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Andrew Hill, 75; innovative jazz pianist, composer

Special to The Times

Andrew Hill, a jazz pianist whose career as an adventurous, envelope-stretching improviser and composer reached from the 1960s to the present, has died.

Hill, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1974, died Friday in Jersey City, N.J., his record label announced. He was 75, and had performed as recently as three weeks ago at a New York City church.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 23, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Andrew Hill obituary: The obituary of jazz pianist Andrew Hill in Sunday’s California section stated that Hill contracted cancer in 1974. In fact, it was 2004.

Hill’s visibility ebbed and surged over the last four decades, despite the fact that his music continued to grow and evolve as one of the jazz world’s most unique and innovative creative expressions.

His performing career can be traced, in large measure, through his association with Blue Note Records during three periods: the mid-'60s, the late ‘80s and the 2000s.

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In between, he released albums on Arista, Soul Note and Palmetto, while spending extended periods away from the active jazz scene, teaching at Colgate University in New York and Portland State University in Oregon. He also established residencies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the University of Michigan and Bennington College in Vermont, among others.

Born June 30, 1931, in Chicago, Hill busked in the streets of the city’s South Side, playing accordion as a teenager and spontaneously writing music on paper bags. Remarkably, he was spotted by German composer Paul Hindemith, then living in this country as an exile from Nazi Germany.

“He came by and asked me what I was writing and could he see it,” Hill told the Guardian of London in 2003. “I was writing different harmonic approaches, different patterns on top of each other, and he said, ‘This is good.’ ”

Impressed by Hill’s precocious talent, Hindemith stopped by frequently, informally mentoring and advising him on harmony and musical theory.

Hill came to the piano in similarly informal fashion via his family’s player piano. Watching as the instrument automatically depressed keys while playing a piano roll, he placed his fingers in the correct positions.

By the time he was 14, he had learned the instrument well enough to perform professionally, including one memorable gig with the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Associations and recordings with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Walt Dickerson, Joe Henderson and Hank Mobley followed, when Hill was in his 20s.

Hill’s recordings under his own name began in 1963 for Blue Note: “Black Fire,” “Smokestack,” “Point of Departure” and others. Initially, critical response positioned him as a successor to Thelonious Monk and, to some extent, Cecil Taylor. But Hill was always his own man, in search of an original perspective.

Stimulated by the free jazz improvisational currents coursing through the jazz of the ‘60s, he adapted open space musical environments to his own fascination with harmony and rhythm. Often, his compositions surged forward in multiple rhythmic planes, alternating spontaneous invention with thickly clustered harmony.

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Hill’s most recent return to visibility was greeted enthusiastically by the jazz community.

He was named jazz composer of the year four times by the Jazz Journalists Assn., most recently in 2006, and awarded Denmark’s Jazzpar prize in 2003. His latest CD, “Time Lines,” released in 2006, won the album of the year award from Down Beat magazine.

Despite the numerous accolades and his familiarity to serious jazz fans, Hill’s music has never crossed over to the larger popular music audience. But he refused to be positioned in the bohemian status favored by some artists, working instead as an educator, interacting with young people, probing the outer limits of his own inventiveness during the periods in which his presence in the jazz market waned.

“A lot of writers like to picture us as scuffling individuals, striving against all odds to play our music,” Hill told The Times in 1986, when he was returning to prominence after nearly two decades of low visibility.

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“But there’s no room for that kind of image of artists anymore. I’m not scuffling, and anyone who sees me that way doesn’t understand that all I’m doing is living the life I have and making the music I hear,” he said.

Hill is survived by his wife, Joanne Robinson Hill.


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