Guitarist Dudley Hill made music swing

Last updated: January 21st, 2005 05:28 AM

Tacoma lost one of its favorite musical sons last Saturday with the death of guitarist Dudley Hill, one of the founders of the Gypsy jazz and swing group Pearl Django. Hill, 56, lost a long battle with cancer and died at home with members of his family present.

He will be missed – on and off the stage. Radio station KPLU-FM (88.5) played Pearl Django tunes Tuesday in Hill’s honor, including some of his superb compositions for the band. Reached at the station later in the day, jazz host Nick Morrison, a former neighbor of Hill, said, “Let me say that on this planet there are not enough great guys and not enough great rhythm guitar players, and Dudley Hill was both. Dudley had that thing that you need to play that kind of music, but a lot don’t. Dudley could swing.

“Dudley could play like crazy and was a good improviser, but he was more interested in the propulsion, the swing of a song, and being a part of the engine that drove the music. If Dudley is remembered as a great rhythm guitar player, he probably wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

Hill was born in Tacoma and lived here most of his life. His brother Bob Hill, guitarist and co-owner of The Swiss, recalled their first band, formed during junior high days at Jason Lee.

“He and I and some neighbor guys started a folk band called the Villagers in ’63 or ’64, and then Dudley just progressed way beyond us and got into rock ’n’ roll. Later, he had a band called Prince Paul & the Surfs and one called the Bluefield Doughboys. Then he went in the Navy. After he came out, he started getting into country rock and made a solo album. He got into flat-picking contests and met some Texas fiddlers, and he recorded an album with (fiddling great) Benny Thomasson.”

As a guitar teacher, Dudley crossed paths with another great fiddler. I was working in Seattle in the ’70s, and enjoying Hill’s work with the country-rock band the Skyboys, when a woman from Mountlake Terrace called and started telling me why I should write about her 15-year-old son. I was preparing a “Sorry, but …” response when she said, “He won this year’s national flat-picking guitar championship and national finger-picking guitar championship.”

The teenage guitar prodigy was Mark O’Connor, better known today as a virtuoso fiddler.

“His mom used to drive him down to Tacoma for his lessons,” Bob Hill said. “But Dud didn’t take any credit for that. He just said he gave the kid a few lessons and he was on his way.”

The Skyboys broke up, and, like a lot of talented musicians, Dudley played in Top-40 bands to make a living. He also played with the late Ron Gardner, and he and Bob were reunited musically for a time in an “incarnation of Blueport News” that included Bill Graham and Joe Johansen, Bob Hill said. “That was a lot of fun for me, playing with that caliber of guys.”

Dudley’s playing always attracted players of a high caliber.

“I first met him when he was playing with Ron Gardner in the late ’80s,” said Pearl Django guitarist Neil Andersson. “I thought he was a great player, and he and I started learning jazz standards. Then he picked up a video about Django Reinhardt on one of his trips to New York, and that’s when we started getting really interested in that music.”

Andersson was asked to comment on what made Hill’s guitar playing special.

He was what people would call a natural,” Andersson said. “He had a really great sense of rhythm, and he liked songs with strong melodies. And he was very inventive … with thoughtful solos.”  Those qualities are all evident in Hill’s compositions for Pearl Django, songs such as “Rhythm Oil,” “Paul Whiteman’s Night Off,” “Swingtonic” and “New Metropolitan Swing,” to name but a few.

“Dudley was a delight in the recording studio,” Andersson said, “always very positive and never negative about anything. He was very confident and assured in his playing.”

Hill was gentle, gracious and friendly outside the studio as well and kept a positive attitude throughout his ordeal. Nevertheless, as his illness progressed, he was forced to miss more and more of Pearl Django’s gigs. Though very ill, he was able to visit Iceland with the group in 2001, and he mustered the strength to attend a prestigious event in France in 2002. In conversations before the trip, Hill made it clear he wasn’t going to miss it.

“It was a pretty big deal and had been a goal for both of us,” Andersson said. “We were one of the first American groups invited to the Festival Django Reinhardt in Samois sur Seine, France. Dudley was very sick, but he pulled it off. He was a great musician and totally lived the music.”

Bob Hill said the family will hold a private service and that a “celebration of Dudley’s life,” a party and memorial concert, will be arranged.

Dudley Hill is survived by four siblings; a daughter, Kashia Jones; and two grandchildren, Jessica and Brook. Jones and her daughter learned to play guitar earlier this year, she said, “so we could play for him before he passed, and he was ecstatic.”

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