Andrew Hill; Jazz Composer Stretched Boundaries

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.
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. (Photo By Jimmy Katz -- Blue Note Records)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

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 Star-Ledger 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.

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