Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hill, Andrew

Pianist Andrew Hill’s challenging compositional style puzzled many jazz fans during his lifetime. Despite this, many masters of post-bop cite the influence of his boundary-pushing methods. This growing reputation amongst jazz musicians has led fans, critics, and scholars to reassess his legacy, especially his recordings for Blue Note in the 1960s.

   Delineation and Partition and Hill, by Martel Chapman

While Hill has been rumored to have been born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1937, he was actually born in the south side of Chicago, Illinois on June 30, 1931. He began tap dancing and played piano and accordion at an early age, studying with Bill Russo, who later worked as an arranger for Stan Kenton, and classical composer Paul Hindemith. By the early 1950s he was gigging around the Chicago area, and in 1953 he briefly backed Charlie Parker at the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit.

Hill’s first recording session took place on November 4, 1954 under the leadership of bassist David Shipp for the Vee-Jay label. He also worked as a rhythm and blues pianist, for both the Freeman Brothers Band and the De’bonaires, the latter of which recorded for the Ping label in October, 1956.

Word of Hill's talent quickly spread in Chicago, and before long he was a regular house pianist at many hotspot nightclubs, where he played with Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, among others. Throughout the 1950s, Hill worked with Coleman Hawkins and landed an extended run accompanying vocalist Dinah Washington.

In 1959, Hill made his first recording as a leader, So in Love, with bassist and future AACM activist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter. Still based in Chicago at this time, Hill moved to New York City around 1960 and began working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Hill’s early performance experience soon landed him some of the top recording gigs of the mid 1960s. He was invited to play on Joe Henderson’s Our Thing, and a month later, Hank Mobley’s No Room for Squares. While Hill savored these early sideman opportunities, he was primarily interested in performing his ever-growing list of compositions as a leader. Blue Note founder Alfred Lion referred to Hill as “his last great protégé," and offered him a contract with his label in 1963.

Hill’s Blue Note recordings in the 1960s remain the highlights of his career as a composer and a performer, requesting and landing many of the world’s premier jazz players to support him. While the records vary greatly in style and instrumentation, Hill’s compositional style was a consistent balancing act of traditional bop roots and unconventional chordal additions and rhythmic independence.

Two of the earlier Blue Note recordings were 1963’s Black Fire, which features Joe Henderson and Roy Haynes, and 1964’s Judgment! which features Bobby Hutcherson and Elvin Jones. Both are inspired outings comprised entirely of Hill originals, a trend that would continue throughout most of Hill’s future recordings.

                 Andrew Hill (photo by Jos L. Knaepen)

1964’s Point of Departure, Hill’s best known work, featured Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Richard Davis and Tony Williams collectively pushing the Blue Note envelope. As Ted Gioia states in his review of the record’s opening track, “Refuge” "mixes old-style hard swing with an incisive probing attitude that seems to want to break free from the constraints of the music, but never really lets go." This statement encapsulates the essence Hill’s playing – constantly pushing the boundaries of bop, he never directly crosses out of jazz, as many of his free-jazz and avant-garde counterparts intentionally aimed to.

Other Blue Note sessions from the mid to late 1960s resulted in the following records: Andrew!!!featuring Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Chambers, Pax featuring Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, which was not released until 2006, Dialogue, , which features Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson, and Grass Roots, a soul-jazz inspired session featuring Woody Shaw, Reggie Workman and Idris Muhammad.

“Soul Special” is a boogaloo track interspersed with Hill’s compositional surprises. Many additional recordings, such as "Monkash," weren’t released at the time of their creation, have since been released as a Mosaic boxed-set entitled The Complete Blue Note Andrew Hill Sessions.

Hill’s music was being lauded by musicians but, much to his chagrin, it did not sell well. Therefore, after recording Lift Every Voice and Passing Ships for Blue Note in 1969, Hill moved to California and began a second career as a jazz educator. He accepted a tenure-track position at Portland State University, ran summer jazz festivals, conducted piano and improvisation workshops, and occasionally gave solo piano performances. Throughout the majority of the 1970s and early 1980s, with the exception of a handful of recordings for the Steeplechase label, performing took the backseat to education.

Upon the death of Hill’s first wife LaVerne Gillete in 1989 and his remarriage to Janice Robinson in 1992, Hill slowly reemerged as a performer and bandleader, forming a quintet with longtime collaborator Bobby Hutcherson, as well as altoist Greg Osby, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ben Riley for 1989’s Eternal Spirit A relocation to Jersey City, New Jersey soon followed, where Hill was greeted by a generation of younger jazz musicians who, to Hill’s delight, were eager to learn from someone they viewed as a critical compositional influence. Much to his surprise, Hill’s Blue Note records had landed him the reputation of a jazz legend, even though the records were barely twenty years old.

Hill participated in Reggie Workman’s Summit Conference sessions, which also featured Sam Rivers and Julian Priester in 1994. Soon thereafter he released a solo piano record entitled Los Trinitaires. In the late 1990s, he formed the “New Point of Departure Quintet,” featuring Marty Ehrlich, Greg Tardy, Scott Colley, and either Billy Drummond or Billy Hart on drums, with the vision of re-creating the sound of the original Point of Departure sessions. The group performed frequently at the Jazz Standard and Birdland in New York City, and entered the studio, with the addition of Ron Horton on trumpet, to record Dusk in 2000 for the Palmetto label.

Hill’s final recordings included A Beautiful Day in 2001, which featured most members of the New Point of Departure Quintet supplemented by a complete big band. “The Day the World Changed Suite” was premiered upon his acceptance of the prestigious JAZZPAR Award in 2004. Finally, Time Lines, a 2006 effort with Greg Tardy, Charles Tolliver, John Herbert and Eric McPherson, marked Hill’s full-circle return to Blue Note Records.

Hill performed with the young rhythm section of Herbert and McPherson until the end of his life, making his final public appearance with this trio at New York City’s Trinity Church, on March 29, 2007. After a battle with lung cancer, Hill passed away at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey on April 20, 2007.

Hill posthumously the title of Jazz Master, the nation's highest award for a jazz musician, from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music on May 12, 2008. These honors add on to his already significant list of major jazz awards: Jazz Journalists Composer of the Year Award (2000, 2001, 2003, 2006), Down Beat magazine Critics Poll winner in 2000 and 2001, the Doris Duke Foundation Award for Jazz Composers (first artist awarded), and the abovementioned JAZZPAR Award (2003).

As jazz enters its second century, musicians from the previous generation who were able to juggle successfully the complexities of free jazz with swing and bop traditions have become major influences for many of the finest younger players on the scene. For constantly pushing musical boundaries but never abandoning them, for constantly creating new possibilities that were truly ahead of his time, Andrew Hill has emerged as the leader of this influential pack.

Selected Discography:

as a Leader:

So in Love (1960), Black Fire (1963), Smoke Stack (1963), Judgment! (1964), Point of Departure (1964), Andrew!!! (1964), Cosmos (1965), One for One (1965), Compulsion (1965), Involution (1966), Grass Roots (1968), Dance with Death (1968), Lift Every Voice (1969), Passing Ships (1969), Invitation (1974), Spiral (1974), Blue Black (1975), Divine Revelation (1975), Live at Montreux (1975), Hommage (1975), Nefertiti (1976), From California with Love (1978), Strange Serenade (1980), Faces of Hope (1980), Shades (1986), Verona Rag (1986), Eternal Spirit (1989), But Not Farewell (1990), Les Trinitaires (1998), Dusk (1999), A Beautiful Day (2001), The Day the World Stood Still (2003), Time Lines (2006), Pax (2006)

Additional Recordings:

Domino (Rahsaan Roland Kirk, 1962), To My Queen (Walt Dickerson, 1962), Conflict (Jimmy Woods, 1963), No Room for Squares (Hank Mobley, 1963), Our Thing (Joe Henderson, 1963), Straight No Filter (Hank Mobley, 1963), Dialogue (Bobby Hutcherson, 1965), Summit Conference (Reggie Workman, 1993), Future Jazz (Howard Mandel, 1999), Invisible Hand (Greg Osby, 2000)

Contributor: Eric Novod

Related Links

Remembering Andrew Hill by Eric Novod