Chicago has long been a major jazz cradle. Ever since pioneers such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver planted seeds of the music in 1917, the Windy City has birthed numerous jazz titans of various stylistic idioms, ranging from such swing stalwarts as Benny Goodman and Bud Freedman to such modernists as Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette and Herbie Hancock. You can now add 29-year-old Marquis Hill to the list. The New York Times described him as a “dauntingly skilled trumpeter,” and the Chicago Tribune asserts that “his music crystallizes the hard-hitting, hard-swinging spirit of Chicago jazz.”
Hill hones a warm, mellifluous tone on trumpet and flugelhorn with which he unravels sleek melodic passages that are as commanding as they are cogent. As a composer, he builds upon his distinctive sound to craft arresting originals that embrace post-bop, hip-hop, R&B and spoken word. After releasing four well-received discs on Skiptone Music – New Gospel (2011), Sound of the City (2012), The Poet (2013) and Modern Flows, vol. 1 (2014) – Hill raised his profile significantly by winning the 2014 Thelonious Trumpet Competition, which awarded him a $25,000 scholarship and a recording contract with Concord Records.
As a victory lap, Hill releases his captivating Concord Records debut, The Way We Play on June 24, 2016. The disc features Hill fronting his longstanding ensemble, the Blacktet, consisting of alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, vibraphonist Justin Thomas, bassist Joshua Ramos, and drummer Makaya McCraven. Appearing as special guests on a few tracks are singer Christie Dashiell, trombonist Vincent Gardner, percussionist Juan Pastor, and spoken-word artist Harold Green III. Unlike his previous three discs, which focused solely on Hill’s original compositions, The Way We Play captures Hill refurbishing a handful of jazz standards – most of them learned during his formative high-school years. Revisiting classics such as Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” alongside rarities such as Carmell Jones’ “Beep Durple” and Donald Byrd’s “Fly Little Bird Fly,” Hill takes an emphatically modern, groove-centric approach to the repertoire that positions The Way We Play firmly into the now.
Music seized Hill’s imagination at an early age. While growing up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, he began playing the drums at age four. But he was inspired to switch to trumpet after hearing his older cousin practice the instrument. Hill’s introduction to jazz arrived when he was only in the 5th grade, while attending Dixon Elementary School. Diane Ellis, the school’s band director, gave a receptive Hill a Lee Morgan album, igniting an inextinguishable artistic glow. “I praise her a lot,” Hill says. “I listened to that Lee Morgan record and had my mind blown. Since that moment I’ve just been in love with this music.”
The next year, Hill met another musical educator who would have a profound influence – Ronald Carter. In addition to being the jazz director for Northern Illinois University, Carter also ran the South Shore Youth Program, a youth organization that took inner-city kids and paid them every two weeks to rehearse in a big band for five days a week and hold weekly concerts. Carter made such an indelible impression that he inspired Hill to attend Northern Illinois University (NIU) after attending Kenwood Academy High School. Hill graduated from the NIU in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education.
Hill also participated in the Ravinia Jazz Scholars, which afforded him the opportunity to learn under such established jazz artists as guitarist Bobby Broom, pianist Willie Pickens, and trumpeter Tito Carrillo. While still an undergraduate, Hill became one of Chicago’s most in-demand jazz trumpeters; he made noteworthy club dates with a host of the Chi-Town’s finest including saxophonists Von Freeman and Fred Anderson.
Hill’s formal musical education continued at DePaul University’s School of Music, where he earned a graduate degree in jazz pedagogy. Even as a recording artist, leading his Blacktet and appearing on recordings by such Chicago-based artists as singer Milton Suggs, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and bassist Matt Ulery, Hill maintained his involvement in music education by teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago, the Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Egg Harbor, Wis., and the NIU Summer Jazz Camp.
In 2014, Hill moved to New York while still making numerous appearances in Chicago. Focusing on his solo career is paramount, but he’s still making waves as a sideman for internationally acclaimed artists such as bassist Marcus Miller and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Two years after winning the Monk Competition, Hill says that he’s still on cloud nine. “Winning that competition taught me to trust myself and keep working hard for what I believe in,” he says. “That experience taught me that I’m here for a purpose. So I need to keep pushing my music forward.”