Trumpeter Marquis Hill Jazzes Up the Music World

Da Camera presents toe-tappin' tunes from Chicago's young and talented contemporary jazz ensemble.

By Chris Becker March 8, 2017

Though just a few months shy of his 30th birthday, the dubious label of “millennial,” with all of its associated stereotypes, only applies to Chicago-born trumpeter Marquis Hill when it comes to his age.

Labels don’t matter to Hill, whose modern, futuristic take on jazz is inspired by sounds from the past and present. His critically acclaimed ensemble, Blacktet, which includes Christopher McBride (alto saxophone), Justin Thomas (vibraphone), Joshua Ramos (bass) and Makaya McCraven (drums), creates an alternate, groovy universe, where Louis and Miles trade fours with Tupac and Guru. (When was the last time you heard a vibraphone in a jazz ensemble?)

On March 11, Da Camera presents the Houston debut of the Marquis Hill Blacktet at the Wortham Theater. Call it post-bop; call it nu-jazz—Hill’s music encompasses several music styles branching out from the same tree.

“The music I write and the sound I have on my instrument is a mixture of me falling in love with jazz at a very early age, and being raised in a household where my mother played Marvin Gaye, the Stylistics and the Whispers," Hill says. "And being raised in the 1980s and '90s, when hip-hop was emerging.”

As a child, Hill played the drums until he heard his older cousin practicing the trumpet. He dug the sound, and was hooked, but it was under the tutelage of saxophonist Diane Ellis at Dixon Elementary School in Chicago, one of the few elementary schools in the U.S. with a full-fledged jazz program, that Hill’s musical destiny was sealed.   

“Ellis gave me my first jazz record, a Lee Morgan record, when I was in the fifth grade,” says Hill. “I went home, put that on, and that’s how I truly fell in love with the sound of the trumpet.”

Hill continued to develop his chops as a member of the South Shore Youth Jazz Ensemble and student at Kenwood Academy, home to “one of the best high school jazz bands in the city.” Along with playing, composing was also a major part of his musical education. 

“Every one one of my mentors has pushed me to find my original voice through composition,” says Hill. “The ultimate form of expression in this music is through composition.”

Hill would go on to record four albums of original material with Blacktet, including Modern Flows EP, Vol. 1 (Skip Tone Music, 2014), which he describes as “my attempt to do what young artists have been doing for awhile now, blurring the lines between jazz and hip-hop.” In 2014, Hill won first prize in the 2014 Thelonious Monk Jazz Trumpet Competition, which included a high-profile record deal with Concord Records. On his first album for Concord, The Way We Play (2016), Hill and the Blacktet put a unique, contemporary spin on well-worn standards as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Smile” and “My Foolish Heart,” which features a lovely, understated vocal Christie Dashiell. Other guests on the album include percussionist Juan Pastor, vocalist Meagan McNeal, spoken word artist Harold Green III and trombonist Vincent Gardner of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Having established himself as a premiere jazz composer of his generation, Hill is now using his skills as an arranger to breathe new life into this vintage repertoire.

"This music is a language. Bebop is a major part of the language. Louis Armstrong created a certain language that is a part of the lineage, and I like to think of myself as part of a lineage that includes Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It goes back to that saying; 'There’s nothing new under the sun,'" says Hill. "Musically, I tend to agree with that. We’re all drawing from and keeping alive tradition, but we’re also pushing the music forward.”

March 11 at 8. $37.50–67.50 Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-524-5050.

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