall Overton’s class on jazz improvisation. At the first class, I realized it was actually a course for musicians, and I was not one–I would be lucky to find middle C on a piano. I went to Mr. Overton after the class and told him I would be dropping out, and he said, hold on: he then played the chord sequences of three standard tunes and asked me to identify them. I did (today, all I remember is Indiana). He said to stick around that I might learn something, and he would give me a non-playing assignment. So, over the semester I listened as he taught the musicians and he was right: just by listening, I learned some music. As he was then writing the arrangements for the second Monk orchestra concert, he proposed that I study Monk’s compositions and write about them. Given my lack of musical knowledge, it was written in the metaphor laden style of the fan, but he commented that I grasped what Monk was doing, even if I could not notate it in technical terms. He was a warm bear of a man, and from what I could tell, a very good teacher, and Reilly’s portrait of his chain-smoking is spot on.

  3. says

    I studied for only one year(1957) with Hall Overton but those weekly lessons have influenced my entire career as composer/teacher/pianist.

    The poem “A Death In The Family,” composed by his younger brother Harvey, sums up and gives us an inside look by his family at this great human being and musical mind and their grief over losing him at a relatively young age.

    I set the poem to music immediately after I read it. Then today I took out the manuscript and played through the score, singing the voice part. I realized once again the impact that his training had had on my compositional technique and style. If you have read my tribute to Hall, “Ashes To Ashes,” on my website, you’ll understand how rigorous and demanding his training was.

    Rifftides‘ recent post on Hall, Monk and Reilly plus the nudge by Doug Ramsey, inspired me to make this comment and post the poem, permission granted by Harvey Overton.

    It’s now become a mission of mine to bring Hall Overton’s legacy to a wider public. And it will start with a musical tribute and concert in Chicago, the home of his brother and niece Joyce. (TBA).

    Here’s the poem. Hold on to your seats and have the tissues handy! This is a powerful poetic masterpiece from Harvey Overton’s book of poems, Being There.


    Seduced from the detritus of boyhood

    by a siren ear,

    your untutored hands startled octaves;
    your gift enlarged under the masters

    of counterpoint,

    you set notes for searing strings,
    a lapidary engraving chambered sounds.

    You also heard another voice who spoke

    to you

    in hot and cool and blue through keyboard
    riffs in clubs of smoke and saxophones,
    and there, booting the tempos of your

    joie de vivre,

    your chimed chords with celebratory horns.

    Then in your metered years,
    after the acolades, in haste to measure
    scores against your measured time,
    you waited for your temptresses
    to collect their dues.

    That night chain stitch pulled,

    unraveling arteries,

    that night physicians cried,
    and in the waiting room we turned
    our faces to the wall to say

    too soon, too soon.

    —Poetry By Harvey Overton
    Set for piano and soprano voice by Jack Reilly

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The staff found video of Mr. Overton talking about his brother and reading “A Death In The Family.”

  4. C. Anthony Burrell, II says

    The 1963 Monk: Big Band and Quartet in Concert with the arrangements by Hall Overton for the big band portion of the concert, has always been one of my favorite albums starting back when it was originally released. I wore it out on vinyl as a young teenager, so when it was released years later on CD, it was a delight to get it then. I never knew that so much of the original big band (and some of the quartet) pieces were edited out of the vinyl disc (for space considerations I guess). No doubt Hall Overton’s arrangements were a key factor to the overall success of the album and my enthrallment with it. I liked particularly all of the original four big band piece that were released on the vinyl (“I Mean You,” “Evidence,” “Oska T” and “Four In One”), each one for different reasons. The arrangements were scintillating.

    Ironically, I purchased this vinyl album first, then later on I discovered the Town Hall concert album. I remember playing “Friday the 13th” constantly, much to the dismay of my mom, who could not stand hearing the repetitious four-bar theme over and over again for 12 times on the opening portion of the song and 10 more times on the ending of the song while I was upstairs in my bedroom alone with my small compact turntable and two speakers just digging the sounds of the tune. Even now, listening to it again several times, it is hard to figure out just what Messrs Overton and Monk had in mind for this particular arrangement. For the opening portion—four-bar piano intro, then four-bar piano and bass stating the melody, then alto and tenor stating the melody twice more over a ride cymbal rhythm for eight bars, then adding the tuba, bari and French horn counterpoint for eight more bars while alto and tenor stating the melody twice more, then trumpet and alto stating the melody six more times while the rest of the horns play a swinging walking rhythm for 24 bars. Kind of the reverse on the out choruses, minus the piano and bass sections. Is it a four-bar tune played four times to make it a 16 bar song? Or an eight-bar tune played six times? Oh well, I still like the tune after all of these years.

    Then later on, I found the Monk Sextet Album recorded at the Blackhawk in San Francisco which had the original version of “Four in One” from which Mr. Overton transcribed and orchestrated the big band ensemble passages. Agree with the listener who noted Steve Lacy’s piercing soprano lead in the tune. It was perhaps a shame that he never got to solo on any of the tunes on the Carnegie Hall Concert. Later on, I remember reading a review in Down Beat about a second concert which did not fare so well at Town Hall, perhaps in 1964? I would love to have heard that concert, warts and all. It is a part of what makes jazz, jazz.

    Thank you for sharing this particular article about Hall .Overton on Rifftides as well as the link to Jack Reilly’s fascinating essay about his experiences with Hall Overton..

  5. says

    “Friday The 13th”? Why being so persistently repetitive?

    I can see “Thelonious, The Loneliest” (A. von Schlippenbach) walking ’round in his kitchen in circles, looking into each of the brilliant corners while mumblin’ the mantra:

    “It’s Friday the 13th, it’s Friday the 13th, it’s Friday the 13th …”

    And you’ve proved me wrong, Doug, re: my statement in the e-mail: Phil Woods plays indeed terrifically there!

  6. Jeff Sultanof says

    As usual, Doug, you write about the most wonderful musicians and people. I never had the pleasure of meeting Hall Overton (he died when I was still in high school), but I know his music well. I was educating myself in 20th Century music in my late high school years by going to the Lincoln Center library, borrowing records and scores, and lugging them on the subway and bus going home. Fortunately, Hall’s 2nd Symphony (he wrote more than one; the first was for strings) was recorded by the Louisville Symphony, and it just blew me away. Jazz definitely informed his later concert music; it was dissonant but harmonically rich, and very rhythmic. I made a tape of this piece, bought the score and played the recording daily. I later caught up with Sonorities written for the long-disbanded Orchestra U.S.A (unfortunately, the recording just doesn’t capture what he was trying to do here), his string quartet and his first symphony. All of them are among my favorite ‘concert’ pieces.

    As much as his orchestrations of Monk are extraordinary and deserve the fame they’ve received, the compositions of the man himself deserve to be heard.