This edition of Riverwalk Jazz, captured live at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in 2001, is a concert of music from Alex Hill, presented by Hal Smith and His Roadrunners with Rebecca Kilgore on vocals. Hill is one of many talented figures in early jazz noted for their many important contributions to the music, but whose names are little known today. In the 1920s and ‘30s top jazz artists, King Oliver, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Prima and Louis Armstrong all recorded Alex Hill compositions. Today a handful of Hill’s songs (“Delta Bound,” “I Would Do Anything for You” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout my Baby”) remain well-known jazz standards. Alex Hill was widely recognized as a man of many talents. Leading critics and bandleaders considered him one of the finest arrangers of the era, and he had a reputation as an excellent jazz pianist and often led his own orchestras.
On this broadcast, veteran drummer, bandleader and early jazz scholar Hal Smith is our tour guide as his ensemble rambles through the music of Alex Hill. Hal has made a study of Hill’s compositions, collecting rare arrangements and recordings for Let’s Have a Jubilee, his Jazzology CD dedicated to Alex Hill. The personnel of Hal Smith’s Roadrunners are Marc Caparone, trumpet; Bobby Gordon, clarinet; Ray Skjelbred, piano; Rebecca Kilgore, guitar and vocals; Clint Baker, bass and Hal Smith on drums.
Alex Hill was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1906. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but all Alex wanted to do was play piano and hang out with other kids who loved music. Alex was 15 when he left home in the early 20s and hitched up with a territory band out of Tulsa. Then in 1928, Hill gravitated to Chicago where the hottest jazz scene in the country was unfolding. That same year his composition “Beau Koo Jack” became a hit through Louis Armstrong’s popular recording with his Savoy Ballroom Five featuring Earl Hines on piano. In the Windy City Alex Hill rode the wave of his success, landed a job as staff arranger for the Melrose Music Company and replaced Earl Hines on piano in Jimmie Noone’s fashionable Apex Club Orchestra.
In 1930 Hill followed his good fortune to New York where he collaborated with Fats Waller on major hits like “Keep a Song in Your Soul,” a crowd-pleasing number recorded by various jazz bands including Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman. Working on his own, Hill wrote the classic “Delta Bound.” Here, Rebecca Kilgore takes the vocals on “Delta Bound” with the Roadrunners.
About the elements that Alex Hill used in his composition, Hal Smith says, “He always used swing rhythm, and he had a great feeling for tempos. You can play Alex Hill tunes at almost any tempo and they always swing. One reason I like Hill’s numbers so much is that they’re easy to remember; you can hum or whistle any of them.”
About Alex Hill, Hal says, “He was a workaholic and believed in burning the midnight oil. Hill never turned down any writing, composing or arranging project.” Banjoist Ikey Robinson, Hill’s collaborator in Chicago, described him as a ‘quiet man’ with ‘a good poetic mind.’ Robinson said, “If you hear a good number and don’t know the composer, chances are it is Alex Hill.” Hill’s dedication to perfection came at the expense of his health. He often forgot to eat, rarely got enough sleep, and had a fondness for liquor. This deadly combination wore him down and tuberculosis cut his life short.
Alex Hill wrote arrangements for all the foremost bandleaders of the day— Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Eddie Condon and more. He tailored his writing to the style of each band and his arrangements left space for plenty of jazz improvisation, lending a loose, freewheeling quality to his arranging style.
Everyone said Alex Hill lived for music. He had a reputation for spending all evening performing on the bandstand, and the next afternoon, looking disheveled and distracted, he’d be seen in the same crumpled tuxedo he’d worn the night before. It wasn’t that he’d been out partying—he’d been in his room writing songs all night.
Hill accomplished a great deal in his short life. In his brief seven-year professional career, he contributed to more than 50 recordings. Hard work and hard living took its toll. Shortly before he died in February 1937, he was still sending compositions to New York from his home in Little Rock.
Broadcast Playlist Music Notes
“I'm Crazy 'Bout my Baby," an Alex Hill collaboration with Fats Waller, performed here by The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
“Southbound" is an Alex Hill classic; the original 1930 recording featured Hill as composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader.
“Mister, Will You Serenade?“ is an Alex Hill and Ikey Robinson collaboration, composed in Chicago where Hill was working with trumpeter Jabbo Smith.
“Let's Have a Jubilee," composed by Alex Hill and recorded by Duke Ellington, Louis Prima and others.
“I Would Do Anything for You," one of Hill’s best-known compositions, a collaboration with Claude Hopkins and Bob Williams, recorded by Fats Waller and countless others, remains a jazz standard and popular in jam session repertoire.
Photo credit for Home Page: Photo of Rebecca Kilgore courtesy online.wsj.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2001