A Goodbye to a Master of the Keys

Jazz pianist Andrew Hill died of lung cancer last week at the age of 75. The Chicago native was an innovative artist who worked with some of the greatest names in jazz music. But his experimental jazz compositions kept him from being widely recognized until late in life. Farai Chideya offers this tribute.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we say goodbye to a master of the keys, Andrew Hill. The pianist performed with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. He died last week at 75. Critics respected Hill as hard bop and free jazz composer, but mainstream jazz fans didn't always keep up with his innovation. Still, he played and composed even when he wasn't popular. Hill's elusive fame reminds jazz DJ Scott Willis of another piano giant.

Mr. SCOTT WILLIS (Disc Jockey): He was a continuation of what Thelonious Monk had done. Monk was a great iconoclast of modern music and it took years, even decades, for the audience to kind of catch up to Monk. And Andrew Hill was kind of in the same way. He was stylistically very individual. His career path is very much like Thelonious Monk that he was championed by some critics and journalists but it took decades before he found an audience for his particular style.

CHIDEYA: Andrew Hill was born in Chicago and taught himself the accordion. He took up the piano when he was 10. In the mid '50s, Hill toured with Dinah Washington, Johnny Hartman and Dakota Staton. He later settled in New York, where he recorded several albums with Blue Note Records.

Hill backed and led bands filled with stars of the post-bop era. His 1964 disk "Point of Departure" is a snapshot of Hill, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson and others stepping out of hard bop and into a more experimental jazz sound.

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CHIDEYA: Andrew Hill struggled to find an audience and he couldn't keep bands together, but he kept composing even while he worked on his doctorate. Hill taught at universities and prisons and led bands on both coasts. He signed twice with Blue Note Records, releasing his final album, "Time Lines," just last year.

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CHIDEYA: Hill performed just a few weeks ago in New York. It was his last show. He died April 20th after a long fight with lung cancer. DJ Scott Willis says Hill leaves a legacy of playing different kinds of jazz and sticking with his passion.

Mr. WILLIS: People who could play the styles of the day like hard bop and soul jazz but could also, you know, be there with the free jazz musicians. And musicians were students of his music through his recordings that were released, and through, you know, the people that he played with and the music they brought to the world.

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CHIDEYA: Remembering Andrew Hill.

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