Tammy Hall Steps to the Forefront

By Lee Hildebrand

Tammy Hall. Photo by Len Keller.

Ask just about any jazz singer in the Bay Area who their favorite piano accompanist is and they’ll tell you, “Tammy Hall.” The San Francisco-based musician has played with some of the best over the past two decades. The list includes Rhonda Benin, Brenda Boykin, Darlene Coleman, Debbie DeCoudreaux, Frankye Kelly, Lady Mem’fis, Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier, Pamela Rose and Linda Tillery. She’s also backed such out-of-town vocalists as the legendary Jimmy Scott, the late Etta Jones and former Supreme Mary Wilson.
The secret of being a good accompanist, says Hall, 48, is to “leave your ego at home and open your ears and open your heart. It’s not about you. It’s about the soloist, and that can be a vocalist or another instrumentalist. You’re there to support them, and you learn to go with person you’re backing.”
She first learned those lessons while playing piano and organ for choirs at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist in her native Dallas. “It’s about listening and following, even though you’re usually reading scripted music, and especially in my church,” she explains. “It was a quiet missionary Baptist church, no holy-roller gospel church. There was a lot of classical music involved. A lot of the singers were classically trained, and, of course, we did spirituals, which are different from gospel — a little more structured, if you will.”
Hall also studied classical piano, attended the elite Hockaday School for girls in Dallas on a music scholarship and in 1979, moved to Oakland to attend Mills College on another scholarship. She dropped out after two years.
“I wanted to get into the thick of things, and it wasn’t going to happen there,” says Hall, who went on to play for blues singer-guitarist Patricia Wilder and an all-woman fusion band called Beyond Definitions, among others. From 2003 to 2008, she was a house pianist for the now-defunct Jazz at Pearl’s in San Francisco, where she backed owner Kim Nalley and such visiting artists as saxophonists Houston Person and David “Fathead” Newman.
Hall can be heard on recordings by Nalley, Lady Mem’fis, Pamela Rose and others and in 2006 released “Blue Divine,” her own instrumental CD of mostly original straight-ahead jazz and Brazilian- and gospel-flavored songs. It includes “For Miss Jones,” a swinging salute to Etta Jones, who died in 2001 at age 72.
The pianist is presently working on a second CD and has seven songs completed. She hopes to include an arrangement of “Never Can Say Goodbye” as a tribute to Michael Jackson. Houston Person had suggested she do it, and she hopes to be able to get him to record it with her when he comes to San Francisco to perform with her and Nalley at the Rrazz Room from June 30 through July 3.
Hall will be previewing music from her forthcoming release at 8 p.m. Friday, February 26, at the Jazzschool, 2087 Addison Street, Berkeley. She’ll be joined by bassist Ruth Davies and drummer Kent Bryson.
Send comments and story ideas to Lee Hildebrand at LeeHilde@aol.com.