"I began playing at 8 on an electric piano," James recalled. "My dad showed me some basics. Several months afterward, I began lessons with John Burr, a very good jazz pianist, once a week."
James has tried pianos but sticks with his electric instrument, enjoying its variety of sounds.
"They are good at mimicking," he said.
For the last six months, Inklings on Main Street has been a monthly venue for the Tri-Valley Jazz Trio, which features James on keyboard, Matt Finders on bass, and Kelly Fasman on drums.
"It's a pretty good environment really," James said. "There are quite a lot of people, and it's good to be interacting with the band."
Finders has been a trombonist and arranger in the New York jazz scene, on Broadway, and for 17 years was with Jay Leno in Hollywood. Fasman has been playing and teaching for years in the Bay Area.
The Inklings concert this month, from 7-9 p.m. next Friday (Feb. 9) will also feature guest alto sax master Andrew Speight, an Australian and an old friend of the Hall family. He attended James' first birthday party, in Santa Clara, and gave him a toy drum.
"He couldn't have foreseen that 12 years later they would meet again, on a Pleasanton stage, and as members of a jazz quartet," Roger Hall said.
On March 23, tenor sax veteran Guido Fazio will be the guest soloist.
James does not expect to be a professional musician, his dad said, but he is a gifted keyboard player in a trio good enough to back world-class jazz soloists.
James began playing publicly at Cellar Door on Railroad Avenue.
"A friend let James accompany a few times," Roger remembered. "Then he started to play on his own at Inklings. It had only just opened. They have an event room, and I asked if he could put up his piano and play there."
James has also joined musicians at Retzlaff Winery and named one of his compositions in honor of the venue. He has written 30 pieces, some of them with titles evoking downtown Pleasanton, including "Strollin' on Main Street," "Danger on Division Street," "On Inklings Stage" and "Main Street after Dark."
He writes music by working out the sound, chords and phrases on the keyboard, he said, then using the computer program Finale Printmusic to notate the composition.
"It can transpose it into other keys so when we have guests, we can give them the sheet music in their own keys," Roger added.
Although James has produced several CDs on his own, the latest was recorded professionally in San Ramon, consisting of mostly his original works, labeled "James Hall in the Studio."
James attends Lighthouse Baptist School in a home-school program with much instruction done online. When he was beginning to study piano, James recalled, he played light classical to learn to read music but he has otherwise stuck with jazz.
He especially enjoys connecting with other jazz musicians onstage.
"Now our drums and keyboard face each other so it's easier to communicate and we can decide when someone will take a solo," James said.
Roger played the saxophone when a young man in England but laughed when he explained that although he was in a few teenage bands, his skill level was not high.
"I was a poor player myself but James is astonishingly good, for his age," Roger said. "I don't want him to be a professional musician; I just want him to enjoy it and have a network of people we are getting to know who like the music."
And James likes having an audience.
"I like seeing people listening to the music, I like the ability to improvise -- and I like listening to other people improvise," he said. "It is so much more interesting."
"They don't necessarily directly influence me, but hearing ideas, I am listening and learning how to improvise," he added.
The free monthly concerts are the result of a partnership between Inklings Coffee House, the Pleasanton Jazz Society, Janet Hall who is a Silicon Valley executive, and local Realtor Zelda Kohn and her husband Nathan.
The performances not only give his son an outlet but benefit the community, Roger believes.
"The purpose is to bring live jazz of a high standard to Pleasanton and re-ignite support for America's own music, especially among young people," he said.
He noted they have found another young teen, Sean Huang, 13, who plays the sax, and have started occasional Sunday afternoon concerts at Inklings with a view to creating a quartet of young teens.
For more information about James, his jazz and the Tri-Valley Jazz Trio, go to www.jameshalljazz.com.
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