“You’re not trapped in that room, you know,” Andrew Hill called out from his kitchen as he heated brandy and cider on the stovetop. It was a cold day in Jersey City, N.J., but Hill’s welcome could hardly have been warmer. Granted, reports of his gnomic, roundabout style of conversation are true. His mild stammer and bouts of coughing—a sign of his struggle with lung cancer—make him all the more difficult to follow. But he is also empathic and generous. His endearing, high-pitched laugh is spontaneous and nothing short of musical. Though frail, he is positive, full of fun. “I was talented but crazy, semiautistic and eccentric,” he has said of his youth. This may be the stuff of genius, but in Hill’s case it is not in the least forbidding.
At the age of 26, Hill altered jazz history, recording five visionary albums for Blue Note in just eight months in 1963 and 1964. In the pace and uniqueness of his achievements, he rivaled more famous labelmates such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Among his collaborators were Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Hill made several more records for Blue Note as the ’60s progressed, but much of the music remained in the vaults. He left New York in 1970 and recorded sporadically for other labels over the next two decades, becoming, in Gary Giddins’ words, an “outlying cult figure.” Anthony Braxton, in the liner notes to his Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000, wrote: “This is a private musical universe that is not always appreciated by the greater jazz business complex.”