Andrew Hill: Roots and Blue Notes

Andrew Hill:
Roots and Blue Notes

By Ted Panken
Copyright © 1996, 1997, Ted Panken

Pianist/composer/improviser Andrew Hill Interviewed on June 26, 1996 by Ted Panken, host of jazz and new music programs on the Columbia University/New York City radio station WKCR.FM for the past 11 years. Music cues are provided as they were played on the air; album titles are italicized, song titles in quotation marks ("...").

MUSIC: "Monk's Glimpse" w/ C. Jordan-Reid-Riley

TP: "Monk's Glimpse" features you with a fellow Chicagoan, Clifford Jordan, who I imagine you knew during your days in Chicago. Did you?

AH: Yes, I knew Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, later on Leroy Jenkins, a few other what you would call precocious kids all my life, because when we would run into each other when we were quite young, and each one of us would have our instruments and different things that economics would allow us to do during that period.

TP: The three people you mentioned all went to DuSable High School on the South Side. Is that where you went?

AH: No. I was one of the first children admitted to the University of Chicago pilot program. At that time, intelligence was based upon a certain middle-class standard, and if a person didn't fit into certain this middle-class standard they wouldn't have so-called "intelligence." But for some reason I appeared to be bright. I was semi-autistic, but as they called me, bright. So they took me in and brought me to the point where I would be sociable.

Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up. I used to call it the University of the Streets, because on the tip of Oakwood Boulevard you had the Macombo where I could listen to people like the late Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, I even saw Fats Navarro one time playing tenor, quite a few others. They had this class where I would miss school... Well, I didn't have to miss school. I was brilliant and kind of eccentric, even then. So we would meet up. And jazz wasn't an art form. These were the days building up to the zenith in jazz in the '50s and '60s. So every block would have a band in the area... I grew up in somewhat a red-light district, not red-light defined as...well, yeah, red-light, where you would have music available. Then they also had after-hour parties that I could attend, because musicians would come and get me. So I would mentor under Albert Ammons, Earl "Fatha" Hines, all these type of influences. I wasn't musically literate then, so I didn't categorize of classify things, so here I had this rainbow collage of music available at every turn - and so did all of us.

TP: The years you're talking about now would be directly after World War Two until the early 1950's?

AH: Well, the years I'm talking about is consciousness; you know, when consciousness first hit me and when I started accumulating childhood memories. My memories go back to, we'll say, 1941 as a baby almost, to the Regal Theater, which was part of the chitlin' theater for Black artists, where I experienced such phenomenons as Fats Waller playing the organ and different things. Then in 1945 there was a bar right down the street from me called the Savoy, where they had people like Hot Lips Page, and I would be chaperoned in these places. There's a joke about that. I took up the northeast corner of 47th Street, because on the corner where the Regal and the Savoy was (what they called South-Center) that was the spot for me to play accordion blues style and tap dance. So I've in a sense been organically part of the scene since I was a little kid, because it was inclusive of me, and older artists would give me what I needed.

TP: It sounds like music has been part of your entire living consciousness and memory. Do you remember a time when you weren't playing music?

AH: No, not even recently. Because a lot of times, when you're not visible on the New York scene, there's this theory that you're not functioning. Even off the scenes, I've written string quartets, performed with 40-to-100-piece choral groups. It's an interesting life, because music it has always been with me. The crowd comes and goes. At one moment it's the mode, you're not; the next moment you're not so hot. So now I'm back in New York again, and now it looks like everything is a retrospective. But even in the retrospective I've begged to come back on the scene, because in a retrospective some things are missing, some things have never been captured, and if the person really don't come back and give them a guideline to what was going on... Because it might just be the link to creativity itself, but if only the academic situation is available in a mausoleum type learning process, that means something could be lost.

TP: I'd like to step back again to your days in Chicago. You mentioned people like Albert Ammons and Earl Hines. Some capsule impressions them, and other pianists who influenced the way you approach the piano. Albert Ammons first.

AH: Albert Ammons, because he played boogie-woogie, and the way I played accordion, boogie-woogie was accessible, because you would approach it rhythmically, not harmonically, which after he taught it to me made me ambidextrous, which gave me complete independence between the hands. And then Fatha Hines was interesting because, as you know, he started the single finger approach to Jazz. And then there were so many other followers around the area with these individualistic approaches to music. This was the difference between Chicago and New York for a long period of time. In New York you would have one person who would be a great innovator, and a lot of imitators - which it's all common property. But in places like Chicago, after the music left New Orleans and came to Chicago, then people had the freedom to be flexible and not have to sound like anyone. Their only rule was that they had to fit into the tradition itself, the tradition coming from, we'll say, the beginning of the oral Protestant tradition.

TP: Who were some of the other pianists in Chicago who had an impact on you?

AH: There were so many. was a fellow named Vernon Griddle(?). I don't know if he ever made it; he was phenomenal. Then there was Chris Anderson, who had and still has a unique approach to harmony, similar to Willie Jones. Willie Jones played like Milt Buckner, but then he was into the new music aesthetic where he used to listen things like Lukas Foss 1950s' music and stuff, so I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer. Then there was Sun Ra, or Sonny Blount.

The amazing thing about Chicago was that there wasn't anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or what someone else was doing, because it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing. But Sonny's approach was a basic Chicago approach even on a blues, where they said we would go Out and we would go In - which a lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others. To an extent that style really developed in Chicago. But like I said, Chicago was category-less, so people would come out to hear the music, so it was just an organic situation, like an African modal situation, which would put on the performer to be able to play in all the different voices, not a monotone where it's a stylistic supported by an academic element who are more lettered than oral.

TP: Ahmad Jamal followed Earl Hines' path from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1949, and was also a child prodigy and performer. Did he have an impact on the way you approached the piano or the piano trio?

AH: No. In retrospect, what I just said is there were so many brilliant people, known or unknown, and we would exchange ideas. But any time you go to mimicking or idol worship, you cancel creativity, because you negate the openness that you need to have creative contact.

TP: Besides Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore and Leroy Jenkins, who were some other people in your peer group that you associated with?

AH: I mentioned those, but there were a lot of others. There was always Johnny Griffin, who was a little ahead of us. But a lot of the others developed. They had more of an academic approach than a natural talent approach, with a continuous learning process. There are people who are born with a talent for music. The more you listen to something, the more available it becomes, and when it's readily available in your environment, your aesthetic, your sense of harmony, rhythm, etcetera, develops that much faster.

TP: When did you start working on the professional music scene in Chicago as a pianist in rhythm sections or as a trio pianist in various venues?

AH: Almost from the start. I remember at 12 years old an alto saxophonist named George Lee came and got me and took me on my first job. It was at a sorority house. From then on I was working every weekend. Then I found out about the night circuit where the rent parties were still going on. The pianists who were working that circuit used to get too much work, or they'd have a job where they couldn't get there until 12 o'clock. I had no curfew, so I could go and play the piano from around 8 o'clock until 12: 30 in the morning.

TP: I gather that your first recording was on a very obscure date with Von Freeman in 1952?

AH: Yeah. I had Von Freeman, Pat Patrick, Wilbur Campbell, and Leroy Jackson.

TP: Was Von Freeman one of the people you were working with?

AH: Well, Von Freeman used to work all the sorority gigs, he had some high school dance jobs, so he was always a presence because he and George and Bruz would always play those type of affairs.

TP: Outside of people in Chicago, who were musicians on the national scene that had an impact on you. We began with "Monk's Glimpse," and there's always seemed to be a certain affinity to Monk's approach to music in what you do.

AH: Well, retrospectively, Monk to a lot of young pianists my age in 1949 was very accessible, in terms of understanding what he did and following his music. That's why now, when I talk about the periods of Jazz, I talk about the period when it was a popular music and when it became an art form. Like, I came on the end of the period when it was a popular music, so that way someone from another lifestyle or another area in life could look at it as experimental, when it was very organic, which comes from people like Monk. Before television and integration got strong, jazz was the spiritual element that kept the community together. So certain things we heard all the time. It wasn't even called jazz then. I remember up until 1949, Downbeat used to have pictures of Negroes (as we were called during that time) talking about how we play the flute, but my lips are too big... So when I think about Jazz, then I think about the first jazz recording by a group who sounded like Spike Jones, and the creoles were supposed to have the first recordings, but then they excluded the blacks from uptown, even though their music goes back to before slavery... I'm only saying that to say that ever since they took the drums away from us in this country, the music has been flourishing, and then 1917 is where jazz came in, which isn't very inclusive.

So a lot of people have had an influence on me, and then I've had an influence on quite a few others.

TP: The next tracks we'll hear come from a few of the extraordinary series of recordings Andrew Hill made for Blue Note when he hit New York from Chicago in the early 1960's, and took the jazz world by storm through the originality and distinctiveness of these recordings.

MUSIC: AH-Hutcherson-Davis-E. Jones, "Siete Ocho"; A. Hill-J. Henderson, "McNeil's Island"; A. Hill-KD-Dolphy-Williams, "Refuge"

TP: Listening to those tracks raises several questions. I asked you while the music was playing whether these were working groups, groups that performed live and played this or other music in performance.

AH: Well, the group with Bobby Hutcherson, we worked the University of Toronto and Montreal. We had an incredible college tour...

TP: Did you set up drum parts in this music, or was the drummer free to create their own...

AH: Well, it was basically drafts written off my interpretation of someone else's playing, so that really was the catalyst.

TP: Was all the music on Judgment set up for Elvin Jones' style?

AH: Yes, it was set up for his style.

TP: Was the group with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes a working band?

AH: Yes, we were really getting ready to work, but the only wrench that was thrown in that was right after we did a few nights at Birdland and a few other places, Joe joined Horace Silver. So that was the end of that for a while.

TP: Did you write the music for Black Fire with Roy Haynes' style in mind?

AH: Yes, I really loved the way Roy Haynes played during that time. I still love his playing, but I was really enthralled during that period.

TP: The front line of Point of Departure, indeed the whole band, reads like a who's-who in the history of Jazz. Was this a group that got to work for a while?

AH: Well, we did a few things before Eric left for Europe, mmm-hmm. During that period I was lucky enough to get quite a few college concerts, so there was always an opportunity to play with some of the great ones from that period.

TP: Again was that music written with Tony Williams in mind?

AH: No, actually Tony surprised me and gave me a little more than I was looking for - which I enjoyed. Because you really couldn't hear his whole style with Miles Davis, even though it was a great group, but it still didn't cover all the areas that Tony could go into.

TP: One of the characteristics of Andrew Hill's groups is that always dynamic drummers are featured, and the drums and rhythm seems to be a major component in both your improvatorial and compositional sensibilities.

AH: Well, I researched that while I was at Portland State, and then I came into this phrase "African retention" (all this after the fact). To me, it's more like an alternative approach to music. In Western civilization, melody is the major voice, and rhythm and harmony is just an accessory. I've always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory.

TP: It's almost as though rhythm is part of the dialogue that emerges among the musicians in improvisational situations.

AH: It is. And though many things have changed traditionally, that hasn't changed. That's how you can really hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it's a retrospective or people trying to go ahead. Always check the rhythm to see whether it is static. If it's static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.

TP: One thing you seem to do to insure rhythmic dynamism is change the rhythmic signature from measure to measure within the compositions.

AH: Well, between one and one in a space of time you can have 5, 7, 12 or 4, but it's always imposed upon a strong four like the heartbeat. Still, in between, do many things can be done with it rhythmically, even thinking in terms of strong and weak accents.

TP: Let's talk about some of the drummers you played with in Chicago, stepping back 40 or 50 years. Ike Day is one of the legendary drummers of all time.

AH: Oh, I cut my teeth on Ike Day. Only three people had a profound musical effect on my life, and those were Charlie Parker and Ike Day and Thelonious Monk (I'd always heard Monk play but when I saw him play, it had a profound effect). Ike Day was amazing. As a kid, I didn't know who these people were, but I used to see people like Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, all of them would come to Chicago for a glimpse of Ike Day so they could prepare their respective styles. He was the most incredible drummer I've ever seen in my life. The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.

TP: What made him so special? Was it his interdependence? His command of the timbre of whatever surface he was striking?

AH: To really explain that, I have to bring in the sociological connotations. Because in that period the community and the musician was close, because it was all a part of a sociological aesthetic in the community. Tap dancing was strong. The rhythm you played wasn't like a dead rhythm; like you hear drummers play, and you say, "That's dead" or "that's alive" or "that's great" - whatever one says. But it wasn't a dead rhythm; it was a live rhythm, one that you could feel with your whole body. When I was in Chicago there was a place called the Macombo where the bandstand was perched up high, and Ike Day came down off the bandstand, like you've seen Gene Krupa and all of them obviously do, but there's something about when you see the Master do it... He was the master. You get involved. It had an emotional impact. It wasn't just a static, visual experience.

TP: Let me pin you down a little more on Ike Day. Was he someone who was let's say dealing with a different line with the right hand, left hand, right leg, left leg, like Max Roach developed and Andrew Cyrille? Was he doing that functionally?

AH: Well, you asked me about Roy Haynes. The one similarity between him and Roy Haynes is that when he played the drum set, he played all these things over the entire drum. He incorporated everything into a rhythm, so you had this floating rhythm sound instead of him stacking just doing a parallel...

TP: So Ike Day was stacking rhythms on top of each other in the African manner almost.

AH: In the African manner almost. It's true.

TP: I commented that within "Refuge" that you're constantly changing the rhythmic backing of each phrase, and this was something Charlie Parker would do this in his solos.

AH: And I was saying I was surprised you knew that! It's really evident when you're dealing with a music that's really built off the rhythm, not the tonic dominant harmony, and that's what I learned from playing with Charlie Parker. That's why he had such a profound effect on me. Some tunes I was too young to know, and Barry Harris took my place on a few numbers. Well, I tried to get Barry to take my place, because Barry was one of the older Detroit guys at the time. Anyway, before I played with Charlie Parker, he said, "Well, you play good and you do this well, but place more emphasis on the rhythm than the lyrical approach."

TP: Do you remember what year this was and the venue?

AH: It was June 1949 at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. Illinois Jacquet and Bullmoose Jackson were on the bill.

TP: You were 12 years old at the time, playing with Charlie Parker.

AH: Mmm-hmm.

TP: The third you mentioned was Thelonious Monk. Do you recollect when you first heard his records?

AH: Oh, I heard his records as a kid, me and another pianist who we used to call King Solomon. We used to dissect things like "Hackensack" and stuff like that on the piano, which came easily. But then the dynamic of seeing him play in person... I'd heard his sound all my life, but to see that he played with two hands, you know, to maintain a certain type of volume, and the way he would hit the piano, it was just profound.

TP: Do you recollect when you first saw Monk in person? He did perform at the Beehive in Chicago...

AH: Oh, I didn't go to that, because I didn't like the milieu of the situation because they didn't give him the respect he was due. So I really heard him at the Five Spot in New York when he was having this long run, and I would take the train or the Greyhound out and hear him, and get on it again and go back satisfied.

TP: Did you perform at all with the great Wilbur Ware in Chicago?

AH: Yeah, Wilbur Ware, the great one! [laughs] I did a few things with Wilbur. I enjoyed him. But then, fortunately or unfortunately, being a retrospective of what I said around 40 minutes, there really wasn't any great ones, because then you had Israel Crosby in Chicago and all these incredible bassists.

TP: Richard Davis was up there as a young bassist as well.

AH: He was coming up with the Ahmad Jamal trio, and this fellow who used to play Classical music. He was hot for a brief moment, nationally and internationally.

TP: What circumstances brought you to New York on the eve of your series of recordings for the Blue Note label?

AH: Well, it was just like what brought me to New York to reside in this period. My life seems to be based upon intuition, discernment, the ability to know when to go and when not... I don't know, I just had this urge...

TP: So it wasn't a gig that brought you here; you just decided to come here on your own.

AH: Yeah, that's my life story. Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I've been walking into different situations following my mind!

This weekend with Lonnie Plaxico and Pheeroan akLaff, in an environment where the only thing they can feed me is myself and my soul consciousness escapes in an occasional flurry, I say to myself, "I might as well..." In the old days people didn't really get carried away with what they sounded like. The emphasis was on never playing the same thing twice, to create. And I figure this weekend I can go for that. I won't be with people who are jaded, who go in different areas.

TP: No repeater pencils, as Lester Young would say.

AH: Oh, no. No pencils! [laughs]

MUSIC: AH-Davis-Khan-Haynes, "Smokestack"; A. Hill, "Sunnyside"

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