It all started with a $6 soprano saxophone. Buck Hill was 13 and growing up in Northeast Washington when he got the sax from his older brother Clyde. Back then, if anybody had asked Hill whether he could foresee a musical career that would take him to Europe and to the top ranks of jazz artists, the answer would have been what it was earlier this month.
"Hah," he laughed. "No, indeed."
Buck Hill -- his first name, Roger, was dropped long ago in favor of that of comic strip hero Buck Rogers -- is backstage, one hand around a beer, the other holding a cigarette. One of the world's finest sax players is about to go onstage at the Commerce Department Auditorium to play for 200 people. He's relaxed, and a bit nervous at being lionized for the past two days by Washington's arts and political establishments.
"It's been a long road, but overall, yeah, it's been a good one," said Hill, who used to draw crowds because they were curious about the mailman who played jazz.
Nowadays, they come for the music alone. He still has the U.S. Postal Service job he took 22 years ago to support his wife and three children. But there are no regrets. "I never minded working for the post office. It was something I felt like I had to do at the time. The music has been there. The music's been good. Washington has been my New York."
Washington will never be able to compare with the Mecca of Jazz. In New York the crowds are bigger, the work steadier, the money better. But for Hill, a local legend who once turned down an invitation to join Dizzy Gillespie's band on the road, D.C. is where the roots are.
A resident of Prince George's County for the past 12 years, Hill and his wife-manager, Helen, have lived in Laurel for the past seven years. He has played with all the greats, from trumpeter Gillespie to guitarist Charlie Byrd to fellow sax players Stan Getz and Ron Woods. When Mayor Marion Barry proclaimed a recent Saturday "Buck Hill Day," he called Hill "a musician's musician, a crowd-pleaser" who effortlessly establishes an "intimate rapport" with any crowd.
At 55, Hill is a taciturn man; the horn does most of the talking. The eyes are tired, but his smile is Louis Armstrong-wide. For his special concert sponsored by the venerable Charlin Jazz Society, Hill was dressed in elegant white pants, pale blue shirt, neat brown tie and madras jacket. Onstage, bending at the knees and leaning to his right, he had the audience hooting and clapping as he and famed trumpeter Jimmy Owens skipped through the white-hot "Brakes," a Hill composition.
With 15 months to go before retirement from the Postal Service, Hill is eager to play music full time. The saxophone has never made him wealthy; all he wants now, he says, is to make a living from it.
That should be easy. In the past 13 months alone, he has had four European tours and five New York engagements, including one at the Kool Jazz Festival. He's due at Wolf Trap for two days in December, and was there earlier this year. Predistribution sales of his new album, "Buck Hill Plays Europe," are so good that it has gone gold already, with half a million copies sold. And Hill stays busy with regular shows at Charlie's and the One Step Down, two D.C. clubs.
In the racially segregated Washington of the late 1950s, jazz addicts could get their fixes only at black-owned clubs uptown such as the 7th and T Cocktail Lounge and Abart's, two Hill favorites. "Sometimes that was frustrating, even though we drew blacks and whites. The clubs were always full even if they didn't pay that much," Hill said. "It was hard on your pocketbook."
"And when integration came, clubs opened up downtown, and a lot of those black businesses went bankrupt."
"Sometimes the music didn't go right for him," said Helen, his wife since 1938, "and he had to work that out and it showed in his attitude toward me and the family. We just stuck it out together."
During the City Hall ceremony honoring Hill, speaker after speaker rose to lament the decades of cab driving and mail delivering that had deprived a wide audience of Hill's music. But the man himself and his wife are philosophical about it.
"I think he was afraid that he wouldn't be able to make enough money on the road to support his family, and at the time and with the offers he got then, he wouldn't have been able to," Helen Hill said. "There was a decline in the interest in jazz in the the '60s, and before that, of course, jazz wasn't appreciated as it is today. That would have hurt things, too."
Says Hill: "I only wanted to make a living. I really wasn't concerned about the regular job. I felt like I just had to do it."
Rusty Hassan, who has a popular jazz program on WAMU radio, said the steady job meant that Hill "would get only belated recognition -- the attention and respect [that] is coming now.
"For too long, he was looked on as only a local player, but that was Buck's choice not to travel. From the standpoint of being a family man, that was the right thing to do. Now he's on his way with a new career."
The post office job meant getting to work by 5 every morning, but it left nights and weekends free for gigs in Washington and New York. Hill saved up his leave time for longer trips to Paris and Holland.
"For the Kool festival he didn't want to use up any of his leave, so he took the bus up, did the show and came back that night on the bus," said Helen Hill. "And he got up and went to work the next morning."
Washington may lose Buck Hill when he retires next year. "I hope to be out on the road more then, maybe go to Japan," he said. "I've played here so many years it's time to look for new horizons. But I'll always be back here. This is home."