Hall Overton: Professor By Day, Jazzman By Night Hall Overton was a tall, modest, Midwestern, chain-smoking college instructor of classical music at Juilliard. But at the Jazz Loft, he was living, teaching music and playing piano with greats like Thelonious Monk.
NPR logo

Listen Now

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121362184/121388784" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Professor By Day, A Jazzman By Night

Listen Now

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121362184/121388784" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Last week, we introduced you to the Jazz Loft located in a dilapidated building in New York City. It became a magnet for musicians looking for a place to play in the 1950s and '60s. It was also home to W. Eugene Smith, a former Life magazine photographer who lived and worked in the Loft building.

Smith took about 40,000 photographs and recorded some 4,000 hours of audiotape of the goings on in the Loft. The tapes contain new information about characters and relationships only hinted at by history.

WNYC's Jazz Loft Project Radio Series, produced in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has one such story.

Here's reporter Sara Fishko with part two of our series.

SARA FISHKO: Among the thousands of hours of Jazz Loft tape discovered in the Eugene Smith archive, there is one clip in particular that produces chills. It is a tape of pianist Thelonious Monk walking around the Loft, talking with his musical collaborator, Hall Overton.

Mr. HALL OVERTON (Musician): And then some minor instrument on solo, huh?

Mr. THELONIOUS MONK (Musician): Trumpeter, you can call him that. You know...

FISHKO: The two were at work there, arranging several Monk tunes for what was to become a historic Town Hall concert in 1959.

Overton was a tall, Midwestern, chain-smoking college teacher of classical music by day. By night, he was living, teaching music and playing jazz piano at the Jazz Loft. He rented the back portion of the third floor, right next door to photographer Eugene Smith.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TEDDY CHARLES (Vibraphonist): Many musicians started to gravitate towards that place 'cause he was the guy that had the real credentials.

FISHKO: Teddy Charles, vibraphonist, spent many nights at the Jazz Loft over several years in the '50s. And he and Overton were good friends. They were captured on tape jamming together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLES: Not only a serious classical composer on the faculty at Juilliard, but he taught many, many jazz musicians who used to come down. And it was like a pilgrimage to come down there and learn from Hall, study with Hall Overton, who was my early mentor.

Mr. DICK KATZ (Jazz pianist): Jazz musicians took a shine to him because he was such a natural guy.

FISHKO: Jazz pianist Dick Katz.

Mr. KATZ: He acted like a jazz cat. I mean, he didn't act like a classical guy who was down with jazz. He acted like one of the fellas, which he was. And he always had this cigarette dangling from his mouth.

FISHKO: Composer Steve Reich went to work with Overton at the Loft in 1957. He remembers his teacher put him to work composing right away.

Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): Hall just had me write immediately. I think the very first lesson, he said, now, next week, I want you to write a melody that goes, starts at the bottom and goes all the way to the top. I want a melody that goes to the top, goes all the way to the bottom. The melody goes up and then he'd just drew these shapes.

And I said, wait, hold on, I said we haven't studied anything yet. He said, how can I start composing? I don't have enough technique. He said, you'll never have enough technique. Now, you write these pieces.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FISHKO: The late Nancy Overton recalled that at one point, her husband's jazz lessons became all the rage.

Ms. NANCY OVERTON: Doris Duke, the billionairess, she decided to study with him. And she asked Hall to come out to one of her mansions, you know, with a chauffeur and the whole business. And Hall said, no, anybody who studies with me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. OVERTON: ...comes to my studio." So, here comes Doris in her chauffeur-driven limo onto Sixth Avenue in the Flower District to the seedy part of town and has to sort of kick the drunks out of the door stoop going up all those grungy stairs with the graffiti and the whole thing. So, she kept that up for a while.

FISHKO: For then-aspiring classical composer Carman Moore, it went beyond music lessons.

Mr. CARMAN MOORE (Classical composer): One day at the end of my lesson, there's a knock at the door. So, I put on my coat and I was just getting ready to go, and he opens the door and there's Thelonious Monk with a great big, dark, long coat. Hall says: Oh, Thelonious, I'd like you to meet my student, Carman Moore. And he says, ugh. You know, he just grunts. I think he was not talking in those days.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOORE: Off they went to the piano, so I wasn't leaving at that point. I was, you know, so I just closed the door and leaned up against it there, you know, and watched these guys do it and they went right to work. And they were preparing for the famous big band concerts at Town Hall.

FISHKO: Those weeks of preparation by Hall Overton and Thelonious Monk were recorded by Eugene Smith, and the tapes confirm Moore's memories of how it happened.

Mr. MOORE: He had two upright pianos right next to each other. Hall sat down at the left-hand piano, and as usual lit up his cigarette and then just left it hanging in his mouth burning and dropping all over his chest.

Thelonious sat down at the piano on the right and Hall just started playing. And he had his charts up there in front of him. And Thelonious started playing along with him. And Hall seemed to just understand that that was the deal. There was no English spoken. Only music spoken here.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. OVERTON: He had lots of looks and that's how he and Hall communicated. Just communicated perfectly.

Mr. HALL: No. No.

FISHKO: So Overton was an important man in the New York music scene, at the time. But you'd never have known it said Carman Moore and Dick Katz.

Mr. MOORE: He never bragged about himself or his stuff or forced his work on anybody or anything like that.

Mr. KATZ: He didn't promote himself. He didn't write books.

FISHKO: He was modest and he was complicated. Hall Overton dared to occupy two musical worlds, which were thought of as quite separate then.

Mr. MOORE: People were scratching their heads. Well, now what are you? Are you a jazz pianist? Or are you this classical composer at Juilliard or are you in any clubs? Man, I'm in both.

FISHKO: The classical, the jazz and the work with Thelonious Monk all happened in the Jazz Loft. But what also happened there is that Overton played piano, something few have ever heard. Here he is playing Monk's tune "Friday the 13th."

(Soundbite of music)

FISHKO: Hall Overton drank a fair amount. And in the end, it wasn't the dangling cigarettes that killed him: It was the drink.

Ms. OVERTON: The doctor said, Well, you can't have anything alcohol anymore. And he quit like that but it was too late.

FISHKO: Overton died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1972 at age 52.

Without Eugene Smith's Jazz Loft tapes, there would be that much less evidence of Hall Overton's role in the jazz world or his piano playing, for that matter. Did Hall's good friend Teddy Charles know Smith's tape recorders were running?

Mr. CHARLES: No. Some of us probably would've been upset if we thought so. 'Course, going and having these really free-wheeling, swinging jam sessions. Really cookin' when nobody's around and you're just among yourself � that's when the best jams happen. You take chances on things. And that was one of Hall Overton's theories about what - the real excitement of jazz is taking chances. Whether you make it or not, you try for something even if it doesn't happen. And that's what makes jazz really exciting.

Hall Overton, like more than a few others, found his free-wheeling joy on an upright piano in one particular old building in New York.

FISHKO: For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.