Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Hall Franklin Overton, 23 February 1920, Bangor, MI; d 24 November 1972) Pianist, composer, arranger, teacher. He grew up in Grand Rapids, and took piano lessons; a high school music teacher urged him to go to the Chicago Musical College, where he studied theory and composition 1940-2, then saw overseas combat duty with the U.S. Army. While he was in the service he discovered jazz. Upon his discharge from the army he went to Juilliard, where he studied composition with Vincent Persichetti, and obtained an M.S. in 1951 and joined the faculty. In later years he also taught at the Yale School of Music and at the new School of Social Research. His opera, Huckleberry Finn, commissioned by the Barney Jaffin Foundation, was presented by The Juilliard Opera Company just months before he died.

Along with his classical music, Overton was deeply involved with jazz, and jazz musicians were among his private students, as well as composer Steve Reich and billionairess Doris Duke. In January 1953 Overton, drummer Ed Shaughnessy and Teddy Charles (playing vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel) recorded four pieces for Prestige in an album called New Directions, not really jazz, according to Art Lange, but 'constructions that explore new methods of organization from an improvisational perspective, equally informed by classical procedures.' The music might have been called Third Stream, but the term hadn't been coined yet. In 1953-4 Overton recorded three sessions with guitarist Jimmy Raney, one with Stan Getz and another with trumpeter John Wilson. There was also a session with Phil Woods, a two-piano date with Dave McKenna on Bethlehem, and in 1957 a trio album of Ellington covers for Jubilee called Three For Duke, with Charles on drums and Oscar Pettiford on bass. Overton's accompaniment was always supportive, said Lange, but never called attention to itself; on the set of Ellington covers he came a bit more to the fore, but all these recordings have long been out of print, and would certainly make an interesting reissue project. Then his heavy teaching load apparently took over, and he was also composing string quartets, a symphony and a few other pieces.

From sometime in the 1950s Overton shared the divided second floor of a loft in the flower district at 821 Sixth Avenue with Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918-78); pianist and trumpeter Dick Cary (1916-94) lived downstairs, painter David X. Young (1930-2001) was upstairs, and musicians hung out there, using it as a place to jam and rehearse. It became known as the Jazz Loft. Smith shot thousands of photographs and had the place festooned with microphones, recording everything that went on, including street noise.

Thelonious Monk must have felt at home there; he had briefly lost his cabaret card for the second time and could not work in a place where alcohol was served, so a big-band concert of his compositions was planned for Town Hall on 28 February 1959, and Overton was asked to write the arrangements. (They had known one another for some time; a note in Cary's journal for 21 April 1955 said, 'Thelonious Monk and gang upstairs at Hall's.') They worked very well together. Monk, famous for being taciturn, turned out to be a diligent and even voluble genius, while Overton was a patient helpmate. Overton felt as though he knew jazz from the inside, as a musician, and said that he was opposed to trying to make jazz respectable by imposing classical forms or materials on it. Monk's tunes are not as simple as they appear to be; as Will Friedwald wrote, 'his basic themes are so simple that an amateur can easily pound one out on the piano, but to capture the nuances and subtleties of his compositions takes a lifetime of study.' But Overton understood them; he and Monk sat at a pair of upright pianos trying out voicings for each other.

They didn't simply pick the obvious tunes, but rather the ones that would lend themselves to a big-band concert. Monk said that he wanted to avoid the standard big-band style, which sounded stiff to him, so they avoided call-and-response patterns. Overton played a recording of 'Locomotive', but Monk said he couldn't remember how it went, so they abandoned it. After a session of dissecting 'Thelonious', Monk got tired and walked away, saying 'What you have there is fine.' Overton replied, 'Well, the point is, I'll do it. But I want to do it with you. I want to check every sound with you. And also what instruments you want to hear in certain places, you know?' Working on 'Little Rootie Tootie', Monk said of his piano solo, 'Let the band play that,' meaning the brass, and that particular flourish was a highlight of the concert. At another point in the same tune, Overton said, 'We don't have to do it like the record,' and Monk responded, 'Oh, no, of course not. We might hear something else that sounds better.'

The rehearsals were also deceptively casual. 'Rehearsals always started at the bar,' said Phil Woods. 'Monk would say, "Okay, let's get a taste." Then we'd go to work. It was thrilling. It was also hard as hell.' On a rehearsal tape, there is a clomp-clomp-clomping rhythm in 'Thelonious' before the band comes in: it is the sound of Monk dancing. Steve Reich said, 'The arrangements could have been a real pretentious flop, and they weren't at all. They were another way of looking at Monk's music. I got the feeling that it was all Monk in terms of the notes and the rhythms and all Hall in terms of the timbres.' The concert was a landmark, recorded and issued on Riverside, and soon regarded as a classic. There was another concert at Lincoln Center on 30 December 1963, with both Monk's quartet and a big band, also with arrangements by Overton, issued on a two-CD set on Columbia. 

In 1964, Hall, Cary and Young all moved out of the Jazz Loft; Smith kept on photographing there until 1971, when he was evicted. According to one source, he had made about 4,000 hours of recording on 1,741 reel-to-reel tapes, and nearly 40,000 photographs. The material was held at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona after Wright died in 1978, and later The Jazz Loft Project was organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Monk's home state of North Carolina, researching and cataloging it; as many as 300 musicians might have been involved.

Following a Monk Festival at Duke University in 2006, there were concerts at Town Hall in February 2009, commissioned and produced by Duke, marking the 50th anniversary of the first one. The first night, led by trumpeter Charles Tolliver, recreated the original concert as closely as possible; the second, pianist Jason Moran's 'In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959', approached the same tunes sideways, adding visuals from the Jazz Loft Project and images of the Monk plantation, where Monk's grandparents had been slaves. The Project is directed by Sam Stephenson, whose book Rhythm of a Corner: W. Eugene Smith and a New York Jazz Loft 1957-1965 was scheduled for the Fall of 2009, and a ten-part TV series was planned for 2010. The Jazz Loft Project has a website here; pianist and composer Jack Reilly has written about Hall as a teacher here.

Overton has been about as overlooked as a musician can be. Teachers often are. Steve Reich, now a world-famous composer himself, said, 'He was a wonderful teacher. Hall made things clear to me that have served me well for the rest of my life.' 

This article has quoted from newspaper articles by Ben Ratliff, Nate Chinen and Will Friedwald, and from Nancy Overton; as well as Art Lange in Issue 22 of Point of Departure. Sam Stephenson's book Gene Smith's Sink: A WIde-Angle View (2017) is recommended.