Obituary: Jim Hall / Jazz guitarist admired by peers, critics, fans

Dec. 4, 1930 - Dec. 10, 2013

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Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist who for more than 50 years was admired by critics, aficionados and especially his fellow musicians for his impeccable technique and the warmth and subtlety of his playing, died Tuesday at his home in New York City. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Jane, said.

The list of important musicians with whom Mr. Hall worked was enough to earn him a place in jazz history. It includes pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded two acclaimed duet albums, and singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, drummer Chico Hamilton and bassist Ron Carter, his frequent partner in a duo.

But with his distinctive touch, his inviting sound and his finely developed sense of melody, Mr. Hall made it clear early in his career that he was an important musician in his own right.

He was an influential one as well. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield are among the numerous younger guitarists who acknowledge him as an inspiration. Mr. Hall, who never stopped being open to new ideas and new challenges, worked at various times with all three.

An album Mr. Hall recorded with Mr. Metheny, "Jim Hall & Pat Metheny" (1999), was partially recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh.

In his later years, Mr. Hall composed many pieces for large ensembles, drawing on both his jazz roots and his classical training. Works like "Quartet Plus Four," for jazz quartet and string quartet, and "Peace Movement," a concerto for guitar and orchestra, were performed internationally and widely praised.

If the critics tended to use the same words over and over to describe Mr. Hall's playing -- graceful, understated, fluent -- that was as much a tribute to his consistency as to his talent.

James Stanley Hall was born Dec. 4, 1930, in Buffalo, N.Y., to Stanley and the former Louella Cowles, and spent most of his early years in Cleveland. He started guitar at age 10 and began playing professionally in his teens.

Like most of his guitar-playing peers, he was influenced by the first two great jazz guitar soloists: Charlie Christian, best known for his work with Benny Goodman, and the Belgian Gypsy Django Reinhardt. But he derived as much inspiration from saxophone players as he did from other guitarists.

While studying music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Mr. Hall played guitar on weekends "but wasn't all that involved in jazz," he said in an interview found on his website. His plan was to become a composer and teach on the side. But shortly after he graduated in 1955 and began studying for a master's degree at the institute, that plan changed.

Moving to Los Angeles, where he studied classical guitar, he became a charter member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, one of the first and most successful exemplars of the soft-spoken style known as cool jazz. (Hamilton died last month.)

Mr. Hall attracted further attention in the early 1960s when Sonny Rollins, a major saxophone star returning to music after a long hiatus, chose him to be in his new quartet.

After a low-profile but lucrative television stint in the "Merv Griffin Show" band in the mid-1960s, Mr. Hall focused on leading his own groups.


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