Andrew Hill; Jazz Com­poser Stretched Bound­aries

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Matt Schudel

Andrew Hill, whose un­der­ground rep­u­ta­tion as an in­no­va­tive jazz com­poser blos­somed into wide ac­cep­tance late in his ca­reer, died of lung can­cer April 20 at his home in Jer­sey City, N.J. He was 75.

Mr. Hill made his mark in the 1960s with mu­sic that was al­ter­nately earthy and ethe­real, jagged and el­e­gant, as he cul­ti­vated a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most orig­i­nal com­posers of the era. Seen as an heir of Th­elo­nious Monk, he be­came a fa­vorite of mu­si­cians and crit­ics, but his some­times dif­fi­cult mu­sic failed to gain a foothold with the broader pub­lic.

Ac­cept­ing his fate as an ac­quired mu­si­cal taste, Mr. Hill re­treated into academia for two decades, only to reemerge on the New York jazz stage in the late 1990s. By then, his mu­sic had in­flu­enced a gen­er­a­tion of younger mu­si­cians who were ea­ger to study with him or play in his groups. He recorded new mu­sic, his older al­bums were re­dis­cov­ered and he sud­denly found him­self in wide de­mand as a com­poser and band­leader.

Four years ago, an album Mr. Hill had made in 1969, “Pass­ing Ships,” was re­leased for the first time, prompt­ing a New York Times critic to write, “The best jazz album of 2003 was recorded in 1969.” Later record­ings such as “Dusk” (2000), “A Beau­ti­ful Day” (2002) and “Time Lines” (2006), brought fresh ac­claim, and Down Beat mag­a­zine named “Time Lines” album of the year.

More than most jazz com­posers, Mr. Hill com­bined el­e­ments from many mu­si­cal sources, freely mix­ing gospel, blues and classical mu­sic to cre­ate a sound uniquely his own. His works stretched the bound­aries of rhythm and har­mony and blended care­ful com­po­si­tion with free im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

Jazz critic John Murph de­scribed Mr. Hill’s mu­sic as “cap­ti­vat­ing but not ex­actly catchy” last year in Down Beat. “Even dur­ing its most hushed mo­ments, a restive sen­si­bil­ity per­me­ates. Dis­so­nant har­monies jolt un­ex­pect­edly, ser­rated melodies plum­met atop of each other and rhythms shift at mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions.”

A writer for the Lon­don Times said Mr. Hill “made it seem as if he had plucked a new jazz lan­guage from his imag­i­na­tion.”

In 2003, Mr. Hill re­ceived Den­mark’s pres­ti­gious Jaz­zpar award, and the Jazz Jour­nal­ists As­so­ci­a­tion named him com­poser of the year four times, in­clud­ing in 2006. The Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts had just named Mr. Hill a 2008 “Jazz Mas­ter,” and he was to re­ceive an hon­orary doc­tor­ate next month from the Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic in Bos­ton.

“One has to be­come curious,” Mr. Hill told the Ne­wark StarLedger last year, de­scrib­ing his eclec­tic approach to com­po­si­tion. “I’m a de­pos­i­tory of good and bad mu­sic. I can walk down the street with all th­ese old hits and jazz fa­vorites rolling through my mind, a reg­u­lar juke­box.”

For years, Mr. Hill’s early life was bathed in myth and, by his own ad­mis­sion, out­right lies. To add an ex­otic touch to his back­ground, he claimed to have been born in Haiti in 1937. Af­ter his death, his fam­ily con­firmed that he was born June 30, 1931, in Chicago.

He be­gan play­ing pi­ano at a young age — “To my me­mory, I could play the pi­ano as long as I’ve been talk­ing,” he said.

He stud­ied for two years with classical com­poser Paul Hin­demith, sup­pos­edly af­ter Hin­demith en­coun­tered the young Mr. Hill play­ing ac­cor­dion on a Chicago street cor­ner. As a child, he be­came ac­quainted with jazz pi­anist Earl “Fatha” Hines and per­formed early in his ca­reer with jazz greats Char­lie Parker and Miles Davis.

Mr. Hill made his first record­ings in the 1950s and was the pi­anist for singer Di­nah Wash­ing­ton in the early 1960s. Signed by Blue Note Records in 1963, he recorded sev­eral in­flu­en­tial al­bums, in­clud­ing “Point of De­par­ture,” “Black Fire” and “Grass Roots,” with such prom­i­nent mu­si­cians as Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Tony Wil­liams and Eric Dol­phy.

When the records didn’t sell, Mr. Hill moved in the 1970s to up­state New York, where he taught at Col­gate Univer­sity for two years. He then went to Cal­i­for­nia, teach­ing in pris­ons and pub­lic schools, be­fore be­com­ing a pro­fes­sor at Ore­gon’s Port­land State Univer­sity in 1990.

Mr. Hill oc­ca­sion­ally per­formed in Europe and Asia and in small venues in the United States, but for years he worked out­side the jazz main­stream, writ­ing choral mu­sic and string quar­tets in ad­di­tion to his jazz com­po­si­tions. When he moved back to New York in 1996, he was wel­comed like a prophet re­turn­ing from the desert.

“The thing about hav­ing been on the fringe of fame and for­tune for so long,” he said in 2000, “is that I con­tin­ued to cre­ate with­out the con­stant glare of so­ci­ety, so I didn’t have to stick to any for­mula.”

His first wife, or­gan­ist LaV­erne Gil­lette, died in 1989.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, Jan­ice Robin­son Hill, whom he mar­ried in 1992.

PHOTO BY JIMMY KATZ — BLUE NOTE RECORDS

Andrew Hill be­gan record­ing in the 1950s but didn’t achieve wide recog­ni­tion un­til he re­turned to the New York jazz scene in the ’90s af­ter a long ab­sence.

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