Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 59 - Jim Hall's Early Influences
Story filed November 1, 2000

Jim Hall Jim Hall, now considered a world grandmaster of the jazz guitar, had his earliest musical influences in Greater Cleveland. Only a few months after he was born in Buffalo, New York September 4, 1930, his family moved to Geneva in Lake County. They lived on his uncle's farm.

"The first music I heard," said Hall, "was my uncle Ed playing the guitar and sort of singing country songs. My mom played the piano a little bit. She kind of played church music on the piano and she had what I guess is the good sense to buy me a guitar when I was a kid. I started playing at about 13."

After living on his uncle's farm for a year, Hall's parents split up and his mother brought her two sons to Cleveland where they lived in various rooming houses. She supported the boys by working as a secretary at a Cleveland tool company. When Jim was 10, they moved into a new WPA housing project, Woodhill Homes, at East 96th and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland.

When his mother bought him a guitar, he began taking lessons and listening to records of jazz guitarists. "I heard Charlie Christian on records with Benny Goodman," said Hall. So I started trying to learn how to improvise and how to do what you call 'jazz.'"

Looking back to his youth in the early 1940s, Hall said hearing Charlie Christian playing guitar "was instant addiction." He said the experience literally changed his life. "I felt pretty sure," said Hall, "I wanted to become a musician." Five and a half decades later, after he had been acclaimed as one of the all-time jazz guitar masters, Hall said he was still amazed by the 1941 recordings of Charlie Christian. "I wasn't even sure what it was that Christian was doing," said Hall, "but I said to myself, 'That's great, I want to be able to do that!"

While he was still a teenager and attending Cleveland's John Adams High School, Hall began taking lessons from Cleveland guitarist Fred Sharp. It was Sharp who persuaded Hall to stay in school and introduced Hall to the records of another now-legendary jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who, at the age of 10, had been badly burned in a fire and lost the use of two fingers on his fret hand.

Inspired by Christian and Reinhardt, young Jim Hall began playing with a teenage band in Cleveland. He later recalled, "My mom felt that I should get a real job. Jazz music was a little too sexy or emotional or something for her. She didn't like me playing in he nightclubs when I was 13, which I was doing. I can't blame her for that." She wanted him to concentrate on classical music.

After graduating from high school, Hall applied to the Cleveland Institute of Music in University Circle. "It was a great decision," said Hall, "a conscious decision that I made. I was there for five years and I majored in music theory. So I had five years of counterpoint and music theory and I heard all kinds of music from Gregorian chants all the way up through electronic music."

But, while studying at CIM, Hall continued playing weekend jazz gigs around Cleveland and frequently ran into the relatives of Joe Lovano, the Clevelander who in the 1990s became the Jazz Artist of the Year for two consecutive years. "I knew his dad, Tony Lovano, and his uncle, Carl Lovano," remembered Hall. "Carl was a trumpet player and Tony, his dad, was a tenor player."

In 1955, after getting his masters degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Hall said on a video produced by his wife that he decided to concentrate on jazz. With a friend, he set out for California. He said, "A saxophone player named Ray Graziano and I drove this lavender Cadillac convertible to Los Angeles from Cleveland" for someone who wanted the car delivered to California.

In Los Angeles, Hall stayed at the home of his 90 year old great aunt, got a job in a used sheet music store. He soon found himself playing with drummer Chico Hamilton. Hall remembered, "A French horn player called me to rehearse with them for a quartet. It was one of those things of being at the right place at the right time. Chico Hamilton called and said, 'I'm looking for a guitar player.' John said, 'I just happen to have one.' It must have been the next day or so, I went over to Chico's house and auditioned and I got a job with Chico Hamilton who was forming a new quintet."

While playing for a year and a half with Hamilton, Hall began to impress a number of important jazz musicians and later joined the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. "Evidently Jim heard me play. He invited me to join his new trio that he was starting." Hall called playing with Giuffre "a great experience" and said "it really incorporated a lot of the stuff that I had been exposed to in music school (in Cleveland)."

The Clevelander's career as a jazz guitarist was off and running. He would later accompany Ella Fitzgerald and team up on albums with Ben Webster, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins -- all based on the inspiration he had gotten in Cleveland listening to the records of the immortals, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

Copyright 2000 Joe Mosbrook

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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).