Six Degrees of Hall Overton

The following post from old DTM (originally posted January 2010) prompted an invitation to participate in Lincoln Center's "Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows," organized by Sam Stephenson and Sarah Ziebell. I played piano and spoke with Steve Reich and Carman Moore. Full video here.  

Thanks to Brock Walters, who got the ball rolling by sending me a provocative email that included a link to Sara Fishko’s cool NPR profile of Hall Overton.


It’s a tribute to Thelonious Monk’s stature that almost everyone who worked with him has at least a residual glow of importance today. Hall Overton’s name would be vastly more obscure in the 21st century if he hadn’t been hired to write the big band arrangements for Monk at Town Hall. These will probably always be the best Monk big band charts.

A major stash of Overton-Monk rehearsal recordings made by Eugene Smith have surfaced, thanks to the tireless individuals at The Jazz Loft Project. We now know so much more about how Monk thought about his music! These tapes are quoted in the Jason Moran project “Monk in My Mind” and the Robin D. G. Kelley biography. (Read Nate Chinen's excellent NY Times piece about Monk and Overton.)

But I’m less intrigued by Overton’s Monkian reflection -- quite honestly, none of the Monk big band discs are my favorite recordings of my favorite pianist -- than by how he simultaneously played professional-level jazz piano while also composing serious modernist classical music.

Art Lange has done some essential work at Point of Departure with a long article that collates the entire Overton discography. With Lange’s guidance I’ve listened to Overton play solid, non-virtuosic early '50s bebop on a celebrated Stan Getz/Jimmy Raney date and on a rather soggy Phil Woods session. (Nick Stabulas, who is terrific with Tristano in the 60's, doesn't have it together yet.) As Lange indicates, the really provocative commercial recording of Overton as a pianist is in a bass-less trio with Teddy Charles and Ed Shaughnessy. That trio’s four pieces are probably more intriguing than wildly successful; still, it’s pretty weird “jazz” for 1953 -- and only $3.96 off of iTunes.

A few of the other jazz recordings I haven’t been able to find, and the discs of the String Quartet and orchestral music are obscure, indeed. (Lange has a deep record collection!)  There must be a reference recording of Overton’s opera Huckleberry Finn somewhere -- as far as I know, that’s the only operatic treatment of Finn yet. (Interestingly, the instrumentation lists electric guitar, electric bass, and organ as well as more standard forces.)

Most of Overton’s scores aren’t easier to find than his recordings. However, one piano piece had some currency for several years, “Polarities No. 1.” I play it on the video linked to at the top of this page.

Polarities pg. 1

Polarities pg. 2

Polarities pg. 3


I bought the collection New Music for Piano a long time ago. Published in 1963, it’s the best book of its kind. Much of the music 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 is perfect sight-reading fodder. And - no kidding - one of my favorites to play through has always been Overton’s “Polarities No. 1.”

This collection was recorded by Robert Helps in 1966, and is still available from the CRI website, which makes “Polarities No. 1” the only CD issue of Overton’s classical music.

Here’s where it really becomes “Six Degrees of Hall Overton”: 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 Sophia Rosoff. For over ten years, Rosoff has been my teacher, and she gave me permission to post the sheet music of “Polarities No. 1” here.

The score is out of print. Get it if you can; there are still copies floating around at bargain prices.  Obviously, if the copyright owner shows up and demands that I take down the photocopy of "Polarities," I will -- especially if they are planning to reboot this outstanding publication with some decent fanfare. Morton Gould was the original publisher, I believe, and his "Rag-Blues-Rag" from this collection is the best solo piano work of his that I know of. A lot of the other pieces show the other composers at their best, as well. Two of the finest and most virtuosic are Vivian Fine's "Sinfonia and Fugato" and Miriam Gideon's "Suite No. 3." A worthy topic for someone to dig into:  Fine and Gideon were part of a tough coterie of mid-century classical music women geniuses that included Whiteside and Louise Talma. Sophia is the last of those angels. I'm pretty sure they scared a lot of men back in the day.

I had the score before I met Sophia, but discovered the 2-record set in her apartment. The piano playing amazed me: who was Robert Helps? (Jed Distler had a similar experience.)



Along with Morton Gould, Robert Helps was one of Whiteside’s most famous students. Like Gould, Helps composed and played equally well. Shortly before he died in 2001, I took one lesson with him while touring in Florida. I was deep into Roger Sessions at that time and hacked my way though the second sonata in front of him. I thought this was a good idea, since Helps was a renowned interpreter of Sessions; indeed, I was at a Merkin Hall concert of “Helps plays Sessions” that was also attended by Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. After listening to me, Helps asked, “How long have you been working on this?” A couple of months. “I’ve been working on it since 1946.” He closed the score. “Let’s look at the Chopin études you know instead.” 

It went on to be a great lesson and post-lesson discussion with a master musician. One thing he told me was how much he hated recording, which is presumably why there is such a slender Helps discography, which only includes the canonical Sessions recordings, New Music for the Piano, a luminous live Chopin-Godowsky study, and several of his own pieces. Helps’s reputation as a composer is growing posthumously -- I’m amazed at how much there is on Amazon today. (I could hardly find anything before I visited him.) His vital music is influenced by French impressionism and Scriabin alongside serialism and Sessions. He gave me a tape of his second Piano Concerto, which was commissioned and performed by Richard Goode. That tape must come out some day -- or maybe Goode could program it again? It’s a marvelous piece.


Anyway, all this means that whenever I hear the name “Hall Overton,” I think of “Polarities No. 1,”  before I think of “Thelonious Monk.” (I’m fairly certain I’m the only jazz musician for whom this is true.) 

Now for a true rarity, something that’s never been recorded or perhaps even performed: Overton’s Sonata No. 1. Indeed, I’m sure there are only a few copies of this score extant. (I found mine in a used book shop in Arcata, California.) It starts in a cheerful, post-Copland fashion, before getting darker and polytonal. To foster interest, here's the first three pages. The full score is 20 pages in Overton's own gorgeous script, in one movement, and dated “28 July, 1952.” It’s a work that should get a decent hearing. I may learn it myself some day.

Sonata pg. 1

Sonata pg. 2

Sonata pg. 3

Wouldn’t it be a nice thing to produce a proper Overton CD now, with performances of his chamber music, an aria or two from Huckleberry Finn with piano accompaniment, and the best tracks of Overton himself jamming at the Jazz Loft? Imagine: he wrote this Sonata one day and recorded with Stan Getz the next. The 50’s were such a vital time in American music, and Overton’s work in totality offers a unique snapshot of that moment.


Coda: Six Degrees of Alvin Singleton?

The only other person whom I can think of who played jazz piano with the masters while getting his modernist classical music recorded on labels like CRI is Mel Powell, whom I like hearing with Benny Goodman but honestly don’t know very well otherwise. But I put “hall overton” “mel powell” into Google just to see. Right away I found this fascinating interview with Alvin Singleton by Frank J. Oteri.

How have I never heard of Alvin Singleton before? He hates classifying his music as any one style, but has worked with classical orchestras, AACM-related performers, and members of the Marsalis family. I’m currently auditioning the Tzadik recording available from iTunes. My ears are slowly acquiring Singelton’s diverse languages, but unquestionably, the last track, “Again,” is phenomenal. 

Overton is long dead. Singleton is here, writing, and living in Atlanta. He is obviously a major artist. Pay attention.

Alvin Singleton website.