My life is music. Always has been. Always will be.
Born into a musical family in Burbank, California, I began playing the trumpet at the age of 9. By the time I turned 10 I was playing Petula Clark’s international hit, “Downtown,” for my classmates during lunchtime in the covered outdoor lunch area at Emerson Elementary School. Entering the seventh grade, I already knew Graham Young, who was the choir director at John Muir Junior High School. Graham was a major influence on both myself and my older brother Tom. Graham Young also played the trumpet and was the director of the John Muir Stage Band. It was during this time that both myself and Tom discovered we had a natural feeling for expressing ourselves musically. Graham opened the door to jazz music for us brothers. When I turned 11, I became the youngest member of the top-notch Burbank Police Boys Band. At the age of 12, I loved playing in the Police Boys jazz big band. At 13, I was playing most of the jazz solos with the big band. At 14, I decided to become a barber. No, scratch that:-) At 14, I knew that I was going to play that trumpet for the rest of my life.
In 1968 my family packed up and moved to Detroit. I continued my musical education throughout high school. I received several awards along the way for outstanding musicianship. It was when I turned 17 that my real jazz education took flight.
While still a senior in high school, I felt I wanted to play with more advanced players. Oakland University was just down the street from my house. I packed up my trumpet and drove to OU, where I met the director of the music department, Robert Reisinger. Reisinger was just forming the first jazz big band at OU at this time and wanted me to play in the trumpet section. It wasn’t long before I found myself in the company of a bunch of college kids hell bent on learning how to play jazz music and other things. I was elated.
One of the sax players in the OU big band was Peter Wanger. Peter took me by the hand and led me to the Metropolitan Arts Complex in the inner city of Detroit, where Marcus Belgrave, Sam Sanders, Jimmy Allen, Harold McKinney, Ed Pickens and Ali Muhammad Jackson were teaching a jazz class. A young George Cables use to drop in and play the piano with the group. It was during this period that Peter gave me my new name, Junior Hill. Bye-bye, James. Hello, Junior Hill. Junior Hill continued playing in the OU big band and took weekly trips to the Metropolitan Arts Complex until he graduated from high school and moved back to California with his parents.
In the fall of 1972, I went to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. I was placed in the Dues Band with Herb Pomeroy. I was also in Gary Burton’s and Andy McGee’s small elite classes. It was during this period that I met Mickey Stein, a great guitar player from Detroit also attending Berklee College of Music. I became disenchanted with Berklee. I missed Detroit. I thought I would have a better opportunity of playing jazz in Detroit, so I took a break from Boston and flew back home to Detroit, where I soon met Marvin “Doc” Holladay. Doc was the new music director at Oakland University.
I remember sitting on the couch at Doc’s home with his wife on one side of me and Doc on the other. Doc convinced me to quit Berklee College of Music and return to my roots at OU. And that is just what I did. But not before returning back home to Indiana. No, scratch that. Back home to Orange County, California. It just so happened that Mickey Stein and piano player Mark Murell also decided to quit Berklee and come to Orange County. Mickey and Mark rented a crib together in San Clemente. I came over often to hang out and play endless choruses of ‘Floating.’ Mickey was in his room practicing his guitar for 18 hours a day, every day. Mark was beginning to find a new musical path that led him away from the romantic notion of becoming another Bill Evans.
After playing a thousand choruses of ‘Floating’ with Mickey and Mark, I packed up my 1968 Mustang and hightailed it back to Detroit and Oakland University. The very first day I arrived at OU I found Ali Muhammad Jackson giving a jazz improv class in one of the rooms in the music building. Ali and I were already friends and I was his student. The first thing Ali said to me was, “Give me all your money.” And this is when my relationship with Ali took off in earnest.
In 1972, the legal age in Michigan dropped to 18. I began playing with organ trios in a number of social clubs in the inner city of Detroit. There was Mitch’s Keynote Lounge with Kenny Brinkley heading up the trio on tenor. I was there every week, eagerly waiting for Kenny to give me the nod to come up on the stand. I remember Tommy Flanagan used to come by and sit in on the organ. Then there was the Forest Inn, Burt’s Black Horse Saloon, and a small club owned by jazz organist extraordinaire Stoudemire Smith called Stoudy’s Lounge. I remember one night when I was playing at Stoudy’s Lounge: in walked Johnny Cole and Marcus Belgrave with their trumpets. Marcus and I were already close by that time.
I was spending most of my time with Ali and his mother, Omega Jackson, at her home on Whitewood. Ali liked to call me Billy Batson. Ali became the biggest influence in my entire life. Ali taught me how to play the Ancestral Music: jazz music. Ali would tell me that ‘you can’t study jazz music and hang out with truck drivers.’ Ali studied music theory with Tad Dameron; was in the same jail cell with Charlie Parker while in Ohio; worked with Monk; recorded with Coltrane; hipped Paul Chambers up to the bow.
I was living the jazz life, 19 years old, broke as a joke, no pad of my own. I was either with Ali or sleeping in the practice room at Oakland University or on a couch somewhere. While still going to high school in Rochester, I began to study trumpet with Eddie Nuchilli. He was a great composer and trumpet player. I went on to be a member of his swinging big band while sitting next to Marcus Belgrave. This was the jazz life.
I remember meeting the awesome Larry Smith around this time in the Cass Corridor. I began hearing a lot of stories about a trumpet player named Clair Rocamora. He was a living legend. Miles even writes about Clair in his autobiography as being one of the great jazz trumpet players. Unfortunately, Clair had some problems that kept him away from playing his horn. One day when I was hanging out with Larry Smith, Clair Rocamora suddenly appeared right in front of me. I could hardly contain myself. Here I was talking with the great Clair Rocamora. I asked him why he wasn’t playing anymore. He told me that he would like to play but didn’t have a horn. I said, ‘Here, you can borrow my flugelhorn.’ Clair was overjoyed. He wrote his name and address in my little black book, which I still have. We shook hands as I watched him disappear down the street with the flugelhorn that I had bought from Graham Young.
I would like to mention that Graham finally achieved his goal of breaking into Paramount Pictures’ recording studio at the age of 46. Graham Young went on to be one of the greatest Hollywood studio trumpet players of all time. He was Henry Mancini’s trumpet player. Graham was famous for playing all the exposed trumpet parts that other trumpet players backed off from.
I would like to finish my story about Clair. After lending Clair my flugelhorn, I saw Marcus Belgrave a short time later. I was so excited to tell Marcus that I met Clair and how I let him borrow my flugelhorn. Marcus said, ‘You dumb motherfucker. Why didn’t you give me your flugelhorn, because you will never see Clair or your horn again.’ Truer words never spoken.
Around this time I found myself in Toledo, Ohio, where I met Eddie Abrams. Eddie played the piano. He took me in and we went on to play a lot of jazz together. I would go back and forth from Toledo with Eddie to Detroit with Ali. I became a member of Ali the Chosen and Beloved and the Silver Flutes Flourish. All the members of this group were Ali’s students. We played for anyone under 10 or over 60 for free. ‘Save the children and keep the old folks warm and fed’ was our motto. We played at schools and nursing homes all over the Detroit area.
Then things became really interesting when Ali and the Silver Flutes and I went to New York City. We played on the streets of NYC while living on 114th Street up in Spanish Harlem. I could write a book just about this period of my life and jazz education. It was an amazing time for me and the Silver Flutes and no doubt for Ali as well. But nothing lasts forever. It was now coming close to the end of 1974, and I decided to return back home to live with my parents in El Toro, California.
When I returned to California, I began to study with the brass maestro Harold ‘Pappy’ Mitchell. I also played a wide variety of jazz gigs throughout that period, including a sampling of musicians almost designed to test a listener’s taste buds, such as Leroy Vinnegar, Candy Finch, Wilbur Brown, Dwight Dickerson, Charles Owens, Lamont Johnson, Harper Crosby, Bruce Bennett, Jim Murphy, and John Lemon. I spent several years learning about cosmic shapes and composition from my good friend Mickey Stein until I decided to move to San Francisco in 1980.
I spent the next decade hiding out at my own TCAB Studio, composing and recording my own music. I became a part of that era’s freewheeling underground cassette network, distributing tapes and mail art around the world. In 1990 I returned to playing live in the San Francisco jazz scene, including a collaboration with tenor saxophonist Vince Wallace that brought me back to my roots in bebop. Vince was my closest friend. We recorded a lot of great music together with the best players in the Bay Area.
Currently I continue composing and recording at my home studio. I have been collaborating on recording projects with musicians from around the world for many years. I am looking forward to beginning the second recording project with Grant Levin on piano, Chris Amberger on bass, and Cedric Jensen on drums. I have recently uploaded around 75% of TCAB Studio’s library of recordings to Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/@james_hill456
You will find over 1000 recordings.
My body of work goes back more than 40 years. I’m at that stage in life where I feel it is important to archive as much of my work as I can. I have plastered music all over the Web. Something’s cooking good at TCAB Studio.