A Fickle Sonance
a column by
The 50th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall concert (February 28, 1959) has come and gone, with some notice in the press and some musical activity – trumpeter Charles Tolliver put together a tentet to perform the original charts with as much fidelity as possible (solos, of course, notwithstanding), and pianist Jason Moran used the occasion to present a multi-media event that apparently (I didn’t see it) alluded to the concert in musical and symbolic fashion without attempting a literal recreation, while including excepts of rehearsal tapes, photos, and other found material from the W. Eugene Smith archive uncovered several years ago. (In case you missed it, Smith was a well-known photographer and jazz fan who shared a several-story loft on Sixth Avenue with painter David X. Young and musicians Dick Cary and Hall Overton. Between 1957 and ’65 he made approximately 4,000 hours of surreptitious tape recordings at the loft, everything from hours of cats meowing and random street sounds to historically invaluable jam sessions, rehearsals, and conversations – most importantly, those in preparation for the Town Hall concert. The tapes are in the process of being preserved and archived by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. According to Ben Ratliff [New York Times, March 10, 2005] and others who have listened to at least a portion of the relevant material, the tapes of Monk and arranger/orchestrator Overton discussing the music and sounding out details at two pianos reveal just how much of a collaboration it was, and the intimate and thorough working relationship the two shared.)
The ’59 concert, as everyone knows, was a huge success; the recording (Riverside/OJC) is one of jazz’s greatest treasures. Overton subsequently worked with Monk on his Philharmonic Hall concert of December 1963 (available on Columbia), and a third (unrecorded?) performance in 1966 (Martin Williams’ down beat article “Rehearsing with Monk,” which chronicles a rehearsal for this concert, has been reprinted in both his Jazz Heritage [Oxford] and Jazz Masters In Transition [Da Capo] collections). On a personal note, my small link in this chain occurred in 1986 when, as a member of the Chicago Jazz Festival programming committee, I suggested we present a recreation of the Town Hall concert. I contacted trumpeter and score-scholar Don Sickler, who was in charge of the Monk estate and let us know that only the 1963 charts were available at that time. We put together as close an ensemble to that of the Philharmonic Hall concert as we could, with three-fourths of the saxophone section present – Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods, and Steve Lacy – along with trombonist Eddie Bert. We wanted to have Pepper Adams, who played in ’59 but not ’63, play the baritone sax part, but he was too ill to participate and in fact passed away two weeks after the festival. (If you’re curious to know, we had Mal Waldron in the piano chair.) Like Martin Williams, I was privy to a rehearsal, though never wrote about it – the commitment and enthusiasm of the musicians was certainly worth documenting, but several of the stories I heard in between run-throughs are better left unpublished. The next night, out in Grant Park at the free-to-the-public festival, I was emcee, and had to literally beg the stage manager not to cut off the performance at the appointed closing time – a big deal in heavily unionized Chicago – so that the band could conclude with “Four in One,” the hardest chart of all and the one they had sweated bullets over getting right in rehearsal. We went overtime; it was a phenomenal night.
So all of this – the 50th anniversary revisitations, the ’86 miracle, the ’66, ’63, and ’59 concerts – is now history, and what remains? The recordings, blissfully, thankfully. Monk’s genius, which is manifest and lasting. But what about Hall Overton? Shouldn’t this have been an opportunity to remind ourselves of who he was, and of his not-inconsiderable accomplishment? True, he receives credit, usually a line or at most two, in every article about Monk’s big band experiences. But what about his career separate from this, his most famous footnote? There is almost nothing written about him– or, if it exists, nothing accessible, online or off – beyond a basic, one-page bio. I know, I’ve looked. That bio shrinks his jazz credentials, other than the Monk connection, down to a single sentence, mentioning a few names he once performed with: Stan Getz, Duke Jordan, Jimmy Raney, Teddy Charles. And even that contains an error; to my knowledge, he never recorded with Duke Jordan, but one of his sessions happened to share an LP with one of Jordan’s sessions. Then there is a vague reference to his “classical compositions,” and a detail about an opera, Huckleberry Finn, performed just before he died in 1972. No discography, no list of compositions. If you search around, you might find a very warm remembrance of Overton as a teacher by the pianist Jack Reilly ( www.sequenza21.com/2006/07/hall-overton-ashes-to-ashes.html). And that’s about it.
The internet is loaded with names of successful musicians who studied with him, either at the Juilliard School or privately, most notably Steve Reich, who, like Reilly, has nothing but praise for him as an instructor of music, specifically composition. A great teacher he may have been, but his reputation shouldn’t be limited to that. Overton, and the music he left behind, deserve much more. His career in American music is all-but-unique in the way he balanced – as a performer and creator – jazz and classical music without diluting or confusing them. His jazz résumé, Monk aside, is impressive on its own; I happen to feel his compositions – those few I’ve been able to hear – are something special.
Where to begin? Well, in 1953 Overton was thirty-three, out of the Army, with degrees from Chicago Musical College and Juilliard, and had begun teaching at the latter. Among his students were drummer and vibist Teddy Charles (formerly Cohen) and guitarist Jimmy Raney. Both were young professional musicians with recording contracts; working with Overton expanded their vision (Charles called Overton his mentor). In January, Charles, Overton, and drummer Ed Shaughnessy recorded four remarkable original pieces under the title New Directions (Prestige) – remarkable because they’re not really jazz, but constructions that explore new methods of organization from an improvisational perspective, equally informed by classical procedures. (You can’t call them Third Stream, Gunther Schuller wouldn’t coin the term for several years.) Though all four pieces are attributed to Overton, liner note annotator Ira Gitler said that one, “Metalizing,” was devised by Charles. None of the pieces “swing” in a conventional way; the rhythms are sometimes regulated by a snare drum pattern or predetermined melodic material, but for the most part jostle through freely phrased development of motifs, which provides momentum. Typically, the piano (Overton) and vibes (Charles) engage in complimentary linear counterpoint; in “Antiphony” their lines take on a modal cast, with the kind of large intervals favored by Webern and Eric Dolphy, and in “Decibels” the three-part interaction never resolves into a single-minded composition, but maintains its jazz identity as a trio conception. “Metalizing” includes timbral juxtapositions – the piano is pedaled so chords resonate, Shaughnessy focuses on cymbal washes, Charles switches from vibes to xylophone and glockenspiel to alter colors. Nothing in jazz was comparable at the time.
Overton’s association with Raney was more traditional, but hardly routine. In April ’53 they recorded four tunes – Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight” and three Raney originals with elongated, twisting Tristano-like themes (one is dedicated to “Lee”) – inspiring fluid, inventive solos from Stan Getz and Raney’s guitar striking like a snake uncoiling. Thirteen months later, in a quartet setting Raney replaced the saxophone by overdubbing his guitar; they recorded again nine months after that, adding trumpeter John Wilson for a program of mostly standards. In all three sessions, Overton offers modest, restrained, almost unobtrusive solos. He once remarked that Bud Powell, Monk, and Horace Silver were his three favorite pianists, but you won’t hear their echoes here. Never flashy, his comping is always supportive, but his improvisations remain in a comfort zone, examining melodic variables of the chord voicings, feinting at harmonic implications, but never venturing too far afield. Moreover, his even-noted phrasing seldom splurges into double-time or exaggerated accents. This remains consistent in sessions with Phil Woods and even a rare two-piano date with Dave McKenna (for Bethlehem), up until 1960, after which he seems to have curtailed his jazz gigs, perhaps due to a heavy teaching schedule. One exception, however, is a woefully forgotten ’57 trio recording with Teddy Charles and bassist Oscar Pettiford, Three For Duke (Jubilee), where he exhibits a crisp, almost stabbing touch and broad, bright, clashing voicings, especially on “Main Stem.” In this album of Ellington covers, Overton adopts some of Duke’s keyboard aggression, and makes the connection to Monk’s attack that much more obvious.
During this same period, somewhere between 1954 and ’57, Overton composed a string quartet, his second, for the Beaux Arts Quartet (recorded for CRI). It features lovely melodic writing – winding chromatic contours, with the flavor of Roy Harris-school of American modality blended with a tinge of Debussy/Ravel and a jolt of Bartok. Overton’s attitude towards the difference between improvisation and composition is revealed here; more of his personality emerges though his ability to control the relationship of all four instruments. He weaves them together, finds common harmonizing agents in a melancholy vein, then in the second movement allows quicker adjustments, abrupt modulating shifts, extensions of motifs. Every detail is finely crafted and flows together, concluding with a descending theme adapted from the Allegro of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. This is a wise and wonderful score.
Bartok’s music was an important prototype for jazz musicians, mid-century; William Russo once told me how he and Lee Konitz devoured the string quartets during the time he was composing An Image, likewise, Jimmy Raney dedicated a movement of his Suite for Guitar Quintet to his inspiration. Overton’s debt to Bartok returns in the concise Sonorities, composed in the early ‘60s for John Lewis’ Orchestra USA (Columbia), where big band-style riffs are set against string glisses and indistinct harmonies. After this introductory section, Richard Davis’ bass leads into a fantasy of varied and fragmented orchestral comments, with edgy confrontations set against a laidback mood, and no continuous melodic development. Possibly that same year (1962?), Overton composed his Symphony No. 2 in One Movement (Louisville/First Edition); the first had been commissioned by the prestigious Koussevitzky Foundation. Once more, his sensitive palette of colors is on display; quiet brass and winds cooling a hazy harmonic string opening, with vibes and percussion prevalent – an acknowledgement of his old friend and collaborator? The music searches for resolution, through a sequence of rising and falling declarations until suppressed by a busy, interactive environment; instruments come and go as textures thin out and thicken, building towards an ultimate conclusion with the kind of tense counterpoint William Schuman provoked in his symphonic writing.
The last work Overton apparently completed was Pulsations (1972, CRI), which perhaps surprisingly returns to his early ‘50s disruption and dislocation of jazz and classical procedures. Brisk rhythms and isolated “solos” suggest the loose syncopation and spontaneity of jazz, instruments chatter, a bass line accompanied by drum kit slides into a Schuller-like noirish feel – and then suddenly Stravinsky takes over. Brusque trombone and staggered brass, calming but ominous string sighs, all small, abstracted, yet recognizable similarities to The Rite of Spring impede the music’s progress. The jazziness returns as tempos quicken. There’s an amusing, entertaining veneer to Pulsations (the moody middle section notwithstanding) in contrast to the earlier compositions’ serious, conscientious demeanor. It suggests Hall Overton was a complex figure, capable of alert, if low-key, meticulousness as a collaborative jazz artist, and a deep, discursive imagination in a more formal mode of expression. It’s a shame that of his classical works, only a brief, moody, but striking piano piece, Polarities, is available on CD – and that only a handful of examples were recorded at all, now neglected remnants of the LP era. It’s not surprising we don’t really know who Hall Overton was, but it’s time we had a chance to become better acquainted.