Learning jazz improvisation

A few days ago, writing about bank bonuses, I talked about the skills needed to get-things-done, a form of intelligence I believe is distinct (and rarer than) other, better-known forms — mathematical, linguistic, emotional, etc. There are in fact many skill sets and forms of intelligence which don’t feature prominently in our text-biased culture. One of these is musical intelligence, and I have come across a fascinating description of taking jazz improvisation and composition lessons from pianist and composer Hall Overton (1920-1972), written by Jack Reilly (1932-2018):

The cigarette dangled out the right side of his mouth, the smoke rising causing his left eye to squint, the ashes from the burning bush got longer and longer, poised precipitously to fall at any moment on the keyboard. Hall always sat at the upright piano smoking, all the while playing, correcting, and making comments on my new assighment, exercises in two-part modern counterpoint. I was perched on a rickety chair to his left, listening intensely to his brilliant exegesis, waiting in vain for the inch-long+ cigarette ash to fall. The ashes never fell! Hall instinctively knew the precise moment to stop playing , take the butt out of his mouth and flick the ashes in the tray on the upright piano to his left. He would then throw the butt in the ash tray and immediately light another cigarette. His concentration and attention to every detail of my assighment made him unaware that he never took a serious puff on the bloody cigarette. I think the cigarette was his “prop” so to speak, his way of creating obstacles that tested my concentration on what he was saying. In other words, Hall was indirectly teaching me to block out any external distractions when doing my music, even when faced with a comedic situation like wondering when the cigarette ashhes would fall on the upright keyboard or even on his tie. Yes, Hall wore a tie, and a shirt and a jacket. All memories of Hall Overton by his former students 9 times out ot 10 begin with the Ashes to Ashes situation. A champion chain smoker and indeed, a master ash flickerer, never once dirtying the floor, piano or his professorial attire.

Hall Overton, composer, jazz pianist, advocate/activist for the New Music of his time and a lover of Theolonius Monk’s music, was my teacher for one year beginning in 1957. I first heard about him from a fellow classmate at the Manhattan School of Music, which at that time was located on East 103rd street, between 2nd and 3rd avenue, an area then known as Spanish Harlem. This chap was playing in one of the basement practice rooms where I heard him playing Duke Jordan’s “Jordu”. I liked what I heard so much so I asked him where he learned to play that way. Hall Overton, was his reply. I took down Hall’s number, called him and said I wanted to take jazz piano lessons. He sounded warm and gracious over the phone which made me feel relaxed because I was nervous about playing for him. I had been playing jazz gigs and casuals since my teens but still felt light years away from my vision of myself as a complete jazz pianist. Hall was going to push the envelope. We set up weekly lessons.

Hall taught in his 2nd story loft located on 6th Avenue between 26th and 27th street. The New York Times did a feature article on the building last March, 8th, 2005.

He greeted me with his warm smile and asked me to play anything I wanted for him. I chose “Tangerine”, a favorite jam session tune. He liked what I did and immediately gave me a basic approach to the 3-note voicing concept plus melody, for arranging any song so that it sounded full and sonorous. He then had me listen to a lot of Horace Silver and imitate his style. Horace had just recorded a new trio LP and Hall made me transcribe one of Horace’s songs, “Ecaroh” and arrange it using the 3-note concept. Each week I was assigned a tune to learn by ear but he would also write out a Monk tune for me. (I still have the piano chart for Monk’s “Criss Cross”). I had to memorize everything. He always demonstrated at the piano what he taught. The biggest surprise after a few weeks of lessons was graduating to playing with a bass and drums at the lessons. People like Joe Hunt, Chuck Israels, Steve Little, Chuck Andrus, Teddy Kotick and other top players on the New York jazz scene were invited by Hall to play at my lesson and accompany me on my repertoire assignments. Hall knew that learning to play jazz piano meant more than practicing alone; it meant interacting, playing/jamming with others, but above all learning to listen to what’s going on around you!

I was constantly challenged with difficult Monk tunes to learn and more advanced voicing concepts which I had to practice in all keys and from all 12 roots. One interesting exercise Hall showed me was to take only one note and think/hear it as the melody note, then harmonize it in all possible ways, using all appropriate chord qualities. That was revelatory. It taught me to hear the same melody note as different parts of the chord, for example, as the root, the flatted ninth, the ninth, the sharped ninth etc., etc., etc.
Hall also assigned the Paul Hindemith “Elementary Training for Musicians” manual. I knew the book because I was already practising it. In 1956 I toured the country with the then popular Art Mooney big band. We played the Aragon ballroom in Chicago for 4 weeks, 3 hours a night, 6 nights a week, $140 per week. So in the morning I studied/practiced the Hindemith book and then jammed with the bass player the rest of the day. The Hindemith book is a complete course in ear training that leaves no stone unturned. Each chapter includes sight-singing plus rhythmic studies that trains you to read two different rhythmic lines at once dividing them between the hands. Other exercises combined melodic and rhythmic figures. Here you had to sing the melody while at the same time tapping the rhythm; first with the right hand then with the left. By the end of the book one was fluent with all the 5 clefs needed for orchestral and string quartet score reading; Soprano, Alto Tenor, Treble and Bass clefs.  This book trains the student/musician to read, hear and imagine anything on manuscript and in your mind’s ear.

I got to know the composing side of Hall and after 3 months of jazz piano I asked him if I could take composition lessons. I showed him my piano sonata. He liked it and said, ” let’s begin”. The first thing he had me do was buy the Bartok String Quartet scores and recordings. He taught me to follow the scores, one instrument at a time, as I listened to the recording. We continued to thoroughly analyse all six quartets.

Concurrent with the Bartok quartet assignments, Hall started me on counterpoint studies. He explained all the contrapuntal devices; augmentation, diminution, retrograde, imitation, canons at the unison, second, third, fifth, etc. He always composed all examples on the spot. I was assigned first to compose in 2-parts, progressing to 3 then to 4-part counterpoint. I must have written a total of 1000 exercises for him. He would sight read them all, comment, flick the ashes and light up another Camel and make the next assignment!!
Then we started the study of polytonalty. This led to an analysis of the piano music of Darius Milhaud. Hall studied with Milhaud. All my composition and jazz assignments were presented in an orderly fashion. Nothing was haphazard with Hall. He methodically covered every possible theoretical point when presenting a new concept, always composing examples on the spot and then assigning the homework! His teachings led from the simple to the complex and sometimes, the reverse. After 3 months of Bartok, counterpoint, and polytonal exercises, Hall said why don’t you compose your first piece with me, and let’s start with applying and using the polytonal concepts. The work turned out to be a 3-movement piano suite that included improvisational segments as part the structure. He was pleased. I titled it “La-No-Tib Suite”. Ten years later I composed a bass and drum part to expand the score into a trio piece. I included this new version on my debut recording, “Blue Sean Green”. Ten years after that my wife, Carol Lian, recorded the original 1957 piano score on her debut LP, “Carol Lian Plays”. She learned to improvise by studying this piece. We might say that Hall’s teaching had left its mark on Carol, indirectly influencing her career, pushing her creative instincts in a certain unexpected direction. Because later on she recorded two cds, in duo, with the percussionist Ronnie Bedford, all totally improvised, free-form music!!! Great teaching continues its spell.

I had been studying the piano music of Ravel before I met Hall so he suggested we tackle the orchestral and chamber music of both impressionistic geniuses, Debussy and Ravel. This led to my first chamber work, a trio for violin, viola and cello. It was a tough assignment or so I had thought. I discovered I was able to conceive the work mentally without recourse to the piano as a crutch. I owe this to Hall’s insistence on developing the ear, intuition and the imagination, all at the same time. Of course it helped being a jazz player and a free form improvisor. It meant that my inner hearing was advanced enough to give me the confidence to compose a String Trio. Each week I’d bring in pages of the trio composition in progress; I was amazed at the ease at which Hall was able to sight read my score in his head, and then play it on the piano to demonstrate what was not quite right. He’d then make suggestions in pencil, all the while smoking, flicking, ashes to ashes.

Hall was involved with Max Polikoff, a free lance, highly respected, New York violinist/composer, who conducted “readings” for budding composers. They were held uptown at Columbia College and open to the public. All kinds of scores were played, even jazz oriented classically conceived pieces were accepted. Hall got a committment from Polikoff to have my string trio played at a session but unfortuately I didn’t have the parts copied on time!! I had to copy them myself and it was a tortuous task. On the night my reading was scheduled I was still copying parts in the men’s bathroom, no less. ‘Tis true!! Hall came looking for me and was in stiches laughing at me stuggling to get the copying done on time. Alas, there was no time left. The concert ended without me getting a reading. My tight schedule precluded getting another chance at the Polikoff “readings”. From that point on, I decided to always hire a copyist to have parts ready on time. Later I had some money to hire some string players to read my trio score in private. Of course I recorded it for study purposes. Hall was pleased with the work. And so was I. We had worked hard together on this piece, so chock full of Ravel’s and Debusst’s influences. It was my “impressionistic” period. And now I was ready to move on.

Throughout the year with Hall, he never once admitted to or voiced a negative thought about the scarcity of venues for new music and the difficulty of getting one’s music heard. He encouraged me to follow through on all assignments; he introduced me to players, conductors; he invited me to join him at new music concerts, especially when he had his own works played. For an “emerging composer like my self, it was a thrill-and-a-half to be sitting next to Hall, my guru of a teacher and hearing his work performed on stage, seeing him smile as he listed and then taking a bow; such inspirational jolts, wow!! However, the most generous gift he gave me was his time, eight months of free lessons. I hit a dry period during 1957, from April to December. I called and told Hall I had to stop studying because of financial pressures. He wouldn’t hear of it!! He said, “Don’t you worry about paying me, just keep coming. Just keep writing and work hard”. I’ll never ever forget that kindness.  It indirectly natured my ego, made me more dedicated and gave me reserve confidence in my musical talents.

Hall was teaching composition and theory at the Juillard School of Music during my period with him but he never talked about those classes. He was always busy playing, composing, recordong and jamming with different jazz cats like Jimmy Raney, Phil Woods, Teddy Charles and later in 1957 he came up with the Music Minus One concept and recorded the very first Music Minus One album, complete with scores for piano, bass, drums, and alto sax.. One side was MMO and the other was with a quartet playing and interpreting how the charts should sound. The LP even included transcriptions of the improvised alto solos by Phil Woods.

Hall’s love of Monk found him accepting an invitation by Monk to arrange his music for Big Band at a concert that was held at Town Hall, 1959, NYC and repeated with new arrangements in 1961. These concerts were recorded and they now rank as two of the most important recordings of all time, along side of the 1957 Brandeis University Concert that gave us George Russell’s “All About Rosie”, (with the remarkable solo by Bill Evans), Charles Mingus’ “Revelations” for Symphony Orchestra and other commissioned works by Jimmy Giuffre, Milton Babbitt, Howard Shelley and Gunther Schuller. Schuller also conducted all the works.

Hall also found time to moderate a PBS TV weekly Jazz series in the 60’s. It was broadcast from the New School For Social Research, now The New School University. Each jazz guest spoke about their work, interviewed by Hall and offered plenty of time to perform their original music. I wonder what shelf or warehouse those tapes are rotting away in ? “Tis a pity if they are.

Hall Overton’s energy, genius and creativity were boundless. I’ll forever be grateful for having been part of his teaching legacy and am truly blessed for being encourged by this intense, kind, generous man with a highly complex mind and a fascinating persona. He was definately a musical genius. It was a year that changed my life and thinking forever!! Hall died in 1972. I miss him!!“

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