Marquis Hill: Rhythms of Black Poetry
By Natasha Milner
Marquis Hill, a trumpeter-composer and bandleader based in New York City, is the fourth annual Make Jazz Fellow at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. The Make Jazz Fellowship, supported by the Herb Alpert Foundation, hosts a new emerging jazz composer each year. Since January, Hill has been busy composing six new pieces in preparation for his culminating performance, set for Sunday, March 15, at 8 pm in Crossroads School’s Roth Hall. The evening will feature Hill’s ongoing collaboration with poet Tumelo Khoza, hailing from South Africa by way of Chicago. Khoza will perform six poems written by six great Black poets of the 20th century, each poem accompanied by a unique composition. The selected poems reflect the scope of human emotion, as well as relevant issues facing African Americans today. Alongside Marquis Hill on trumpet will be Joshua Johnson on alto saxaphone, Justin Thomas on vibraphone, Benjamin Shepherd on bass, and Christian Euman on drums.
Marquis Hill grew up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where he started his love affair with music in the fourth grade. His band teacher told the students, “Play what you want to play,” remembers Hill. “So of course all the boys gravitated towards the drums.” He played the drums for a year, but switched to the trumpet with aspirations to be just like his older cousin. He received his first jazz CD in the fifth grade, “a Lee Morgan record titled ‘Candy’,” and his love for the trumpet and composing has not stopped since. Hill joined the South Shore Youth Jazz Ensemble at age twelve, and studied with the Ravinia Jazz Scholars and Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute in high school. He expanded his formal musical education by attending Northern Illinois University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education. After graduating from DePaul University with a Masters of Music degree in Jazz Pedagogy, Hill formed the Blacktet, with which he continues to perform today. He is a celebrated instrumentalist as well as a composer, winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition just before starting his residency at 18th Street.
Hill’s new body of work takes inspiration from the connection he feels with words. “I’ve always been that type of composer,” he explains. “Words really trigger imagery, and I started to hear sounds.” Once he conceived of the idea for the project, he poured over a wide range of African American poetry to find the poems that spoke loudest to him. The poems Hill has chosen include works by Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Claude McKay. “When I read these specific poems, I said, ‘Okay, I can write something to this.'” All of these poets passed away before the turn of the 21st century, but each left a lasting, relevant legacy that is evident from Hill’s selections. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” resonates deeply with America’s present-day struggle for racial justice, as brought to light by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Hill wishes “to convey the emotion, the vision, my interpretation of the poems,” to bring them to life, just as he sees them in his mind’s eye. “To Be In Love” by Gwendolyn Brooks deals with the overwhelming aching of finding true love. Hill’s composition for Brooks’ poem, which he previewed at a February workshop performance at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo, dips and soars with that aching. “When a listener hears my music for the first time, it takes them to a soulful place, a place that feels good,” he describes. “If I can do that, mission accomplished.”
Hill will translate that connection with the written word into an aural experience with the help of Tumelo Khoza. Khoza hails from Durban, South Africa, and has collaborated with Hill as a spoken word artist previously on his most recent album, “Modern Flows Vol. 1.” Khoza’s body of poetry touches on elements of home, loss, and identity. Her soft voice is resilient and clear. Hill knew immediately that he wanted Khoza to be part of the new project. “I love her concept and voice,” he says with excitement for what is to come. The two met in late 2013 at Chicago’s Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a venue that boasts a 1940s jazz attitude plus a lively Sunday night poetry slam. Spoken word and jazz go hand in hand, both having roots in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Both forms of art aim to subvert dominant paradigms, using rhythm and cadence as tools of self-expression.
Unlike many collaborators, Hill and Khoza do not have the luxury of rehearsing and creating in the same space. They started with the bare bones, each poem read according to Khoza’s poetic intuition. “I asked her to send me a capella versions of her reading each poem,” says Hill. “She said it was kind of difficult [to] assess the emotion of the poem, so she wanted to hear the music.” In this way, each partner responds to the other’s interpretation as they move through the project. Hill’s process consists of writing bits and pieces at a time, reflecting on Khoza’s recordings of her readings of the poems, and making edits. He describes his process: “I’ve been writing sketches at a time. When I write, I write in small segments. I’ll send her eight or twelve bars of what I’m working on, and she’ll send me a recording of herself speaking over it.” Like a sculptor, Hill relies on his interpretation of the words on the page and the reality of Khoza’s voice embodying those words, carving movement and sound around the words until they create a fluid, complementary piece. His process of composition requires this symbiosis in order to attain the most perfect of products: a fully realized, musical and lyrical piece of art.
As part of the residency at 18th Street Arts Center, Hill has also been mentoring young Los Angeles jazz musicians of varying age groups. He paid a visit to the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music to teach a master class to local students, which for Hill is less of a teaching experience and more of a chance to improvise with peers. “That’s the difference,” he states. “They’re more advanced on their instruments so it’s more like we’re hangin’. Its not really like teaching a master class,” he explains. With the younger students, his excitement is palpable, because he “can really teach them something.” Towards the end of the residency, Hill will have the chance to teach jazz at a school in South Central Los Angeles. Since he started at a young age himself, he feels strongly that music education is integral to becoming what he terms a “well-rounded person.” Jazz is heavily entrenched in oral tradition. That is the way that he was gifted his musical sensibility, and so Hill will continue to “pass down, to keep the music alive in the community.”
The Make Jazz Fellowship at 18th Street Arts Center has allowed Marquis Hill to indulge in his passion and love for composing without the worries of everyday life. Los Angeles has welcomed Hill with its classic relaxation and comfort, fostering an environment he feels is imperative to his growth as an artist. “It’s just a different vibe out here,” he muses. “It’s very relaxed, and I feel like I can work at my own pace.” Of the residency, he explains: “They’ve given me this huge studio… they’ve given me all the things I need to be comfortable and just focus all my energy on writing. That’s rare for a musician.” Hill’s studio at 18th Street was previously inhabited by the 2014 Make Jazz Fellow, New York-based saxophonist John Ellis, whose presence Hill felt immediately. “I walked in, and it had a vibe already.” These lingering vibes mingle with the atmosphere generated by the more than 400 artists in residence who have passed through 18th Street, feeding an artistic soul that has been growing for twenty-five years. Hill’s mission as a trumpeter-composer is to stir them up.