Jazz Master in a Low Key

Jazz Master in a Low Key

In jazz, all fame is strictly relative. Jim Hall, the greatest living jazz guitarist, has been making records for close to a half-century. He's worked with everybody from Sonny Rollins to Pat Metheny and played everywhere from the Village Vanguard to the White House. His colleagues view him with something approaching outright awe. But Mr. Hall, like most jazz musicians, is unknown to the public at large -- a fact that doesn't seem to bother him in the least. "It's a privilege to be able to make a living playing jazz," he says firmly. "Not too many people listen to me, but maybe I'd be nervous if I were a million-seller. I'd say, uh-oh, I did something wrong."

To be sure, Mr. Hall, who turns 73 next month, is nobody's idea of a natural celebrity. Bald, bespectacled and soft-spoken to a fault, he looks less hip than shyly professorial. (A well-read art lover, he has written a thoughtful book called "Exploring Jazz Guitar" in which he suggests that jazz musicians could learn from looking at the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner.) His intensely intimate music gets under your skin rather than grabbing you by the lapels.

"Playing music is its own reward." Jim Hall says he's not in it for the money, but the NEA's check will be welcome.

Given sufficient time, though, such artists have a way of evening the odds. Today, the National Endowment for the Arts names Mr. Hall an NEA Jazz Master, an honor accompanied by a check for $25,000. The Baltimore Symphony will premiere his latest composition, an as-yet-untitled piece for jazz guitar and orchestra, in June. And the long-unavailable "Jim Hall Live," one of his most important albums, was finally reissued on CD earlier this year by Verve. Not too shabby for a player's player.

Like all great jazz musicians, Mr. Hall has a sound as recognizable as the voice of a friend. His floating, fine-grained tone is smooth and edgeless, his wide-spaced harmonies subtly oblique. A charged hush settles over the noisiest of nightclubs when he plays standard ballads like "All the Things You Are," sneaking up on their familiar melodies as if to capture them unawares. Yet he is no less happy to jump head first into the deep end of an unpremeditated group improvisation, and the nine superbly varied CDs he has recorded since 1994 for Telarc (he especially likes "Dedications and Inspirations" and "Textures") suggest that advancing age has made him more daring than ever.

"My playing used to be a little bit conservative, but I think I've gained courage," Mr. Hall explains. "It's not that I'm playing better. I certainly don't have more chops. I guess it's just lack of fear! I just basically don't give a damn now. I feel I'm OK. Miles Davis was a hero of mine in a lot of ways, and I always figured Miles was kind of like Picasso -- he just sort of kept letting himself grow. That's what I'm trying to do, let myself grow. Sort of like a painter, or a writer. I don't want to live in the past."

Not unlike Mr. Hall himself, the Jazz Masters awards, established in 1982, are little known save among musicians, and have heretofore been given out on what appeared to be a near-arbitrary basis. Now, however, the NEA is making a major push to heighten the profile of the program, increasing both the size of the cash prize and the number of recipients. Mr. Hall's fellow laureates for 2004 include Chico Hamilton, Herbie Hancock, Nancy Wilson, arranger-composer Luther Henderson and Nat Hentoff, the first jazz critic to be named a Jazz Master (and a frequent contributor to this page). In addition, the awards ceremony and concert, set for Jan. 23, will be telecast, and Verve plans to release a two-CD set of recorded performances by some of the 73 recipients. All this is heartening news for the practitioners of what NEA Chairman Dana Gioia calls "one of America's greatest contributions to world culture," especially since jazz has been largely squeezed out of the mass media in recent years.

Press quotes

Mr. Hall has a technique equivalent to that of any classical guitar soloist and an electronics kit that could out-tech any rock 'n' roller, but his music is strictly jazz.

- Will Friedwald, The New York Sun

...Hall and his colleagues - bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash - have developed a level of rapport second to none...The superb interplay made it hard to believe this music was being created on the spot, without the benefit of a written score... the three openly exchanged ideas in one poetic dialogue after another...

- Chuck Obuchowski, The Hartford Courant

"His intensely intimate music gets under your skin rather than grabbing you by the lapels....Mr. Hall has a sound as recognizable as the voice of a friend. His floating, fine-grained tone is smooth and edgeless, his wide-spaced harmonies subtly oblique."

- Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal

"Jim Hall is the reigning master of the jazz guitar. This poetic player says more with fewer notes than any living improviser."

- The New Yorker

"A master of understatement, Hall is one of jazz's most respected improvisers, an artist who wields his guitar like a paintbrush, shaping and shading each note to achieve just the right hue and texture. Modest and soft-spoken, he has inspired two generations of jazz musicians with his vast harmonic knowledge and restless musical curiosity."

- Andrew Gilbert, San Jose Mercury News

"His work speaks as much to the human condiction as any artist past or present, and if one looks and listens attentively, there are great rewards to be found there."

- Victor Magnani, All About Jazz

"Mr. Hall's dry-toned guitar playing with its discrete, deliberate notes and sliding chords works like a bluesy telegraph signal."

- Ben Ratliff, The New York Times

"Since 1955, Hall, jazz' most lyrical and harmonically fertile guitarist, has jousted with top jazz stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Sonny Rollins. And his approach has shaped a younger generation of guitar heroes, from Metheny to Bill Frisell."

- Gene Santoro, New York Daily News