“When I was a child, I was able to write music without hearing it,” Andrew Hill told me in the spring of 2000, during one of several conversations for a DownBeat article that ran later that year. “I’d write it at the piano, and then reshape it away from the piano by looking at it—lines, counterlines, and different things. I was in the streets, hustling, and and people began to notice. The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized notation.”
Individuality was the defining trope of Hill’s career. Born in Chicago 80 years ago today, and a South Side resident until 30, Hill—who died on April 20, 2007—blossomed creatively during the ’60s, recording a series of sui generis recordings—Point of Departure, Smokestack, Black Fire, Judgment, Compulsion—on Blue Note, animated by the likes of Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, and Richard Davis.
“To me, it’s more like an alternative approach,” Hill had said of his attitude to music during a 1996 conversation on WKCR. “In Western civilization, melody is the major voice. 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. Though many things have changed traditionally, that dynamic hasn’t changed. Always check the rhythm to hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s retrospective or trying to go ahead. 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.”
Hill’s music contained extraordinary rhythmic nuance—in the manner of Charlie Parker, he stacked rhythms, morphing time signatures from measure to measure in his pieces, and, when comping, altering the beats in every phrase. This is one reason why Vijay Iyer, one of Hill’s numerous acolytes amongst creative musicians under 45, could write for the now-dormant webzine www.jazz.com that what had always drawn him to Hill’s music was its innate sense of mystery. “It challenges your sense of what music is,” Iyer stated. “You can’t really listen to it as style, like, ‘Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.’ To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence.”
In the aforementioned DownBeat article, posted below, Hill spoke of the context in which he developed his ideas. (Please also see David Adler’s fine 2006 profile in Jazz Times.)
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At Birdland on the Saturday night after the United Nations Millennium Conference, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure Sextet concluded a ferocious 90-minute first set to raucous applause from an audience that included a generous percentage of dark-suited men wearing wires up their sleeves. Moments later, prompted by what the pianist-composer later informed friends was a Presidential request, Hill and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, played “Summertime” as an impromptu encore. Well, the bartender later burst the bubble by noting that it was the wife of the President of Ecuador who popped the question. But it didn’t seem such a stretch to imagine Bill Clinton — who attended jazz camps as a teenage saxophonist when Hill was recording the 8 or 9 Blue Note sessions by which many people still define him — taking a break from various off-the-record meetings to hear the composer-pianist on whose classics “Black Fire” and “Point of Departure” tenor hero Joe Henderson appeared.
Hill began to revisit the sonic terrain of Point of Departure — which blended the sounds of Henderson, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Richard Davis and an 18-year-old Tony Williams — two years ago, not long after returning from a two-decade West Coast residence spent teaching and sporadically performing. Expecting to find a scene where “everything is a retrospective,” he instead discovered what he describes as a “golden age” defined by an intense cadre of improvisers intent on “creative contact with older musicians” working toward the end of “reclaiming a lot of things that had been lost.”
“There hasn’t been as much young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s,” Hill states. “Life has been breathed into the music. I’m seeing young musicians who understand the traditional musical vocabulary — the free playing, which has been out for forty years, and the magic of Bebop — enough to be able to use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process that will fit into this period. They aren’t playing things they heard off records; they’re not looking at anything as old and new.”
Inspired by his young cohorts, Hill “got the writing disease,” producing a flood of new work, a smattering of which he recorded on Dusk [Palmetto], in September 1999. The music is sui generis — mysterious, elusive, soulful, rich in mood and character, expansively written, replete with beautiful melodies and counter-melodies, complex intervals, unique voicings, intense vamps and ostinatos, each section tailored to the tonal personalities of the musicians, morphing in a nonce from keening rubato passages to long lines propelled by churning counter and cross-rhythms that define the overall motion. “Each piece inhabits its own musical world,” Ehrlich says succinctly. “Andrew is using a lot of different compositional devices in them, but what’s consistent is a sense of musical poetry and lyricism.”
Dusk is the capstone of a very good year for the 69-year-old pianist-composer. He engaged Bobby Hutcherson, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Archie Shepp in well-publicized duos. After spending most of the summer in a wing of a well-appointed castle courtesy of an Italian artists’ colony, he performed on a showcase night at the Chicago Jazz Festival that included a reunion with Von Freeman (they played “Stardust”), who appeared on Hill’s debut recording in 1956, for Ping, a Chicago independent operated out of the back of a record store at 47th and Cottage Grove.
“Andrew’s music is very heavily mental,” says Hutcherson, who first recorded with Hill on Judgment (1964) and on Dialogue (1965). “You go into rooms you wouldn’t normally enter. There’s always a little story in the melody, a reason why this tune is being played; it’s your own story, what you’re seeing as you play. He’d give you melancholy, long notes, you’d think, ‘man, how long can you hold this note so that there will be this texture?’ — then all of a sudden it burst into a chant, a hope within the note. Religious, I guess you can say…well, the religion of the bandstand…of someone’s thoughts. It was very challenging, just because of its openness; the melody could be loose as a rubber band. But just remember that it’s going to come down; the bar line is still moving at the same pace.”
“Andrew’s writing and playing sound like geometry to me,” notes Greg Osby, a Hill alumnus and vociferous acolyte who employed the pianist and guitarist Jim Hall on this year’s well-received The Invisible Hand. “He builds his lines and melodic development and motives and themes in small fragments, and breaks those down into even smaller fragments. It’s like building a pyramid, and setting that off with TNT, then building another pyramid based upon the smaller rock chunks or fragments, each one being more important than the structure itself. And he has total elastic time, not your metrical, militaristic four-four predictable time feel. It’s akin to that Dr. Doolittle animal, the pushmi-pulyu, which was like a two-headed llama who goes in both directions. You have to really be game to push in the beat and pull it back — compression-expansion I call it. Otherwise, you’ll get tossed.”
Scott Colley, Hill’s bassist of choice for the past two years, says: “No matter how much you’ve internalized the material, you have to be ready for the unknown. More than anybody I’ve ever played with, Andrew is a true improviser. If he feels you’re starting to formulize the music, he’ll take bits of a composition from one part of the form and put it somewhere else. Though he writes simple bass parts for me, I have to look at the score because so much is going on that defies traditional harmony, that can’t be notated traditionally in terms of chord changes. It sounds logical and beautiful, but when you analyze it, you realize it’s amazingly different.”
The unorthodox was norm in the blues culture of postwar South Side Chicago, Hill’s home town, where the overriding imperative was to establish an individual sound. Hill’s parents, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, bought their son an accordion when he was 3; a few years later they acquired an old foot-pedaled player piano. “I would match the keys as much as I could,” Hill recalls. “I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever sound suited that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day. I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.”
Hill’s family was poor, and by age 12 he was a street musician, playing blues-style accordion and tap dancing “with his hustling companion,” guitarist Leo Blevins, who had a washtub with a string on it. “It was safe at the time,” Hill remembers. “I needed money. I found out that when you played music, you got money. My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street and State, which was a good block. Across the street was the South Center department store, a little further down was the Savoy Ballroom and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing, and the Regal Theater was right next to that.”
An almost mute child with above-average intelligence, Hill enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in what would today be called an off-track program that allowed him freedom to follow his muse. By his teens, he was working weekends at sorority house dances, at rent parties, even after-hours sessions. Hill’s first taste of the latter occurred one early morning at the Macombo Lounge, an all-night joint at the intersection of Oakland and Drexel Boulevard owned by the Chess Brothers. Trumpeter/bandleader King Kolax and tenorist Claude McLin were playing “Idaho” with bass icon Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Ike Day. “The piano player didn’t show up, and Kolax knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so he invited me on the stand,” Hill remembers. “I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, ‘Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!’ They were nice enough to gently ease me off the stand; they told me what I did wrong.
“Ike Day had this incredible feel, and the way he played opened up my concept of rhythm out of the rigid 1-2-3-4. It was a live rhythm, a rhythm you could feel with your whole body. He played over the entire drumset, like Roy Haynes does, incorporating everything into a rhythm, creating a floating rhythm sound in the African manner almost. He did amazing things; he’d come off the bandstand into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls. He was doing that when he was 19 years old. 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.”
Hill cites Albert Ammons as an early local influence (“his boogie-woogie was a living thing; he created with it”). As a teenager delivering the Chicago Defender he met Earl Hines, and “bugged him to death until he decided he would let me play something on his grand. I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had a technical facility for not having really studied. What I liked about Earl Hines was that he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate and play something creative outside the structure; when I talked to him he said, ‘Well, that’s what we call concertizing.’” Hill also admired the lesser-known pianist Willie Jones (“he used to play with ninths in the bass and had a nice single fingering, even though he was known around Chicago for his exciting block chord Milt Buckner approach; I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer”) and Sun Ra.
“Sunny had a basic Chicago approach,” Hill remarks. Even on a Blues you would go Out and you would go In. A lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others, but to an extent that style really developed in Chicago. Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up. There wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or about what someone else was doing; it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing. But it was category-less. It was organic, like an African modal situation, in which the performer would play in all the different voices. Jazz wasn’t an art form; before television and integration got strong, it was the spiritual element that kept the community together. The music was coming from the streets. Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution! It wasn’t that. It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities. That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.”
As his teens progressed, Hill also soaked up recordings by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as they came out, plugging his turntable into a guitar amplifier “so I could almost hear them the same way that I heard the live artists.” He found someone to show him Czerny technique to get the fingering necessary to grapple with Powell. He and a gifted friend named King Solomon, “used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift Monk’s stuff off the records when I was 16 years old — it came natural to him because he was a church pianist; after he taught me the church perspective, Monk’s concept became more accessible.”
As the ’50s progressed, Hill became “mesmerized” by the environment around me,” and established himself as a professional musician in Chicago. “I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing,” he recalls. “I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere. My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive. I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.” He sidemanned at the Beehive on 55th Street and the Crown Propellor and Stage Lounge on 63rd Street, backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at various venues, played at Joe Segal’s bebop jam sessions, and from 1955 to 1959 became house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge, where national acts like Sammy Davis and Barbara McNair would come through. He summer vacationed with Dinah Washington in 1954, who took him to New York for the first time; he subsequently returned to the Apple with singers Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler and with the comedian George Kirby. He did supper lounge gigs on the Gold Coast with a steady trio comprising bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, became the pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band, and began to explore his voice with hardcore Chicago progressives like Nicky Hill and Ira Sullivan. And he never stopped playing the blues.
In 1961, while working a mundane job on the West Side of Chicago, Hill decided it was time to come to New York. “I saw that if I stayed in Chicago I would descend morally because everything had a type of sameness,” he says. “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!” Hill found work with Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Walt Dickerson, and went to Los Angeles in early 1962 on a job with Roland Kirk. There he met his first wife, Laverne, a talented organist; the couple moved back to New York in the spring of 1963.
Freed of Chicago’s artisanal cultural matrix, Hill found in New York a nourishing environment. Opportunities presented themselves. He eschewed sideman gigs that might pigeonhole him as a “blues pianist” or “singer’s pianist,” and instead pigeonholed himself as an artist, forging aesthetic commitments with a cadre of like-minded generational peers like Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson. Through a job with Dorham, Hill met Joe Henderson; they woodshedded and gigged, and Henderson hired him to play on “Our Thing.” During the session, Hill recalls, “Alfred Lion said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera, that he liked the way I played and wanted to make me his piano player for the period. That’s the type of person he was. The next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.”
The rest is history. At Birdland, 36 years after the original “Point of Departure,” and a year after “Dusk,” working from a book that now constitutes about 40 new compositions, Bill Clinton, if he was there, heard music by — in Ehrlich’s words — “a master composer at the height of his powers” performed by an ensemble (Ehrlich and Aaron Stewart, reeds and woodwinds; Ron Horton, trumpet; Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) at ease with its intricacies.
“It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder just to continue playing,” Hill concludes. “The audience is fickle anyway. It will either be with you or it won’t. To me it’s terrible to play without the passion of music. It’s the passion that connects, not the academic correctness. The passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you. It was inspirational to discover that things aren’t static; it’s led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible. The spirit of jazz is supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.”