William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

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4 Times Jim Hall Taught Me to be a Better Musician

It was with a heavy heart last December that I learned of the passing of Jim Hall, one of my musical idols. I learned a lot about music and the guitar by listening to him play, and in the following post I discuss 4 specific times that he taught me to be a better musician.

1. When He Taught Me That Accompanying Doesn't Just Mean Playing Chords

Jim Hall's tenure with Sonny Rollins's quartet was one of the most significant group involvements of his career, and the quartet's 1962 album The Bridge is widely regarded as their finest album. "Without a Song" is the first track on the album, and it's definitely one of my favorites. Listen to the way Jim Hall accompanies Sonny Rollins with contrapuntal single-note lines rather than chords. 

So How Can Jim Hall Teach Me to be a Better Musician?

The biggest lesson that we can learn from this is a lesson about our roles as musicians. The most basic elements of music are generally considered to be melodyharmony, and form. Within a jazz group, although every instrument is responsible for all three of these things, certain instruments traditionally lean closer to one than the others. For example, horns are typically seen as fulfilling melody roles. Rhythm section instruments such as piano, guitar, and vibes are typically seen as fulfilling harmonic roles. The drum set is seen as primarily expressing the music's form. These roles are stereotyped, yet they contain a lot of truth. However, what we can learn from Jim Hall is that these roles and stereotypes can be questioned, challenged, and tested. At the beginning of this track, Jim Hall's expression of his harmonic role clearly draws heavily upon the melodic element of music. Therefore, who's to say that your melodic role can't draw upon the harmonic and formal elements? Who's to say that your formal role can't draw heavily upon the melodic and harmonic elements? Think outside the box of your stereotyped role just as Jim Hall did!

2. And When He Then Quoted the "Without a Song" Melody in the Bridge to "In a Sentimental Mood"

Jazz musicians quote melodies for a variety of reasons:

  1. They're fun to play. Contrary to popular belief, most of the licks and patterns that jazz musicians "improvise" in a solo are ideas that have been worked-out and internalized in the practice room prior to performance. When we are speaking to one another, we are not inventing new words and sounds on the spot, but improvising the selection, order, and inflection of pre-spoken words and sounds. Similarly, when a jazz musician improvises a solo, he is improvising the selection, order, and musical inflection of pre-practiced patterns, licks, and phrases. Portions of famous melodies fall under the category of "pre-practiced patterns, licks, and phrases", and are just as enjoyable for jazz musicians to play as everything else they've worked out in the practice room. That is why portions of these melodies often "slip-out" during their improvised solos.
  2. They pay homage to the tradition. Many jazz musicians see quotations as a way of paying tribute to the long lineage of composers and performers that have come before them. Some licks reference repertoire and composers. When Jim Hall quotes Vincent Youmans's "Without a Song" in the bridge to "In a Sentimental Mood", it is as if he's tipping his cap to Vincent Youmans and his contribution to the repertoire of the Great American Songbook, the repertoire of which, in turn, has influenced jazz musicians ever since. Some licks make reference to performers. The improvised vocabulary of Charlie Parker, for example, was so unique during its time and had such an impact on the music, that elements of his language inescapably seeped into the playing of virtually every musician since, and can now be identified as "Charlie Parker licks". Some quotations have been used so much that they go beyond referencing a particular composer or performer, and reference the tradition of the lick more than anything else. These licks are usually famous enough to even have their own names! Take the "Cry Me a River" lick, for example. Originally, the idea was used in reference to the opening phrase of the Arthur Miller tune of the same name. However, the idea has been used so often and in so many contexts by so many performers that it really has a tradition of its own. So much so, that in his book Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improviser, saxophonist and pedagogue Jerry Coker devotes an entire chapter to the use of this lick in the jazz tradition.
  3. They're funny to hear. One thing that sometimes bothers or confuses non-musicians about watching a jazz performance is that jazz musicians often smile or laugh to one another throughout the course of a performance. Why do jazz musicians sometimes do this? It all has to do with musical expectation. When a piece of music is going along and something suddenly happens that is contrary to expectations of what is supposed to happen, the educated musician naturally feels a sense of amusement. They are amused because their educated expectation has been suspended or toyed with. This is what happens when a jazz musician quotes a tune/melody and everyone else in the band smiles or laughs. As a jazz musician, when you are listening to another jazz musician take an improvised solo, you are expecting them to take you on a special musical journey that is unique to them as a musical individual. What you are not expecting is for them to play or hint at a melody that you are intimately familiar with. That is why it is amusing.

So How Can Jim Hall Teach Me to be a Better Musician?

The biggest lesson that can be learned from this is one of being knowledgable and well-informed with your subject field. Jim Hall had such a deep and intimate knowledge of his subject field (which is, in this case, the jazz repertoire and vocabulary) that he was able to reference the melody of one tune over the chord progression to a completely different tune. This is clearly evidence of a highly skilled, smart, and well-informed individual. With this in mind, ask yourself, "How easily am I able to do this?" If not, why do you think that is?

Do you need to learn more tunes? When it comes to increasing the amount of melodies and harmonic progressions you have floating around your head at any given time, nothing can be better than just sitting down and committing more of them to memory.

Do you need to listen to more music? Although you may not be able to play it through having it ingrained in your muscle memory, being familiar with something by having heard it is the first step toward being able to execute it on your instrument. The more melodies you learn and the better you train your ears at being able to hear melodies, the better you get at being able to play them on your instrument spontaneously without having to "work them out" ahead of time. Think of all the melodies you are intimately familiar with yet may not have necessarily practiced on your instrument: "Happy Birthday", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", "Oh Susanna", "Amazing Grace", etc. Would you be able to play any of these on your instrument? Would you be able to work them into a set of jazz chord changes?

Try it! It's fun, amusing, and pays homage to the great musical tradition(s) you are a part of. And speaking of musical traditions, sometimes it's most fun to juxtapose two musical styles in your quotes. Check out this clip of Brad Mehldau quoting "Maybe" from the musical Annie on the Thelonious Monk tune "Monk's Dream"


3. When He Taught Me the Power of Silence

Around the time Jim Hall was a member of Sonny Rollins's quartet, the guitarist was also a member of another piano-less quartet, this one led by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. In this version of "Out of Nowhere", listen to the effect created by Jim Hall in his decision to lay out on the first chorus of Paul Desmond's solo. After playing during the intro and melody, Hall's decision to rest for the next 32 bars creates a very powerful and zen-like presence. It's almost as if you notice him more when he suddenly stops playing!

So How Can Jim Hall Teach Me to be a Better Musician?

The biggest lesson that can be learned from this is the power of negative space. Oftentimes as musicians we can be so concerned with how the notes we're playing are affecting the music, that we don't even think about how we can affect the music by not playing anything. Listen again to the first chorus of Paul Desmond's solo. The anticipation that Jim Hall creates by choosing to lay out is almost unbearable! You can learn a lot from this feeling of anxiousness you get when hanging on a player's every note. It helps show you how powerful silence can be. 

4. When He Taught Me To Listen and React

One of my favorite cross-sections of Jim Hall's recorded output is the material he recorded with bass player Ron Carter. Hall and Carter are both such amazing and fluid improvisers that it's almost as if you can hear them musically "thinking" together in real time. On the following version of "Autumn Leaves", listen to the way Jim Hall quickly changes gears at the beginning of his solo to follow a rhythmic idea that he hears Ron Carter play.

So How Can Jim Hall Teach Me to be a Better Musician?

The biggest lesson that can be learned from this is the importance of listening and reacting to the musicians around you. To me, there are three ways to to do this:

  1. Copying. This approach to reaction involves mimicking a player's ideas by copying elements such as rhythm, interval size/direction, timbre, register, etc. This approach is the most obvious and "knee-jerk" means of reacting in the heat of the moment. For this reason, it's an approach that is easily overdone, and too much of it can give off an immature "following the leader" effect. However, in small doses, and when done in a musically sensible way, it can be very effective. This is primarily what Jim Hall and Ron Carter are doing at the beginning of Hall's solo.
  2. Complimenting. This approach involves making decisions that will enhance another's ideas without necessary copying them verbatim. This approach can be combined with the copying approach to create a more mature and sensitive approach to reaction. Listen to the way Jim Hall and Ron Carter are also complimenting each others rhythmic ideas by using a variety of interval sizes and by changing the direction of the intervals.
  3. Contrasting. The opposite of copying, this approach involves making a conscious decision to employ contrasting musical ideas as a means of reaction. This is a good approach to take during those moments when there are multiple people copying a certain idea that you want to react to, but you don't want to jump on the bandwagon and have "too many cooks in the kitchen". I find myself using this approach when I want to react to a rhythmic motif that someone is using, given the fact that repeated rhythmic motifs are particularly hard to resist copying! For example, if someone in the band is playing a succession of quick and jagged syncopated rhythms, rather than trying to mimic them, contrast what they are doing by playing long and sustained rhythms. This will create more balance in the music and will avoid the cluttered "too many cooks in the kitchen" effect.

These are just four important lessons I learned from the musical genius of Jim Hall. What did he teach you? Feel free to leave your comments below!