Meet the Music Makers: Marquis Hill

UChicago Presents: What was your early musical life like – what was your first exposure to jazz, and how did you come to play the trumpet?

Marquis Hill: I started playing the trumpet in the fifth grade. My elementary school jazz band director, Diane Ellis, gave me my first jazz record - Lee Morgan’s Candy. I'll never forget that record, and ever since then I fell in love with the music. I remember going home, putting that record on, and I never heard anything like it. I fell in love with it that moment.

UCP: Chicago has given rise to some of the greatest musicians of the past century – trumpet players ranging from Louis Armstrong and King Oliver to Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith, but also influential artists across seemingly all styles. How has the music of Chicago shaped your identity as a musician?

MH: I think the music of Chicago has shaped my identity and my sound in many, many ways. First of all, I'm kind of biased because I'm from here, but one of the key components that my mentors really ingrained in me was to have my own sound. That's a big thing in Chicago – study the tradition, but also search for your own sound. A lot of the great musicians from Chicago do have very distinctive sounds, and that's something that really stuck with me.

UCP: Your group, the Blacktet, has been a staple across your projects for a couple years now, and together you have a very distinctive sound. What factors shaped the group’s sound concept and your choices for the people that comprise your group? 

MH: When I compose music, I like to write compositions that are influenced by jazz, hip-hop, soul, R&B - all of the great black musics, and I like to play with musicians who also tend to blur that genre line in their playing. I think it’s extremely important for me to have musicians in my band who love and understand the swing feel of jazz, and also the groove component. When I write music, I try to incorporate both of those, so in selecting band members and the musicians I play with, I keep that in mind.

UCP: The instrumentation of the Blacktet is trumpet, alto saxophone, vibraphone, bass, and drums. The vibes always stand out to me when I hear them in a jazz setting – how’d you come to include vibes in your band sound?

MH: I've been writing for the vibraphone sound for a long time… there's just something about the openness of the vibraphone that I absolutely love. Of course, I enjoy playing with piano players and guitar players, but there's something about playing with the vibraphone that gives the music a certain freedom to me, and when I write I tend to hear that sound.

UCP: You’ve talked in the past about the technical and stylistic similarities between jazz and hip-hop, which gave rise to the 2014 album Modern Flows Volume I. What new ground do you explore on this front in the upcoming Volume II?

MH: Modern Flows Volume II, it's really an extension of Volume I. And I'm really going in on blurring that line between jazz and hip hop. In this record specifically, I added some more electronic aspects to it. They're all original compositions, but what actually did was, I recorded a record of all original compositions then took those compositions into the studio with the producer, and we chopped those up and made something completely new from the original composition. So this project is just really blurring that genre line, but specifically in this new way. That's kind of the theme of both of these records, Modern Flows Volume I and Volume II.

UCP: Since your big win at the Monk Competition, you’ve released the standards-oriented The Way We Play, as well as Meditation Tape with Chicago MCs King Legend and Mic We$t. Do you see this as a natural progression from one into the next, or just different sides of the same coin?

MH: Definitely two sides of the same coin, to me. This kind of goes back to the theme of Modern Flows, and just how I approach and see music in general. Jazz standards, modern day hip-hop beat tapes – to me, it's the same music, it's the same feel, it's coming from the same tree. The older I get, the more I learn to see through these genre lines and realize that it's the same music. It’s really opened me up to different ideas and approaching music differently. So definitely different sides of the same coin.

UCP: You completed both of your degrees in music education, and teaching remains an important aspect of your musical life. What do you hope new generations of young musicians will take away from the music of today, or what would you hope to impart on them as an educator?

MH: Well definitely as an educator, I hope to impart the things that were ingrained in me – study the tradition, but also try to push the music forward. It's a continuum, you know… Louis Armstrong, Nicholas Payton. Wynton Marsalis, Roy Eldridge. To me, they're all the same, it's a big continuum. My job, in my opinion, is to find my place in that continuum and take the things that I'm learning now and pass it down to future generations. And that's how we keep that continuum going.

UCP: You’ve been a New York resident since 2014, around the time you won the Monk Competition. What’s it like to come back to Chicago, and by extension, the spaces that were important to your musical development?

MH: I've been living in New York for about four years now, but it’s always great to be back in Chicago. Being raised in Chicago and kind of taken under the wings of a lot of my mentors like Fred Anderson, Mwata Bowden, and Von Freeman, I was fortunate enough to play in some amazing venues, like the Velvet Lounge, the Apartment Lounge, the Jazz Showcase. Coming home performing in these spaces is, I mean, it's absolutely amazing, because there's so much history there.

I’ve been coming back quite often lately to play, and it’s been amazing. It always feels like home to come back – and it is home, of course – but it’s a warm welcome every time I come home to play, even though I'm out touring, seeing different venues, and playing with different musicians, there’s nothing like performing home. A lot of my inspiration and many of my mentors are from here, so there’s nothing quite like it.