There is always much talk in jazz about finding your own voice and being original. One unfortunate consequence of this is that, in the face of the importance we attach to having your own sound, a lot players feel that they must sacrifice various elements of the music to find that voice. Elements like engaging with the vocabulary of the past and present, playing with a beautiful sound, and allowing your sense of time to be influenced by the people you’re playing with, among many other things. These and all fundamental elements of jazz, improvisation and music in general are in every way compatible with (and helpful towards) being and sounding like yourself. To anyone who would challenge this idea, my argument would culminate with Marquis Hill.
The first time I met Marquis Hill was at the old Velvet Lounge on Indiana Ave in the summer of 2005. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and weaseled my way into the house band at the Velvet’s Sunday jam session. The legendary saxophonist Fred Anderson owned the club and often worked the door. It was a very friendly place for people of all ages and backgrounds eager to engage with the music in an authentic way. Nearly every week, Marquis and his friends, all high schoolers, would come to play, listen, and absorb the music. I was instantly struck by Marquis’s unforced sense of time, melodic inventiveness, and familiarity with the jazz language. Above all, he exhibited trust that what he was playing could speak for itself and didn’t require him to draw any additional attention to it. As the summer turned to fall, the development of this young player was at such a pace it was almost quantifiable.
Over the past nine years, I have had the privilege of hearing Marquis grow into one of the most unique, organic, versatile and sophisticated voices in jazz today, and a powerful influence on me personally. So many times I’ve thought to myself while playing with or listening to Marquis, “that’s probably the best trumpet solo I’ve ever heard.” He has the patience to thoroughly develop his ideas. He’s not afraid to play modern language, or to play the blues in its most recognizable form. He’s not afraid to play free, but can also utilize the form to his utmost advantage.
And that sound! It’s not just what he plays and how he plays it that are amazing, but the actual sound coming out of the horn is worthy of an essay unto itself. I’m not a brass player and I can’t tell you in technical terms what’s going on there, but I do know that I’ve never heard anyone get that sound out of the trumpet before. The uniqueness of his tone is overshadowed only by its beauty and listen-ability. To be more specific, it sounds to my ear like Marquis has taken everything that’s great about the sound of the flugelhorn and everything that’s great about the trumpet and combined them into one, leaving behind everything that might be undesirable about either.
Those who know Marquis personally know that he is not just an exemplary musician but also an extremely humble and generous person. A few years ago I was subbing with Marquis’s band at Andy’s in Chicago, and he paid me one of the most meaningful gestures I’ve ever received. We were one or two tunes into a four hour gig when Marquis took the microphone and said, “Sitting in with us tonight we have Rob Clearfield on piano. I’ve known Rob for years and I think he’s one of the best pianists in the world, so I wrote this tune for him. It’s called Clearfields’s.” And there I was, reading this tune, written for me, which was clearly a part of his band’s repertoire already. The tune was (and is) a fascinating meeting point between Marquis’s writing style and mine in which he genuinely captured the cyclical harmony and rhythm I often strive for.
I was elated and not at all surprised to hear that Marquis Hill is the first place winner of this year’s Thelonious Monk Competition, arguably jazz’s most prestigious competition! What we in Chicago have known for years, the rest of the world will now discover.
Marquis: Your success yesterday and all your past and future accomplishments are completely deserved. You are serving the music on a very deep level in so many ways. It is an honor to call you a friend, peer and bandmate. All the best.