Spreading the Love
Jazz Trumpet Virtuoso Marquis Hill Sees Music as a Continuum

By Lee Valentine Smith

Over the past five years, trumpet player and music educator Marquis Hill has solidified his position as a leader of the new wave of young jazz performers and interpreters. His recent release The Way We Play finds the Thelonious Monk International Jazz winner breathing new and vital grooves into dusty jazz standards.

A former faculty member of The University of Illinois, the Chicago-born musician already has an impressive catalog of music under his belt. The 30-year-old Hill's set with his Blacktet at this year's festival is definitely a must-see. Just back from a tour of Africa featuring shows with Marcus Miller at the Saint-Louis Festival in Senegal, the intense musician spoke with INsite from his home in Illinois.

How was the festival in Africa? It was cancelled for some reason last year but I'm glad to hear it happened this time.

It was a crazy travel day but I'm glad we were able to do it, and to play for the people.

Did you guys get a good reaction to the sets?

Oh man they loved it. Marcus plays music for the people and they were really touched. The energy was just amazing.

You play all over the world; do you think international audiences tend to appreciate jazz more than crowds here in the States?

I would say, sadly, maybe. But only to a certain extent. The word jazz has kind of gotten a bad rap so when the average person hears jazz they get turned off immediately. But internationally they love the music.

I grew up with the big wave of jazz revivals and reissues of the '70s but it's definitely changed since then. What can be done to excite more people about jazz here in the United States?

I think it's gonna start with the youth and I think it's actually beginning to happen right now. A lot of pop music and some hip-hop are incorporating more elements of jazz so I think it's gonna come full circle to where jazz music will be the popular music of the day again.

You were a very active part of the youthful jazz movement.

Yeah I got my first jazz record when I was in the fourth grade. My band director gave me that record and I fell in love with it

That was the Lee Morgan album, right?

Yeah, Candy [originally released in 1958 on Blue Note].

Do you still have it?

I do. You've got to hold on to things like that.

Tell us about growing up in the southside of Chicago in the early 90s. You were surrounded by music geographically.

My mom played great music all the time so I was raised walking around the house listening to The Stylistics, The O'Jays, James Brown, so much good stuff. Then when I joined the band in the fourth grade, the band director gave me that record. I went home and I put that on and fell in love at that moment. I was definitely fortunate to have grabbed a hold of music at a very young age and I stayed with it. I picked up the trumpet and I started to produce the sound and so I just fell in love with the trumpet as well.

At the time you were discovering jazz, pop music was on the cusp of becoming a complete blur of genres.

And that's what jazz is, too. Just a melting pot. Especially today with all the records that are coming out now. I think it's actually good for the progression of music.

What was the Chicago scene like at that point?

It was great and I had really good mentors. When I was still in high school I started to actually get on the jazz scene a little. I would just go to jam sessions around the city and that's when I started to meet some of the staple people of jazz. My mind was really blown. It was a really crucial time for me.

That part of town has such a rich history.

Yeah next to New Orleans it really has the legacy of being one of the creators of jazz, one of the major hubs. That spirit is still alive in the city.

Pretty early in your life you decided on being a teacher as well. That's a big decision.

I saw how my teacher Miss Ellis affected us from a young age. Being a little black boy from the southside of Chicago I looked up to her. I saw how she worked with all the students around her and that really stuck with me. So throughout elementary school and high school I knew I wanted to perform but I also knew I wanted to educate. To affect lives the way that my life has been over the years. So I went to college for education and for performance. Then I taught a little bit but right now I'm mainly performing and teaching master classes whenever I can.

Tell us about the show coming up at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

I'll be a mixture, a combination of original compositions and selections from The Way We Play. I'm still touring that music, spreading the music throughout the festivals and performance halls.

The new album features a number of timeless standards that people should really know about. But you're definitely reinvented each track.

That was the entire concept of the record. I knew when I was producing it I wanted to put out a project with some of my favorite jazz standards, American Songbook classics. But I wanted to flip them and play them the way that my band would naturally play them. These are tunes that I wanted to take and modernize and add a groove aspect. I think it came out really well and it's great to bring that music to a wider audience.

It seems like that's what you're all about, being a messenger of the music and passing on the traditions of jazz, basically spreading the word.

Spreading love through music! I think of this music as a continuum and I want to continue what the elders and the greats of this music laid down as the foundation. I know it sounds cliché, but I want to continue the music as we create our own. That's the greatness that's truly within jazz.

The Marquis Hill Blacktet plays 6:30 p.m. May 27 on the Next Gen Stage at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

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