Hall died in his sleep after a short illness at his Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan, said Jane Hall, his wife of 48 years who described her husband as “truly beloved by everybody who ever met him.”
Hall, who led his own trio since the mid-1960s, remained active until shortly before his death. Last month, his trio performed a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room with guest guitarists John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. He had been planning a duo tour in Japan in January with bassist Ron Carter, a longtime partner.
In 2004, Hall became the first of the modern jazz guitarists to be named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
“Jim was one of the most important improvising guitarists in jazz history. His musical generosity was an exact reflection of his deep humanity,” guitarist Metheny, who performed and recorded in a duo with Hall, said in an email to The Associated Press.
In the mid-1950s, as a member of pianist Jimmy Giuffre’s innovative trio and drummer Chico Hamilton’s chamber jazz quartet, Hall transformed the role of the guitar in jazz with his understated melodic and minimalist approach.
“What seems kind of frivolous and doesn’t really impress me is guys, people, women … who have amazing technique but everything sounds worked out,” Hall said in a 2003 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts. “They go through these chord changes with all these chops.
“Usually I wish I had the kind of technique to do that and then not do it, sort of. I like to make some kind of composition happen while I’m playing. That involves motive development. … I also love melodies. So I try to play melodies over tunes – have it go someplace and then come back.”
The noted German jazz writer Joachim-Ernst Berendt once described Hall as “the perfect musical partner.” The guitarist was known for his duo and small group recordings with some of the greatest names in jazz during the past 60 years, including saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman and Paul Desmond, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Red Mitchell and singer Ella Fitzgerald.
As a member of Rollins’ quartet in the early 1960s, Hall appeared on the landmark 1962 album, The Bridge, which was the tenor saxophonist’s first recording after a three-year hiatus during which he practiced his chops on the Williamsburg Bridge. The saxophonist’s fiery playing contrasted with Hall’s subdued guitar lines.
“Jim was an essentially beautiful human being,” Rollins said in an email. “I don’t know anybody who didn’t love him, including myself. He was the consummate musician and it was a privilege to work with him.”
Hall was born on Dec. 4, 1930, in Buffalo, New York, and his family later moved to Cleveland. He picked up the guitar at age 10, and became interested in jazz as a 13-year-old when he went to the store to buy a Benny Goodman record and first heard Charlie Christian playing guitar on the tune “Grand Slam.”
“I was awe-struck at his choice of notes and the space that he left,” Hall told the NEA.
After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Hall moved to Los Angeles where he became a charter member of Hamilton’s quintet, which was among the originators of the laid-back West Coast cool style, and later joined Giuffre’s trio.
His first album as a leader was the 1957 session Jazz Guitar for Pacific Jazz. He later moved to New York where he performed as a sideman with Evans, Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Lee Konitz and Art Farmer, among others. He co-led a quartet with trumpeter Art Farmer and also formed his own trio with pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Carter.
Hall began recording extensively as a leader starting in the 1970s in an assortment of duos, trios and small combos for such labels as Milestone, Concord, Music Masters and Telarc. Earlier this year, he released several CDs of live recordings from his combo’s sessions at New York’s Birdland jazz club on ArtistShare, a platform that allows fans to finance recordings.
His daughter and manager, Devra Hall Levy, said her father’s prowess as a jazz guitarist overshadowed his skills as an arranger and composer, reflected on such albums in the mid-1990s as Textures and By Arrangement.
“Those albums opened my eyes to a whole other dimension of his musical gifts,” Levy said in a telephone interview. “Jim would like to be most known as a forward-seeker. He was always looking to push musical boundaries and never wanting to repeat something that he had done before. That made him quite a risk-taker.”
Hall is survived by his wife, a psychoanalyst, and his daughter, who was married to the late NEA Jazz Master John Levy, a bassist who is credited as the first African-American personal manager in jazz.