April 5 2017 04:59 PM

Arts patron Gregg Hill comes out as composer

Gregg Hill (right) works with guitarist Elden Kelly on an original composition. Hill celebrates the release of his second book of musical compositions with two star-studded concerts this month.
Photo by Lynne Brown

Gregg Hill closed his eyes and drifted back to a summer afternoon in the 1990s. He was sitting near a warped, redframed door and coffee was still pouring at the long-closed Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos.

“You’re with friends, there’s this summer rain and you’re sort of floating,” he said. “They had a raggedy screen door that kept tapping. It’s a simple rhythm, and that tripped a song.”

That moment became a tune, a page in a growing musical diary decades in the making.

Lansing jazz lovers know Hill, along with his wife, Lois Mummaw, as patrons of the arts and supporters of the local jazz scene. But this month, he will be publicly outed as a thoughtful, prolific composer in two free concerts led by a who’s who of area jazz greats.

“It’s Gregg’s secret creative life nobody knows about,” said guitarist and concert organizer Elden Kelly.

On two Sunday afternoons in April, about half of Hill's 81 tunes will get a royal premiere from seven ensembles led by the cream of the mid-Michigan jazz scene: bassist supreme and MSU Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker, Latin music master Mike Eyia, guitar virtuoso Elden Kelly, organist Jim Alfredson of Organissimo, veteran pianist Arlene Mc- Daniel, composer/pianist Ron Newman and saxophonist/bandleader Carl Cafagna.

The free concerts celebrate the release of Hill’s second book of tunes, “Spontaneity.”

The music will take listeners on a tour of Lansing life, especially its musical life, over the last 20 or 30 years. “Still Life With Tuba” was banged out on the battered piano at the late Travelers Club. “Cadillac Club” recalls the quirky automobile-themed club in REO Town — previously a bowling alley and now a church — where blues, jazz and pop artists got a Vegas-style showcase in the 2000s.

“Betty’s Tune,” named after singer Betty Joplin, harks back to the 1990s heyday of Mr. Kenny’s Ribs and Jazz on South Cedar Street, where Sunny Wilkinson, pianist-composer Ron Newman and saxophonist Andrew Speight were regulars.

Hill also soaked up every gig Wilkinson and Newman did at the now-defunct Cappucino Café in the early aughts.

“I was captivated by them,” he said. “They influenced me a great deal.”

Kelly, McDaniel and Newman helped Hill get the tunes into final form and commit them to paper.

Newman said Hill is a “wonderful” composer.

“His music presents a variety of styles and moods, and are a lot of fun to play and to experience,” he said.

Hill didn’t even think of approaching Whitaker, an international jazz star.

“I just assumed, he’s such an upper-tier player, and he’s so busy, he wouldn’t be interested,” Hill said.

But on Election Day 2016, at Jazz Tuesday’s at Moriarty’s, Whitaker overheard Kelly and Hill talking about the concert project.

“How come I didn’t get the call?” Whitaker asked.

Whitaker leapt in, to Hill’s delight.

Kelly said “there’s an element of outsider art’” in Hill’s work, but Whitaker and the other top musicians would not have signed on if there weren’t craft and passion in the music.

“There’s plenty of musicians who are completely outside of recognition, who are perhaps way more talented than those who are,” Kelly said.

Hill grew up in Midland. His dad was a “music nut” who chased big bands all over the map through the 1930s and ‘40s.

“There were conga lines going through the house when I was trying to sleep,” Hill said.

His parents took him to see Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and many other greats in the 1950s at the Old Crow Bar in Saugatuck or Cobo Hall in Detroit. He got a set of mail order bongos when he was 14, a de riguer accessory for the budding bohemian.

“I had the argyle socks, the beret and everything,” he said. “We had parties where we played bongos and read poetry. We were faking it.”

At Michigan State University, Hill studied philosophy with Al Cafagna, who is also a jazz musician and co-founder of the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.

Hill bounced around the country for 25 years as a truck driver, soaking up the jazz scenes in New York, California and Detroit. (A few tunes in his collection conjure up long, lonely rides.) He and his first wife, Gail, moved to Lansing in the early 1970s.

Several of Hill’s songs were inspired by their two sons, Jeremy and Matthew.

“We had some magical experiences when they were growing up,” he said.

Gail died in 2000, after she and Gregg had been married 32 years.

“Before I knew Gregg, he was haunting the blues jams,” Kelly recalled. “His first wife had passed on, and he was feeling the blues. But he got bored with that after a while.”

Frustrated with his musical limitations, he went to Marshall Music and dove into theory and composition books.

“That’s when I started getting serious,” he said. “Learning theory propelled me into writing denser, more complex material.”

Hill is still learning about the technical side of writing music from Kelly, Newman and his other friends in the local scene, but inspiration has never been much of a problem.

“What helps is not depression, but melancholy, where you get into a deep state and you’re removed from everyday life,” he said. “The goddamned muse just appears, it hovers around, bugs you, or it hops on a bus and goes out of town.”

Gregg Hill book release concerts

With Rodney Whitaker, Elden Kelly and Ron Newman 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9

With Arlene McDaniel, Carl Cafagna, Mike Eyia and Jim Alfredson 2 p.m. Sunday, April 23

Both events FREE MSU Community Music School 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing gregghillpublishing.com

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