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Andrew Hill: 1931-2007
Andrew Hill
Pianist-Composer

Born: June 30, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois
Died: April 20, 2007 in Jersey City, New Jersey

Distinctive composer and pianist

by James Hale
Copyright © 2007 James Hale

Among his peers and numerous musicians a generation or two younger, pianist and composer Andrew Hill was considered as influential and critical to the development of jazz as Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor or Herbie Hancock. That Hill, who died of lung cancer on April 20, 2007, at the age of 75, never received the kind of widespread recognition enjoyed by other key figures of the 1960s is one of those injustices that may only be corrected with time.

One thing is clear: time does not diminish the power of the five landmark recordings he made for Blue Note Records in a period of less than eight months in 1963-64. Black Fire, Smoke Stack, Judgment!, Point of Departure and Andrew!!! are among the most important and original recordings of their era. Together, they illustrate Hill's angularity of phrase and elasticity of tempo. They are shot through with humor and joy, redolent of gospel and blues, yet completely beyond easy definition.

"Andrew's tone is one of the most unique sounds in jazz," said pianist Jason Moran, one of a number of young musicians who sought Hill out as a mentor in his later years.

Another pianist-acolyte a couple of generations younger, Vijay Iyer, said: "He had tremendous control of counterpoint -- the ability to make different voices distinct, and allow the layers of his music to happen in their own time. The defining quality of Andrew was his humanity. You feel his physical presence in his piano playing; you feel his touch."

Andrew Hill began his musical career as an accordionist, playing on the streets of Chicago while he sang and tap-danced for change. At 10, he began to teach himself piano, and quickly became proficient enough to attract the attention of Earl Hines and Bill Russo, who subsequently introduced Hill to composer Paul Hindemith.

By his early 20s, Hill was regularly featured on his hometown's jazz and R&B scene, performing with Paul Williams and the Freeman brothers band. He sat in with visiting artists like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons and Howard McGhee. His debut recording as a leader, featuring bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, was made in 1955.

In 1959, his trio toured with singer Dinah Washington, and in 1961 Hill moved to New York City to record with Johnny Hartman and Roland Kirk.

His introduction on Blue Note Records came courtesy of Joe Henderson, and he returned to the studio with Hank Mobley before recording his groundbreaking five LPs.

He remained with Blue Note, making a variety of recordings, until 1969, when he enrolled at Colgate University to study for a doctorate. He was the university's composer-in-residence for three years before moving to California to teach.

Although he occasionally reappeared -- on small European labels, and for a time on the resurrected Blue Note label -- it seemed unlikely that Hill would return to active performing until he moved back to New York City in the early 1990s. His appearance at the 1998 Texaco Jazz Festival at the Knitting Factory was one of the events of that year, and his debut for the Palmetto label, Dusk, received critical raves and several "album of the year" awards.

The last seven years of his life were among his most fruitful as he led several bands, including a quartet, a sextet and a big band.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2004, Hill continued to play and compose, and his final recording, Time Lines -- marking his third appearance on the Blue Note label -- was a vital and life-affirming offering, including a moving tribute to his one-time bandmate Malachi Favors.

Andrew Hill is survived by his wife Joanne Robinson Hill.


James Hale
Editor of Jazzhouse.org.

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With 1 reader comment, posted May 4, 2007