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In Praise of Tammy Hall, the Bay Area’s Indispensable Jazz Accompanist

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A Black woman in black top and greyish hair styled up plays the piano.
Tammy Hall, one of the most in-demand vocal accompanists in the Bay Area jazz scene, plays a full slate of shows this month — and gets honored by others in a special tribute. (Janice Rickert)

The art of vocal accompaniment requires a pianist to hover in the background. The paradox of Tammy Hall is that, in mastering this selfless role of subsuming oneself, she’s turned herself into the Bay Area’s conspicuously indispensable woman — a near-iconic figure fought over by jazz divas, blues belters, Brazilian singers and stars of women’s music alike.

A supremely soulful player with a fierce left hand, Hall is a consummate musician who cherishes elevating other artists, keeping her chops in check so as not to call attention away from the singer. Hall isn’t averse to leading a combo; she’s delivered many a thrilling performance with a trio or quartet. But it’s the Jedi practice of attaining invisibility while shaping a vocalist’s performance that has made Hall a ubiquitous presence at venues around the region.

In a recent conversation from her home in Seaside, where she moved three years ago “to be with the love of my life” after being priced out of San Francisco, Hall described some of the attributes required for effective accompaniment.

 

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“You cannot have an ego,” she said. “At its best, you don’t know where you begin and the singer ends. Playing with Kim Nalley for her Nina Simone tribute, it was feeling like I was breathing with her. There has to be a marked amount of empathy. Not everybody has the capacity. And if you get a solo, you better be really saying something, not just spouting out a lot of notes.”

Some serious health setbacks at the end of last year took Hall out of circulation for several months, and she’s still working to rebuild her stamina. She’s going to need it. Throughout March, she’s got a punishing schedule, including curating SFJAZZ’s four-part “Seen & Heard: Bay Area Women in Jazz & Beyond.”

Part of the organization’s Discover Jazz education program, the Wednesday night series kicked off last week and continues March 13 with Melba’s Kitchen, the all-women big band that performs compositions and arrangements by the late trombone great Melba Liston (with a generous helping of material by innovative pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams).

Trombonist Pat Mullan, who co-directs Melba’s Kitchen, started hearing Hall around three decades ago, shortly after the pianist returned to the Bay Area following a productive three-year stint in Brussels. Hall made a powerful impression backing jazz chanteuse Denise Perrier, but Mullan got a fuller sense of her power in the Montclair Women’s Big Band, “where I began to hear the extent of her genius,” Mullan said. “She could make that band swing!”

During the years when Mullan kept the East Bay’s long-running Junius Courtney Big Band going following the 2003 death of its namesake trumpeter, she sought out Hall for collaborations that revealed the depth of the pianist’s jazz knowledge. For a 2011 Freight & Salvage performance celebrating the legacy of Earl “Fatha” Hines, a pervasively influential pianist in the decades before World War II, she brought a “really clear vision, instructing the band about what she wanted from the group,” Mullan said. “She has a facility of getting her message across to musicians, and if you can do that, you can get it across to audiences. She really had Hines in her body.”

 

It’s entirely in keeping with Hall’s personality and career that her SFJAZZ series turns the spotlight on other artists. On March 20, an illustrious cast comes together in the Joe Henderson Lab to celebrate Afro-Cuban vocalist Bobi Céspedes, a key figure on the Bay Area’s Latin music scene since the 1980s. Hall’s series concludes March 27 back in Miner Auditorium with a night dedicated to powerhouse vocalist Linda Tillery — who, like Hall, was deeply involved with the women’s music movement centered around Olivia Records, which opened up space for a stylistically diverse array of lesbian musicians in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I’m really excited we get to celebrate Linda,” Hall said. “She’s been a vital and indelible force in this music. I remember first seeing her at Ollie’s in the back room playing drums.”

Darlene “Ollie” Oliveira’s namesake club in Oakland’s Temescal was a headquarters for lesbian musicians in the 1980s, and it was where Hall, who grew up in Dallas, landed one of her first regular Bay Area gigs, playing Sundays with a fusion band Beyond Definition. She’s since stayed connected to the women’s music scene, particularly through Holly Near, with whom she performs at Freight & Salvage on May 18 for Near’s “Almost 75th Birthday Party” show.

Tammy Hall. (Courtesy Tammy Hall)

While Hall hands out well-deserved bouquets to other women, the Civic Center jazz spot Mr. Tipple’s is ensuring she gets a floral arrangement of her own. She hasn’t just been a regular presence at Mr. Tipple’s: Tracy Piper’s striking mural of the pianist graces the club’s otherwise nondescript Fell Street façade. So turning March 16 into a marathon toast for Hall seems entirely fitting. Club proprietor Jay Bordeleau has booked five shows through the course of the night, including an early set by Hall’s trio, followed by the Santa Cruz samba band SambaDá and jazz vocalists Azure McCall, Christelle Durandy and Tiffany Austin.

“How do you book Women’s History Month without Tammy?” Bordeleau said. “Tiffany Austin said, ‘Let’s give Tammy her flowers and do a tribute she can enjoy.’ So we decided to do a celebration for her in her style, but not rely on her. I told her, ‘You can sit in the audience and just enjoy the shows.’”

Hall backs another bevy of women players on March 23 at Freight & Salvage as the leader of the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band for vocalist Rhonda Benin’s 10th Annual Just Like a Woman revue. And she’s back at SFJAZZ’s Miner Auditorium on May 18 for a family matinee celebrating Mary Lou Williams and Brazilian pianist Tania Maria.

Rebeca Mauleón, a formidable pianist herself who’s worked closely with Hall over the years as director of education at SFJAZZ, has always admired Hall’s “rare combination of power and grace.”

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“It’s as if she cradles the piano while knocking it on its rear end! Her musical generosity and humanity are always front and center,” Mauleón said. “Tammy truly shows up for her bandmates, for her colleagues, and for her students. She is unequivocally one of our Bay Area treasures.”

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