Jeff Hall: A Humble Architect of American-Made Music & All That Jazz

    icon Sep 26, 2013
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Jeff Hall is an unassuming genius with a creative spark that seeks expression. From his early days as a pre-teen prodigy with elementary and middle school mentors like Ken Mathews and Elaine Frueh, Hall found his calling. Music was his lifeblood like oxygen is to breathing. He could never live without it. Hall is a gentle man who eschews the spotlight, preferring the role of the teacher, helping young musicians find their own unique voice.
Hall's altruism is as selfless as his musical vision is generous. He has performed with such Jazz greats as Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie. He's performed all over the USA and Europe but remains grounded and accessible. He's one of Saginaw's great musical treasures along withMike Brush, John Krogman, Stewart Francke, Dick Wagner and Sonny Stitt.
Saginaw has always provided a rich musical framework that provided the latticework for diversity, tolerance and freedom of expression. We need to rediscover our wicked heritage and the crowning achievements of our local artists. Music feeds our soul and guides our spiritual longings for peace and love.
On October 1st the Saginaw Valley Humanities Series will present 'The Life & Times of Sonny Stitt Through Words & Music'. Jeff will discuss his thoughts and experiences with this late Saginaw legend and The River Junction Poets will read their works before the program.  A musical prelude will take place at 7 PM with the program starting at 7:30 PM. Additionally The Review's Lifetime Achievement Award to Sonny Stitt will be presented to his surviving family members. The program will take place at the Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy, 1903 N. Niagara St. in Saginaw. For more info phone 989-399-5500.
Jeff, what led you to have an interest in music?
Actually it was my mother and my uncle Randall BeLaderne. My mother was a pianist, and my uncle was a violinist, and I heard them play. Mom insisted I take some lessons, which I didn't mind doing at first. (Laughter) Once I got older, I wanted to go out and play with the other kids, but I think it runs in the family.
When did you first realize that you were good at it, that you had a facility for music?
Oh, that's a tough one. I guess when I started playing at concerts and the orchestra at Webber Junior High School. It seemed to come clear and easy, you know, but as I got more into it, it was more difficult. I think maybe one of my teachers must have said something or probably my mom said something about it. I can't really remember but it really started to captivate my interest.
Jeff, what was your first instrument?
Actually my first instrument was the violin. I liked it at first and then I realized it's a pretty difficult instrument, and so I might have said something to my mom, and my mom had me take piano lessons then. I liked the piano a lot better, so I kind of gave up on the violin.
So you took lessons on piano, but you didn't like the violin and you switched over to piano. Who was your piano teacher?
My piano teacher was Elaine Frueh. I was with her for probably three years or four years. I think probably junior high was when I started doing that.
So you really started at a young age. Did you have a mentor along the way? That might have been further down the road, an instructor in high school that was really cool but then maybe a mentor as well?
Well actually, actually my first, junior high school in band was Ken Matthews. He was fairly influential in terms of me getting serious about it. He was pretty stern, I remember and very influential.
Can you tell me about your first band, the band that you helped put together? 
Oh wow. That was a band called the Accents. It was more of a wedding reception kind of a band. We had accordion, drums and me.
Who was in the band? Do you remember the names?
Dick Brown and Fred Bingham were around the area here for a quite awhile. Dick passed away, and Fred's out in Arizona I believe.
So you had played mostly wedding receptions. Were there other clubs you could play…
Actually I remember the first gig was at the AA. (Laughter) So it was like we were playing for free just to play, you know. I don't remember getting paid, although I remember rehearsing. I'm sure we played a few gigs that paid something, you know, I just don't remember.
So you had this band with Fred and Dick and you made a little bit of money here and there. What happened next? What was your next project?
A good question. Probably when I won a scholarship to attend a summer camp out in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and it was led by Phil Woods, the great jazz alto saxophone player. They had this ad in a magazine, and I remember applying for it. I don't know how many people applied for it, but I got lucky. I actually won it, and I only had to pay for the food. This would be the summer of '65. I was there for two months.
Is that when you learned to play other instruments?
No, that was when I was exposed to the real thing, you know, people like Phil Woods and there was another saxophonist there that played on one of the TV shows, and a great drummer, a great bass player. They were all New York musicians. It was really an eye-opener for me.
Did you try all those different instruments when you were there?
No, actually I did that in college. I played the tenor sax. I had actually I picked it up in junior high school with Ken Mathews. I went over to the trumpet section because I wanted to be a trumpet player, but they told me my lips weren't the right shape, so I jumped over to the saxophone.
Did you find that you had a real facility for it, that it made sense to you?
I think after a while. I don't know right away. I was probably too busy fighting because I wasn't a trumpet player, but it didn't take too long before I realized, “Okay, this is a pretty cool instrument.”
So at that time would it be correct to say that you were pretty darn good at piano and saxophone?
I guess I was okay. I don't know if I was “darn good.” (Laughter)
What was your first successful band where you really hit it?
Probably when I got back from college, and joined the Great Lakes Express. This was a horn band and we sounded like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. We traveled all over the place. I had a lot of fun, and I remember we made a couple of recordings. I hadn't heard the recordings …until 1970, something like that. You could call it a Top 40 band too because we did a lot of covers. We had about five or six songs and they did get recorded, but they didn't go anywhere
Who was your manager?
Oh, gosh. He was from Buffalo. Actually he ran a music store down in Kalamazoo as well. Oh, man, now I'm not going to remember his name. I want to Tony Wickes I think was his name.
What college did you attend?
I attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I studied there from 1966-70, about 3 ½ years.
What an education that had to be.
Oh yeah, that was pretty crazy. I remember I went over there and I was walkin' around the place and there was a bunch of people practicing. They were just absolutely amazing. So I called my mom. I said, “Hey mom, I think I want to come home.” (Laughter) It terrified me how good these guys were. So thankfully she talked me into staying. (Laughter) I was just scared to death. I thought, “I'll never play like that.”
And then you did.
I got lucky, yeah.
Was there anybody there who helped you out along the way?
I'll tell you probably in my opinion the best teacher in the world and the best lead player in the world was Joe Viola who was the head of the Woodwind Department at Berklee. He could play anything, and he could play anything extremely well. I remember when I came and took my lessons, I was playing tenor sax and he'd grab his alto sax. Well, we were doing some pretty tough stuff. He would just sit there and sight transpose on that alto which really amazed me. It's just a different way of looking at music.
Can you tell me about Sonny Stitt. You obviously knew him.
I knew of him at that time. I knew who he was by talking to all the other musicians and whatnot. I actually, I went down and heard him a couple of times down in Detroit at Baker's Lounge. Well, I had an opportunity to get to know him a little when I went down to Baker's in '72. I was enjoying him, of course. It was great to hear him play, and the bass player, Ron Brooks, came up to speak to me. I had played with him before, and he knew that I was from Saginaw, and he mentioned that Sonny needed a ride home. He wanted to go home and visit his mother. So Ron asked me if I'd give him a ride to Saginaw and I said, “Certainly.” So for maybe three hours I hung out with him, if you want to call it that.
What was Sonny Stitt like? His conversation was kind of short. He was interesting, but he wouldn't go on and on with long sentences or anything. He'd say maybe three or four words and then he'd wait for me to say something, but it wasn't a long conversation. He was friendly, very nice. I think this was maybe, six, seven months before he passed away, and I remember him talking about the doctor told him he couldn't drink any more or he would kill himself. I remember him talking about that. He was clean at that time.
There were periods when he would clean up, and he was very clean. He sounded great, by the way, the night that I was down there. Of course, he always sounded great. But yeah, at that time he was pretty clean. I got real lucky in the case of Sonny Stitt. When he found out I was giving him a ride, he did let me sit in. That was a great pleasure. We were able to take a few photos together and mug for the camera. I still have the photos!
Were you familiar with any of his compositions? Do you have any particular favorites or…
Uh, there's one called The Eternal Triangle, which I always liked. When I did a concert out at the College of Michigan Composers that was one of the songs that we played.
I've never been to Baker's Lounge. Can you tell me what that's like, Baker's Lounge in Detroit? It's probably no longer there.
Actually it is still there. Unfortunately they're not operating with national folks. It's mostly local talent. It's a small place and fairly crowded, but it has a great atmosphere. You know, it's a jazz atmosphere. It's been there since the '30s I believe. They used to have everybody there, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. You name them, they all played there. A real nice place and a great atmosphere. I always enjoyed going there. I haven't been there in a long time. I went down there one time to listen to Joe Henderson play and there was hardly anybody in the place. I was pretty close to the stage and it must have been obvious how much I was admiring him. After he'd gotten off the bandstand, he just asked me, “Hey, do you have your horn?” I had never talked to him before, so… I said, “Oh, yeah.” He said, “Why don't you go get it?” So I also had the pleasure of playing with Joe Henderson, which was really a heck of an experience.
Have you played with a lot of folks who are kind of notable in the jazz world?
Well, I played with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt and Joe Henderson - I sat in or jammed.
Can you tell me about the Mighty Big Band?
I want to say, oh boy, I think it was the late '90s that we put a band together. I was telling my wife, “I'm going to put this big band together. We're going to have fun,” and so on and so forth. A long time went by before anything happened. She came home one night and said, “You're never going to do that,” so that was the incentive for me to say, “Okay.” So I called a bunch of musicians that I thought would be interested in doing something like this. Of course, my idea was rather than just get a bunch of guys to go play somewhere, we'd actually get together and rehearse. We did rehearsals every two weeks. And yeah, it was a pleasure. Most of the guys would come all the time. I couldn't give them anything, you know. I didn't have any money to give them, but they would come just to rehearse the music and make it sound good, so…It was fun. I enjoyed it very much and so did the guys. I had lots of musicians. Some of them were students and others were professionals that I knew would enjoy doing this and would do a great job at it, and so I called them and almost to a man, every one of them just jumped right on it, so it was really a good vibe.
We enjoyed playing White's Bar because it was an outside gig and it was kind of unusual, but it was cool - very, very appreciated by the folks that were there. Of course you did a great job hosting us there. I wish I still had the band. (Laughter) I do have another band that I'm working with out of Midland, and it's called the Jam Trail Big Band, and it's part of a Midland organization that maybe someday we could talk about.
Yeah, there was a lot of spirit there. Who did piano?
Nope, that was Don Crampton. I thought he did a great job. I knew him as a wonderful musician. I had played with him and Ron Lopez a couple of times over the years, so knew him as a jazz guy. I'm sure that like most musicians they play whatever comes along, but I knew him as a jazz pianist.
Are you a full professor at Saginaw Valley?
Actually I'm a jazz artist in residence. I'm teaching the jazz ensemble, and then I'm teaching private instruction and jazz improvisation, and then I help run the computer lab.
That's great. You're keeping music alive really.
Oh yeah. It's a cool gig.
You have gigged all over the country and overseas?
I've played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and played at the festival in Nice, France. I've also performed in Japan on the wheelboat that goes around the lake, and then I've toured the Midwest, into Canada, so you know, I've kind of got around I guess.
Your students, the ones that I've met, say you're really a great teacher.
Well, it's fun to work with the kids. They, most of them anyway, are very, very curious about this thing called jazz improvisation. I get a chance to work with them and see them develop over the years. It's been rewarding.
What's the state and condition of jazz music in America today?
Oh man. I don't know how to answer that one. I'm hoping that it's getting better. There's an awful lot of competition. A lot of folks are self-producing now. They're putting out their own records, so there's just a plethora of it out there. You know, there's a lot of jazz out there. I want to think that it's going to get better. I believe it is going to get better as folks, the younger folks are introduced to it, but as far as where it's going to go and that, again I really don't know.
Do you think that his technology could lead to a new form of expression?
Well, I think it's the ease of it now, you know. Back when I was in Great Lakes Express, we had the recording studio, and the tape, and then get that on a record, and you know, all kind of production costs and what not. Nowadays you can put a studio in your bedroom and you can come up with a pretty decent sound. It's a lot less expensive.
Do you think composing original music, is this a lost art?
I wouldn't call it a lost art, but to come up with something completely new, that's pretty difficult although I'm sure there are folks out there who can do it. I'm sure there are.
You're probably one of them.
Well, you know it's been a while since I've composed. Most of my writing is from the '70s and '80s but to come up with something new and original that is definitely done for the time being. But I'm sure that there are plenty of creative folks out there who are going to do it.
Do you have any plans of recording your compositions, putting out a CD?
I haven't. Doesn't mean it won't ever happen, but right now I haven't thought about it.

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