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.