Jazz critic John Fordham described Hill as a "uniquely gifted composer, pianist and educator" although "his status remained largely inside knowledge in the jazz world for most of his career." His most-lauded work was recorded for Blue Note Records, spanning nearly a decade and a dozen albums that featured his cerebral interpretation of post-bop, often described as avant garde but uniquely Hill's own style that shared little in common with free jazz of the 1960s.
Andrew Hill was born in Chicago, Illinois (not Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as was reported by many earlier jazz reference books), to William and Hattie Hille. He had a brother, Robert, who was a singer and classical violin player. Hill took up the piano at the age of thirteen, and was encouraged by Earl Hines. As a child, he attended the University of Chicago Experimental School. He was referred by jazz composer Bill Russo to Paul Hindemith, with whom he studied informally until 1952. While a teenager he performed in rhythm and blues bands and with touring jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Hill recalls some of his experience as a youngster, during a 1964 interview with Leonard Feather: "I started out in music as a boy soprano, singing and playing the accordion, and tap dancing. I had a little act and made quite a few of the talent shows around town from 1943 until 1947. I won turkeys at two Thanksgiving parties at the Regal Theatre," parties sponsored by the newspaper Chicago Defender, which Hill coincidentally used to sell on the streets.
In 1950, Hill learned his first blues changes on the piano from the saxophonist Pat Patrick and in 1953, he played his first professional job as a musician, with Paul Williams' band. "At that time", he recalls, "I was playing baritone sax as well as piano." During the next few years, the piano gigs brought him into contact with many musicians, some of whom became relevant influences: Joe Segal and Barry Harris, among others. In 1961, after travelling as an accompanist for Dinah Washington, the young pianist settled in New York City, where he worked for Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler, then briefly moved to Los Angeles County, where he worked with Roland Kirk's quartet and at the jazz club Lighthouse Café, in Hermosa Beach. It was then that he met his bride-to-be, Laverne Gillette, at the time an organist at the Red Carpet. They married in 1963 and moved to New York. She died following a long illness in California, where the couple had moved.
Hill first recorded as a sideman in 1954, but his reputation was made by his Blue Note recordings as leader from 1963 to 1970, which featured several other important post-bop musicians including Joe Chambers, Richard Davis, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, Woody Shaw, Tony Williams, and John Gilmore. Hill also played on albums by Henderson, Hutcherson, and Hank Mobley. His distinctive compositions accounted for three of the five pieces on Bobby Hutcherson's classic Dialogue album.
Hill rarely worked as a sideman after the 1960s, preferring to play his own compositions. This may have limited his public exposure. He later taught in California and was an associate professor on a tenure track at Portland State University. During his time at PSU, he established a Summer Jazz Intensive program, in addition to performing, conducting workshops and attending residencies at other universities such as Wesleyan University, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, Harvard University and Bennington College. He married dancer/educator Joanne Robinson Hill in Portland in 1992. They moved to New York City in 1995.
Hill's album Dusk was selected as the best album of 2001 by both Down Beat and JazzTimes; and in 2003, Hill received the Jazzpar Prize. Hill's earlier work also received renewed attention as a result of the belated release of several unissued sessions made in the 1960s for Blue Note, notably the ambitious large-group date Passing Ships. In 2004 he appeared on SOLOS: The Jazz Sessions. As a consequence of his renewed prominence, a new Blue Note album titled Time Lines was released on February 21, 2006.
His final public performance was on March 29, 2007 at Trinity Church in New York City. Andrew Hill suffered from lung cancer during the last years of his life. He died at his home in Jersey City.
In May 2007, he became the first person to receive a posthumous honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.
Hill's main influences were pianists Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Art Tatum. "Monk's like Ravel and Debussy to me, in that he put a lot of personality into his playing [...] it's the personality of music which makes it, finally," he said in a 1963 interview with A. B. Spellman. Powell was an even greater influence, but Hill thought that his music was a dead end: "If you stay with Bud too much, you'll always sound like him, even if you're doing something he never did." Hill referred to Tatum as the epitome of "all modern piano playing".
Hill created a unique idiom that utilized chromatic, modal, and occasionally "free" improvisation. Although usually categorized as "avant-garde", Hill's music bears little resemblance to the free atonality and extended improvisations of Cecil Taylor and others. Like his contemporaries Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and Eric Dolphy, Hill was considered to be a cusp figure: too "out" to be "in", but too "in" to be "out". His earlier work, particularly the album Point of Departure, featuring fellow innovator Eric Dolphy, exhibits Hill's desire to advance while remaining grounded in the traditions of his predecessors. Throughout, his skill as both composer and leader can be sensed as the band ventures into unknown territory while still remaining precise and controlled. Hill's compositions sometimes have a contemplative mood. He was known for the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of his performances and compositions.
As a pianist, Hill's style was marked by extreme chromaticism, complex, dense chords, flowing, legato phrasing, and frequent rubato. He would often play against the rhythmic pulse, or move into different time signatures.
Blue Note Records1963: Black Fire
1963: Smoke Stack (1966)
1964: Point of Departure
1965: Pax (2006)
1966: Change (2007)
1968: Grass Roots
1968: Dance with Death (1980)
1969: Lift Every Voice
1969: Passing Ships (2003)
1965–70: One for One (1975)
1989: Eternal Spirit
1990: But Not Farewell
2006: Time Lines
East Wind Records1975: Blue Black
Soul Note1980: Strange Serenade
1980: Faces of Hope
1986: Verona Rag
SteepleChase Records1974: Invitation
1975: Divine Revelation
Freedom Records1975: Spiral
1975: Live at Montreux
Palmetto Records1999: Dusk
2002: A Beautiful Day
Other labels1959: So in Love (Warwick)
1979: From California with Love (Artists House)
1993: Dreams Come True (Joyous Shout!)
1998: Les Trinitaires (Jazzfriends)
2003: The Day the World Stood Still (Stunt)
CompilationsMosaic Select 16: Andrew Hill (Mosaic)
Mosaic Select 23: Andrew Hill-Solo
With Walt DickersonTo My Queen (New Jazz, 1962)
With Rahsaan Roland KirkDomino (Mercury, 1962)
With Jimmy WoodsConflict (Contemporary, 1963)
With Hank MobleyNo Room for Squares (Blue Note, 1963)
With Joe HendersonOur Thing (Blue Note, 1963)
With Bobby HutchersonDialogue (Blue Note, 1965)
With Russel BabaEarth Prayer (1992)
With Reggie WorkmanSummit Conference (1994)
With Greg OsbyThe Invisible Hand (Blue Note, 2000)