Andrew Hill, one of the most visionary and intellectual jazz pianists of the post-bop generation, lost a long battle with lung cancer on Friday morning. He was 75 years old, just two months shy of his 76th birthday.
Hill, best known for his 1964 recording Point of Departure (Blue Note), was an incredibly prolific and, in recent years, highly acclaimed composer and performer. Though for decades undervalued and obscure, Hill's angular but richly melodic compositions and improvisations always had a sizable following among knowledgeable critics and listeners. Apparently by osmosis, however, his incredible harmonic and rhythmic innovations have been assimilated into the jazz mainstream, finally gaining Hill the respect of his peers and followers in the last decade or so of his life.
Though often reported to have been born in Haiti in 1937 (a rumor that he himself liked to spread), Hill was actually born in Chicago on June 30, 1931. Growing up in the place where jazz developed into an art form (Chicago was where New Orleans musicians migrated after World War I, and where Louis Armstrong became jazz's first auteur), Hill absorbed the brilliant evolution of the American idiom from his childhood. At 13, encouraged by jazz alpha-pianist Earl Hines, Hill began playing piano; soon he was sitting in with the all of the great jazz masters of the 1940s (from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis when they passed through Chicago. Perhaps his most significant association in jazz, however, was with composer/arranger Bill Russo (a staple of the Stan Kenton orchestra), who introduced young Hill to the immigrant German composer Paul Hindemith. Hill would study with Hindemith from 1950-52.
First recording in 1954 as a sideman for bassist David Shipp, Hill's first session as a leader came one year later when he recorded the album So in Love for the Warwick Records label (accompanied by great Chicago bassist Malachi Favors). The first record was fairly conventional, and forgettable, hard bop, and Hill quickly forsook that sound, forming a pop-friendly big band known as the De'bonairs and playing as a reliable Chicago sideman before moving to New York in 1961 to play in the bands of Dinah Washington and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Always an avid disciple of bebop piano titan Bud Powell, Hill, like most jazz musicians of his generation, was shaken and reinvented by the radical music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Taylor, especially, moved young Andrew Hill, who began a synthesis of Powell and Thelonious Monk's bop, Horace Silver's hard bop, and Taylor's dense avant-garde explorations, meshing those disparate sounds into something quite new and original, even iconoclastic: Hill, perhaps more than any other musician of his day, understood that one need not completely embrace the radicalism of the "New Thing" in order to develop the bop-rooted jazz traditions in those same directions. His was an advanced version of hard bop, one that was unafraid to incorporate the thick, dissonant chords and oblong modal work of Taylor and his contemporaries.