Andrew Hill Interview 28th April 2000

Pianist and composer Andrew Hill, an intriguing jazz innovator from the Sixties who made it seem as if he had plucked a new jazz language from his imagination, lived to see history smile on his achievements. Part avant gardist, part iconoclast and part rugged individualist, his music was full of dense chords, asymmetrical melodies, unexpected pauses and was replete with memorable solos from some of the most creative musicians on the New York Jazz scene of the Sixties. Thanks to the legendary status his recordings for the Blue Note label achieved —  Black Fire, Smoke Stack, Judgement!, Point of Departure, Andrew!!!, Pax, Compulsion!!!!, Change, Grass Roots, Dance With Death, Lift Every Voice, Passing Ships, One For One — which are now regarded as visionary, he had the satisfaction of seeing his place  in the jazz pantheon assured during his own lifetime. 

It was quite some achievement, since he  had become  a shadowy presence in jazz following the rise of rock music in the latter half of the Sixties that had persuaded him, like many other jazz musicians at the time,  to reconsider his career in jazz. In Hill’s case he took the opportunity of entering academe.  Although he never stopped recording — an occasional record here, an occasional record there   for various independent labels — plus occasional  live performances during the summer months, he enjoyed a brief resurgence  in the Eighties with a flurry of recordings for the Italian Soul Note label and the reconstituted Blue Note label. During his final years he became more active in live performance with his group Point of Departure, named after one of his classic Sixties albums, yet he remained, and still remains,  something of an enigmatic figure in jazz.

At the age of 62, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America and his new group became a draw on the highly competitive New York jazz scene, The New York Times hailing their first concert together as Hill’s “triumphant return.” Referring to this newly found popularity as “my renaissance,” he observed, “Today jazz appeals to the upper aspects of society, stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors. The whole thing has gone upscale from when I played here in the Sixties. You take somebody to hear jazz and you spend at least $100 for a night. The jazz clubs we play in New York are so much better, they are really good quality restaurants, some of them.”

When he was signed to the now legendary Blue Note label in 1963 he was considered an artist for major development by founder Alfred Lion, who considered him his great discovery. From 1963 to 1969 Hill released nine albums for the label, although he says he probably recorded twice that number. Among them, 1964’s Point of Departure is so potent it is an acknowledged classic of jazz. Yet his association with Blue Note ended acrimoniously, as he explains in his interview.

Hill, who had played with Charlie Parker as a fourteen year-old and studied for two years under Paul Hindemith, could see the rise of rock was beginning to overwhelm acoustic jazz. “It wasn’t economically expedient to play jazz any more, it was time to leave,” he says in his interview. He took up the position of artist-in-residence at Colgate University while studying for a professorship in music.

Shortly afterwards, Hill’s wife LaVern became seriously ill, ‘That’s why I left New York in the Seventies for the West Coast, to find a better environment.’ Hill remained close to academia however, enabling him to look after his wife’s deteriorating health. In the late Eighties he recorded two albums for the reconstituted Blue Note label (now long out of print) with young musicians such as saxist Greg Osby, who regards him as a visionary. But Hill saw no reason to follow up on the profile the albums brought him, “There was no urgency because my wife was dying,” he told me simply, “My world was dying.”

LaVerne Hill died in October 1989. Needing to regain his love for living, as he put it,  Hill moved to Oregon, to take up a position as associate professor of music at Portland State University. His life was transformed in 1992 when he married Joanne Robinson, who taught modern dance at Portland State. When she  took up a position at the Joyce Theatre in New York teaching dance in 1996, it was catalyst to returning to regular jazz performance, “I recovered my zest for living and moved to New York, for love, because my wife”.

Hill found himself rediscovered by new generations of musicians and fans, his 1999 album Dusk won Best Album of 2001 in both Down Beat and JazzTimes end of year polls and in 2003 he received the Jazzpar Prize. His renaissance saw  the release of  several unissued sessions made in the 1960s for Blue Note  — notably Passing Ships recorded in 1969 and finally released in 2003 — plus a new Blue Note album called Time Lines which was released on February 21, 2006. His final public performance was on March 29, 2007 at Trinity Church in New York City. He died at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey of lung cancer on April 20, 2007. The following month he became the first person to receive a posthumous honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.

When I met Andrew Hill in April 2000 there was a buzz surrounding his “comeback” and talk of a career renaissance following his move back to New York City. He had just recorded the album Dusk for the Palmetto label, and was enjoying his new found celebrity leading a band of younger musicians, Ron Horton (trumpet), Marty Ehrlich (bass clarinet, alto sax), Greg Tardy (bass clarinet and tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass) and Billy Drummond (drums). Regularly playing the top New York jazz clubs, he was receiving invitations to appear at jazz festivals around the world, which after some thirty years or so years in academe left him both grateful and bemused. When I met him, I was intrigued to know why, after a run of — let’s face it — legendary albums for the Blue Note and with his star seemingly in the ascendency he had turned his back on a career in jazz — was it a case of quitting while he was ahead? Or was the truth was somewhat more prosaic?