Forty years on, this is your Haitian divorce

The pianist Andrew Hill is a jazz great with a mystery attached. He confesses all to Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture

Everyone has their favourite figures whom fame has unfairly overlooked and jazz pianist and composer Andrew Hill is one of mine. When Hill arrived in New York at the beginning of the 1960s, he used to give piano lessons to a fellow exile from Chicago by the name of Herbie Hancock. Later on, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett would call round for advice, too. But at the end of the decade, after a scintillating series of albums for the Blue Note label had bridged the gap between bop and the avant-garde, Hill more or less disappeared from view. Now he's back, beginning a tour next week with his Anglo-American Big Band. This time round, Hill returns with some belated recognition behind him. Earlier this year, he was awarded the prestigious Danish Jazzpar prize. At the age of 65, Hill is suddenly a star.

Everyone has their favourite figures whom fame has unfairly overlooked and jazz pianist and composer Andrew Hill is one of mine. When Hill arrived in New York at the beginning of the 1960s, he used to give piano lessons to a fellow exile from Chicago by the name of Herbie Hancock. Later on, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett would call round for advice, too. But at the end of the decade, after a scintillating series of albums for the Blue Note label had bridged the gap between bop and the avant-garde, Hill more or less disappeared from view. Now he's back, beginning a tour next week with his Anglo-American Big Band. This time round, Hill returns with some belated recognition behind him. Earlier this year, he was awarded the prestigious Danish Jazzpar prize. At the age of 65, Hill is suddenly a star.

There was certainly a lot to talk about when I met him in London last month, such as his professional debut – at the age of 14 – with Charlie Parker; or the story of how the classical composer Paul Hindemith gave him tips on music theory as he busked on the streets of Chicago. Then there was the time spent accompanying vocalist Dinah Washington, and his friendships with Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. But what I really wanted to know about was the Haitian question.

In the sleeve-notes for Hill's first album for Blue Note, Black Fire from 1963, the writer AB Spellman states that Hill was born in Port au Prince, Haiti, before moving to Chicago with his family at the age of four. This unusual Caribbean heritage was seized upon by critics and used to decode Hill's extravagant, poly-rhythmic, style and frequent excursions into Latin and Afro-Cuban metre. There were also questions of Negritude. Didn't the title of Black Fire refer to Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian slave rebellion? And what about that quote from an old calypso? Wasn't there a definite lilt to his playing?

"I lied," Hill told me, a little shame-facedly. "I used to blame it on other people, but it was me, and AB Spellman was the one who helped me plot the crime. I was born in Chicago and had no interest in Haiti or patois, but that lie enabled me to get gigs on the college circuit, the Dave Brubeck thing, you know. People looked at jazz music as exotic and pretending you came from Haiti helped." Hill pauses for a long, Muttley-esque, laugh. "I'm not as pure as driven snow. It's just I've got more morally correct as I've grown older."

Hill's affinity for Latin music came, he says, as naturally as breathing. "If you grew up in an urban environment and liked music, you couldn't help hearing it. There were Cuban musicians in the neighbourhood and I got an opportunity to play with them at an early age. Like I said, all you had to do was go to the movies and you heard everything you needed to know about advanced harmony. Claude Thornhill [the composer whose experiments led to Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool] was on the radio. It was a learning situation that was more thorough than a university."

Though Hill's parents weren't especially musical – his father was a railway porter – they did own an old pianola. The young Andrew taught himself to play by stopping the piano roll and putting his fingers in the keys that remained depressed. He didn't realise that some of the performances were for four hands rather than two, which may account for his unusually chromatic style.

Later came the Hindemith incident. "I was on the streets in Brownsville where I'd do my accordion act and make some money", Hill says. "I was writing music on a brown paper bag and he [Hindemith, who taught nearby] asked what I was writing. It was musically correct but not in the correct conventions, so he offered some advice. After that, he would come by now and then and look at what I was doing, teaching me about symmetrical and asymmetrical ways of writing music."

Hill's retirements from recording and performing weren't due to the usual jazz reasons – drugs, drugs and drugs – but because he had begun to pursue a parallel academic career.

But in 1992, after a stint in California, he returned to New York with his new wife and resumed his jazz career.

An invitation to re-visit the repertoire of his classic 1964 album, Point of Departure in 1998, led to the formation of a new group, and that in turn led to the big band. Since then Hill has been writing like crazy. At the recent Jazzpar concert, he says ruefully, the organisers complained he'd prepared too much material. Perhaps they didn't know what a long time coming it had been.

Andrew Hill and the Anglo-American Big Band: RNCM, Manchester (0161 907 5555), 20 May; QEH, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), 21 May; Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244) 22 May; CBSO Birmingham (0121 767 4050), 23 May; Bath International Music Festival, (01225 463362), 24 May

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