Most Valued Player: Edmond Hall
by Nic Jones
Before Coleman Hawkins more or less single-handedly created a role for the tenor sax in jazz, the clarinet was the only reed instrument that had a home in the music. Edmond Hall, along with Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet, was one of its ablest exponents.
Born in New Orleans in May of 1901, he was one of a family of five sons, all of whom were musicians. At the age of 17 he began playing with local bands, and this was the start of a musical apprenticeship of some sixteen years, which included spells with the bands of, amongst others, Alonzo Ross, Claude Hopkins,—with whom he stayed for five years and doubled on baritone sax—and Lionel Hampton.
By the time he recorded some small group sides for Blue Note in February of 1941 he was a fluent clarinet soloist capable of climbing all over the instrument without sacrificing feeling, swing, and the ability to convey the music in a forthright and personal manner. In the company of bebop pioneer Charlie Christian on guitar, the boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, playing celeste, and with no drummer present, Hall brought the depth and extent of his apprenticeship to bear. His playing over the stellar accompaniment is at the same time heated, controlled, and enhanced in no small order by the absence of pretense.
1944 was something of a significant year for Hall, at least in recording terms. Not only did he produce some sublime sides for Blue Note in the company of Red Norvo and Teddy Wilson, including the aptly named "Smooth Sailing", but he also put out some quartet sides for Commodore, again with Wilson at the piano. Here he is to be found in such imperious form that he even makes "It's Only A Shanty In Old Shanty Town" a thing of musical pleasure.
In 1950 he joined the house band at Eddie Condon's place in New York City, where he stayed for five years before replacing Barney Bigard in Louis Armstrong's All Stars in 1955. Live recordings from San Francisco's Club Hangover, a name only too apt for any musician working concurrently at Condon's, made in 1954, find Hall in the company of Ralph Sutton, a pianistic proposition considerably different from Teddy Wilson. Here Hall's tone is at times coarse, though the poise that was always an integral part of his playing is still in place along with the sharpness of his tone.
In his three years with Armstrong, Hall got to see more of the world than many other clarinet players from New Orleans, with the debatable exception of Bechet. These experiences he followed up with several months spent teaching and playing in Ghana in 1959, and a tour of Japan with the Dukes Of Dixieland in 1964. Dated though his form of musical expression might have been by this time, he could never be accused of not spreading the word, a task brought to an end by his death from a heart attack in 1967.
Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.
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