Hall Overton’s Moment

The musician Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus has posted a new blog entry entitled “Six Degrees of Hall Overton” including, remarkably, two recordings of himself playing compositions by Overton on piano.  What a treat for the New Year, and another generous public service by Iverson.  I’m heartened by this attention to Overton from a musician and writer as influential as him.

When I first began doing oral history interviews on 821 Sixth Avenue in 1998 the only thing I knew about Overton was that he’d worked with Monk.  With each new interview (Lee Konitz, Teddy Charles, Steve Reich, Richard Davis, Dennis Russell Davies, Jim and Jane Hall, Carman Moore, Phil Woods, Calvin Albert, Ronnie Free, Charles Russo, Marian McPartland, Ben Johnston, dozens more) Overton’s figure grew larger, to the point where we believed an outgrowth of this project could be some kind of resurrection of Overton.  This belief was reinforced when we began hearing Smith’s tapes for the first time in 2002.  Maybe Overton’s moment, as mentioned by Iverson, is indeed starting to occur.  Joel Sachs is responsible for the performance of “Pulsations” at Juilliard on January 25.  Additionally, there is a loose orbit of former Overton associates and like-minded souls who are interested in doing something.  Five years ago when the art world was flush, a major project on Overton would have been easier to accomplish.  Maybe it can still happen.  We’ll do anything we can do to help.

Overton is one of a handful of people in this project who intrigue me the most, people I’ll write more about one day.  (Others are Zoot Sims, Sonny Clark, Roy Haynes, Ronnie Free, Monk, and Smith).  I traveled to Chicago several times to visit Overton’s brother, Harvey, a retired professor of humanities; his late widow Nancy Swain Overton in New Jersey; and to rural Oregon to visit Overton’s youngest brother, Richard, who shared with me a long, beautiful letter written to him by Hall from the front lines of World War II in Europe (Hall carried stretchers in France and Belgium as a member of the Third Armored Division).  Young Richard had expressed interest in architecture in a previous letter and his older brother responded with a missive on how to begin studying architecture on a serious level.  Overton’s handwriting is beautiful and meticulous and it hearkens to his chart writing, in my view.  With Richard’s permission we might post this letter on this site soon.

We also have an image of a plaster bust of Overton made by the late sculptor Cal Albert, who I interviewed in Margate, Florida a few years ago and was Overton’s oldest, closest friend.  They met in Chicago before the war when Overton was a music student and Calvin an art student.  We’ll post that soon, too.

By the way, in response to Iverson’s blog query, there is indeed a reference recording of the original performance of Overton’s Huckleberry Finn opera conducted by Dennis Russell Davies in 1971.  We got a reel-to-reel copy from Nancy and had it transferred.   We also have a recording of a live radio broadcast of one hour of Finn excerpts performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Dennis circa 1975.

You can listen to Sara Fishko’s wonderful Jazz Loft Project radio segment on Overton here.  This version, broadcast locally in New York by WNYC on November 19, is twice longer than the version which was broadcast nationally on NPR two weeks ago.  This piece moved me deeply when I first heard it a year ago, and it still does.

-Sam Stephenson

Comments are closed.