Hall Overton, Composer

Monk and Overton (Smith)

Thelonious Monk and Hall Overton (photo by W. Eugene Smith)

Hall Overton was Thelonious Monk’s arranger for several big band concerts including The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. Sam Stephenson’s book The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 includes transcriptions of rehearsal tapes made by photographer W. Eugene Smith. While planning the arrangements together, Overton describes to Monk the effect his now-famous transcription of Monk’s solo on “Little Rootie Tootie” will have on the horn players: “Boy, I tell you, they are going to sweat their balls off.”

Overton also played gentle bebop piano, recording with Stan Getz, Jimmy Raney, and Teddy Charles, but his more important original creative output was as a composer of formal scores. Overton received significant commissions, documented his music for CRI, and taught composition to Steve Reich, Alvin Singleton, Carman Moore, Dennis Russell Davies, and many others.

The original Overton music is not outstandingly durable, but the depth and breadth of his engagement is striking. If jazz found its way into Overton’s fully-notated scores, it was a comparatively organic process. 

It’s all too easy to force the mash-up, at least from the vantage of formal notation. Gunther Schuller and David Baker might be considered Overton’s peers, and both Schuller and Baker had grand plans for combining the musics in written-out scores. Schuller made the mistake of writing “straight” twelve-tone music for jazz musicians, but Milt Jackson or Ornette Coleman are not “improved” by an advanced modernist score. Baker made the mistake of writing jazz-type material for classical musicians, and his formal scores are only successful right up until the point there is a ponderous attempt at blues or swing. (The most familiar David Baker records remain his sideman appearances with George Russell, where proficient jazz cats deal with just a bit more formal writing than the norm.)

Overton was humble and let the music do what it needed to do. That humility can be seen in his simple but effective charts for Thelonious Monk.

In that era, small group drummers rarely used sheet music — certainly Monk’s drummers didn’t need any music stands — and Art Taylor’s swinging participation on the Town Hall concert is just as strong as any Taylor gig with Monk’s quartet. When Schuller resurrected Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, Schuller handed Victor Lewis a huge book for the drum part. Despite the book, Lewis still sounds great, but overall Epitaph lacks something breezy and folkloric in presentation, and this airlessness must be partly Schuller’s “sheet music first” perspective. (Perhaps if Overton had been in charge of Epitaph, the results would have been funkier and more memorable.)

The six major recorded Overton compositions are historical documents of austere beauty: Symphony No. 2, Second String Quartet, Cello Sonata, Viola Sonata, Sonorities for Orchestra, and Pulsations.

Overton said of his approach:

As a composer, my main interest has been in the exploration of non-systematic, intuitive harmony, both tonal and dissonant from which other elements — melody, counterpoint and form — can be derived.

Overton’s dissonant harmonies have a strong suggestion of polytonality. The themes are melodic and the counterpoint is secure. There are no flirtations with European ultra-modernism nor is there a pronounced “Americana” accent. The style is mostly straightforward, romantic and generous, although it also may lack a certain rigor. In the end Overton’s compositional language is attractive but not overwhelmingly distinctive. The CRI couplings of Overton with Lester Trimble and Ezra Laderman make sense.

Symphony No.2 has interesting elements, notably a beginning ground bass that is transformed into a kind of 6/8 dance at the end. Overall the impression is diffuse and undercooked: just as the composer builds up steam, he moves to another idea.

The score contains a banal review from Lee Steele, The Blade, Toledo:

Only a small group of patrons at last night’s Toledo Orchestra concert seemed to be aware that they were witness—and audience—to an exciting event.

That was the first performance anywhere of Symphony No. 2 by a gifted American composer named Hall Overton.

Composer Overton, who was in the audience last night, briefed this reviewer yesterday on the score and permitted it to be examined. The piece calls for the usual orchestral instruments, with the addition of xylophone, vibraphone, timpani and harp, and an active percussion section.

But to listen to this work is to admire it as an endearing piece of modern music. This cannot be said of many new works in the current vogue.

Mr. Overton said he wanted to use chamber music sounds as opposed to large instrumental effects. This he did with splendid success.

The symphony, a one-movement work, gives the listener the feeling of riding in a noiseless vehicle, over a quiet roadway in a glen of rolling hills, in the warmth of a spring day. As the passenger looks about, he sees different patterns of designs and colors, now through the oboe, now through the flute, now through the harp, or the percussion.

There’s a feeling of movement, without being restless or frenetic. Even the Afro-Cuban rhythm is a delightful surprise: in place of a jazz melody, we find syncopated rhythms.

A quote from the poet John Masefield seems to fit the mood of the symphony: “What am I Life? A thing of watery, salt, held in cohesion by unresting cells.”

Mr. Overton, a Juilliard School of Music faculty member, justly earned the Composers Award that provided his work the chance for performance.

Second String Quartet has a helpful note from Don Jennings:

Hall Overton was born on February 23, 1920 in Bangor, Michigan. While at the Chicago Musical College he studied composition with Gustave Dunkelberger and later, composition with Vincent Persichetti at the Julliard School of Music. Subsequent composition teachers were Wallingford Riegger and Darius Milhaud. Overton was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1955 which enabled him to complete his Symphony for Strings, thereby fulfilling a Koussevitsky Foundation Commission for the work. In addition to the Symphony, he has written a great deal of chamber music, Nonage, a ballet; two string quartets; the Piano Sonata No. 1, several songs and a one-act opera, The Enchanted Pear Tree based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Overton has always shown a great deal of interest in the field of jazz, both as a performer and an arranger. As a pianist he has recorded with such jazz luminaries as Stan Getz, Teddy Charles, Jimmy Raney and Oscar Pettiford, and recently collaborated with Thelonious Monk in scoring the latter’s orchestra.

Elements of his earlier teachers as well as certain aspects of his jazz interest have found their way into Overton’s music. At no time, however, do these influences preclude his own superb imagination and originality. One reviewer, commenting on a performance that took place in 1958, noted a “smoldering intensity underlying its surface lyricism,” while another was struck by “the composer’s facility and affinity for strings.” He continued, “Its voice-leading has logic, its musical content lyricism and spirit.” All this is valid, but the imagination that Overton uses in introducing and developing the Quartet is also worthy of some discussion.

The work consists of two movements marked Allegro, cantabile and Allegro con spirito respectively, although he has managed to slip a short slow section, a quasi-third movement in the midst of the second. The piece opens somewhat Fugato with the following short theme introduced by the second violin:

string 4tet

It is then picked up by the others, one by one, with certain rhythmic changes in each voice. Thus, even at the outset, there is considerable transformation of the thematic material which is subsequently broken up and developed by fragments. The chief formal characteristic of this more or less monthematic movement is its pyramid design which reaches its apex nearly three fourths of the way through and gradually subsides to a meno mosso Closing Section.

The second movement is a quasi-Rondo with the aforementioned concealed third movement. The movement consists of short motives or theme fragments that are introduced, toyed with and, on occasion, allowed to become full themes. The technique used is subtle and, although not new, is wonderfully handled. A motivic element is suggested that may not gain prominence until further on in the movement, while some melodies that have been stated and dropped are re-introduced. Overton presents sections that are strongly chordal one moment and abruptly follows these passages that are wholly melodic in nature, nearly always carrying this material on a accompaniment of rhythmic drive and intensity. The nostalgic and sometimes whimsical slow section is followed by a coda that consists of nothing less that a condensation of the entire movement.

Jennings’s comment that, “Even at the outset, there is considerable transformation of the thematic material which is subsequently broken up and developed by fragments,” is true for all of Overton’s formal scores. The piano, cello, and viola sonatas and the Symphony No. 2 all consist of constantly varied material within a single movement. Although they are not “jazzy,” listening to them as “improvisations” or “fantasias” seems plausible. 

The Quartet is given a polished rendition by the Beaux-Arts Quartet, who sound particularly energized in the fast and rhythmic second movement. Undoubtedly Bartók is a big influence here, but those polytonal cadences remain recognizably Overton.

The LP of Viola Sonata and Cello Sonata is hard to find but includes valuable liner notes and photos.

Overton McCracken Greene

Cello Sonata is the longest Overton movement at 21 minutes. After a lugubrious introduction, the work offers many sophisticated and brilliant variations before a crackling cadenza and final summation on a familiar Overton sonority, a combination of C minor and B-flat minor.

Cello sonata ending

Within the variations is some of Overton’s finest fast music. One wonders what would have happened had the composer pursued these kind of textures with relentless tenacity. The excellent performance is by Charles McCracken with Lucy Greene on piano.

Viola Sonata may be Overton’s best piece of conventional chamber music. There are two recordings, the lovely original by the celebrated dedicatee Walter Trampler with Lucy Greene, and (on YouTube) a raw live 1989 performance by Bernard Zaslav with Naomi Zaslav.

It’s the Overton sonata that feels most like a “sonata,” and the opening chromatic lament is one of his most striking ideas:

Viola sonata

Later on the fast music is energetic and comfortable. Unusually for this composer, every path and byway is sufficiently explored.

In the liner notes Overton offers detailed and frankly dry analytical notes for both Sonatas. At one point he writes of a some phrases in Viola Sonata:

The implied jazz-like nature of this whole section depends not only on a steady beat but more (as it would in real jazz style) on an interpretive preoccupation with keeping the beat “alive” through subtle dynamic gradations in accent.

However, it must be said there is nothing in these accented sixteenths that you couldn’t find in Stravinsky.

Indeed, all of the above recordings are purely “classical” in affect. Some may insist on hearing the added-tone chromatic harmony as “jazzy,” but bebop pianists would play Overton’s polytonal voicings only in passing, not as the main argument. It is especially silly for Steele to describe the 6/8 in Symphony no.2 as “Afro-Cuban”: The effect is similar to any other 20th-century orchestral “gallop.”

Three Overton records do have an unmistakable jazz tinge and are his most unique music.

The first is not a formal score, but a charming failure with fellow jazz musicians. In 1953 Overton’s close associate Teddy Charles tracked four pieces with Overton on piano and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. Three of the compositions are credited to Overton and one to Charles, but the aesthetic is the same throughout. While Schuller had not named “Third Stream” music yet, this 1953 experimentalism is surely proto-Third Stream. Even the presence of vibraphone is Third-Streamish, as almost all of Schuller’s Third Stream records have vibraphone.

It is unusually unclear how much of the material is written, even within the percussion part. The 1949 “free” improvisations of the Tristano school are a likely influence, as are the usual suspects Hindemith and Milhaud.

The performance is unsettled rhythmically. Some of the time the musicians simply aren’t on the same track within the beat. Still, even if they were nailing it, the material would likely be neither fish nor fowl.

In Emanuel Levenson’s liner notes to the cello and viola Sonatas, Overton reflects on his bifurcated journey:

In recent years an increasing number of American composers have shown that the chasm separating jazz and contemporary concert music is not as deep and frightening as it once seemed. One such composer, Gunther Schuller, has coined the term “Third Stream” in order to promote the idea of merging the ocean of legitimate music and the rapids of jazz into a single waterway. Hall Overton, jazz musician and pianist and symphonic composer, will have none of this channelization. He sees the “Third Stream” composer as, essentially, a non-jazz musician self-consciously grafting a highly specialized medium to the main stream of music. As he puts it, “My attitude towards jazz is one of deep respect. Having attempted to master this difficult and exacting art for several years, with some small degree of success, I feel that I have come to know it in a way that is possible only through actually performing and creating in this idiom. Jazz has had a strong influence on my compositional style, but purely on a subconscious level. For I am opposed to the practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”

[boldface by e.i.]

It is telling that Overton did not continue in this early vein with Charles and Shaughnessy. Overton must have known that this avant-garde 1953 trio was only interesting, not truly great.

A later 1957 trio album with Charles and Overton, 3 for Duke, is a casual overview of Duke Ellington with the great Oscar Pettiford on bass.  3 for Duke is not essential listening — among other things, Overton is not really a powerful enough pianist — but at least it is a humble investigation, not, “The practice of trying to make jazz respectable through the unnatural imposition of classical forms or materials.”

Eventually Overton and Schuller were associated together in a genuine Third Stream project, Orchestra USA. Trombonist Mike Zwerin was a member of Orchestra USA and spends a chapter on this unusual organization in his wonderful memoir, Close Enough for Jazz. The Orchestra was the brain child of Schuller, John Lewis, and Harold Faberman: Zwerin is reasonably scathing about all three.

The Orchestra USA discography hasn’t left much of a footprint, and their most successful piece was probably Overton’s Sonorities for Orchestra.

The liner notes by George Avakian mention famous jazz names for other tracks on the disc — Jerome Richardson, Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Dick Katz — but it’s unclear whether they are on Sonorities for Orchestra. Avakian does cite Overton’s guest soloist, Richard Davis.

….Commissioned by John Lewis for Orchestra U.S.A. “Sonorities” is a fantasy in three-part form whose outside sections are slow and utilize both concerted effects and larger instrumental forces. The middle section, which has a chamber-music quality, is in the nature of an orchestral fantasy and was inspired by the brilliant bass playing of Richard Davis.

Richard Davis has a press quote, “Igor Stravinsky’s favorite bass player.” If this quote is true, it is because Davis had a natural grasp of modernist classical music. His great collaborator was Eric Dolphy, and Dolphy’s Out to Lunch with Davis on bass is arguably a kind of Third Stream music.

Sonorities is short, beautiful, and gives plenty of room to all of Richard Davis’s wild animal tendencies. It really works. Sonorities is unavailable digitally, so here is a lo-fi transfer from the rare LP:


The final Overton piece with a jazz influence is Pulsations. From the unsigned note on the CRI CD:

PULSATIONS is the last in Overton’s considerable catalogue and is probably the work that most perfectly fuses his own equal and opposite musical loves, concert music and jazz. In his words, it “explores various aspects of rhythm. Instead of avoiding a pulse, my intention was to write music based largely on a strong, steady beat.” This is not, however, the primitive pulse of the typical jazz band, but ranges from “straight-ahead propulsion, lag-beat, silent beat, free time and ‘doubling.’”

The moderately knowing listener will recognize characteristic jazz figures, along with others that are subtler, more deeply imbedded in the musical texture, and also more personal to Overton. In addition to its specific jazz references, PULSATIONS sometimes achieves a strange and dreamlike atmosphere that seems to represent the unworldly aspects of the jazz scene.

The work is dedicated to Thelonious Monk, the eminent jazz pianist, who is one of the many jazz people Overton worked closely with. It was commissioned by The Ensemble of New York.

Hall Overton was born in Bangor, Michigan, February 23, 1920 and died in New York on November 24, 1972. He started composing “serious” music when he was in his teens, when his family moved to Grand Rapids. His first orchestral work was performed while he was still in high school. It was only later, during his military service with the Third Armored Division, that he learned to how to play jazz piano.

Upon his return to civilian life, he studied with Persichetti at the Juilliard School and with Riegger and Milhaud at Aspen, meanwhile playing and recording jazz—-and impressing the jazz world with his gifts.

His compositions include the operas The Enchanted Pear Tree and Huckleberry Finn, a string quartet (released on CRI 126) and other chamber and orchestral works which won him important prizes and commissions.

At the time of his death he was on the faculty of the Juilliard School and was Visiting Professor of Composition at the Yale School of Music.

If Overton had been alive he surely would have struck the unknowing phrase “primitive pulse from the typical jazz band.”

Art Lange’s comment on Pulsations:

The last work Overton apparently completed was Pulsations (1972, CRI), which perhaps surprisingly returns to his early ‘50s disruption and dislocation of jazz and classical procedures. Brisk rhythms and isolated “solos” suggest the loose syncopation and spontaneity of jazz, instruments chatter, a bass line accompanied by drum kit slides into a Schuller-like noirish feel – and then suddenly Stravinsky takes over. Brusque trombone and staggered brass, calming but ominous string sighs, all small, abstracted, yet recognizable similarities to The Rite of Spring impede the music’s progress. The jazziness returns as tempos quicken. There’s an amusing, entertaining veneer to Pulsations (the moody middle section notwithstanding) in contrast to the earlier compositions’ serious, conscientious demeanor. It suggests Hall Overton was a complex figure, capable of alert, if low-key, meticulousness as a collaborative jazz artist, and a deep, discursive imagination in a more formal mode of expression.

I personally don’t hear any Rite of Spring quotes, but do agree that Pulsations is lighthearted. It’s almost a kind of joke about avant-garde jazz. After hearing a decade of “The New Thing” in the New York clubs, Overton might have concluded that it was time to give those special effects to an orchestra. He begins outrageously, with a long unison line of disjunct rhythms. This is followed by groaning horn chords and a written out trumpet solo. All of these gambits are jazz-related. Later on there are more conventional treats like gauzy piano/harp duets.

Pulsations 1Pulsations 2Pulsations 3Pulsations 4


When Overton says, “Instead of avoiding a pulse, my intention was to write music based largely on a strong, steady beat,” he must be making fun of his own music. There is no steady beat in Pulsations whatsoever. At one point walking bass (sounds like Richard Davis again?) and classical drums stagger out-of-sync with each other. Swing is not possible in this situation, so why not just get drunk instead?

For the first time, Overton has a big recap: The unison “head” comes back a few minutes before the work is done. The recording is good, but a couple of long pauses in the coda seem like incorrect edits.

I’m a fan of Hall Overton. Indeed, I have come to regard him almost as a father figure, someone who can advise me on private matters of aesthetics.

Still, while I might argue that Sonorities and Pulsations should be better known, that they be “in the conversation,” I wouldn’t claim true masterpiece status for either. The masterpieces of the era are to found on the jazz records, where improvisers armed only a few bits and pieces of formal notation put modernism in the tradition with swinging brilliance.

Herbie Nichols wrote in the liner notes to his first 1956 Blue Note LP: “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish.” He goes on to cite Hector Villa-Lobos, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Dimitri Shostakovich, Walter Piston, and Béla Bartók as his own inspirations.

Of course, Nichols was right: Among so many others, the mature music of Miles Davis or John Coltrane’s is unthinkable without a heavy injection of various harmonic and rhythmic colorations appropriated from European-based concert music.

Overton’s legacy may be most significant for those of us following in his footsteps today. Jazz from the 50’s and 60’s was the greatest music of the twentieth century. After observing one of the major participants of that era in close quarters, Thelonious Monk, Overton successfully harnessed some of the jazz scene’s incandescent energy for the realm of fully notated formal composition.


Overtone 1: Overton was not prolific. The titles of Piano Sonata #1 and Polarities #1 suggest unrealized ambitions, as in neither case does there seem to be a #2.

Most of his works lack commercial recordings. The most glaring omission is the opera Huckleberry Finn, which was premiered shortly before Overton’s death in the early 70s. The era and the use of electric bass suggests it may pair with Bernstein’s Mass. A comment in the New York Times preview notes that Overton’s libretto fleshed out the character of Jim. Overton: “Jim’s character is altered somewhat. He represents an older, wiser man who instructs in his own way. Towards the end, we have made a real change. Jim is freed, as in the novel, by his former owner, but instead of going back with Huck and Tom Sawyer, he takes off on his own to continue his original mission to free his immediate family.”

American Composers Alliance offers other unrecorded scores. The 3-part madrigal Captivity and the song Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount are more tonal and conservative than his instrumental works. A glance at the quasi-piano concerto Interplay suggests riffing percussive affinities with the Morton Gould piece of the same name, although not so “jazzy.” The ballet Nonage is explicitly scenario-driven. The writing is easy, perhaps for a youth orchestra accompanying a similarly modest dance company.

More intriguing is the provocative Rhythms for Violin and Orchestra, which is mature Overton in the manner of his best scores like Viola Sonata and Pulsations. The Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord is neoclassic and surprisingly heavy in the keyboard writing. These would be interesting to hear.

The Piano Sonata is nine minutes in one rhapsodic breath. The style starts like neo-Copland but soon becomes quite dense and polytonal, although a few comparatively placid passages stem the tide. Themes intertwine and there’s a transfigured recapitulation in the final pages but there is no conventional sonata form. Overton’s other piano pieces Polarities #1 (recorded by Robert Helps) and the single page Moods are for talented amateurs, but the Piano Sonata is worthy of professional interest. (The Sonata was played in ’53-’54 by Lalan Parrott and Avraham Sternklar; in 2016 I played it for an ACA concert.)

Overtone 2: Both Gunther Schuller and David Baker were committed to jazz education, but neither could find a way to express the essentially folkloric nature of jazz in the academic idiom. They meant well, and undoubtedly there is a lot of good in their criticism and method books, but students need to tread cautiously.

In person it was different. Baker sang, shucked and jived, and told stories. He was a real jazz cat. Same thing with Schuller. He scatted syllables and admitted he didn’t really know how to describe swing.

According to Jack Reilly, Overton’s teaching of jazz included making his students learn Monk and Horace Silver. “I had to memorize everything. He always demonstrated at the piano what he taught.” This is a good approach.

Overtone 3: In the 50’s and 60’s, not too many musicians who performed under the umbrella of “jazz”  wrote out finished scores for classical players the way that Overton, Schuller, and Baker did. At least since the 80’s, that has changed. Just a few names to consider: Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard.

Only recently did I become aware of the astonishing output of James Newton, whose formal scores are strikingly beautiful. (DTM interview.)

My old friend and mentor Pat Zimmerli was the first to spark my curiosity on this whole topic. (DTM interview.)

In his own category is Mel Powell, who somehow had major yet entirely separate careers in both “jazz” and “classical” music.

These days, things are moving quickly. Many others surrounding me in Brooklyn — to cite only one geographic region on this busy planet — are committed to notating more written pitches for improvising players than ever before.

Overtone 4: Overton’s Sonorities and Pulsations are not the only successful formally written pieces for large forces connected to avant-garde jazz written by classical composers. Here are three others that perhaps even more successful.

To be clear, none of this music attempts to “swing” or “get jazzy” in the manner of an Americana tradition that is much more like musical theatre than anything else. (George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein are the standard bearers of that genre.) These pieces are out!

Milton Babbitt, All Set. Actual jazz musicians played the premiere including Bill Evans. Always a fun listen.

Harrison Birtwistle, Panic. A kind of furious saxophone concerto. The recording with virtuoso John Harle and respected avant-garde jazz drummer Paul Clarvis is terrific.

Thomas Adès, Concerto Conciso. A convincing interpretation of clunky swing! For the initial piano thunks – and indeed the “beat” that goes through the entire first movement – it sounds like a normal binary 2 or 4. However, a glance at the score gives away the secret: that “beat” is half-note triplets, an agent that works against eighths in the chamber orchestra just like a professional jazz drummer. There’s even notated drum set that lurches into full activity towards the end. The effect is surprisingly similar to Paul Motian.

(Of Gunther Schuller’s many attempts, the best is a variation from his outstanding early work Contours, which we listened to together.)

Overtone 5:  For a time there was a tradition of avant-garde and jazz meeting in the soundtracks to television and movies, especially for genres including cops, criminals, and private detectives. The Johnny Mandel score for Point Blank, the John Williams score for The Long Goodbye, and the Lalo Schifrin score for Dirty Harry are three of the best.

Gil Mellé is worthy of further investigation. Mellé’s swinging but avant underscoring for Columbo was magnificent; he also recorded proficient straight-ahead jazz for Blue Note records.

Overtone 6: Cecil Taylor and Hall Overton crossed swords in a 1964 panel at Bennington. Overton does not come off well in this exchange. Taylor, perhaps rightfully so, needs Overton (and everyone else) to submit within the dominance hierarchy, and the result is a difficult situation.

Overton’s first misstep is taking Lennie Tristano as the starting point for discussion. Taylor doesn’t want to deal with Tristano until the primacy of African-Americans in jazz is established. It is sadly ironic that Overton is the sacrificial lamb here, because among the “classical white elite” (or whatever you want to call it) of that era, there was nobody more respectful towards jazz than Hall Overton.

Overton then asks Taylor about Jack Teagarden. Although during the panel it was not the right time or place, this is an interesting point: Who is more of a jazz musician, Jack Teagarden or Cecil Taylor?

Another irony is that many aspects of Taylor’s early masterpieces with a lot of written material –“Mixed,” “Pots,” and “Bulbs” from Into the Hot, or even Conquistador! — fit comfortably next to Overton’s “Pulsations.” Past the surface, Overton and Taylor shared similar aesthetic designs. (They might not agree with this statement, of course.)

In the realm of total speculation: After getting spanked at Bennington, “Pulsations” might have been Hall Overton’s attempt to do Cecil Taylor better than Cecil Taylor.

Overtone 7: An earlier DTM essay on Overton highlighted his piano piece “Polarities No. 1,” simply because I’d known and played through that work for years. It is collected in New Music for Piano, an outstanding anthology from 1963 with works by Alan Hohvaness, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Samuel Adler, Hall Overton, Milton Babbitt, Earl Kim, Miriam Gideon, Mark Brunswick, Kent Kennan, Ernst Bacon, Josef Alexander, Joseph Prostakoff, Sol Berkowitz, George Perle, Leo Craft, Morton Gould, Mel Powell, Paul A. Pisk, Ben Weber, Robert Helps, Norman Cazden, Vivian Fine, Arthur Berger and Ingolf Dahl.

The collection was recorded by Robert Helps in 1966 for CRI. Both the score and recording of New Music for the Piano were conceived and financed by the Abby Whiteside Foundation. Whiteside was a legendary piano guru who died in 1956. The posthumous foundation consisted mainly of Joseph Prostakoff and my teacher Sophia Rosoff. I say above that Overton is a father figure: Robert Helps and especially Sophia Rosoff are also in my “family.”

For fun, yesterday I read through “Polarities No. 1” at the Duc des Lombards jazz club in Paris and recorded it on my iPhone.

Polarities 1Polarites 2Polarities 3

I now regret focusing on “Polarities No.1” in my earlier essay as it undersells Overton’s prowess as a serious composer. It’s enjoyable but not important. However, I suppose it does have somewhat “jazzy” sonorities, especially the double-diminished chords on last page.

A copy of the Piano Sonata has also been in my library for a long time. I found it in a used book store in Arcata, California when on tour with the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1999.

Also from the Duc yesterday, the first three pages:

Sonata 1Sonata 2Sonata 3

And the first climax:

climax 1climax 2

Overtone 8: Very special thanks to Sam Stephenson of the Jazz Loft Project and Gina Genova of ACA for invaluable assistance on this project.

Reprints of Pulsations and Sonata No. 1 are courtesy of American Composers Edition. More information and complete scores for purchase at their Hall Overton page.


Sam Stephenson: Bio for Jazz Loft Project (Sam offers new biographical information about Overton in the wonderful book Gene Smith’s Sink.)

Sara Fisko: Professor by Day, Jazzman at Night

Nate Chinen: Home Life with Mikes: A Jazz History

Art Lange: Overview of Overton’s music (Kudos to Lange, my essay wouldn’t be here without this piece)

Jack Reilly: Hall Overton: Ashes to Ashes

Matt Weston’s site: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Cecil Taylor panel)

Noal Cohen: New Directions Revisited – The Rich and Unique Legacy of Teddy Charles

Hall Overton, “Out of the Shadows” (Panel with Steve Reich, Joel Sachs, and Carman Moore, moderated by myself. I was underprepared for this event.)