(b Bangor, MI, February 23, 1920; d New York, November 24, 1972)
Pianist, composer, arranger, and Juilliard Music School instructor. Fourth floor loft resident 1954 through 1972.
This essay is adapted from Sam Stephenson’s The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue 1957- 1965.
Overton was a dashing, six-foot-four suit-and-tie man who at first glance seemed out of place in the squalor of 821 Sixth Avenue. After carrying stretchers in combat in France and Belgium in World War II, he taught classical composition at Juilliard and, later, at Yale and the New School for Social Research. His wife, Nancy Swain Overton, was a successful singer, first in a group called the Heathertones and later in the iconic Chordettes, of “Mister Sandman” fame, and they shared a nice house in Forest Hills, Queens, with their two young sons.
Overton was revered and beloved as an innovative teacher and arranger. At night and on weekends, Overton gave lessons to a range of folks such as the billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke, Marian McPartland, seminal conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and composer Carman Moore. Jazz legends would stop by without an appointment and pick Overton’s brain and soul, friendship and camaraderie the medium of exchange. His substantial yet unassuming presence at 821 Sixth Avenue was critical to the scene.
He had a knack for finding and nurturing the unique qualities inside all of his students, rather than imprinting his methods on everyone. He worked with Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford, Teddy Charles, and Stan Getz, and forged a longstanding relationship with Thelonious Monk based on deep mutual respect—not an easy task. Minimalist groundbreaker Steve Reich studied with Overton in the loft once a week for two years in the late 1950s, an experience Reich calls pivotal to his career. From Monk to Reich, the sweep of Overton’s behind-the-scenes influence may be unsurpassed in American music history. But he seemed to care nothing about acknowledgment. He preferred the obscurity of his studio loft to the hallowed halls of Juilliard.
As a composer Overton’s intended magnum opus was an opera, Huckleberry Finn, which was conducted by his acclaimed student Dennis Russell Davies at Juilliard in 1971. The Midwestern river story and its racial implications doubtlessly appealed deeply to Overton, who grew up in southwestern Michigan’s rural apple-farming region. In 2003 Robert O’Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of Literature at Columbia University, published a new introduction to Twain’s novel in which he made an extensive case for it being a “blues novel.” He described the blues as an expression “of romantic longing and, in a larger frame, of desire for connectedness and completion, for spiritual as well as physical communication and love in a world of fracture and disarray. As an improvised form, the blues admits life’s dire discouragements and limits to the point of death, but nonetheless celebrates human continuity.” In November 1972 Overton died of cirrhosis at age fifty-two. Two months before his death he and the bassist Eddie Gomez had a three-week engagement at Bradley’s, the Greenwich Village piano bar. Composer Francis Thorne remembers attending the gigs and having his first opportunity to meet Thelonious Monk, who was increasingly reclusive in those days but was there to support his friend.
Smith and Overton shared a wall in that building for fourteen years, two combat veterans from World War II—two exceptionally creative minds—side by side in a decrepit building in the center of Manhattan. These guys were the opposite of the suburbanites that John Cheever and Richard Yates portrayed in devastating fashion in their fiction of the period. But they weren’t self-conscious rebels or beatniks, either. They worked too hard, cared too much, were too sincere. They both died too early, of self-destruction..
See videotape of the New York Public Library Program, Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows, featuring Steve Reich, Carman Moore, Joel Sachs, Ethan Iverson, and Sam Stephenson. April 14, 2010.
Listen to Sara Fishko's Jazz Loft Project Radio Series episode on Overton here.
Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus on Overton, Six Degrees of Hall Overton.
Nate Chinen on Overton and Monk in the New York Times, February 17, 2009 here.