Jim Hall, 1930-2013

Devra Hall Levy informed friends this morning that her father died last night in his sleep at home in New York, six days following his 83rd birthday. In her message, Ms. Levy wrote from Los Angeles, “He was not feeling well, but had not to my knowledge been diagnosed with any particular illness.”

Jim Hall was born in Buffalo, New York, raised in Cleveland and received his formal musical education at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The guitarist performed steadily into his eighties, including a concert at Jim Hall, 2013the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival. Hall’s first major professional notice was in 1955 as a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Later, he had successes with Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and Bob Brookmeyer, collaborated with Paul Desmond, Ron Carter, Bill Evans and George Shearing, and led his own trio.

Hall’s influence extended beyond jazz to virtually all genres of music. His appearance at a guitar shop in Los Angeles in the 1980s drew many of the jazz guitarists in town but also rockers, country pickers and classical acoustic players. In a style that grew out of Charlie Christian’s, he developed daring uses of chords that reflected his knowledge of and love for modern classical composers. Hall once said that Béla Bartok was his hero. A master of the effective use of space in his solos, he was also noted for the intensity of his swing and the lyricism of his melodic lines.

In the notes for the 1975 album Jim Hall Live! I wrote:

He is a wizard, truly the only contemporary guitarist to be mentioned with Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Over the years, I’ve heard him in playing situations ranging from the Sonny Rollins Quartet in the gloom of McKie’s bar on the Southside of Chicago to the East Room of the White House at Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday party. He has never been less than superb.

Discussing his approach to improvisation, Hall told Juan Rodriguez of The Montreal Gazette in a 2002 interview, “I want a picture in my mind of the way a solo looks as I’m playing it. That way I can keep it from becoming boring— to me or the listeners— and avoid clichés. Here he is not being boring in the mid-1960s playing “Sometime Ago,” with Farmer on flugelhorn, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Walter Perkins.

At the Marciac festival in France in 2009, Hall played “My Funny Valentine,” a piece he transformed countless times in his career, with Kenny Barron, piano; Scott Colley, bass; and Lewis Nash, drums.

In part because his recordings with Desmond inspired legions of young guitarists, many of them sought him out as a teacher. Interviewing him as I was writing a Desmond biography, I asked Jim if his playing changed as a result of working with Paul.

“Certainly,” he said. “I had more respect for melody. It worked out perfectly for me because I don’t have the amazing chops that a lot guys have, anyway. I realized that playing nice melodies was okay, so that made it a lot easier for me.”

“Could you pass that along to some of the younger players?” I said.

“I do, actually, whenever I’m teaching. I have these students with incredible chops. I try things to get them to slow down. Occasionally, I’ll have them just play on one string like a trombone, or play a mode with three or four notes and develop that through a whole solo, make them more aware of what Paul was aware of, how it becomes an art form and gets away from all that macho b.s.”

After a student improvised a passage overflowing with meaningless technique, Hall told him, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” The bon mot circulated quickly and became celebrated in the jazz community.

Jim’s wife and collaborator, Jane, wrote “Where Would I Be?” “The Answer is Yes” and other pieces that were in his repertoire for decades. His family life revolved around Jane, their daughter Devra and his dog Django. A familiar sight in their lower Manhattan neighborhood was Django walking Jim. Here is a favorite family portrait.

Jim, Jane, Django

Thanks to National Public Radio, you can go here to listen to Hall’s complete concert at last summer’s Newport festival with Scott Colley, Lewis Nash and fellow guitarist Julian Lage.

Jim Hall, RIP
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


    • David says

      Actually, in another way, Jim did rely on amps. Asked why he chose to play electric guitar almost exclusively, Jim replied that he could play quieter on the electric.

  1. Mark Mohr says

    Jazz fans everywhere mourn the passing of another legend. What a wonderful musician he was!
    Loved his subtle, mellow and elegant sound. I’ll light a fire, put on his wonderful CD Concierto and toast to his memory.

  2. Rob D says

    The Bridge …Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall…That track and album changed my listening habits and my life.

    “Jim was one of the most important improvising guitarists in jazz history. His musical generosity was an exact reflection of his deep humanity,” guitarist Metheny, who performed and recorded in a duo with Hall, said in an email to The Associated Press.

    A lovely sentiment from Pat Metheny, I think..taken from this.

    RIP to a true legend.

  3. mel says

    Only yesterday, while listening to Hampton Hawes – All Night Session, I reminded myself what a great musician and wonderful person Jim Hall was…

    This is very sad news.

    Sincerest condolences to Devra. Losing her husband and then her father in such a short space of time must be hard indeed.

    Jim’s legacy will live on in the form of recordings and videos.

    R. I. P.

    • says

      I’ve been a fan of Jim Hall”s since his Chico Hamilton days, I don’t believe he ever made a bad record – or even a routine one. To say he will be missed is an understatement of epic proportions.

      You mentioned Hall’s ability to generate a sense of deep swing. For my money, there is no greater example of that than “Stompin’ at the Savoy” from the extraordinary little band, the Art Farmer Quartet Live at the Half Note. Jim stretches out, playing chorus after chorus and the groove grows deeper with every passing phrase.

  4. Ron Hearn says

    I was living in LA in the mid-80s and saw Jim at McCabe’s Guitar shop with Steve LaSpina and Akira Tana in a small intimate space at the rear of the shop. An unforgettable night.

  5. Frank Roellinger says

    Thanks for the news, Doug, sad though it is.

    Early in my jazz “education” in high school, the few records I was able to obtain came through a highly random process, but it is remarkable how many of them featured Jim Hall. “First Place Again” with Desmond, the first Chico Hamilton Quintet album, “Jazz Abstractions” on Atlantic, “All Night Session” with Hampton Hawes, “Undercurrent” with Bill Evans, and more. That he was able to play so excellently in so many different settings, taught me something of the tremendous stylistic range that jazz encompasses.

    My favorite now perhaps is “Concierto”, which sustains a very high level of musicianship in all of the performers throughout the album. “The Answer Is Yes” by Jane is a great tune and features masterful solos by everyone, especially Roland Hanna.

    I send my condolences to the Hall Family. I’ll be playing recordings of Jim’s as long as I have ears to hear.

  6. David says

    In the spirit of Doug’s compatible quotes series, I’d like to offer the following (excerpted from longer quotes interspersed in Sheldon Cohen’s liner notes to Gambit’s “Art Farmer & Jim Hall Quartet: Complete Live Recordings,” a reissue of “Live at the Half Note” plus a previously unreleased concert from the following year.)


    “I’d made up my mind that I’d like to work with a smaller group and I asked Jim if he was interested. He said he was, because he’d been playing with Sonny Rollins, but Sonny had made a transition from the type of music that Jim likes to play to a more free music.”


    “With Art, I felt hat he kind of liked to hear a chord, and then play over it….Whereas I felt that Sonny would get annoyed if I tried to lead him harmonically so I’d lay back a second or so, hear where he was going, and then follow.”


    “I don’t know anyone who’s as quick in his head as Jim, that he can complement whatever direction that the soloist wants to go – it seems like he almost anticipates you.”

    • Terence Smith says

      David, what great quotes. I think it is said that when Jim Hall and Joe Pass were about to go on stage together, the rehearsal in its entirety was, Hall said to Pass,” You play fast and I’ll play slow.”

      Thanks to John Birchard for highlighting the Art Farmer (and Jim Hall) Quartet at the Half Note album. Another indispensable experience I didn’t know about! Doesn’t it sound as if they turned “Stompin at the Savoy” into the ultimate Charlie Christian tribute?

      Seven Come Eleven!

  7. Charlton Price says

    This inevitable event gathers together our lasting memories of and our deep gratitude to Jim and the other great ones who have gone beyond, in 2013 and before. We are so very fortunate to have been here with him and them.

  8. says

    Jim was one of my dearest friends. He’d gotten into the habit lately of calling me whenever he thought of something funny, or when he remembered an incident from our past that made him smile. He was just like his music, sweet, direct, no nonsense, full of good humor, generous, kind, a pleasure to be with. I don’t know anyone I admired more.

  9. Guglielmo W.T. says

    Today another great man has left us. Thanks for the music and music lessons you share with us you’ll always remain among us. Rest in peace great man.

  10. says

    This is a big loss, and I think some mention should be made of the fact that Jim was not only a great guitarist, but a world-class writer for larger ensembles. A couple of years ago, I played some of Jim’s compositions for his long-ago bandmate in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, cellist-pianist-composer-sage Fred Katz. Freddie’s response, “He’s such a great writer. I don’t think he knows how good he is.”

    Jim was one of the regular members of what you might call the Bill Finegan chat group. In his later years, Bill would sit on the couch in his home in Monroe, Connecticut and hold daily phone discussions with a select group of musical friends, colleagues, and admirers. Bob Brookmeyer would call, literally, every day. Ruby Braff was another regular. So was Jim Hall.

  11. terry says

    i grew up wanting to be jim hall. i tried to play like him, but the only times i succeeded were when i ripped off and disected his recorded solos. almost all of them. even after i stopped trying to play at a high level, i bought a sadowsky jim hall signature guitar which is always on display in my house…sort of a shrine to the greatest jazz guitar master ever. in my college days, i went to “The Guitar” in manhattan, on 10th and 51st, whenever jim was playing with ron carter, and i sat right in front of the stage, two feet away. i would go home exhilarated and, at the same time, depressed by my ineptitude. jim had made it look so effortless that i thought, “i can do that.” not even close. once, i passed him on a greenwich village street and he was carrying a small portable TV set. i was so awestruck, i couldn’t even say hello. as you recorded on your first solo session jim, “thanks for the memories.”

    condolences to devra and jane.

  12. Don Conner says

    So, another great musician bites the dust. I think I’ll look through the vinyl stacks and play a side called Two Jims and Zoot featuring Jim with Jimmy Raney and Zoot Sims. A fine but unsung album that highlights the lyricism and wit of all three featured musicians. Jim Hall outlived most of his contemporaries & his spirit and soul will live on forever.

  13. says

    I met Jim personally only once, in the late 70s. He popped in to listen to me play the Alban Berg Piano Sonata, opus I. It was a private recital that I gave in an apartment of my friend in the Halls’ building on 12th Street, NYC. Jim was quite amazed at Berg’s youthful work composed when he was 23 and had just finished his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. It was sort of his graduation dissertation that was to prove that he was ready for the real world of a composer worthy of the “calling.” This sonata greatly influenced my own playing and improvising for a long time. To this day I can sense its impact on my musical thinking.

    I realized then the depth of Jim’s inquisitiveness and desire to listen to pieces unknown to him even with his vast knowledge of jazz and classical music at that time.

    He appeared to be a quiet man who was 100% comfortable with himself, which is why his playing had that quality of searching lyricism, confidence and tenderness, but alive and always “in the moment”.

    I enjoyed most of all his duo cds with Bill Evans, Undercurrent and Intermodulation. The brilliant counterpoint and rhythmic give-and-take between him and Bill was truly astounding. It’s still as fresh as ever today. That’s a quality of greatness that is very, very rare indeed!

    The world of jazz will miss his genius.


    • Charlton Price says

      Jack: “…searching lyricism, confidence, and tenderness, but alive and always in ‘the moment'” — splendidly appropriate descriptions of Jim’s art and character. I’ve been listening today to Two Jims and Zoot, Concierto and an “Indian Summer” with Art Farmer—more superb examples of Jim’s spirit that remain with us.

  14. Terence Smith says

    Playing with the angels now. As he always has, come to think of it.

    For my wife and me, listening to Jim Hall’s Concierto has always been a trip to the seaside. And the only thing that could follow it has been his rendition of the “Django (Variants on a Theme of John Lewis)” section of his “Piece for Guitar and Strings” from the Jazz Abstractions album.

    The Hall works with Evans, Desmond, Baker, Farmer, Rollins and his own groups are oceans we can all visit and travel in forever.

  15. Wayne Tucker says

    Years ago I bought the Desmond/Hall Mosaic collection, and it is one of the most treasured items in my collection. I listen to it a couple of times a year, and it remains as fresh and entertaining as anything by anyone. He and Desmond were, and are, a perfect pairing. I didn’t know too much about Hall until I received this set, but I came to appreciate his art through the years. His Undercurrents with Bill Evans is also a favorite. Jazz, and music in general, loses a great one. It’s good to have the recordings.

  16. Pete Peterson says

    I was playing in Vegas in 1970 and I was having some huge personal problems and a lot of depression. I found Undercurrents in the supermarket for .99 cents and when I played it my troubles faded. Jim Hall was a great player and a wonderful human being and he will be missed by many.

    • Terence Smith says


      I just listened to Jim Hall with Bill Evans, Freddie Hubbard, Percy Heath, and Philly Joe Jones doing “When You Wish Upon a Star” on Bill’s Interplay album. It’s so beautiful. No words for its effect. Definitely beneficial !

      Hall created such indelible memories, so many and so much. He seems to bring out the best in everybody,
      just naturally.

  17. Charlton Price says

    Sleepless at 4 am, I went to You Tube to find some Jim Hall I’d never heard or seen. Came upon an hour-long video, Jim Hall: A Life in Progress—commentary, vignettes, illustrative musical quotes, bio material, Jim explaining how he thinks metaphorically about music. Chats about and with Jim and John Lewis, Chico Hamilton, Pat Metheny, and many others. A wonderful addition to our celebration of Jim here on Rifftides.

  18. John Snyder says

    Jim left not only music behind when he finished the gig, he left an aesthetic, a “way”, a path. It was the way of the individual heart, of unencumbered truth, of listening and honesty and the responsibilities of self-expression. Even in his absence, his music breathes with life and selflessness, innocence and humor.

    Jim had more than ten fingers; it’s just that he just didn’t use them all. He knew that guitar playing often obscured the heart of the player and I think that’s what he meant when he said to his student, “don’t just do something, sit there”. There are fantastic instrumentalists in this world and it has always been thus, but there are only a few whose music and expression transcend the instrument and it becomes transparent, rather like the architectural drawings of a Frank Gehry building. Necessary and important, they and the technique they manifest disappear into the awe we feel inside the aesthetic experience they create.

    Jim was kind and funny and he loved irony. He fought with himself and won, he lived his life on his own terms and had no cynicism or bitterness about the music business that provided him with the occasional opportunity to share his music with us. He was always grateful for those opportunities and always made the most out of them. He loved the people he played music with (or had really good stories about them) and he loved the people he played for.

    Jim added to this world and to the lives of those his music touched. How will we miss our friend, who will be remembered for as long as there is music? With joy, with thankfulness and smiles on our faces.